Titus launched his stand-up career in the ‘90s. Things really started to take off when, in 1996, 1997, and 1999, his one-man show, Norman Rockwell is Bleeding, garnered a lot of attention at the Montreal Just for Laughs comedy festival. That led to TV appearances, including parts on network shows like 21 Jump Street and Rizzoli and Isles.
He scored big with Titus, the self-titled sitcom he co-created and starred in. Based on his dysfunctional upbringing, it ran from 2000 through 2002 on Fox. Never one to mince words, Titus' show hilariously recapped a life lived with parents suffering from mental health issues and alcohol addiction, done in a way only someone with an up-close view could do. It was also given an extra splash of comedic brilliance with veteran character actor Stacey Keach playing the role of his drunken, womanizing father. The show put the gutter in guttural, inspiring hearty, cringe-worthy laughs.
There's nothing about Titus that suggests that he could slow down if he tried. His fast and ferocious delivery doesn't compromise the message, however. His rapid-fire performance style is more energetic than that of classic comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, but it maintains the same sincere thread of soul and wisdom. Like Titus, those comedians shared formative years that were less than idyllic. The silent passenger he brings to every performance is a poignancy and genuine concern for humanity. That’s part of what keeps his material real, much like those aforementioned socially-critical funnymen.
Titus will perform seven shows at downtown's Stand Up Live from August 10 to 13. While on a short tour break, prepping for his Phoenix appearances, New Times caught up with him for a chat about Amerigeddon and his upcoming movie, Special Unit, an over-the-top cop comedy he wrote, directed, and starred in. This talk has been edited and condensed for clarity.
New Times: You're on a break from the tour right now?
Christopher Titus: Yeah, we just wrapped up a group of shows. I have a few days off; I’m spending it with family and then I'm coming to Phoenix.
Amerigeddon, the show you’re touring with now, is your eighth comedy special, right?
Yes. Amerigeddon has just come into its own, and I'm really happy about it. At one point, I was thinking of starting over with a new show because writing about politics right now is hard. When I started this back in January, I'd break out the material and there were some Trump folks in the audience that would just freak out. As they’ve had time to watch him for months now, those people now are sitting in the audience kind of nodding sadly. The whole show isn’t about Trump, though, I go after everyone in this show, though. I go after Hillary, I even have an Obama joke. I'm not kidding when I say that I wrote this show to bring the country back together.
Did you start developing the show pre-election?
Yeah. But it really came together the day he was actually elected. I was like, "I have to write about this now.” There would have been no reason to write about him if he didn't get elected. We would have had a few jokes and moved on, but once he got elected, it was on. I say this all the time — we've elected a reality television star, not even a movie star, a reality TV star as president of the United States. If that's not a set up for an entire 90-minute show, I don't know what is. And he presents opportunities for new material constantly.
Because he generates multiple incendiary headlines every day, are you continuously updating the show? If so, how do you pick and choose?
It's so irritating because it is literally every single day. He's a free radical, just going in every direction to destroy everything. I was working on my Anthony Scaramucci bit — because you know, they basically put Ray Liotta's little brother as the right hand of the president — and I'm doing the bit, it's killing, audiences are loving it, and then boom, he's gone. Thanks, Trump, now you're wasting my time, too! There's no consistency, so you have to pay attention to it and you can't pay too much attention to it in a sense of specifics unless it's something really big.
And even with all the material he inspires, the whole show isn’t all about Trump, right?
Right. I think the mistake comics make when something like this happens is not only do they make a whole show about it, they also give their opinion. I don't really do that. I give my opinion about us as Americans and how we need to come together. I do some really funny bits about how the government has worked to split us up, how politics works. It’s just a mistake to interject your opinion. I let them know, hey guys, I'm just telling you what your man did. I got a bunch of solutions for bringing the country together, and in part of the show I run for president — I give the audience my platform. I talk about when I met George W. Bush, and he was a nice guy. If Trump was a nice guy, he could be as crazy as he wanted. We'd just think he was funny, but he's so malevolent and that's my biggest problem with the guy. We've had idiots in the office before, but he's a malevolent idiot and that's where I get upset. I didn't agree with W., but nice guy.
You kicked the show off in Alabama. How did that go?
I did, and I’ve since started talking about that, too. At that point, I didn't know I was going to Alabama, I checked the tour roster and the next three states were Alabama, North Carolina, and Texas. So, I was going to be breaking in new material in hotbeds of Trump towns. I had to make it palatable for people who voted for him. So, they did their job as Americans — they voted for the guy they wanted and he conned them — that's why I'm mad. And that's why I say in the show, "The people that voted for Harambe, when you see a mushroom cloud, that's on you, remember that.”
That had to be especially hard right after the election.
I had to write the show well enough that when there's a Trump joke, it would make Trump supporters laugh, and that was the trick. That's a fine needle to thread. After these months of Trump, even his most staunch supporters just hang their heads now.
He's wearing everyone out.
Yes, everyone is so tired. Now, even Congress is starting to come together, this guy is so bad.
It keeps seeming like his days are numbered.
Which in a way is my biggest fear for the show, that he'll get impeached before it gets finished [laughs].
Do you think you’re opening some minds?
I hope so. A conservative waited in the merch line in Philly last week to talk to me, and he said, "I want you to know something, I am a staunch conservative, hardcore, and although I didn't agree with all the jokes, I see your point. This is a well-balanced show: I was mad at times; I laughed my butt off at times.” It was good to have someone tell me that.
That's the thing — you're giving multiple perspectives, which helps to not alienate anyone.
And I thank Alabama for that. Without them, I probably wouldn't have written it the way I did. I had one joke that finally won over a really tough table there. Let's say that if I had asked them for a gator recipe, I'd have gotten three. One guy has an Uncle Jesse from Dukes of Hazzard beard, I kept calling him Duck Dynasty and he didn’t laugh at all, I think he thought it was a compliment. His buddy was wearing a red, white, and blue Trump jersey and I'm doing this show. So, in this bit I talk about how so many whiny white guys got fired up this election 'cause they think they’ve had it bad for so long and the joke is, "And I don't want no vagina in the white house neither, so we voted for the other side of the taint." And this guy’s eyes got big and he looked at me and said, "All right dammit, that's funny." It's proof that comedy heals.
We're experiencing an intense polarization right now.
I definitely talk about that in the show. Why can't we still all get along? Listen, you don't have to agree with me, but can we have a beer? That's kind of the whole point of the show, and at the end there's a bit I do called "They, We, Them." It's too long to tell the whole thing, but it's basically that They are the old guys that run things — old white guys with that hanging neck flap, and they're the ones pushing the Us/Them mentality. I'm really proud of the bit, it took a while to come together. Some of George Carlin's material inspired it. Two nights again in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when I said goodnight, the crowd starting chanting “We, we, we, we!" It was so cool.
Among other reasons, your brand of social criticism and frank delivery are often Carlin-esque.
That's the highest compliment of all and I can't even take it. I have many years to go. This is only my eighth special;, he did 14.
It’s all relative.
He's the iconic Jesus of comedy.
Your shows are brutal on many levels. You don’t hold back and you deliver your words like rapid gunfire. At a time of such heightened sensitivity, do you feel like that's gotten harder to maintain, or served to lose fans?
I don't care. Here's the problem, I have built a reputation on saying what it is, whether I'm talking about my mom's suicide or my dad's drinking, or her mental illness or the brutal divorce I went through, and I've always kept it really real. The people who know that come to see me no matter what I do. If we react every time someone gets sensitive, and tone it down, then all we do is give these weenies power. You give the oversensitive power and you've shackled yourself even more. If you're butt-hurt and can't take a joke, I don't want you at my shows anyway. I might have 10 to 12 Trump jokes spread out over 90 minutes. The rest are stories are about us as a people, coming together. I’ll piss off those guys from the alt-right movement, but they’re the ones who'll send those fucking memes with Obama sitting in a chicken bucket that say, “Proof that Obama's an American,” and I’m like, if you laughed at one Obama joke, you can sit here all night. Then when I get to my Obama joke, the liberals tighten up and I have to lecture them that we've been ripping on Trump all night and now you guys tightened up because the black Jesus got made fun of? Don’t you get that they all don't care about us? I will say this, I did vote for Obama and I think he's one of the better politicians but he is still a They.
Hopefully that sentiment stays after the concert high wears off.
Yeah. It was pretty awesome.
Getting people thinking is generally a good thing.
Right, and that as a comic that's what we're supposed to do. I mean, I could talk about penises or sex all day long — everybody has done that. To take on a new subject every show is hard. The show is beyond Trump, but more about why we're at where we are at right now. Trump's just the new idiot.
And in part, a product of what we’ve become.
Right. We created him, 100 percent. People are so angry about Hillary but many with no reason other than "just don't like her." I don't like my plumber either, but my house doesn't smell like shit! As far as sensitivity goes, writers have to stick to their guns. There are plenty of people I don't like, but I watch them. As a comedian or an artist, news is news, and you have to talk honestly about it. You can’t create your content caring about what people think. If you do, then you're irrelevant. We all want to be successful, but if you can't be honest, then you make yourself irrelevant.
Do you work with writers to create your show?
I write it all out myself, but I have worked with writers, like on my former TV show Titus and my movie that's coming out.
Right, Special Unit. I've been seeing some teasers on Twitter. Tell us about that.
It comes out on October 11. The pitch line is: Due to the Fairness in Disabilities Act, the LAPD must hire four handicapped undercover detectives, and I play Nick Nolte's mugshot. It is over-the-top ridiculous. We didn’t do the thing where we used stars to play disabled persons. We used 15-plus disabled actors in this movie and four of them are the stars and in every scene. We have one actor playing a disabled role who is not disabled because I wrote a part for a very high-functioning autistic character and we auditioned a few autistic actors but some of the speeches were long and caused agitation. The last thing I want to do is put someone through that.
What comes out of Hollywood shapes so many perceptions, but yet they don’t take a lot of chances.
I have a lot of actors and comedian friends who are disabled who don't get a shot. Hollywood talks a great game, but they don't give these guys a shot. Distributors that have watched the movie have been that way, too, like, “It's so funny, but we can't release this,” because they fear there will be blowback. The thing is, instead of making the characters disabled, I made them cops. And in spite of their disabilities, they are great cops, in fact they bust my character, which happens in the first part of the movie.
Thanks for calling Hollywood out.
It’s so frustrating that a movie with a disabled person can't get released unless the character a sage Yoda in a wheelchair, or he's having a sexual problem that a sexy girl can help him get through, or he's being bullied so an able-bodied hero can save him and teach him stand up for himself. It's always crap like that. Instead, I made these characters just like everyone else.They're real actors and we gave them real roles — romantic scenes, all of it. It’s just a really funny story with me playing a dirty cop who is assigned to train this new unit. The movie takes a lot of funny turns. With some of the material I cover, I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to do it. If anyone’s gonna do it, you know? I’ve put funny into a lot of weird places. I like to put the right amount of wrong in everything.
Do you feel like your very tumultuous upbringing makes you almost entitled to do so?
Yeah. I don't try to go dark, I’m just writing what I know. People always tell me I'm so dark and I don't see that at all. I just think that way. I was raised by a party dad, he was a womanizing, funny, charming-as-hell raging alcoholic. I grew up in a lot of dysfunctional situations, around adults cracking jokes.
Are you actually doing any vacationing on your vacation? You don’t seem like you can slow down.
Exactly. Right now, I’m working on an audition for Equalizer 2, and then I’m heading to Phoenix.
Titus appears August 10 through 13 at Stand Up Live, 50 West Jefferson Street. Admission is $25 for guests 18 and older; attendance requires a two-drink minimum. Call 480-719-6100 or visit the Stand Up Live website.