The three best things about Chris Titus are 1) he soups up hot rods, 2) he calls everyone by his last name and 3) he tells the truth.
As if the first two wouldn't be enough to make the tall, blond star of his own show stand out in Hollywood, that last one tips the scales. Titus realized after a decade of "How's everyone doing out there?" stand-up that he had something to say and that he'd have to say it honestly. The resulting one-man show lit a fire under Los Angeles' sleepy theater scene, and soon Titus had his own eponymous sitcom. A comedian getting a TV show based on persona is not a new idea. But the surprise came when "Titus," which is grating and raw, turned into a hit for Fox TV.
The show's got an intrusive laugh track, and the jumping back to stylized clips from Titus' one-man show can be distracting. But there's plenty to like here: fun writing ("bag of ass cracks" is one brotherly insult), a brilliant Stacy Keach (as the drunken father figure he perfected in "Fat City" and a dozen times since) and the unrelenting, decidedly nonheartwarming picture of dysfunctional family life.
We reached Titus in New Orleans, where he was drumming up support for the show by entertaining Fox affiliates.
Chris Titus: Kurson! Let's go!
I can't call anyone who hasn't beaten me up yet by his last name. What'd you make for your first gig as a comedian?
My first paid gig, I got $50 for eight shows -- at the Last Laugh in San Jose, now defunct. They'd use their open-mike guys for five minutes. I was the pre-opening act. I had to introduce everybody, and you'd be there from "Hello, everyone!" to "Thanks, that's our show."
I got moved up to $150 a show. I was that guy "Hey, you ever notice when you go to the store and buy something ..." I was growing this tumor on my soul. I'd written this bit about my mom in a mental hospital. My agent, Bruce, said, "What are you doing? You're talking about it like Tim Allen, 'Anyone got a mother in a mental hospital?'" So I wrote comedy about our desire to kill and stuff like that. I wrote it to show Bruce it wouldn't work. But the audience loved it. The audience knows when you're lying.
But you must be making plenty with your show.
People think you make a lot, but we've only done nine shows. I was just barely breaking into six figures in stand-up. Last year, with the show, I might have done three or four times that. I still live in a tract house in Canoga Park [Calif.], but now I have automatic sprinklers.
Is your real family screwed up enough to produce material for a long-running show?
I have four to five years of episodes. And we hired a very screwed-up writing staff.
Do you invest your own money?
I have some great friends in Chicago; they take care of it. I'd buy hot rod after hot rod after hot rod. My wife makes sure that if everything goes to crap I won't be back to eight shows for $50.
Do you feel like you've "made it"?
This sounds so clichid, but if you just commit to excellence all the time, money will follow. For me, success came from buying my dad a car. I think there are milestones. A million would be a milestone. Five million. Ten starts to be a private jet. It said in Rolling Stone that Bill Gates' partner [Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen] is worth $33 billion. This is not a race you can win. The question is, What are they going to say about you in 20 years?
But some stocks have caught your eye, right?
I've made an effort to look for companies that are 10-year stocks. Global Crossing, for example [NASDAQ: GBLX]. I bought at 44 and it dropped to 28; they're not quite hooked up yet, but they will be. [Note: A few weeks after this interview was conducted, Citizens Communications [NYSE: CZN] paid $3.65 billion for Global's local phone business, which sent Global's price up to the mid-30s.] There are tech-stock values now. I've started following it, but I don't have time to hit it every day and say, "Oh my, I lost 8 bucks."
Hack question: Which comedians do you most admire?
Richard Pryor, because he translated to film well and always told the truth. Chris Rock gives you that crystal-clear uncomfortableness. That's what we are supposed to do. Mort Sahl. Bill Hicks. I wasn't a fan until he got to his heroin years. You watch Andy Kindler and you're wiping tears from your eyes. Andy does five minutes on table tent appetizers. At the end of it, I'm laughing so hard and people are like, "Why is he talking about that?" It's enough that it's funny.
Your show's doing well and everyone at Fox seems surprised.
We had a 20 share for 18-to-34s. It scares me. And I'm not a parking space executive producer. I'm there all the time. I act from 8 to 2, and from 2 to 10, I'm in the writers room. No one had any hopes -- they moved the pilot to the second episode because the test group said it wouldn't play. Well, my testing group kicks their testing group's ass. They were scared of the show. My testing group is 300 people a night for 16 years, six nights a week, two shows Friday and Saturday.
Sandy Grushow was president of 20th Century Fox, which produces our show. Then he was made president of the network, so it's like the dad making his son the Little League pitcher. People were like, "This will fail for the same reason 'Action' didn't hit. This is gonna die in three." I think television kisses its own ass a lot. People in this biz can see a hit.
The one thing I'm good at is being honest -- if I suck, I know I suck. You have that big a snowball of money rolling down a hill, it's hard to tell when you suck.
Do you have other projects brewing?
I had a meeting with a movie studio. I pitched three movies and there's one they want to see rewritten.
What are you doing in Louisiana?
I'm in New Orleans; I did a song, a slow blues. I'm going to all the affiliates in the top 50, to get them on my side. I'll do anything. Hump the floor. I've seen a lot of comics get their show on the air and then stop doing the promotion. Andy Kindler would be great in a show. There are certain guys who should have shows. Television will take a comic who has a point of view and put him in an isolation booth, let writers write the whole thing and then wonder why it doesn't feel right.
For this show, we hired two excellent writers -- Jack Kenny and Brian Hargrove. They've got 120 episodes of television under their belts. I'll throw out an idea and they'll fight me, but they know the structure, and I've never been so creatively hard-wired to two people in my life.
You seem to have a core of people who've stuck together for a while.
Guys who get some fame and cut their wife loose, fire their agent ... Why would I cut these people loose now? It cracks me up to see some comics get some fame. My agent Bruce from Omnipop would be there with a notepad at some open-mike night on a Tuesday, and say, "Do this, don't do that." Everyone wants to think it's all them. We're the most egomaniacal guys -- we write, perform, etc. After my career started happening, guys would approach me. Some guy from ICM walked over and gave me his card. I walked over to Bruce and gave him the card to give back to the ICM guy. Why would you cut them loose for [Michael] Ovitz, or these predators who weren't there when you needed them?
Do you get paid for these appearances at the affiliates?
I don't get paid for the appearances, but they fly me first class; I've got a five-room suite and I'm picked up in limos.
How do development deals work?
Some exec sees you in a comedy club, says, "Wow, you're great, we're gonna develop a show around you." Some people get like $750,000. My first deal was somewhere around $100,000. You can go through that really fast -- 16 years of comedy club debt. The idea is that if you do well, you'll be recognized. Fox told me this is a small deal, but "in success, Titus, we'll make this right." I said fine. We did the pilot, got picked up, people going nuts for it. We did a 20 share, an 18, a 19, and they weren't rushing to make it right.
If it stayed that way, I wouldn't have done any promo. I can always go back and do comedy. Money is a current to me; it's not an end. If I'm not being paid what I'm worth, fuck it, I'll walk away. Would I have wanted to? No. But I would. We took the last of our savings and did "Norman Rockwell" in a theater that we rented; we gave away tickets. My wife is amazing. Luckily, 20th Century Fox stood up to their word; they said, "We did say that," and I said all I want is a fair development deal.
Have you had some interesting jobs?
I was head grill man at a McDonald's, then gas pump guy. I was Darth Vader for kids parties at ice-cream parlors. They'd spent, like, $80 for the helmet but built the chest guard out of, like, blender parts. Darth Vader scares the crap out of kids -- 17 kids scream, and there's always one kid hitting you on the head screaming, "You're not Darth Vader!"
Here's a cool story.
CP Shades -- they make cool clothing. I became warehouse supervisor. All of a sudden, I start getting comedy gigs. I come back from Caesars in Tahoe. My boss says, "I have to fire you." "No, no, no, I need this job." "Why don't you let me fire you -- then you'll get six months' pay and can make the transition to professional comedian." Later, I tried to track him down to thank him. David, he owned CP Shades.