Drive By Biography: Christopher Titus

You know me!  I can’t even look through my DVD collection without finding a way to turn it into something fun for the site!  Almost everything I do is preceded by the question “how will I be able to turn this into an awesome post?” and lo and behold I have done it yet again!  One of my favorite comedians is Christopher Titus and as luck would have it I’m going to be seeing him live in less than a week, so  I figured now would be as good a time as any to take a look back at his career and how his work has been a great influence to me.  I guess we should start this by answering the most basic question first.  Who is Christopher Titus?

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I love being from a screwed up family

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Christopher Todd Titus was born in Castro Valley California in 1964 to Kenneth and Juanita Titus.  Throughout Christopher’s childhood, he had to deal with his manic depressive, paranoid, schizophrenic mother who was in and out of his life as well as his mean alcoholic dad who did his best to raise him right but was dealing with demons of his own.  Most of his life story is told to us from his first major stand-up special Norman Rockwell is Bleeding which he had performed for years before getting it adapted into a TV show on Fox in 2000 simply called Titus; though to be clear, the recording you can find of that special was done a few years after the TV show had ended.  Whether or not all of the stories about his life are true is something that can be reasonably questioned as my cursory research produces little evidence outside of his own personal accounts for what he had to go through, and since a lot of his appeal (at least for me) is the frankness, sincerity, and openness with which he talks about rough subjects, the material NOT being true would certainly hurt that image (like when Robin Williams’s off the cuff delivery style is undercut by the fact that he would always tell the same stories on every talk show he did).  Personally, I don’t have a reason to question him or what he went through, and on the off chance that he DOES stretch the truth for comedic effect (in a memorial to his father at the end of an episode of Titus, his father says that only ten percent of what we hear is the truth), I still feel his comedy fills a need and speaks to an audience that very few comics have been able to reach.  Probably the comedian that comes the closest would be Marc Maron who had a similarly rough life (though mostly AFTER his childhood) and frequently bares his soul to the world through his stand-up routines and his WTF podcast, on which he did in fact interview Christopher (one of the show’s better episodes in my opinion).  The first time I ever heard Christopher’s comedy was when Norman Rockwell is Bleeding had aired on Comedy Central’s Secret Stash* which was (or maybe still is, I have no idea) a block of time around midnight or one in the morning on the weekends that would show movies and stand-up specials with the bad language intact, not to mention Girls Gone Wild commercials.  Needless to say that I watched Secret Stash A LOT when I was in middle school, and even managed to stumble upon some great comedians in the process.  The one comedy special that stood out the most for me though was the aforementioned Christopher Titus special, and it’s honestly something I would put in the top ten if not top five comedy specials that have influenced me greatly, some of which include Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer, Bill Maher: The Decider (he hit his peak during the Bush years), George Carlin’s Life is Worth Losing, and Whoopi: Back to Broadway.  Now by the time I had discovered him, it had been YEARS since he had established himself and also years after his television show.  What happened with that exactly?

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If there was a Fuck Up Pope, I would have a three foot hat!

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The way Christopher tells it (again, one source so take it with a grain of salt) is that he got the show from his stand-up routine and it was an overnight success that maintained high ratings throughout its tenure.  That is until the Fox network president at the time, Gail Berman, requested that they make a change to the show’s dynamic; mainly that the two main characters (Christopher and his fiancée Erin) should break up and that another woman should be in the mix so that there could be a love triangle.  What happened next, according to Christopher, is that he started talking down to the president, telling her why it was such a bad idea, and that created a rift between her and the show that eventually led to it getting slowly killed from starvation (no more ads and a new and awful time slot) during its third season.  Now finding out what the popularity (and ratings) of a TV show when it had aired fifteen years ago is not easy, so I can’t say for sure how much of this story is true or if the supposed grudge between Christopher and Gail Berman is a fabrication that he uses to justify the show’s cancellation.  However, there’s no denying that Fox is a network known for killing shows off early, and it was green-lit by Sandy Grunshow right before Gail Berman took over as president, so (as is the case with a lot of show that got killed early) there was probably little love for it in once the new President came in.  It sometimes happens where a new executive has to keep a show running that they didn’t have a hand in creating (and will therefore never get credit for it), and in this case (speculation here) she probably focused her efforts on a show that she DID have a hand in creating that was similar in concept, namely The Bernie Mac Show1.  Having watched Titus all the way through at least twice (I only saw the show as recent as five years ago by the way), it is definitely a shame that it didn’t go on for longer as very few shows had attempted to go into territory that this one did, which is not too different from the guy’s unique niche as a stand-up comedian.  It had an AMAZING cast that was magnetic to watch in every episode (Stacy Keach as Christopher’s dad and Zack Ward as his brother Dave are the highlights for me) and it took risks by trying to find humor in the darkest of places.  Did it always succeed?  Not really as some of the stances the show took are cringe worthy nowadays (the No Means No episode doesn’t sit to well with me) but it never felt like anything less than what was the sum total of his life experiences and him trying to do right by his friends, family, and the people who could relate to their struggles.  The only other show I can compare it too is Lucky Louie, but even that was more of satire than anything else (dirty and grungy premise anachronistically presented in the traditional Three Camera sitcom style) which kept the situations from feeling real or authentic.  Titus on the other hand felt like sincere in everything it did, even if the demands of dramatic storytelling (and early 2000s television) meant things had to be a bit exaggerated and slightly cleaned up compared to his stand-up comedy.

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Then again, how many laugh track shows have the characters beat the hell out of a pedophile?

Christopher has said several times that he regrets the way this show came to an end, due not only to the fact that the show didn’t reach enough episodes for syndication (that’s where the REAL money would have been), but because he hears from people all the time who felt a real connection to those characters and it helped them through some rough times in their lives.  Despite the fact that he lost his show, Christopher refused to let that keep him down and he has release six comedy specials since the show had ended (currently working on a seventh one).  Let’s take a look at those, shall we?

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I survived three years on the Fox Network.  There is a God

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Norman Rockwell is Bleeding [DVD/Audio]

This is the one that started it all and frankly is still his best work to date.  It’s the most personal of his comedy specials as he’s pulling almost exclusively form his own life experiences and how they’ve made him into the better (albeit somewhat damaged) man that he is today.  What also helps is that this is the one that also focuses the most on his dad Ken Titus, who is probably the greatest source of material the guy has.  Hell, if his dad wanted to, he could’ve been a successful comic as well, though maybe more in the Andrew Dice Clay mold which doesn’t really hold up well today.  Christopher provides a good filter for the horribleness that he had to experience and it shows his skill as a comedian that he really can find humor in dark places such as the time he fell into a bonfire, the abusive relationship he was in before dating his eventual wife, and his mother who shot and killed her last husband (because after that, you don’t get another one).  It’s no wonder he got a show just on the strength of this routine alone.
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5th Annual End of the World Tour [Digital/Audio]

We may have gotten the recording of Norman Rockwell after he had lost Titus, but that was still all material that was written prior to that.  This is the first special that he came up with after his rise to television stardom and the crash and burn that came with it.  This is where he needed to prove himself as more than a one trick pony and that he had material in him that didn’t rely on simply showing people his family album.  I think he succeeds here and the routine is also a fascinating one to go back and listen to as it is in my opinion one of the definitive post-9/11 comedy specials (it was recorded in 2006 so that’s what the title of the special refers to).  It’s definitely dated in some areas, as is a lot of topical comedy during the Bush years, and there is some cringe worthy elements (his Guantanamo Bay bits don’t hold up well), but he also focuses on how his life has changed since having kids, so while he’s no longer reaching back to his childhood for material, he still gets to tell personal stories about becoming a father in a world that seems to be going to hell.  Not only that, but it’s the special where he talks about the death of his father who was such an enormous presence in his life, and it gets really heartfelt towards the end.  Just a stray observation though, this special is very reminiscent of Robin Williams Live at the Met special from 1986 (not in a PLAGIARISM sort of way) which is another one of the most influential comedy specials of all time, as well as his own post-9/11 special Robin Williams: Live on Broadway.  They both have a similar structure about being a new dad in a world seemingly on the brink of destruction, and they also pretty much start and end the same way; starting with the story about how their first child was born and closing with them imparting words of wisdom to their kids and promising to take care of them no matter what life throws in their way.  I don’t know if there was any intentional allusions here to that special, but I honestly hope there wasn’t as it really puts things in perspective about how these concerns will always be with us no matter how much the world either gets better or gets worse.  After this special, there’s was no denying that the guy still had a lot of juice in him and that he was someone to keep an eye on going forward.

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Love is Evol [DVD/Audio]

Here’s where things start to get a bit uncomfortable.  As always, Christopher has an uncanny ability to spin yarns about himself, his life, and how he tries to do what’s best which is hardly ever an easy call to make.  This special is all about his divorce to his wife Erin in 2006 and the fallout because of that.  There’s some amazing material in here, especially as he recounts the days leading up to the divorce and just how toxic things had gotten; to the point that he almost killed himself in the process.  Despite the downer tone that goes throughout the special, it ends on a point of hope as he transitions into his new life with his then girlfriend (now wife) Rachel.  Now taken on its own, it’s another great and insightful look at the human condition and is absolutely relatable for those out there who feel scorned by love.  The problem is that while he does acknowledge this in the special, this is entirely from his point of view of how things went down, and unlike the last two specials which were all about him, this one is about him AND his ex-wife.  In the special, Christopher informs us that his wife accused him of abusing her and the children for years, and there are court documents to back this statement up2.  His explanation for that accusation (he vehemently denies ever abusing his family) is that since California is a No-Fault divorce state she said those things because the fifty-fifty split of assets (the whole point of No-Fault divorces) doesn’t apply in cases of abuse.  Funnily enough, the exact same things are being said by Johnny Depp’s lawyer about the accusations Amber Heard has made against him3, and those have been met with the most toxic of victim blaming that is downright sickening to watch unfold4.  I don’t know the truth, but earring on the side of the victim is how we should always take these situations as the criminal justice system and the courts are already stacked against them.  Victims are told to come forward or else they have no one to blame but themselves, and then when they do they’re scrutinized for not being a “good victim” or what have you.  For many people, the fact that Christopher Titus abused his wife (or at the very least the courts ruled in her favor that he was abusive) is enough to write him off and not support is work.  It’s something that we all have to decide when we find out people we love and appreciate did horrible things to others.  Hell, Bill Cosby was one of the most important figures in my life throughout elementary school and most of middle school which I’m sure many other people feel as well.  Is it okay to enjoy his comedy, movies, or television shows now that’s it clear that he’s been an abusive monster his entire life?  I honestly don’t know the answer to that, so I would never question anyone’s prerogative to never touch Cosby’s (or anyone else’s) work again.  I certainly haven’t since the allegations came to light, though I don’t know if that’s a stance I will take for the rest of my life.  Probably the rest of HIS life at least though, but that’s a discussion for another day.  For me, if the abuse that Christopher Titus is accused of did in fact happen, then he is paying for it through a steep alimony and child support and will continue to pay for it for what may be the rest of his life per the decision of the court.  Either way, he seems to be in a better place in his life with his new wife and his ex-wife did win her court battle, so I will continue to support his work; with the caveat of course that if anything NEW comes up, then I will reevaluate my stance.  And of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion on complicated subjects like this.  Boy did THAT get heavy!  Let’s see if we can make this even MORE awkward!  This is also the special where he came up with one the most enduring bits of the later part of his career, which is what he calls his “inner retard.”  Yeah…  So the idea is that in each and every one of us, there is a voice that tells us we are not good enough or that we don’t deserve happiness.  Now he does get a lot of really good and insightful material from this exploration of that sense of doubt that is within us all (I absolutely relate to this material as that sense of doubt is with me constantly), but exploring it through the lens of that inner voice being a “retard” inside your head (he even does obnoxious affectations to go with it) feels REALLY ablest and is one least defensible jokes that he does.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be funny or insightful, but it does feel exclusionary and is a show of his (and maybe even his fan’s) privilege that he not only came up with such a joke but that it’s stuck with him and is used to this day.  Now I know “privilege” is a buzzword that gets douchebags in a frenzy, but because some assholes hate thinking about it doesn’t mean it’s any less of a valid criticism that we should be discussing and that we should be self-aware of (myself included).  So overall, I do like this special and definitely feel for the guy as he’s talking about his own personal experiences with his failing marriage, but it’s also may be the hardest one to sell to someone who’s never heard his comedy before as it’s very bitter and has a lot of baggage associated with it.  In the context of Christopher himself and what we know about him through his other specials and the TV show, it’s a great addition to the catalog, but it has problems that we can’t simply ignore because “that’s just the way he is” or “he’s just telling it like he sees it”.

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Neverlution [DVD/Audio]

I don’t think Christopher Titus has done a bad comedy special, but this is this one came the closets.  Out of all the specials he’s done (including ones we’ll get to soon enough) this one feels the least personal and is the one that feels the most forced and stagey.  There are some strong moments in here (usually when he DOES manage to get personal), but his social commentary is severally lacking and can basically be summed up as “millennials and Gen-Xers are a bunch of wussies”.  Wow dude.  What a SCATHING insight that doesn’t AT ALL show your age.  Here’s a pro-tip for any comedian out there.  If you’re bitching about Participation Trophies, then YOU’RE the emotional and whiny jerk; not the ones who are getting the trophies.  I never understood that mentality where you’re success (or the winner’s success) doesn’t count if everyone gets the bare minimum of praise for their efforts.  It’s not about rewarding failure; it’s about fostering good sportsmanship and providing kids with a tangible reminder of the benefits they got for simply being a part of a team, whether it’s friendship, new skills, or personal growth.  But hey, I guess HE didn’t get them when he was a kid, so why should the new generation, am I right?  As far as politics… it’s honestly kind of hard to peg the guy as one thing or another.  He’s what I imagine a libertarian would be like without the MRA or Techbro baggage, as he’s definitely for many liberal and democratic causes (gay marriage, funding for mental health, gun control, etc).  That said, he has a massive distrust of most institutions, including social services which he had to deal with growing up with his alcoholic father and unstable mother, and he has PLENTY to say about modern parenting and the “wussification” of America.  He makes his points well enough (Christopher is STILL a master at storytelling) but the special just isn’t as fun or insightful as the previous three.  Pretty much every comic is gonna have that one special that doesn’t measure up (George Carlin’s Complaints and Grievances does nothing for me) and this definitely feels like his one big stumble.

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Voice in my Head [DVD/Audio]

Thankfully the guy returns to form with this one which feels like a spiritual successor to Norman Rockwell is Bleeding.  It’s very self-reflective, he throws in some new stories about his past (not all of which are about his dad) and the special in general is about his life after the divorce.  Almost twenty minutes of this special is devoted to him meeting Bruce Springsteen which is one of his idols and while it may go on a tad long, it’s really solid and gives him a chance to reflect on himself and accept the accomplishments that he worked his entire life to get, as he learns that Bruce’s son was deeply affected by the show Titus.  The only weak spot in here is that he’s finally addressing the “inner retard” bit by explaining what he REALLY means when he uses that word.  It’s the same trick that South Park tried to pull when it wanted to “take back” the word fag to mean annoying rather than gay, and Christopher’s interpretation is that retard doesn’t mean someone who has disabilities, but is failing to live up to their potential (if you have everything working perfectly and have all of your facilities about you, but you end up addicted to Crystal Meth and living under a bridge, you’re fucking retarded).  You know who DOESN’T get to take back a word?  The people who use it to disparage another group.  Straight people don’t get to tell gay people that fag is no longer offensive, and people without disabilities shouldn’t tell those who do to lighten up about that slur.  Now thankful this leads into one of the better stories in the show which is about a friend of his named Michael Aronin who has Cerebral Palsy and is a really great comedian (you should go look up his stuff).  The story is about a time that he, Michael, and a few other friends went to a restaurant where the waitress asked for everyone else’s orders, but not Michael’s which she asked Christopher what he would have instead of addressing him directly.   Michael then proceeds to be an evil bastard to punish her by turning his disability up to eleven (living up to whatever stereotype the waitress assumed of him) by continuously spilling things, saying random and offensive stuff, and dropping silverware.  I think these two bits back to back best reflects what I believe does and does not work for Christopher Titus.  He’s not a really topical comedian so being a commentator or talking about modern day issues can fall a bit flat.  Where he excels though is when he gets real and tells stories that may make you laugh, may make you uncomfortable and will probably do both at the same time.  While I probably wouldn’t put this up there with Norman Rockwell is Bleeding, it’s definitely one of the better ones in his catalog.

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Angry Pursuit of Happiness [DVD/MP3]

This is his most recent comedy special (recorded in 2015) and it feels like what Neverlution should have been.  It’s not a perfect special as he’s once again in Social Commentary mode, but it manages to be a much more sharply written routine than the last time he went in that direction.  Now there may also be some personal bias on my part considering one of the better segments in here is when he goes off on the NRA for a good ten minutes about their insane policies that campaigns that keep our politicians too scared to do anything that will save a few kids’ lives, so take that as you will as far as the focus on social commentary.  It still feels way too impersonal to have the same kind of bite that Norman Rockwell is Bleeding or Love is Evol have, but it feels like an improvement and it does indeed end on another story about his father.  Not one of the better stories, which I guess fits because this isn’t one of the better specials, but it’s always fun to hear about that guy’s wacky adventures.  I would definitely put this above Neverlution, but it’s another reinforcement of what I feel to be his weaknesses at a certain style of stand-up.

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I don’t fail.  I succeed in finding what doesn’t work.

So what does the future hold for Christopher Titus?  Well he’s working on the seventh comedy special which is what I’ll be going to see (Born with a Defect) and he recently completed a crowd funding campaign to get a pet project of his off the ground called Special Unit.  I’m not too hopeful for that movie as it’s about a police unit made up of him and four people with handicaps which sounds about as lame of a gimmick as you could get.  Hell, you don’t even make an assumption about that as the movie is an expansion of a pilot he made that you can easily find on YouTube which you can judge for yourself whether or not it’s funny (Spoiler Alert: I don’t think it is).  I’m a bit conflicted about it overall because it stars comedians with actual handicaps (including Michael Aronin) so it will at least be properly represented, and I do get the sense that his heart is in the right place by making an offensive comedy with people who have handicaps and seeing how people react to it.  My problem though is that, on top of the pilot being pretty lame, he’s listed as director, sole writer, and the star which means this is a Christopher Titus project with handicapped comedians rather than him amplifying their voices.  It may have a strong message about treating those with disabilities with respect and not seeing them as being less capable, but it’s gonna be hard to sell it considering every step of the creative process is being done from the perspective of someone sympathetic to their cause rather than someone who has firsthand experience with it.  You can check out a trailer for it on the guy’s YouTube page, and I may give my thoughts on it once it actually comes out which should be later this year.  Other than that, the guy seems to be doing well for himself with his stand-up tours as well as a weekly podcast he does with his wife.  It’s what you’d expect from a comedian podcast.  We get a lot more content, but since new episodes are put out so frequently, it’s not as refined or as sharp as their actual stand-up routines.  Still, if you ever needed more Titus in your life, then that would be a great place to start.

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I’m pretty sure Willie “Jell-o” Johnson (a voice Titus did that was supposed to be a black step-brother of his) has been retired which is probably for the best.  Again, white guy trying to BE the voice for the oppressed instead of elevating the voices OF the oppressed.

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Well that should just about do it for this look back at who I feel to be one of the best comedians out there!  Agree?  Disagree?  Please let me know in the comments below as I really don’t know anyone else who’s a fan (or non-fan) of his. Just to make sure everything is clear, pretty much everything in here is my own personal opinion, and I try to cite facts whenever I use them.  If I got anything wrong and you let me know about it, then I will do what I can to fix it!

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Sources

  1. “Gail Berman Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Web.
    http://www.notablebiographies.com/news/A-Ca/Berman-Gail.html
  2. CHRISTOPHER TITUS (Appellant), v. ERIN TITUS (Respondent). CALIFORNIA SECOND APPELLATE DISTRICT DIVISION SEVEN. 8 Jan. 2013. Web.
    http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/nonpub/B232398.DOC
    (download link for a .doc file published by the California courts)
  3. “Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Alleges Amber Heard’s Anger At ‘Negative Media Attention’ Is Driving Abuse Claims!” Perezhilton.com. 28 May 2016. Web.
    http://perezhilton.com/2016-05-28-johnny-depp-amber-heard-laura-wasser-domestic-abuse-claims-premature-financial-resolution#.V0tquZErKUk
  4. Edwards, Tanya. “We Need To Talk About How Social Media Is Reacting To Amber Heard’s Allegations.” Refinery29. 29 May 2016. Web.
    http://www.refinery29.com/2016/05/112263/johnny-depp-amber-heard-internet-reaction

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Additional Sources

Hargrove, Brian, Jack Kenny, and Christopher Titus, creators. Titus.
20th Century Fox Television. 20 Mar. 2000. Television.

Maron, Marc. “Christopher Titus.” WTF with Marc Maron. 30 June 2011. Web.
http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_188_-_christopher_titus

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*This was so long ago that I can’t say for certain if it REALLY was on Secret Stash, so if you can prove definitively that Comedy Central never aired Norman Rockwell is Bleeding during that time slot, I will gladly eat crow on that.

 

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