There's really no reason for Christopher Titus not to be as famous as Louis C.K. or Marc Maron. After his brilliant sitcom, Titus, was cancelled in 2002 following a dispute with the network president, the bleached-blond comic has released five brilliant comedy specials, addressing his profoundly dark childhood with a rib-cracking hilarity while also making provocative statements about war, gender and the mentally disabled. Before he brought some all new material to Comedy Works South this weekend, Christopher Titus gave us a call to chat about his (kidding!) death threat for Sarah Palin, being funny about pain, and remembering his first movie role in Killer Klowns From Outer Space.
Westword: I only just learned this today, but your first acting gig was in the comedy-horror film Killer Klowns From Outer Space.
Christopher Titus: That's it. Interview's over.
Yeah, I imagine it's weird when people bring that up. Were you excited about it at the time?
Yeah, when you're a young actor you don't give a flying rat's ass how bad a movie role is. I would've been in propaganda films if they'd have cast me.
The movie geeks who loved that movie, really loved that movie. I've signed a bunch of those DVDs. The funny thing is, when I did that movie I had no notoriety whatsoever, I was just this douchebag actor. I think I filmed like six scenes, but they only used like two of them. Then they did this special edition release and all six of them were in there. They were like "Christopher Titus is in this movie!" And it's like, "Shut up, you guys hated my guts back then."
Well, from there you got into standup, but I imagine it was a while before you made the decision to do autobiographical material. What was the moment you had the idea -- and the courage -- to bring those dark childhood stories into your set?
Weirdly enough, I'd been doing comedy for twelve years before I made that decision. I'd talked a little bit about my dad's divorce, but it was all surface-level stuff. I was about to quit comedy at that time, it was like a tumor on my soul. I'd be on stage doing my act and I hated it more than any audience member possibly could.
But before I quit, I decided I should try doing what I really want, and if it doesn't work it doesn't work. So I wrote this scary bit called "We Need Comedy to Get Rid of Our Desire to Kill." I told these dark stories about terrible things that had happened, and then talked about how we need comedy to keep us from stabbing someone. And it killed. I had three minutes of laughs and applause, but then all I had was my old material, and when I did it the audience stopped laughing for the next seven minutes. It was like I'd discovered myself on the stage that night, and didn't have anything to follow it up with.
I think every comic needs to do it for a while before they have that moment. If you look at Louis C.K., he used to do really weird shit about "I have a peach!" It was all irreverent, conceptual bits. And then he started talking about his life and it was like, boom!
Well, in both his and your case, finding that style was being autobiographical and very open about vulnerable, emotional issues. And at first glance you wouldn't think that would be funny -- what is it about exposing your heart to people that makes them laugh?
Because they don't have the balls to expose themselves. We're all the same machine, we all feel like losers at times, when we do well we get cocky, we've all had our hearts ripped from our chests by some horrible relationship. There are some hipster comics who don't go into that.
But when you are vulnerable on stage, you're being the audience. No one expects the guy on the mic to feel that way, but the guy on the mic always feels like that, and that's why he's on the fuckin' mic. Have you ever seen a comic attempt that level of vulnerability and just completely fall on their face?
Yeah, I did a bit about that at the end of Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding. I said, "I want to hear your pain, but put it in joke form." Some people get on stage and they'll have the horror stories, but they didn't take the time to write a joke about them. So they're just telling a horror story.
I have this Springsteen bit in my new special that's like thirty minutes long, and comics will ask me, "How do you write a bit like that?" And I tell them it's because every sentence of fact is just a setup for a punchline. You just need to write a punchline for every fact, and once you do that you'll have this crazy-long bit.
I see young comics who are still finding their voice and they're like, "Oh, Titus talks about his screwed-up ead, I'm gonna talk about my screwed-up dad." Or "Louis C.K. talks about his screwed-up life, I'm going to talk about my screwed-up life." But they forget to put the jokes in. Louie is really good at finding the funny parts. If you just want to get up there and spew, just go to therapy. Don't waste the audience's time. Autobiographical comics like Louis C.K. or Marc Maron are typically not very physical in their comedy. They're very laidback. Yet you are very animated on stage, jumping around, doing faces. Do you think that difference in style have anything to do with you being from California and those guys being known as New York comics?
Well, number one, I'm not cool. I've never tried to be cool. Also, I believe the audience deserves a balls-out show. I'm a big fan of Springsteen, and I saw him lately and every time I see him it reinforces that idea. I talked to him recently and asked, "How do you do what you do for as long as you do it. You just go balls out -- and what are you, like, sixty?" And he goes, "Man, I don't know how to do it any other way."
And I'll never forget that. He wants to blow the roof of the fucking building off; he wants to give them a lobotomy of fun. And that's what I want.
Maron will take it to a very dark place. He's a hilariously funny comic, but there's something about him that frightens me. I don't know if I could hang with that guy. I'm sure he's a great guy, but there's a darkness to him. I have some darkness too, but I usually get it out on stage and then I'm okay. I have a temper and I'm intense, but at the end of the day I'm just a dude. There are some other people with some serious damage. Maybe I have damage, too, and I just haven't found it yet -- and that's okay, I've got some years to find it.
I'd say you dug pretty deep with standup specials like Norman Rockwell. Or at least you present a lot of darkness you incurred as a child. While your dad passed away in 2001, I imagine he saw a lot of that material, as well as the first season of Titus. What was his reaction to you using him as a character for humor?
I did Norman Rockwell for a while before I got the TV show, which was based on that special. My dad came to see it in San Jose one night. And he never watched me, he'd turn his chair around and watch the audience; he'd want to see who was laughing at what. It was interesting to watch my father deal with that.
The show really bothered the shit out of him. He thought he was this evil bastard. And then he called me one day, because he'd been at a supermarket, and this cashier looked at his credit card and said, "Ken Titus, like the guy on TV?" And he said, "Oh, yeah, that's my son's show." And she was like, "Oh my god, wait right here." She calls these two Mexican guys who were working in the back. And they come out and are shaking my dad's hand and were saying,"Dude, without fathers like you I'd be in jail, man. My dad was so hard on me, and without that I would not be alive." And that was cool, because after that he backed off.
And we had rules about him on the show. Sometimes a writer would come in and say, "I have this idea -- Dad comes in and he sets Chris on fire!" And I would go, "Why is he setting me on fire?"
"Because it's funny!"
And I go "no. If the scene is me playing with matches and hairspray bottle making a big flame, and then Dad comes in and sets me on fire, that works. Because he's teaching me a lesson. But if he's just being a dick, I'm not okay with that."
From what I understand of the story, keeping Titus autobiographical was very important to you, and when the suggestion came that you and your wife should split up on the show, you rejected it because that wasn't the case in real life, and that's what lead to the show being canceled. When you two eventually did split up four years later, did that original decision weigh on your mind?
The mistake the producers made was inviting me to the meetings. Don't invite me to meetings! Anyway, the network president was saying, "We want you and your wife to cheat on each other." And my whole thing is that my dad was married six times and cheated on every wife he had, and I made a decision in my life that I would never do that. And that's why the audience liked the show: There were these two totally screwed up people that found a way to have integrity with each other.
Now, later on, after the show ended, my wife started cheating on me. So yeah, around then I was thinking, "That was a very insightful network president."
Over the years you've had some public controversy with things like those Sarah Palin comments, or the retard bit, and I wonder if it's on your mind to never court controversy for the sake of controversy, but strive to let things happen organically, and if they're controversial so be it.
Yes. In fact I fired a manager after he said to me, "Do something crazy and it'll get on You Tube and your career will take off!" And I looked at him and was like, "Really, that's your plan? Really?" When I talk about something on the stage, I don't want to alienate anyone -- I want them to get it. As far as going down dark roads, I want to take them to a place they might not have been before, but I want them to go with me.
The Sarah Palin thing was an offhanded joke on Adam Carolla's podcast. I said, "If Sarah Palin was elected vice president, I will be the first one on the grassy knoll locked and loaded" or something like that. I don't know what the fuck happened. The audience laughed, we finished the show, and two days later my twitter starts blowing up. "I'm gonna kill your Mom," and stuff like that. It was the craziest reaction to a comedian making a joke.
Every time a comedian stirs up controversy it makes me laugh. When Tracy Morgan pissed everyone off, I was like how fucking stupid are you people? We had 4,400 guys die in Iraq, there are guys dying today in Afghanistan -- and you have the balls to waste your time writing me about a joke? Are you out of your fucking minds? We're fracking into the earth, letting more methane escape than ever has before, it's ten times worse than carbon-dioxide, our water tastes like gasoline -- and you're worried about a fucking joke?
While I agree with you about that situation, it seems hypocritical that comics use that defense whenever there is controversy, while at other times proclaiming standup to be the most vital and pure form of social commentary today. When comics are in trouble, it's just a joke, but when Jon Stewart is quoted on the evening news, it's because he's an important social commentator. You can't have it both ways.
Well, the thing is I took responsibility for what I said. Everyone wanted me to apologize, but that's how I felt. I said to the entire Palin family, "if you actually thought I was considering killing your mother, I apologize. If someone said they were going to kill a member of my family, I'd be a little pissed off too." That being said, the reason I told that joke is because we had sunk so low as a country that we would even consider Sarah Palin as vice president scares me. So the joke stands -- but just so everyone knows, it was just a joke.
And as far as the retard bit goes: I have friends who are disabled, and by getting mad at the word retard no one faces what those people go through. People with disabilities are treated so bad, and you know what they hate more than anything? Being glad-handed. They hate being the sympathetic character in Hallmark movies. They hate being patronized with, "Oh you're so special, you're so strong." They have to work twice as hard as everyone else, and you know what they'd like? To be treated like normal people.
Now, Amy Schumer said the word retard four times in her last special and no one said a word about it. I don't know why that is, maybe because she's talking about dicks or something. But whatever.
That being said, in this last special, Voice In My Head, I explain it. I said if you're in a wheelchair and you become an attorney, that's amazing. If you have cerebral palsy, like my friend does, and you become a comedian, that's so far beyond. But if you have all your faculties working, your arms, your brain, and you end up under a bridge addicted to crystal meth: you're fucking retarded. So I wanted to change the whole meaning of the world so we can start using it in the way it's meant to be used. For people who have it all, and are still douchebags.
Speaking of Voice In My Head, you recently announced that Comedy Central bought the rights to that special, when previously you'd had it available for purchase on your website. Selling comedy specials as a digital download has been a revolutionary method of bypassing the industry for comics over the last few years, and yet you backed out of this -- was it not working for you?
I own it, 100 percent. Bill Burr was telling me the same thing about his special, that he wouldn't sell it to Comedy Central. But I think Comedy Central got smart, they made me a serious money offer. What happened in the past, over the last five years, they'd been making comics tiny offers for their specials. They were paying comics less than it cost to produce the specials.
So with this last one I had my production company, Combustion Films, my own crew, produce the special. We filmed it, edited it, did the sound, and put it out on my website. And we made all the production costs back, and then Comedy Central said they wanted it, asked me to stop selling it, and made me a serious offer. It was a numbers thing. They realized that in a year or two they weren't going to have any more specials -- comics were doing it on their own. I'll get it back in three years, and have all the DVD rights.
Comics are getting smart. They're realizing how easy it is to produce their own specials. I didn't reverse course at all. My last manager had said to me, "You can't produce your own special. No one's gonna buy it." But I'm a bit of a douchebag; if someone says I can't do something, I'm like, "watch me." Christopher Titus will perform five shows from Thursday, July 11 through Saturday July 13 at Comedy Works South, located at 5345 Landmark Place, Greenwood Village. $19-$27. For more information visit www.comedyworks.com.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.