Talking with Christopher Titus is a unique experience that can swing from endearing and funny to heartbreaking and “Whoa, too much information.” But Titus has never been afraid of airing his demons in public, whether it’s his comically unstable, sometimes tragic family life and childhood, his horrifying divorce from his first wife or his views on the ridiculous state of the world, and it’s earned him a powerful following and a steady career. Ranging from the Emmy-nominated sitcom Titus, which pioneered the concept of the semi-autobiographical dark life of a comedian that Louis C.K., Larry David and others are running with now, to hosting the Pawn Stars spinoff, Pawnography, on the History Channel, to the six stand-up specials that chronicle his life, Titus keeps things rolling and is already working up his seventh special on the road, Born With A Defect.
ATX Man caught up with Titus a few hours before his show at Stateside at The Paramount, where he and his wife, Rachel Bradley, (who served as the opening act) didn’t let up the laughs for almost two hours. But going to a Titus show doesn’t just mean you get to laugh; you also learn a few things, whether about yourself or about life, or both.
ATX Man: This probably isn’t your first time coming to Austin, is it?
Christopher Titus: No, there used to be a club that’s still there—Cap City Comedy Club—I played a bunch of times. The only time I’ve ever had an audience member come over a table and want to fight me actually [laughs][was at Cap City]. A guy and his girlfriend were in the front row and he wasn’t laughing, and they were together. I guess he was on a date and, you know, it’s weird. Comics are sick. Like, we get 500 people laughing, and the two guys that aren’t, we’ll be like “What’s your deal, dude?”
So I said, “Hey man, you’re not having a good time?” And he starts trying to rip on me. Anybody who rips on a comedian is an idiot, you know? Even the worst of us have stock lines that will make you look stupid, and we’re going to look like geniuses. So, I start slamming the guy, and throughout the show, I just keep turning back on him.
At the end of the show, we’re signing stuff and the guy waits in line, and as he gets through the line, he swings at me. So I just jump on him, and there was a melee in the lobby of the Cap City Comedy Club. [Laughs.] I love Texas, man.
AM: Everything’s changing now in Austin. Do you remember Austin differently in the past, as opposed to how it is now?
CT: Austin has become this weird bastion of brilliance and culture and art that I always kind of thought it was, but it’s more so now than ever.
AM: About your shows, everything you do is deeply personal. Was there ever a time when there was something you couldn’t go into?
CT: I was just a really s****y comic for a long time. I mean, I was good in the sense that I could get an audience going, but I was just a B-room headliner for 12 years. Then I took a thing called Landmark Forum, which is a great seminar, and after that, I wrote Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding, and I realized I could do something with it.
I think our job as comics is to make it so there’s nothing off-limits. I did a bit about my dad’s funeral, a bit about my mom’s suicide. The only thing I haven’t gone into is my sister’s suicide. I haven’t talked about it, and that’s the weird one because I can’t find the funny in it yet, but there’s always a way.
Look, an audience will go anywhere if you lead them down the right path, as long as you don’t just whack them in the face with a board. Even on this new bit, “Arm the children,” I’m pulling this off in Texas and it’s kind of a satirical anti-gun bit. Originally, when I wrote it, it was a really s****y “Guns are bad!” self-righteous bit. I finished it and I was like, “God, I hate this piece of material.” And I actually asked myself, “What would George Carlin do?” And he’d go around the backside and flip it upside down.
I just wanted to do it because the NRA came out on a committee and tried to get school districts to arm their teachers. And I said, “OK, right, if we want to arm everybody, let’s f****n’ arm everybody. Let’s go for it! Yeah, Second Amendment, kids have the Second Amendment too. Come on! Citizens of the United States, let’s go, b****es!” So, I was trying to take it to an extreme level where people go, “Wow, that is kind of stupid that we’re doing that.”
AM: If you could convince Texans that a gun policy’s stupid, they’ll probably have to give you the Nobel Peace Prize.
CT: [Laughs.] I was in Oklahoma last night, and in Houston, it killed. And, again, it’s not about making them pick a side as much as just going into a conversation. We’re just lost as Americans, man. We’ve lost the ability to have an opposing conversation. Right now, if you don’t believe what I believe, you’re just a douchebag, and we’re not going to talk again. And that’s where our country’s going to come apart.
AM: I had a question about the way you put Voice in My Head out. You were initially just going to do it online, but then you ended up giving it to Comedy Central.
CT: I always say I know why Prince wrote “slave” on his face in the ’90s. One of my best albums, Love is Evol, Paramount owns it, and they’ve sold so many and they were supposed to pay me. And they sent me a breakdown, and there’s shelving fees and advertising. We paid a guy to flip a sign on the street corner, so they owed me no money, they said. It’s insane.
So I decided a couple years ago to start a production company called Combustion Films. We shot Voice in My Head, we shot Angry Pursuit of Happiness, we just shot the video for the song, we’re going to shoot a movie next year. I’d rather fail miserably on my own terms than succeed and have some 25-year-old who’s got an Ivy League degree but who’s never been onstage or written a joke, telling me what to do.
AM: But it’s easier than ever to do that now. You don’t even have to fail on your own terms.
CT: Yeah, so now I did Voice in My Head the way I wanted to with the production budget we had. And then, when it was finished, I talked to my agent. “TJ, give this to Comedy Central and see if they want it.” And they bought it, and they gave me the right price for it. So, of course, man, I’m still a capitalist, for God’s sake.
And they showed what I wanted. They didn’t call and say, “You need to reshoot this and change it.” And I think Angry Pursuit, we’re going to get that sold too.
AM: The kind of TV show you pioneered with Titus—the whole dark humored, almost real life of a comic—that seems to be in vogue now, looking at Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
CT: And people forget about it. You look back now and, you know, Jack Kennedy and Brian Hargrove, and all the people on the show. And you know, I’m not going to go [angry voice], “We did it!” because, you know, other people did stuff too.
But if you look back, I mean, ’97 to ’98, we did a bit on one of the episodes where we had an intervention to get my father to drink again because he’d stopped drinking, and instead of being a nicer guy, he was just more of a laser-focused a**hole [laughs].
So we pitched the network. “We want to have an intervention, like an AA intervention, but get him to drink again,” and the network, at one point, looked at us like, “You can’t…oh, all right,” and now they wouldn’t even blink twice at that. But back then, it was trouble.
AM: But is that good that they wouldn’t look twice at that now?
CT: The one thing I learned from Jack and Brian writing that show was you always have to ground the story in characters and reality, and if you don’t, there’s an emptiness to it.
Now, I’m probably going to piss you off, but I never, never liked Arrested Development. The characters could do what they wanted, when they wanted, they could change their opinion, they could change the way they acted, and you can’t. Like when Stacy Keach walked into the room on Titus, you knew some s*** was going to go down. You knew the character well enough to know when trouble was coming, and he had to stick to his rules. And I hate when people let a sitcom or a movie just go for funny instead of the rules. You have to be funny in the rules of the character. Breaking Bad is a perfect example. Breaking Bad stuck to every one of the rules. They never broke the characters’ rules, and the shows that don’t [stick to the rules]usually don’t last.
What do you think is a really good comedy now?
AM: I think, Community.
AM: I think they do. They’ll stick to a role, but also play around and be experimental. Like the season when everybody thought [Dan] Harmon was going to drop off, so he just went for it because he knew he was going out the door.
CT: Right. Well, I’ve never watched Community because, honestly, Chevy Chase annoys me, so I couldn’t watch. [Laughs.] But, yeah, it stuck to its rules, it seems. But here’s the thing: You can always tell. I always think there are people that get this inside-track thing.
You know, Titus, we were doing really good numbers and had I not had that president tell me to split the characters up and have them cheat on each other, and I told her no, flat out, we’re not doing it. And well, that pretty much ended the show. It’s like the saying goes: Television is just high school with money.
AM: That’s pretty dead-on.
CT: Yeah. It’s true, man, in my case, anyway. But, you know, the shows I want to write, you can be funny enough. But if within funny, you could go somewhere else, like we had a couple thousand letters and emails that say, “Norman Rockwell changed my life,” or “Love is Evol made it so I got my divorce,” “Neverlution made me look at the world differently.”
AM: I was looking at an interview you did recently and you said in a year or so, you would let your kids watch your stand-up.
CT: My daughter’s going to be 14, and any one she wants to watch, I’ll let her watch it. The problem with it is it’s so personal in a lot of stuff, the divorce one and some other stuff. I think she knows me pretty well. I think she’s not going to be surprised by any of it, but she may be surprised by some of the stories about her mom.
Listen, my dad didn’t protect me or shield me from anything. When I was still wearing footie pajamas, there was a movie called Magnum Force. Here’s the horror I had to deal with. I’m a little kid, probably 4 or 5, and my dad takes me to Magnum Force.
Well, in the first 10 minutes, there’s a full-frontal naked woman in there, huge boobs, everything, and I’m a little kid like, “Oh my God, what’s this?” In the middle of that sex scene, some dude comes in, shoots her in the boob and then she falls out the window into a pool and bleeds out. Every horror that you could imagine showing to a child, I got in about 17 seconds of Magnum Force.
My mom was in and out of mental institutions, so one day, we go to a drive-in in California, and she took me to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When they’re taking Murphy in and putting the electrodes to his head, my mother—sitting next to me eating popcorn—starts sobbing. And I go, “What the hell’s going on?” and she goes, “They did that to me. They did that to me repeatedly. I didn’t remember things for four weeks.” And I’m like “What the f***?”
So, my parents didn’t shield me from anything, but it didn’t really hurt me. If anything, nothing scares me. If we shield all these kids, who’s going to run the planet when we go?
AM: Do you think maybe listening to your stand-up will change the perception your kids have of some stuff, like they remember things differently than you, they had different reactions to things?
CT: The only one I worry about, honestly, is Love is Evol because there’s some truths in there about their mom that they may not want to know. But we’ve already had this discussion. My kid came up to me one day, we’re at the house, I’m married to my new wife, she’s phenomenal, my kids love her, but my son was acting really weird toward her for, like, a couple weeks. So one day, I asked, “What’s going on? Why are you mean to Rachel?” And he said, “Because of what she did to Mom.” And I go, “What did she do to Mom?” He goes, “Well, you cheated on Mom with Rachel.”
And I remember thinking, “Oh-kayyy, that didn’t happen.” And I took him upstairs and he was 9 at the time, but I had to sit him down. I go, “Look, you’re 9 years old and I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m going to tell you what really happened. Do you want to know?” And my daughter was there too.
So I said, “So here’s what really happened: Your mother was seeing two other men. I have an email [proving it], if you want to see it, I’ll show it to you. I found it when I was on the road in Dallas. I filed for divorce the next day, and your mother said I beat you. In court. That’s what happened. I didn’t meet Rachel until a month after that.”
And my son starts to sob. He just starts to cry. And I didn’t know. I was like, “Is he crying because he thinks I’m lying to him? Is he crying because his whole world just got blown apart? Is he crying because he can’t trust his mom anymore?” And I asked him. I said, “Why are you crying?” and I said, “Is it because you’ve been lied to?” And he just starts nodding his head. But after that, he was fine, and he was fine with his new stepmom. So, man, I don’t know. Again, my dad never shielded me from everything so, you know, maybe Child Services is going to show up at my house one day. But at least my kids will be able to handle it.
AM: Tell me about Rachel. When did she start doing comedy?
CT: She used to run comedy clubs. She ran five different comedy clubs. And she’d been around comics a long time, and she’d worked with everybody you can list. And then we met, and I’d just finished 5th Annual End of the World Tour, and I’d started writing Love is Evol. She was watching me develop Love is Evol and she kept saying, “Hey try this,” and she’d started giving me jokes, which, as a comic, if someone who’s not a comedian starts giving you jokes to fix your material, it’s kind of offensive.
AM: Exactly. That’s what I was thinking. Was there any awkwardness about it?
CT: Yeah, most of the time, people that aren’t comics give me jokes and they’re not funny. But Rachel would give me jokes and I would go, “Wow, that’s really funny,” and “Who the hell do you think you are giving me that? I’m using it, I just want to know who the hell you think you are doing it.” She got in about six or seven jokes in Love is Evol. I put my own twist on them, but she had the right idea.
One morning, we were at the house, and she woke up and started doing this crazy monologue at the dresser. “You know I’m at war with my pajamas?” And I’m like, “W-what?” And she goes, “I bought these pajamas from Victoria’s Secret, and they’re so soft and nice, and then I wore them for a while and they get in the wash and get these little balls on them, which are hard, and I don’t like the way those feel on my skin. It’s rough and nasty.”
And she’d been with me so long, she wasn’t kidding. She did this OCD monologue about her pajamas and how she felt guilty getting rid of them, and I just said, “Stop. Just stop.” She goes, “What?” and I go, “Just write it down. I’ve never heard something so insane. Write that down. I’m sure it’ll be comedy.” So she started writing this show called Pajamas and Other Things I’m At War With. And she wrote it for about a year. It’s literally about 60, 70 minutes of material.
And then she didn’t have the balls to get onstage with it, and I kept saying, “You need to get onstage,” and she goes, “I will, I will, I will,” and she never would. And I have a big problem with your word. If you say it, you better do it. That’s how I feel. So after about two years of not doing it, I told her, “Look, we’re going to probably break up.” And she goes, “Why?” And I said, “Because you can’t go onstage and do your comedy. You won’t try.”
So I went to [California comedy club] The Ice House. They were having a comedy competition, and I entered her in it. And I came home that night and I told her, “By the way, you’re in a comedy competition at The Ice House.” And here’s when I knew she was a comic, because she got really pissed, and then she didn’t pull out of it. She said, “All right. God damn it,” and she was yelling at me.
Then she came in second.
CT: And I knew she was going to be a good comic because when she wrote this joke, as a comic, I was like, “Wow. I am beyond pissed that you wrote that.” The joke was, “My best friend at school used to cut herself. When she was naked, she looked like a harshly graded test paper.”
She just topped that off in her first year. And I was like, “Wow, that’s a really solid, great joke. It’s dark, it’s edgy, you’ve got to think about it.” And she’s five years in right now. And I’ve been incredibly hard on her. I have to be honest with you. Because you know, I don’t want to be the guy [dismissive voice], “Yeah, Titus’ wife opens for him,” I don’t want that. I never wanted to be that guy, ever.
And I told her early on, “If you suck, you’re not going to do this for long. We’ll still be together, but I’m not going to let you be a comic if you suck.” So I gave her a couple months, and she pulled it together, man.
And the great thing is that she can have a great set, and she would still hate herself. And I thought, “Oh, you’re a comedian. You had a really good show and you got off hating your own guts. I love that. That means you’re going to get better.”
AM: One more question, though. Since you’re doing Pawnography, a pawnshop version of Win Ben Stein’s Money …
CT: Yeah, by the way, that’s how Rick described it! It’s not even a ripoff. Rick goes, “I love Ben Stein’s Money. Can we do something like that?” That’s how the show was pitched! I love it when people get on Twitter and they’re like, “Dude, it’s just a ripoff!” Flat-out, you’re absolutely right, 100 percent.
AM: And you’re in the Jimmy Kimmel role.
CT: [Laughs.] I’m in the Jimmy Kimmel role, yes.
AM: So when do you expect to make your late-night TV host debut?
CT: Four years. It may be on the Internet, but it’ll be four years.