Comedian Christopher Titus has never made a secret of his highly dysfunctional family life. But he’s yet again embraced the hurt and created something incredibly funny and strangely poignant – this time for a new Comedy Central album.
Interview and Photos by Alana Grelyak
Stand-up comedian Christopher Titus has seen a lot. And although he’s well traveled, he hasn’t really had to stray far from his own family or his own home to experience some of the more disturbing — nay, inspirational — episodes of his life, many of which he’s turned into poignant, extended jokes for his stage act — not to mention three-seasons-worth of warped Fox sitcom fun.
In his new Comedy Central double-live album, The Fifth Annual End of the World Tour, Titus as always, lays bare his soul and exposes every last one of his frayed nerves; somehow, he makes it one of the best comedy releases of the year. And with ABC picking up Big Shots — Titus co-stars with Dylan McDermott and Michael Vartan in what has been described as a male-driven Sex and the City — for its Thursday-night lineup, we’ll thankfully be seeing a lot more of the veteran comic.
Punchline Magazine recently caught up with the 40-year-old native Californian to talk about his unique style of comedy, how he was conceived during revenge sex and how, exactly, he’s just like Bruce Springsteen.
How would you describe your comedy?
Pain, in joke form.
You have a bit about your dad dying on the new album. How do you make pain funny? Doesn’t it bother you?
It does bother me. When I first started doing it, I wrote a bit about my mom’s mental illness years ago. And I remember I was in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. I remember doing it the first night and I was on stage and I was literally half way through the bit and I started tearing up. I started choking up. And I was like. “Oh shit: Dont, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.” And I got through it and then about 10 shows later, I realized it had turned into jokes. It was painful in the sense that I’m aware of it, but it’s not dragging-me-through-the mud painful.
And the new show, when I first started doing stuff about the divorce, when I first got on the stage with it, it was brutally angry. So what’ll happen, the real emotion when I start doing it will always come out. Like, I mean, when I was at the Ontario Improv when I started doing the divorce stuff and people, just the look on their faces was like, “Oh shit, he’s really pissed.” And then about 10 shows later, again, it just started to go away, and I started to figure out the funny of it, and I used the anger as a tool. But, yes, it does really affect me when I start writing it. The good news is the audience is pretty much my therapy. I don’t need a therapist because I have them.
That saves you a lot of money. Actually, you’re probably making money that way.
There you go!
Because of the detail, drama and length of a lot of your bits, it seems obvious that would need to be well-rehearsed. But you pull it off very naturally. Do you consciously set them up that way, or do they just write themselves like that?
Any comic that says that jokes just write themselves is lying. You have to structure things. I want to take the audience up and down, like on like a roller coaster. That’s why when we wrote “Titus,” I hated sitcoms. I hated them, because they’re all half-assed funny. They’re just middle-of-the-road funny. It’s very rare that you find a sitcom that’s laugh-out-loud surprising. So when we wrote Titus, we went for that, and I used to get in a lot of arguments with the writers about the dramatic moments because we’d write them and I’d say, “We need to talk about Matthew Shepard right here or we’d talk about, you know, my niece got molested and we did an episode about that.
Because here’s what happens. If you can make them laugh right after that, they love you for it. I try to do that on stage because it’s so much more interesting than just, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, you know what I mean? It’s like, Nils Lofgren came to the show, he did guitars for Bruce Springsteen in Phoenix last week. And he said to me, ‘You know you do what Bruce does,’which by the way is a ridiculous complement. He goes, Bruce will take you down and do like “American Skin” or some horrible dark number and bring the audience down to tears, and then he’ll just turn around and do “Drive All Night.” You have a tendency to ride the rhythm like that. And that was pretty cool that Nils Lofgren, who’s played in the E Street Band, compared me to Bruce Springsteen.
That is a good compliment.
Yeah. And one you can’t live up to. But he just said that in the rhythm you take an audience on a ride and I believe that is a comic’s responsibility.
Boy does this sound pretentious. This is the most pretentious interview I’ve ever given. Holy crap.
Maybe it’s me.
Oh no. It’s not your fault. I’m just cocky and a whore.
Did school or formal training play a part in this dramatic approach?
I went to one semester of business law at a community college and the only part that I liked was the standing up and talking part, so I quit. My father always wanted me to be a lawyer my whole life. I started driving to San Francisco every weekend and going to open mics. I mean, not every weekend. I was actually going pretty much Tuesday thru you know – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday, I would go and do open mics and I did that for a couple years. And I sold shoes to get me through it.
The only time I went to college actually was when I went to the college where Robin Williams learned to act. Not Juilliard, but Marin, before he went to Juilliard. So I studied there for a year, and then, while I was doing comedy in California. And then when I got to LA I had a teacher named Stephen Book. And I did that for five years. And because of that, I would never have gotten Titus. I would never have gotten into drama. It changed my comedy tremendously. Because once I knew how to act, it just made everything better. I can act bits out instead of saying, ‘Hey, ever notice when you see this.’ Now, I can actually tell a story about my dad as my dad telling the story.
That definitely comes through in your comedy.
Well, I do a new bit. I asked my dad to tell me how I was conceived. I wanted one good story. I wanted to see my dad have that far away love look in his eye, and talk about young love. And he tells me this horrible story about how my mom and him had already broken up and he went back to do it one more time just to let her know what she was missing and then she got pregnant with me. So I was actually conceived during revenge sex.
It’s just like, ‘Aww come on. Thanks dad.’ So I was telling that story as me telling it but it wasn’t as funny so I started doing it as my dad telling it, and how brutal it was that he told me. And now it’s hilarious, because he’s telling it. So many comics are afraid of acting classes. ‘I know how to act. I’m a comic.’ No you don’t. You know how to talk. You don’t know how to act. So I realized I didn’t know and that’s why I needed to be trained.
Did they ever make you “be a fairy?”
I looked around for a good acting class. One of the first ones I came to in L.A. was this women teaching this method, Meisner or whatever. They made you do an exercise where they had you lie on the floor of the studio and pretend you were a cup of coffee. You know, I’m not a cup of coffee. Let’s be very clear. It was one of those bullshit acting exercises that doesn’t really do anything for you but it’s just like, ‘Yeah. You were wonderful, I really felt the steam.’ Shut up!
So I started to really hate acting and actors. And then I found Stephen. He’s one of those guys that cuts right to it. He would never say if it was good or bad. He would just look at the classroom and say, ‘Did you believe him?’ Yup. Good. Moving on. ‘Did you believe him?’ No. Not at all. And then we’d talk about that and fix it, but it was never a pat on your back or bullshit acting.
I saw that you have a movie credit for Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
Aw, jeez, it was my first movie experience. And it’s weird. It’s one of those legendary bad, campy, horror films that everybody remembers. Yes. I was in it. And I will not deny it in court.
What role did you play?
It’s like first guy dead. I’m right in the beginning. I’m in the jeep and I’m carrying beer across the street. And I have a couple lines. ‘Wow, check this out!’ I mean it’s just stupid crap and, yeah. Thanks for bringing it up; I also have a Writers Guild nomination without a college degree so, stop it! You’re not talking about that.
I didn’t know that.
It was for Titus. There was an episode of Titus that I wrote and Everybody Loves Raymond beat us out that year, but to be a new writer on the show and to actually get nominated was pretty cool. My dad used to say, ‘I didn’t even know you could write your own name.’ So to get a Writers Guild nomination, it was like, ‘Take that, old man!’
How much of your comedy comes from the truth of your life, if you had to give a percentage?
I would say 90 to 95 percent. The last End of the World tour was basically about the world and being a father so that was kind of my take on like racism and stuff. And this new show’s all about relationships and divorce. The last show was all topical, so it was probably I don’t know 60, 65, 70 percent. This new show is pretty much 100.
Would you say that most of your knowledge you use in your comedy just comes from observation?
My stuff usually comes from life experience. I don’t think I’m smart enough to just make stuff up. [Bill] Cosby is my hero. He would tell these long, twenty-two minute stories about his life that were just hilarious and for whatever reason I grew up on that and that’s what I do. I tell stories about my life. Currently, I’m in a brutal divorce and my new girlfriend is amazing so I’m talking about that. And basically in this new stage show I’m going to fix everybodys’ relationships. Or destroy them.
For more info, check out www.christophertitus.com.