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."