Most TV Single Dad programs portray sweet, loving fathers. Sure, there's the occasional Batman or Dr. Quest exposing their kids to criminals, but on the whole, TV Single Dads are exemplary human beings.
Ken Titus of Fox's Titus tosses that goody-goody TV Single Dad streak into the pop-cultural dumpster. Not since Sanford & Son has such an abysmal father-figure plagued the airwaves with such a display of Bad Dadness.
The story design for this series sounded like a great premise for an "anti-TV Single Dad" show, so I wangled an interview with the creator, producer, and star of Titus - the coincidentally-named Christopher Titus.
Two weeks before the network premiere, I intersected Titus's national publicity tour at the Fairfax, Virginia studios of WJFK, where Christopher was cooling his heels, waiting to appear on the Don & Mike syndicated radio show. At first, I thought I could get the interview accomplished in the radio station's green room, but the monitor speaker from the radio show was blaring and made any attempt at conversation impossible. Christopher had an idea: "Why don't we take a little walk?" A great idea: we strolled out to an apartment complex across the street from the radio station and sat down at a picnic table.
Christopher and his wife had been doing the national media tour for about a week, and the exhaustion seemed to tell. Christopher's wife, Erin, and the Fox publicist relaxed at a nearby picnic table, while Christopher took a big pull on a giant Starbucks coffee. I dropped in my minidisc, turned on the microphone, and ...
This must be old hat for you - it sounds like you've had a really heavy traffic thing - with New York and Philly and -
Christopher - We are going - my voice is actually starting to sound more and more like Harvey Firestein, but we are traveling, going like crazy. We did affiliates all day yesterday. The past three days we've been kickin' butt.
And your premiere is on the twentieth, now?
Christopher - March 20th, 8:30, after That 70's Show and before Ally McBeal, so Fox has really been behind us, giving us a great spot.
Well, it sounds like you're really in the cradle, there. - I mean, it sounds like they've given you a really great spot..
Christopher - Well, they're also businessmen - they wouldn't do it if the show was - - crappy. [laughs]
A general question: I've talked with a lot of people who have portrayed single dads, or who have been in a TV Single Dad family, or who have created them - um, when - when do you think you're going to get to the point in your show, where you don't want to talk about that show anymore - in the future - when you're getting out? You see, one thing that I've noticed when people get involved in a Single Dad show, in the future, they try to think, "well, everybody's going to think of me as the Titus from Titus." Does that ever concern you, when you start thinking about where your show is now, or where you want to be in like, ten years or so?
Christopher - Uh - no, not at all. This - you know, we're telling a story. Basically, it's the real story of my life. My dad became a single dad - my mom was in and out of mental institutions. And in the old days - - as you know, if you've done any research on single fathers, they used to just give the kid to the mother automatically. Now, my mother had a record, and she was in and out of mental institutions, and they'd still give her custody!
Christopher - So, my dad went to court three or four times to get me. And I remember being a little kid, and the judge going, " well, who do you want to live with?" You know, *I'm a little kid!* Isn't there someone - I'm FOUR, - isn't there someone a little more qualified to answer this question? And - - we're just telling the story of my life. So, I think the show's going to go to where - - that continues. We're not going to - - I'm not worried about it. I think the truth - if you keep telling the truth, we're not going to have to worry about, "what's my image? " or, "what's this going to be?" We'll always tell the truth, and if we run out of comedy there, we'll find something else.
How far do you - - is it more of a slapstick comedy, or is it - does it have drama elements?
Christopher - Oh, yeah. We actually set the bar at All in the Family, and when we sat down to write it, - - it was based on a show, a play I did called Norman Rockwell is Bleeding, which I wrote - - and Jack Kenny and Brian Hargrove got together with me and they said, "if we could just get this play on television, we'll have a show." It's about how everybody is dysfunctional - and I *hate* that word, dysfunctional - - everybody's screwed-up life can be very absurd at times, and some people choose to make it weigh them down, and some people choose to laugh about it.
Where did you grow up?
Christopher - Northern California. Northern California, and L.A., actually. I actually was shipped back-and-forth between parents, and then I ran away when I was twelve to live with my mom. At the end of living with my mom, after two years, we were living in a garage, and I was fourteen, and it was like this - -[laughs] - - it's hard to bring a date home to a garage. You know, you don't have a key, you have a door opener / clicker. Vhssszzzz!
Now, when you first got the show together - do you remember where you were when you first got - the word from Fox that "it's a go" - that you were going to have a series?
Christopher - Um - I remember where I was when we got the pilot approved. I was at Fox - I was on the Fox lot, actually, because we had a little trailer on the lot that they gave us at Fox - a trailer to write in. No - I was at Jack's house! When we got the show, when they told me it was going on the air, I was at my house with my wife and I just ran around the house whooping. You know, after sixteen years of doing stand-up, finally, it's everything you want. And now, I had to actually invent new *dreams, * because everything had been answered. You know, "Here you go, here's your dream - now what?" Oh! [laughs]
When you're in a situation where your name is a show, do you start thinking that- you know, you're one of those One-Named People? Now, you're Madonna, you're Cher, you're - -
Christopher - [laughs] I'm going to actually adopt - a *period* - I think. A symbol - - go all the way. I'm just a period, just a little dot. You know, "Appearing Tonight: ·" That'd be cool! [laughs] Um, I don't think of it that way. The reason we - I didn't want to name it after me. I always thought that was kinda pretentious and obnoxious. But somebody pointed out, they said, "you have a cool name, why do you want to NOT name it after you?" I designed the logo, the flame logo for the show - - and then, I thought, "okay, that's cool." You know, I own a hot-rod shop on the show. Also, I knew - I had a deal two years ago with Fox, and I knew that, no matter what happens, if the show fails, I get the *blame,* even if I didn't have anything to do with it. So this time, I got really involved in the show, because if I get the blame this time, I want to deserve it. And no matter what happens, even if I didn't write it and it was successful, I'd get the credit. So, I should have to work for that, too.
Do you see any downside of being THE creator, THE producer, THE writer, THE star?
Christopher - [Laughs] You know what the only downside really is? It's that the other people, the other 150 people that work on the show don't get credit. All of a sudden, it becomes like I'm a one-man band, and that's not the case. I have Jack Kenny, and Brian Hargrove, and Fay Oshima, who used to work on Caroline in the City, as our line producer. And I have this crew I call "Delta Force" that - we shoot our show like a play every week. So, we have 150 people that have to kick ass 24 hours a day for a week, and then start again on Monday. Whereas, like, a reparatory company would take four weeks of rehearsal, we do a play in a week.
You were talking earlier about David Spade, and people like Louie Anderson - - use their relationship with their father as creating a show, creating a series, creating acts. When you invest this part of your life that was your stand-up act - - - now, it's - you're burning it up on your TV show. I mean it's - - a lot of people will see it, but -- does it worry you? The idea that you'll have to go back to the well and get new stuff now?
Christopher - No, it's makes me excited, because - - I already know I have an hour and twenty minutes that just kicks - - - that really kicks hard on stand-up. And what I'd like to do is, I'm going to - - if the show goes well, I'd like to burn it on HBO as a one-man show, do an hour of it, and then burn it and get rid of it. Because THAT will force me to write something else. You know, I have another show called Tabloid Reality in the works, about a comic that kills a psychiatrist and then - it turns into, you know, like the O. J. Simpson chase. And I actually get killed. I actually hold the audience hostage for the last ten minutes of the play.
How long have you doing your act? I was reading in your bio that you used to have to go in underage and sneak in the door...
Christopher - Yeah, when I started in comedy when I was 18 and I used to have to wait outside with the door cracked. And they'd be like, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Christopher Titus!" and I'd run on the stage and do my little skit and then - "Goodnight!" and I'd run back out. Then, hopefully, I'd be waiting outside the door. And then, hopefully, the guy would pay me. [laughs]
How old are you now?
Christopher - Uh, I'm not 35.
You're not 35? I'm coming up on 40. It gets shorter every year.
Christopher - [laughs]
Do you have any kids yourself?
Christopher- Don't have any kids yet. We actually took a friend of mine's kid in for - - a four-month-old baby - for four days. Because I was thinking - because I was ready?
Christopher - And we took the kid in for four days, and I just said, "I'm NOT ready!" And my wife said - my wife's family was more screwed-up than mine, and her mom had eight kids, and we're sitting there on Sunday night after dealing with this kid for three days, and my wife goes, "I know why my mom drank..." [laughs]
The relationship with - that you had with your father - - does it scare you about being a father? Does that have any - -
Christopher - Actually, you know, it's like this: my dad's been divorced five times and -- well, divorced five times and on his sixth wife - - I've been married nine years to one woman. So, actually, in a way, I've always looked at it as "here's what NOT to do." Some people look at their life as, "yeah, I'm gonna BE this way because my DAD is this way." You know, "I'm just following in his footsteps." Well, I chose to just notice his footsteps and take another path.
Your dad - your Stacy Keach TV Dad - - -
Christopher - Yes - - - brilliant!
Brilliant, yes! The Brilliant Stacy Keach - - -
Christopher - There you go!
Yes - -
Christopher - He's actually legally changed his name to that: The Brilliant Stacy Keach.
Where you place him in the universe of TV Single Dads - - is he - - is he a worse dad than Jonny Quest's dad? You know, Jonny Quest's dad used to take him out in the swamp and they'd be shot at and stuff like that. I mean, does he put his kid in danger a lot?
Christopher - You know, Stacy - - it's funny, we've tried to really - - - people have asked me, "how do you nail down - - how do you deal with a guy that's so mean to you, if that really happened to you?" Stacy Keach plays - - we designed my father as ACTUALLY my father: a man who will let you put a penny in a light socket. And the reason he gets away with it is because he's trying to teach. Now, his method may be really in question - - -in fact, his message - maybe the way he's teaching may be illegal in 35 states - but he's always trying to teach, and I think that's what pulls it off. If Stacy played Dad just plain mean - it's not funny. And there's been a couple times in rehearsals - - 'cause we have to walk that edge - - and if Stacy goes one step - he's such a brilliant actor - - if he goes one half-a-step the wrong way, it'll kill the funny, because it crosses that line to MEAN. But he never does. There's one or two times in rehearsal we did it, when we all looked at each other, like, "oh, wow - that was too tough." But by the end of the week, Stacy has it nailed, and pulls it off. I can't believe what he gets away with!
On the question of improv vs. writing the script - how much improv do you do when you're blocking it out?
Christopher - Well, like my stand-up, I always believe that the writing is the first piece. You have to work really hard on the writing. We have some great writers - myself, Jack, and Brian are in there, and we work hard to make the writing strong. If you write well, you don't have to improv; you nail it down. What'll happen is: we film - - most TV shows, it'll take four hours to film a show. We take two. We film it twice in actually an hour and forty minutes. And the second pass we make of the show, because we run it all the way through, twice - - second pass, we'll take a half-hour break between passes, and we'll come up with new jokes if something didn't work. But the improv? During rehearsal - - that happens during the week.
Have you worked on any sitcoms before?
Christopher - I was on Damon. I learned a lot. I did one episode of Damon - actually got all the way to - Damon had another sitcom, Damon Wayans, before he did the cop show, and it got cancelled. I was up - it got down to the final two guys at the network, and the show got pulled. They cancelled the whole project the day before I went in to audition for him the final time. And then, Damon felt bad, so when he got the cop show, he called me in and asked me to come in and do an episode with him . And he let me write - - it was really not really good. He said, "This was NOT funny," and he said, "If you have any ideas, Titus, just tell them to me." So, at lunch, I said, "Here's a couple of ideas I have." And he said, "Those are great!" and I said, "No, really - you don't have to be nice to me." So he goes, "I'm NOT - those ARE funny!" So, we rehearse it as-written for the network. It sucked. It really - you know, he and I were really both desperately searching for FUNNY. He comes up to me and he goes, "I want you to write your ideas on the back of my script." So I came in the next day, and the scene was TOTALLY changed to what I had suggested to him. Except for MY lines, which were like, "put that down!" and "Stop that!" - - "Don't do that!" And I'm like, "Oh God - I've pissed someone off ! I have stepped on toes! " I went to Damon and I said, "Damon, look, you didn't have to change this because I have nothing to say now." And he says, "No, I just told them to leave it like that because I said you'd write your own stuff." And he let me write my own stuff. I wrote this thing that I thought was really funny, and I said, "Do you want this?" And he said - because I said, "It's your show, and I don't want to take any funny away," and he looked at me - - and this is what I learned about my sitcom and ego: he looked at me and he said, "You BE FUNNY. I'll get MINE. " And that sentence has stayed with me - - like word for exact word. We had an episode where we were writing something funny, and I came up with this funny line. And Jim Hope, one of the writers, goes, "Yeah, you'll be funny with that!" So I say, "No, give it to Zach," and he goes, " Why would you do that? You're the star of the show! How come you'd do that?" I said, "Because Zach will pull that line off - it'll be hilarious." And I just thought in my head, I'll GET mine. I'm not worried about being funny: let's just make the SHOW funny. People don't go, "Did you see that guy on that show last night?" They go, "Did you see that guy on Titus?" [laughs] So, whoever's funny - - if everybody's funny, then the show's funny, and then, you know, I get all the credit anyways. [laughs]
The, um - - - I've forgotten my question...
Christopher - It's okay - I will babble, so you can actually stop me.[laughs]
It's okay, you can ask your own questions, because I'm sure you've been through this five hundred times or more, with people asking you the same questions... When you were growing up, being passed back-and-forth between Mom and Dad - - what Single Dads did you watch on TV?
Christopher - Oh, I remember The Courtship of Eddie's Father! Two years ago, the idea we pitched out was - - I was playing in a new type of Courtship of Eddie's Father, called Thrill Ride, and I owned a hot-rod shop. You know, my dad actually kidnapped me, my father actually kidnapped me from Detroit. My mom had sent me to my great-grandparents to live, and was actually using the child-support money to support herself - - but she had told my great-grandparents that she wasn't getting any money from my dad. So my grandparents HATED my father. So he found out about six months to eight months after I was living there where I was. He flew out to Detroit without telling anybody. And he's sitting on the plane, talking to this guy next to him, and he's going, "Yeah, I'm gonna go steal my kid," and "I'm gonna go kidnap my kid." So, the guy listens to his whole story, and my dad says, "I'm sorry, I've been babbling. What do you do?" and the guy goes, "I'm the Detroit Metro District Attorney!" And my dad just *soiled* the airline seat. But the GUY had just gotten a divorce and -- whatever stories people have about that - - he was REAL bitter. So, he told my dad how to take me, so that they couldn't get me back!
Christopher - So, he lays it out for my dad on how to steal me! My dad goes to my grandparents' house, and my grandfather got in his face and said, "You know, you haven't supported this kid - - you should never get to see him." And my dad - my dad tells me to this day, "I don't know why I picked it up, but I grabbed two packs of check stubs, cancelled checks, and I showed them to your grandfather." My grandfather started crying, because he thought - - he hated my dad for so long because of what my mom had said.
Christopher - You know, it's funny: the stories that happen between two people breaking up, and the kid has to pay a big price a lot of times.
How does your dad feel about the show?
Christopher - [laughs] I had to buy him a car! He's a little - there's times when he'll go - - because he went through a period years ago where - - this show starts about nine years ago. That's where we started it. And we're going continue up to the present, probably. Now that I'm well-adjusted, we'll probably run out of funny, at that point! But, he gets a little upset at times. You know, he's - - - kind of a drinker - - he's a hard-core MAN on this show, and that's who he WAS. But I've actually ended up calling my brother, or calling ex-stepwives - and go, "Did this really happen?" And the problem with my brother - - you know, my dad will go, "That never happened!" He'd go, "That never happened! I don't remember THAT!" and I'd go, "Well you don't remember that because you were hammered!" So, I'll call my brother and go, " Dave, did this happen?" and Dave will say, "Yeah, that happened! " and then he'll give me six MORE things that happened. My brother has this memory - - he hasn't dealt with some of the issues yet.
So, your brother could wind up being an Associate Writer !
Christopher - [laughs] Yeah! My brother: Contributing Editor !
Wow ! Um, when you're doing a sitcom, and you're in front of an audience today: how does it compare to just your normal stand-up? You know, like when you're out doing your act? Do you still have the same stress level, or is it up a notch, because you know that, behind those people is the audience watching and focusing?
Christopher - I actually think it's LESS, because, you know what? In front of a live audience, with the cameras running, we can say, "Cut!" When I'm in a comedy club, and I'm doing an hour in front of a group of people, I can't say, "Cut! Let me do that again!" I can't do that. I have to keep going. And if I screw up, I have to keep going. Um, I've been doing it so long - - I just get on the ride. It's just fun! It's just a wave.
Is there - are there any catchphrases from your show?
Christopher - "Quit Being a Wussy." We had -oh yeah, we actually had t-shirts made up that say "Titus" on the front, and on the back, it looks like someone taped a sign on the back that says, "Wussy" -- because my dad always said, the way to get through life, "Quit being a wussy! " That was his solution to everything. You'll see it in the pilot: "Quit Being a Wussy."
That could be the catchphrase of the next century.
Christopher - I hope not, I hate catchphrases! [laughs] Yeah, the "Where's the Beef?" of the new millenium.
Casting Stacy Keach - - the Brilliant Stacy Keach - -
Christopher - Thank you! [laughs]
How did that come about?
Christopher - Oddly enough, people ask that question a lot. Um, we read a LOT of people for Dad's role. We knew we needed a badass actor, because, to pull off what he has to pull off, which is pretty much to be a hell-on-wheels prick AND still be lovable - and how do you do that? So, we saw some great actors. Lee Majors came in and read, and oddly enough, he was REALLY good. He was REALLY good. But Stacy came in and we read him, and me, Jack, and Brian were in on all the casting sessions and I was reading with Stacy - - and Stacy finishes the audition, and I just looked at him - - and I was sitting there and I didn't say anything. Jack and Brian go, "Thank you, Mister Keach," and Stacy leaves and they go, "What did you think, Titus?" And I go, "He SCARES the sht out of me! " And they go, "Then, that's HIM !" Because they were laughing! I was just - I had a CHILL. There was one point in the scene where we were reading where I had a chill go through me. Because he was ON me! He treats me like his SON. He's such - he's such a great man and a great actor. You know, it's like having Ben Kenobi on the set all the time.
The way that your set is set up - at least from what I've seen in the stills - it seems like an All in the Family situation, where you've got the "Big Chair" - is that his "throne?"
Christopher - You know, here's the thing: we don't cut away in the present time, because we do cutaways to the neutral space, where we do flashbacks. When we do a set - let's say we start a show: we keep on that set the whole show. So, Dad's house will be a set one week. My hot-rod shop will be a set one week. A hospital will be a set one week. We don't - we're not like these shows - - I think it's really harder to write a play in one set, but usually, because it IS harder, you'll usually get better quality. All in the Family is a great example. You watch that show, and you'll get lost in the story - - and all of a sudden you'll realize, "wow - they haven't cut away for TEN minutes. This scene has been going on for TEN minutes." They haven't cut away to the bank, they didn't cut to the gas station, they didn't cut to someone else's apartment. And because it's done like that, we actually have to write better. Um, so every week, it'll be a different set, and we'll stay on that set. Because that's how LIFE happens. You don't go - you know, you don't spend three minutes in one place, and then go to another place for eight minutes. You spend - - half-an-hour in a place, an hour in a place - - and that's how we're going to do it.
-- only when you're promoting a show..
Christopher - Exactly! [laughs] Well, eight minutes here, eight minutes there!
When you work on the show now, and you know, it's a job and you're doing things right now - - - do you ever, like, turn on Nick at Nite, or TV Land or one of those things and think to yourself, "I'm going to be on here in thirty years?" People are going to look at this and say, "Gee, there's Titus when he was only 35 !" Does that ever go through your mind?
Christopher - Well, that's where we set the bar. We set the bar at Classic Television. Jack and Brian HATE when I say that, but you've got to set the bar somewhere and you don't want to set the bar low. We may never reach Classic Television, but if we set the bar there, we'll get a lot higher than we thought we could have. I think a lot of TV writers right now - - yeah, that would be my goal: to be on - to work hard enough to get on Nick at Nite - to actually have a show that actually makes people - that is still viable twenty years from now. That'd be -- geez, that'd be my dream.
To, have Christopher Titus, at age 75, coming up and going...
Christopher - [knocking on the picnic table] Knocking on wood! [in old man's voice] "I remember way back, when Jack and Brian and I sat down to write about my father, ..... hmm, Stacy died about four years in, and we had to re-animate him for the last three seasons..." [laughs]
I'll look forward to that! Okay, just two more questions. When Marriedwith Children was originally coming out, they were going to call it Not the Cosby Show, because it was up against The Cosby Show. Besides Titus, which was the name you settled on, what were some other ones that you wrote up on the board and said, "Nahh."?
Christopher - It was funny - they *didn't* - - when the studio came to me, when Fox came to me, they said that, "We want to call it Titus." They wanted it to be a star-driven vehicle, they wanted it to be a guy that could carry a show and they thought it was me! And, God, I hope I don't let them down! I'm working my ass off to not let them down!
There's a phrase called "Jumping the Shark" - - it's like when Jeannie got married on I Dream of Jeannie, or when Pam had the dream in Dallas - - the show went [snap] like *that* and it was over. What do you want to avoid at all costs on your show? What do you never want to happen? You never want your character to get married? You never want your character to - -
Christopher - We - what I never want to happen is to never - - not be funny. I mean, if the show's always funny and always honest - the weird thing about our show is because the show's all *reactive*, if you watch. It's the same with All in the Family - and I didn't realize this until, like, a week ago, after I watched all the episodes in sequence to make editing notes. I went - "wow!" The funny of our show comes from reactions - - I mean, someone does something stupid, and everyone *reacts* to it. It's not like a bunch of people at a magazine - - somebody walks in and goes, "Hey, nice shirt, idiot!" - - It's actually a real - - you know, people's emotions spin things off. I just never want the show to be *bad* - and I know that's a vague thing to say. But every time we do a sitcom joke, it's *glaring* - and it just leaps out at us, and we end up cutting it. You know, we've written hilarious stuff that, as a joke, works great - - but when you put it in the context of the show - it just - you go, "Euuw - this is a sitcom!" and we want to avoid that at all costs. I just never want to not be funny.
Christopher recorded a great site ID (Click here for a listen)
On the way back to the radio station, I talked to Christopher a little more about his sudden change in fame. He laughed and talked about his status change being apparent in his mode of travel. "Two years ago, I was getting picked up at the airport to do stand-up by a guy in a Chevette with a missing front seat. Today, they have me in a limo - a LIMO! - just to get around DC!" He laughed - "Moving up in the world, " he said.
Hopefully, Christopher will get a limo for his appearance on Nick at Nite in 2030.
I remembered reading an article about Chevy Chase, recalling the first time he realized he was famous. Chevy said he commuting to work by bus. He looked up from his newspaper, and noticed that everyone on the bus was staring at him. He became so unnerved, he abandoned the bus and walked to his office. I guess Christopher Titus is going to be experiencing a similar feeling shortly.