Christopher Titus became an overnight TV star with his intensely personal series Titus, a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic, verbally abusive dad (played by Stacy Keach). The show, which was based on his stand-up comedy show Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding, was canceled in 2002 when Fox’s president suggested changes and Titus said to her — in front of all of her underlings — “Do you even watch the show? Let me explain to you how this works … ” Having burned his bridges, he returned to stand-up (and suffered through a long and messy divorce). Now he’s releasing his fifth special, Voices in My Head, online. (Ten percent of the proceeds will go to Insight Youth Project, his organization for helping homeless teens in Los Angeles.) Vulture spoke to him about writing such personal material, network rules, and his spin on The Shield.
Did you always do such personal material?
Before Norman Rockwell, I was a shitty comedian. “Hey, I get up in the morning and my shower’s got two settings: arctic and lava.” It had become a tumor on my soul. I was going to quit comedy and open a body shop. The good news for any comic out there is if you hate what you’re doing right now, eventually you’ll hate yourself so much that, like a pimple, the horror will burst and something will come out of you that’s the truth. When people walked out during Norman Rockwell, I knew I had something. I’m not talking about blow jobs or farting or anal rape — I find anal rape as funny as the next guy. But I’d rather say, “Let’s go to this room no one else wants to go into.”
Titus explored much of that same material. Was it difficult to get the network to let you talk about schizophrenia and suicide and gay-bashing?
If it was funny, they would go for it. We wanted to do a show about getting Titus’s father, an alcoholic, to drink again. Everyone said they’d never approve it, but they did. Sometimes we’d bring Stacy in to sit with the executives. He had such authority. It was like a Jedi mind trick. He’d say, “I see no problem with it.” And they’d say, “I see no problem with it. This is not the droid we’re looking for.”
Did you want to do another series after Titus? The only series you acted in was the short-lived Big Shots on ABC.
My manager said, “You’ve got to get back on TV.” But I said, “If I can write better than them, I won’t go out on the audition.” I’m always writing. I still want to do another show — I have one now called Deacon Lund, Asshole Whisperer, about a guy who deals with problematic people. I did try to do a continuation of Titus called Loved and Lost. Warren Littlefield was the producer. It was a continuation after my divorce, where I meet this new woman, but my ex was always on us. She still is — seven years later, it’s nonstop. Anyway, Fox had changed a lot. An executive told me, “This is too edgy. We’re the Glee network now.” I don’t think Warren was interested in taking it to cable then.
Do you ever think of reviving Special Unit, your attempt at a detective series starring handicapped people, which just seemed like it was ahead of its time?
Actually, I’m ten pages away from finishing a script, and I’m going to make it as an independent movie in the fall. No one else has the balls to do it. People who do use disabled actors make them a “special” hero. I have friends who are disabled, and they’re just like everyone else — they have attitudes and insecurities. I pitched it as a series to Bob Greenblatt at Showtime as “The Shield with handicapped people,” and he said, “We’re doing it.” I turned in the script and he said, “We can’t do this.” We shot a pilot for Comedy Central; Bryan Cranston directed it. It took them eight months to say no. One executive’s note said, “The stuttering guy was annoying.” Two months later I was in Starbucks and the barista said, “Oh my God, I saw that show you were working on. Yeah, they paid us 50 bucks to watch it and give them notes. Yeah, I didn’t like the stuttering guy.” Thank God there was a counter, or I would have … I mean, the person who made my latte decided about something I poured my heart and soul into for a year and it was “I don’t like the stuttering guy.” The executives getting paid to know what’s good and what’s bad don’t know, so they paid the barista from Starbucks for her opinion. That’s Hollywood.
How did your new special come about?
I was going to do a show called Titus 2012 making a stump speech, wearing a suit. It was funny, but something about it wasn’t true. So Rachel [Bradley, his fiancée and podcast partner] said, “Why not tell the stories of the horrible mistakes you’ve made? This show is about how it’s okay to fuck up repeatedly.”
And you’re already working on your next comedy special?
It’s called Declaration of War. It’s going to rattle some cages. It will either be my biggest show or it will get me kicked out of comedy. I’m writing a segment about racism because a friend saw a Confederate flag at someone’s house — that’s how a bit starts, something gets me incensed. I’m writing about the NRA. They’re so crazy their next solution is to just get rid of children. I’m also going to propose “Lions Day”: Four times a month, we release thousands of lions into the cities. The people who aren’t paying attention are going to be taken out of the gene pool.
You’re getting remarried. Are you going to be too happy to do personal material?
I think I’ll still be funny. But if you ever see me do, “Hey, my shower has two settings … ” you need to find me and take me on a drunken bender in Mexico … with a bonfire nearby.