Comedian Christopher Titus on Dana Carvey, Sarah Palin and Killer Klowns
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We recently had a chance to chat with Titus at length about his early career, his comedy tutelage under Dana Carvey and his highly publicized run-in with Sarah Palin fans.
Westword: Is it true you were in Killer Klowns From Outer Space?
Christopher Titus: Yes. It was my first acting job ever. Talk about screwing up. They asked me to drive into the scene in this jeep. I've got another actor in the car--this girl that's supposed play my girlfriend. I'd never even been on a set before. Nervous as hell. I don't know what I'm doing. I drive on the scene and they say, "Okay, you need to stand on the jeep. Throw a beer to this guy. Then you say your line. Then you look up, say something, and get back in the jeep." So I do that but I'm kind of nervous so when I pull up, I don't put on the emergency break and we're on this cliff in Santa Cruz.
The jeep starts rolling. They had this fence on the edge of the cliff but I didn't realize it was prop fence. So the car hits the fence and the fence bows out about three feet. It was like this balsa wood prop fence. I hear the director go "Cut!" And these teamsters run in and throw me out of the car, put on the emergency break and throw the girl out of the car and everyone is [panting with the panic]. Basically that was my first ever take. I'd almost driven a $14,000 car and another actor off a cliff. I should have quit acting then. That's the Lord going, "Hey, dude, you don't need to do this." But I don't listen well.
How did you even get that part?
I had an agent in San Francisco at the time and they shot it up there in Santa Cruz. It was just a cattle call and I just went in. I kind of had some problems getting parts. Just like every other actor, you think everybody hates you. I went in and it was the first time I really let go in an audition. I just did what I wanted and really didn't give a flying fuck what they wanted me to do. It's funny because I thought it was the best audition I ever did. I walked out and called my agent and said, "I bet you I got this." I didn't hear anything for two weeks and then two weeks later I get a call, "Hey, they've been trying to get a hold of you and a hold of your agent. But you've got the part."
You fell into a bonfire when you were young?
Yeah, I tell the whole story in Norman Rockwell is Bleeding. I got drunk with some friends on the last night of junior year. In the joke I do, I say I was the guy whose friends would give him extra alcohol just to see what he was going to change into. I fell into the bonfire. I was such an outcast my senior year because of that too: "Don't go hang out with Titus, he's a psycho."
You turned your life around after that, right?
I kind of went crazy the other way. I went through this weird phase of...The weirdest thing is when they were cleaning my hands, I literally heard this voice in my head say, "You have to change your life." So I stopped drinking, stopped doing any drugs and I started reading the Bible every night. I went through it twice over a year and a half. I realized that the Bible basically breaks down to, "Hey, don't be a dick." Okay, got it.
I'm not so super psycho-religious at all but that's what I got out of it. I didn't even have another glass of wine at all until I was forty. Then I told my girlfriend at the time, "I don't drink." She asks, "Why?" I told her, "I fell into a bonfire when I was sixteen." "How old are you now? So you maybe are different now." Then it was fine. So I grew up.
What productive things did you decide to do with your life after your post-bonfire epiphany?
I decided to be a stand-up comedian that day. I decided as the doctor was scraping the sand out of my hands because my palms had peeled off. I decided it's a very short life and at any moment it can go away so I decided to do comedy. Now, I decided to do comedy but I didn't do my first stand-up set ever until the senior follies where everyone did a little bit of a show. I did ten minutes of stand-up about the school. It went great, phenomenal.
When I got out of school I started going to open mics. I think I was nineteen. I would drive forty-five minutes to San Francisco and do five minutes on stage and turn around and go home and go to work the next day. It was a nightmare. After a year of that, I decided to move to San Francisco. Then I just started going all the time. It was bad, dude. It was the time before cell phones and you had to pay for long distance. I used to have seven hundred fifty dollar phone bills when I was only making four hundred bucks a month. It was bad.
Why did you want to be a stand-up comedian instead of some other kind of performer like a musician?
Since I was five years old, I wanted to do it. It wasn't like it hit me that one day. My mom, who was mentally ill, used to let me listen Bill Cosby records when I was going to sleep. I'm a little kid and I listened to Bill Cosby every night. I remember when we were staying in this crappy apartment in North Hollywood. We were on the bottom floor and I was in my little bedroom listening to Bill Cosby's My Brother Russell Whom I Slept With. I had this epiphany as a five-year-old, "Wow, this guy's job is to get into a room and make people laugh! How great is that?" I remember laying in bed and saying, "When I'm big, I'm going to be a comedian."
No one helps you with that, by the way. If you say, "I want to be a doctor," they say, "Okay, we'll help you." But when you say, "I want to be a comedian," they say, "Shut up!"
You likely found ways to stay sane in crazy situations across your whole life. What helped you to maintain all that time?
Weirdly enough, the guy who I make the most fun is my dad. You have to imagine my dad. My dad was this dude who got divorced six times. Partied his ass off. Never missed a child support payment, never missed a bill. My dad had like a 900 credit score. But he was really hard on me growing up. But whenever my mom was crazy or we would go visit my mom in the mental hospital after they were divorced--I remember my dad, no matter how dark and weird the situation was, he was always cracking jokes about it. To the point where some people would be, "Kenny, stop it." And all remember is him being funny. And he was always funny in the darkest situations.
So for whatever reason, I developed my humor based on the gallows humor my dad had. He was always in a court battle over divorce or one of his kids so he kept it funny. So that's where I got the ability to find funny in ugly.
It would seem that coping with things that way also gives you a strong sense of yourself.
Yeah. You know what? Living the life I've lived, nobody can fuck with me. Literally, you can't really come up to me and talk shit because I'll laugh in your face and then rip on you. My feelings will be hurt just later inside but I'll destroy you before you walk away. Do you know what I get rattled by? People driving stupidly in traffic but nothing else. I could be sitting on my balcony, watch a bomb fall on Van Nuys and I'd be like, "Alright guys, pack your suitcases. We need to get some food and water." I'm like that guy. I don't even get rattled by it. It just happens because crappy stuff happens. But in traffic I'll flip out on somebody. It's weird.
You briefly went through therapy at one point in your life?
I did. I went for three or four sessions. My therapist was a guy named Jerry Oziel. He was actually treating the Menendez brothers. He was the one that got them busted. When there's a doctor-patient relationship you can't tell [things the patient tells you in confidence when you're the doctor]. He had two mistresses and he had told his mistresses that they had killed their parents. And he told his mistresses that if they told anybody, that the Menendez boys were going to kill them. This guy was my touchstone.
I would tell him this horrible story from my life and he would go, "Well, what do you think about that?" I remember thinking, "I'm paying you a hundred fifty bucks an hour to tell me what you think about it. You tell me. I think I want to blow my brains out. I think I want to go into a shopping center with a rifle. I think I'm wrong." He was just a douche.
The big change I really had was I did a thing called The Landmark Forum. It used to be est a long time ago. It was a three day class and it changed my perception of the world is. It changed everything, it was, "Okay I got it now." That's the day I decided to get a TV show, that's when I changed my act to what I talk about now. That's made all the difference.
est was that thing Werner Erhard started?
Werner left the organization and these other guys bought it and they've kept improving it. There's no more seven day class where you can't pee. It got me through my divorce. It's the greatest class I've ever taken. Whenever I want to go back, I pay for a class and sit down for three days and I'm through it. It gives you a way to look at things. It makes you realize A, you're not special. And then you realize that when something's not working in your life, there's no excuse for it except for you. Whatever doesn't work in your life, whether it's relationships, your job or anything else, the one person that's a constant throughout that is you. They kind of point out that if all these things are going wrong, it's no one else's fault. The one ingredient that's the same in all these problems is you, so what are you doing to make that happen?
They let me speak at a lot of their events because without them, I never would have come up with Titus, never would have written it. My family was my family. My mom was mentally ill and my dad was kind of a raging alcoholic, smoker, party guy and also incredibly responsible financially but still out of his mind. I used to think my mom's craziness [meant] my mom hated me. Well the Forum teaches you you can pick your meaning. None of it's the truth anyway. My mom didn't hate me. My mom was just crazy. That's it. Once I got that my mom was just crazy and it wasn't anybody's fault, I could love my mom again even though she was already dead.
The Forum clears everything in your life to where you can create from a place of how great you can be as opposed to all the bullshit you've dealt with all your life. Like all of those stories you build up about yourself. I'm this, I'm that. Or someone says, "Wow you're kind of sensitive." Your parents tell you your sensitive so the rest of your life you're sensitive. No you're not. Someone told you that so you get to make up your own life. If I could tell you, "Anything you want you can have." You get to make it up. None of it's past based. None of it's anything anyone told you. You get to make it up right now. And you can have anything you want.
I was a D/F student. Barely got out of high school. No college. I took The Forum in '95, I took the advanced course the same year. By 1998 I had a deal with Fox and by 1999 I had my own television show on the air that I wrote, started and created and it was on prime time. Then I got a Writers' Guild nomination for a script I wrote and I don't have any college.
You probably occasionally get a heckler, how do you deal with them?
I'm brutal. I give no quarter. My girlfriend does comedy too and she's always stunned [by how I handle it] but she does it now too. Here's what I do, if you heckle me -- and by the way this is not a challenge to anybody -- here's what happens if you heckle. I talk about it in the new show. The problem is that I hear them in line and I have to laugh because every comedian that's on that stage has fifty things in his head that he's used a thousand times that whatever you say, he's going to say one of those things and they're guaranteed laughs. The audience is going to hate you. Then you're going to say it again and he'll say something else and then they'll hate you again. Then you'll say something else and the comedian's going slam you again and then your girlfriend's not going to sleep with you tonight. That's what's gonna happen.
There's a bunch of different hecklers. Now it's weird because I have fans. So sometimes they're just, "We love you dude!" And they're screwing the show up but they're doing it in a positive way. That's the hard one to deal with because I have to find a way to make fun of them and acknowledge that they like me. It's really weird.
The ones I like to deal with are when someone's drunk and they're being a prick and they're just like, "Dude, f-you!" That guy? I will go after and trash him. I'll trash his family. I'll go after what he's wearing. I'll talk about his job and I won't stop and say, "You want more? Say something else. Go ahead." What that does is that if one guy heckles and I go after him and nail him to the point where he puts up his hands and goes, "Okay I'm done." No one else heckles the whole show. Everyone else is, "Damn, I'm not saying anything." So if I get a heckler early on, I make an example out of him so no one else heckles.
They threw this girl out one time because I got so harsh on her that she stood up and started screaming and flipping me off. Then she was grabbing her crotch going, "F-you! Suck it!" So they dragged her out of the club. While they're dragging her out, I have the whole audience singing, "We Are the World." And she's screaming over it. It was ridiculously funny. They get her outside and we start the show again. Three minutes later, I see that from the back door, she's running at the stage. My buddy Tommy was there doing security and he tackled her. He had to tackler her ass and drag her out.
Here's the thing, I'm at my job and I've got a room full of people to take care of and my job is to make them laugh. If you're going to come and try and screw up my job, then you've opened the door and there's no rules anymore. These people paid money to see me. I'm supposed to be funny. I'm continuing to do my job by tearing you a new a-hole. I always think it's funny when heckler's get incensed. You screwed up the whole show and now you're mad because I went after you? Idiot. You have to go after them. You have to just destroy them.