Christopher Titus has a bone to pick with America. “There’s no shame and there’s no consequences in this country,” he told me in a recent interview. “People do what they want and they expect you to accept it.” The state of the nation is the crux of the comedian’s latest show The Angry Pursuit of Happiness, which he will be performing in Santa Barbara this weekend. “In this one I kinda rail against where we’re at as a species.”
Titus has been bringing his astute social and personal observations to people’s attention since he hit the San Francisco comedy circuit in 1986. In the ensuing years, he has filmed five specials for Comedy Central and Showtime; had his own television series (Titus, which earned him a Writer’s Guild and Emmy nomination); is the host of the History Channel’s game show Pawnography; does a weekly podcast; created a production company, Combustion Films; and wrote and stars in the upcoming movie Special Unit.
The comedian/actor/writer took time out of his packed schedule to chat with me about his new show, his desire to make a difference with stand-up, and comedy’s new fake edge.
So you’re coming back to Santa Barbara. I know you were just here for the LOL Comedy festival.
I hosted a little thing, brought some young comics up. Every special I’ve done I’ve filmed in California, and Santa Barbara is probably the most beautiful place on the planet, and I thought I’d go there this time.
The Lobero Theatre is cool.
Comedy is weird. If you look at every comedy special that’s had more than maybe a thousand people, it always gets a little weird and drawn out because the laughter takes so long. So I figured out over the years that between 400 and 1,000 people is about right. And [the Lobero] is a nice venue–you can keep the rhythm and the laughter is good. We just finished building the set. It’s gonna be a great show.
What kind of set?
Well, I don’t wanna tell you but basically in this show I kinda go through the evolution of my happiness, why human beings are what we are. I do a bit called “Arm the Children”—I wrote an anti-gun bit a while back after all the horrible shootings we’ve had, and I read the bit and I thought God, this is really sappy, I’m preaching, I’m not being funny. So I thought to myself, “What would George Carlin do?”–that’s pretty much how I used to arrive at/write my comedy—and I wrote this bit called “Arm the Children,” where I prove that we can solve every problem in America if we just join the NRA and arm the children. It’s an ironic, anti-gun bit…I think the NRA’s currently driving the douche bag train to Numbnutsville. I can’t believe what a crazy organization they are right now.
I like that description.
Yeah, I think comics are supposed to go into subject matter that no one else is supposed to go into. I like to bring up a subject where the audience goes, “I don’t want to hear about that.” And then over the next 7 or 8 minutes, suck them into it so they’re like, “Yeah, I agree with that.” You know, that’s your job. Your job is not to make them feel better, it’s just to scare them a little bit and keep them laughing, but make them follow you down a road they don’t want go down.
Have you had people boo you at shows?
I’ve had people drunk people not get the bit. [Laughs] I’ve had drunk people say on the way out, “Hey, I don’t think it’s a good idea to arm the children.” I say, “Well, did you hear the whole bit? Because it gets to a place where it’s kind of eye-opening … but I understand that you fell asleep about two thirds of the way through, and missed the entire point and that’s fine, so thanks for (coming) and buy a T-shirt for God’s sake.”
…For some reason for this show, I wrote a bit called “We need comedy to get rid of our desire to kill”; I wrote a bit called “Here’s how life goes”; there’s a great bit about the Pope; there’s a great bit, “Armageddon Day,” I believe. Here’s the problem in America: Nothing kills us anymore. The rest of the world’s on fire, people are getting shot and getting blown up. But nothing kills Americans. There’s no shame and there’s no consequences in this country, where people do what they want and they expect you to accept it. Right now, people get lost in traffic, they stop the car in the lane they’re in to check their GPS.
Is that true? That must be L.A.
I’m telling you, people are so obnoxious. Oh, you don’t have bad drivers in Santa Barbara? Is that what you’re telling me?
Everyone’s a perfect citizen here.
They are really.
They probably do that here. I’ve never seen someone stop in a lane, but maybe I just missed it.
Yeah. So I do this bit called “Armageddon Day”…[about how] the Mayans screwed it up.
With the calendar?
Yeah, the world was supposed to end December 21, 2012. I didn’t buy anybody Christmas presents. I looked like a creep.
And now what?
Yeah, right, now what? I was waiting for the world to end. I have three months’ of dried food for four people. And you can’t snack on it during the play-offs. Thank you, Mayans. I think the Mayans never existed. It was a marketing ploy by dried food companies.
You’re probably right.
I’ve watched a few of your older specials, and you seem to have changed direction from very personal to more political material. Would you say that’s true?
It’s weird, because we’re all citizens of the planet and we’ve got a 24-hour news cycle on nine channels, so we’re all aware of the world all the time. So, if you look at Norman Rockwell’s Fifth Ending of the World, that was personal and political.
Well, that’s true.
Love is Evol was totally personal—a little too personal. That’s a weird special, because if you’ve been through a bad relationship you love that special. If you’ve never been through a bad relationship…I had a dude walk up to me, “You know, dude, you’re really bitter.” And I go, “Have you ever had a bad relationship?” and they go, “No, I’m happy.” And I go, “Just wait then. It’s coming.”
I thought everybody has had a bad relationship.
There are some people in the Midwest, for some reason…So that one was very personal, and then if you go to Neverlution—it was political, about our country, taking our country back, and the Voice In My Head was really personal. This one’s both, there’s some personal stuff in it, but this one’s going after the social fabric of why we’re in trouble as a species.
I can’t wait to see it. I have my own thoughts on why we’re so hideous.
Yeah, we are. We’re in a very dark place right now. Look at all the wars going on. Do they even print history books anywhere? Can you just read a history book and figure out none of this works.
They must not be reading.
I’m sorry, there’s a whole bunch of people on the planet who need to be vaporized. That’s all I want to say. I’m very liberal, but when you see a pot-growing hippie liberal going “We need to kill all those people,” we’ve gone too far. We need a tune-up. That’s the whole point of the show. Human beings need a tune-up. Because nothing kills us! I say in the show, if there was a 400-pound furry carnivore that roamed the streets and killed six of your friends every year, you would never find yourself lookin’ at your cell phone and going, “Omigod! Did you hear about Kim and Kanye? It’s horrible!”
You would leave the house every morning just on point. You’ve got your gun out, you have your phone on carnivore mode.
You’re cutting out.
I’ve got call waiting so it was beeping out.
Do you have interviews all day today.
No, this is my last one for this morning. But I’m giving you everything I got left.
You have a busy life. Your podcast, stand-up, TV, etc.
We just did [a podcast] yesterday. “Ray Rice, Love in an Elevator” we called it, and we’re doing another one tomorrow. Actually Neverlution came out of the podcasts. Every week I write a five-minute piece on whatever’s going on in the news, and that turned into Neverlution and it grew from there. I’m also we’re filming a movie, called Special Unit about, due to the disability act, the L.A. police have to hire four handicapped undercover detectives. And I play their training officer, who’s basically Nick Nolte’s mug shot….And then I got that show Pawnography…
So you are busy!
I am desperate and fearful, but yeah, I am busy.
You’re desperate and fearful and busy.
Yeah, that’s all the hustle is. When you’re and an actor or a comedian, you have a choice: You can be a waiter and hate your life. I thank god for standup comedy, because without it I would be a very unhappy person. Because when you do TV, even when you have a television show [you] still have network executives coming in–who’d never written a script, who’d never written a joke–telling me what they thought was funny. I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated in my life. And we got some great stuff on that show. But the network side of it was always really rough. With standup comedy, I don’t have anybody coming in and giving me notes, which I’m really happy about.
You just take your cue from audience laughter.
Yeah, that’s a great thing. The audience is always right–always. You can never question them.I f they say a joke is not funny, you can’t say, “Well, you guys are wrong.” No, we are a group of 300 people, we took a poll, and that joke sucks.
Sometimes jokes must work on the coasts that don’t work in the Midwest, say.
I started in San Francisco. And really early on, there was a lot of comics–very cool, hip comics–from S.F. that would go on the road, and they would come back and they would sayo, “Oh, this audience is stupid, they didn’t get it.” And I remember thinking, “Wow, you’re never going to have any broad success, because you can’t leave S.F. and then do jokes [only] about S.F.”
San Francisco is an anomaly, where anything goes.
I learned that I wanted to keep it as smart and clean as possible. Not pick the well-traveled road of talking about my penis or fisting, as so many other comics do.
Right, because that’s just lazy.
No, it really is. Thanks for saying that. I have a problem with comedy right now, in the sense that there’re some great comics out there—Mike Verbiglia, brilliant. John Mulaney’s really funny. Patton [Oswald] always makes me laugh…he’s really smart, I like the writing. Whenever I need to be inspired about the writing, I will listen to Werewolves and Lollipops again just to remember, you can use words of more than two syllables, and you don’t have to do fart jokes. There are a lot of comics now that are [doing] dirty stuff like Redd Foxx did in 1961. And I don’t have a whole lotta love for those guys….I try to be that clever without being crude. I always make–this is going to sound so lame to you–but I always want to make a difference with it. When I wrote Norman Rockwell, it was to [show] the way people see their screwed-up lives. Because “dysfunctional” used to be a bad word. It used to be like, “Oh you’re dysfunctional. You’re going to therapy, what a loser.” And I remember thinking, well, I went through so much crap with my mom’s mental illness and my dad’s drinking and my mom shooting and killing her husband, that I can handle anything. Nothing rattles me. Armageddon can come and I’m just gonna start packing a bag, I’m not gonna freak out….So…I always try to have a point to it, you know, and whether it comes across or not, at least I’m writing from a place of trying to get to a point.
I think it comes across. You wrote a wonderful thing piece on your blog, about Robin Williams, who was one of my most favorite actor-comedians in the whole wide world.
Yeah, as I said in my blog, he was my John Lennon. It’s funny, because you watch my End of the World tour, and you watch his Live at the Met, and I actually didn’t realize it, but the endings were quite similar. In Live at the Met, he is talking to his kid, and the end of End I was talking to my kid about the world catching on fire. And [Met] was 10 years earlier. I watched it recently and I was thought, “Oh my God, He’s such an influence on me.”
I saw him live at the Arlington here in Santa Barbara. I saw him S.F. too. I lived down the street from him, actually. I got to see him at Bimbo’s, working out his Weapons of Mass Destruction tour.
Wow. That was when he had heart trouble. He had trouble there too.
He did the Santa Barbara show just before he found out he had heart trouble. But I digress. This is about you.
But you know, Robin Williams is about me….I was going to be a storyteller, because I loved [Bill] Cosby as a kid, but without Reality…What a Concept–he showed us another room of toys that we could play with. And nobody was doing what Robin Williams did when he came out. Nobody was doing voices, you were either an impressionist but you didn’t do all of it, but he let us do all of us.
It’s interesting to hear from a comic how he influenced you. How has comedy changed since you started, do you think? Or has it?
There’s a new fake edge. You know, when I wrote Norman Rockwell is Bleeding in ’95-96, Seinfeld was really big at that time…I wrote Norman Rockwell about my illness and all that kinda stuff…I had a couple clubs say they didn’t want me back. “We don’t want this, we want you to go back to your old happy boy act.”
Yeah. They didn’t want you back because of how far you went with the darkness, and I finally found what makes me happy onstage, I wasn’t gonna quit. I called my agent, and I said, I guess I’m never going back to that club, then. The interesting thing is, after [my] TV show I went back to one of the clubs in Cleveland that said no. I get in the car, and the person who had fired me, basically, was picking me up. I get in the car and within nine seconds the woman–named Sarah—said, “I want you to know that I told you agent when I said you couldn’t come back I made a huge mistake. I didn’t understand what you were doing, and I was wrong.”
Wow. That’s really big of her.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Would you say your kind of comedy is more acceptable these days?
I just think it grew, I mean comedy grew. If you look at everybody, there’s this new fake edge that’s going on right now.
What’s the fake edge?
A fake edge is guys talking about beating their girlfriend with a bat–you know it didn’t happen. doing jokes about domestic violence and it didn’t really happen. When I did that bit about the girlfriend that used to punch me in the face, spending a night in jail because of her, that’s a true story. Whatever the story….Right now, there’s a lot of fake edge going around. A lot of guys are really still going down the road of the dirty man. It’s not that it’s not funny to me, I just go, “Where is your excellence? Where is your commitment to do something different?” I would rather try something unusual and different and have it fail miserably than take the easy path. Like you said, it’s what’s easy. It’s really easy….
And then there are guys like Verbiglia who are just brilliant storytellers. And John Mulaney, really funny. And then there’s Dave Attell.…unless your dirty stuff is funnier than Dave Attell, stop doing it. Dave Attell—there’s an exception to every rule—makes me laugh so hard. But he’s the only one of the guys that are doing dirty stuff.
He’s got a different take on it or something.
He’s the best writer. If you watch Dave Attell’s act, it’s not obvious. You can’t tell where he’s going with it. The right turns in his punch lines are so clear and crisp—I’d never thought of that in a million years.
So who are your favorite comedians these days?
I became a fan of John Mulaney this last year, and I go back to Patton’s older albums. But when I really want to get inspired, if I think I’m sucking, I will listen to George Carlin’s Modern Man. I write everything down and try to get the words right. But not to the level of Carlin. Carlin, that he even remembered some of that stuff, it puts me in awe. So whenever I want to feel bad about myself, I listen to George Carlin.
Other comedians I’ve spoken to say they have a few bullet points and that’s all they need to remember. The story goes from there.
Carlin wrote it word for word. Bill Burr’s a friend of mine, and when I had A Voice In My Head I asked him to come down and watch me do it at a club. I told him to say if there’s anything I’m missing, just come to watch it and tell me what you think. So he came down to watch and I’m in the green room and I had my computer open and I write it all in script form and Bill goes, “You write this shit down? You really write it down, like every word?” (chuckles)
And then you memorize it?
Yeah. I used to memorize it hardcore and just hold to that, but now I’ll play onstage a lot. But I always have a map and I always have it written down. I just think it’s the best way to distill the words and jokes. Look at Patton’s material, it’s so well-crafted and I think some of us have lost the craft of it. We’re just getting get in there, riffing, talking about, “Yeah, my girlfriend came over and I hadn’t had sex in a while…” and I just get up and walk outta the room at that point. It’s not even that I’m mad at them because I’m sure they’re great comics, but I’ve heard it. Movin’ on. But Demetri Martin, I’ll sit in the room all night and watch him.
Did you know all the comics that came to the Santa Barbara LOL Comedy Festival in September?
Oh, yeah. Jim Jeffries makes me laugh, he’s great. Did you go see Dice’s show?
I didn’t. I saw Ben Gleib.
How was it?
I thought he was good. He talked about taking pot brownies with his father. That was really funny. He was very quick with the audience. There were some drunkards in the audience.
But he was quick?
I thought he was very good with the audience because he was funny, and he could put them in their place, but he wasn’t rude, you know.
You learn how to do tha—make the person look really stupid and you look like a hero and don’t look like a jerk.
I think how comedians deal with the audience is a real testament to how quick-witted they really are. Because you don’t know what’s coming.
If you’ve done it long enough, you just know how to do it. We had the weirdest show [once]. When you’re doing a comedy special, people just want to come in and be part of it. The last one we filmed was in Fresno, and there were three girls that were so hammered. I’m 20 minutes in and they’re sitting in the back—thank god—but the people that were behind them told me that one girl vomited on the floor in front of her, then passed out on her friend. And her friend passed out on the girl next to her and then that girl threw up.
[Laughs]. At least they all finally passed out. Kinda slept while I finished my show. But I thought, Man! What are you doing?
At Ben Gleib’s show one of the drunk girls got on the phone. It was very rude.
If you’re on your phone and I see you I will take your phone. I will call the last three people you called and talk about what a douche bag you are.
I’ll bet that’s hilarious.
Russell Peters is also very funny with the audience. A lot of his skit in S.B. was just riffing off the audience.
Yeah, he’s one of those guys. He’s an audience guy.
He did more than I’ve ever seen, really, so it’s part of his gig. Do you know Brad Williams? He was at LOL too.
Yeah, Brad’s going to be in the movie Special Unit.
I was very impressed with him. I didn’t know him, at all, and I thought he was very hilarious and I really liked his stories.
Well, I’m glad that he filmed that show–that was his first special. Brad is such a good guy, so funny.
He was great! In fact, he was one of my favorites. I would definitely go see him again. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you about all these comics, like we’re old friends …
Because you like comedy. I can tell that you’re a fan of comedy. Sometimes I talk to people and they’re not a fan of comedy, they don’t get it. I always ask, when I get that guy, “Who’s your favorite comic?” and they say, “I love Jeff Dunham.” Then the interview turns into, “Well, I don’t have a puppet.”
You’ve really got to get a puppet.
I don’t know what to say to that guy who likes Jeff Dunham.
Jeff Dunham’s good at what he does. But the fact that there’s nobody else like him, I’m sure there’s a reason.
No one else wants to play with puppets.
He’s got a room in his house with beds in it that the puppets sleep in. You know that, right?
No, I didn’t know that. Did you have to tell me that?
That’s almost like how you felt at the end of the movie Se7en, right?
Thank you. Maybe I can pop that information into some unrelated story—a side note that reads, “By the way, Jeff Dunham sleeps with puppets.” Uh oh, see how I’m changing it? Now he’s sleeping with his puppets.
They have their own bedroom.
Perhaps that’s why he got divorced. That’s a terrible thing to say, I’m sorry.
Oh, I feel sorry for him. He got divorced at his peak, too. He had just started making $21 million a year and he got divorced.
Well, maybe she was like, “It’s me or the puppets.”
Totally valid argument! I understand it, how can you be shocked at that? What do you mean, puppets are really important. I mean, where’s the argument.
You’re so funny. This is a great chat. You’re very personable.
Yeah, well, I did a thing called Landmark Forum years ago, and my darkness is well under control.
I didn’t say I didn’t have it, it’s just under control.
So really you’d prefer to be saying other things…
No, I just keep it in a tiny room in my head. When it gets out, it scares me.
Well, you can bring it out on the stage a little bit.
Yeah, when I wrote Neverlution it was a little preachy, so when I wrote Voice In My Head, I just wanted to really let go with every one of the screw-ups I’ve ever made in life. In Pursuit I kinda rail against where we’re at as a species. This one’s a little angrier and a little more on point. I’m actually, what’s going on in the world. What’s happening now is World War III shit. We are at the beginning of a very bad time unless we turn a corner….But some people don’t want to hear it. Some people are like, “You went a little deep with that last one.” And even if they’re mad about it, I take that as a compliment.
Well, at least they’re thinking about it, right?
So you’re coming up in September?
September 27 at the Lobero Theater. We’re doing two shows. We’re filming them. So please pump the hell out of that for me, I’d appreciate that….Even if you can’t see me at the Lobero, go find somewhere where they’re doing live comedy, because it gets rid of our desire to kill.
Thanks so much, Chris.
Talk to you later. Goodbye.
Christopher Titus will perform two shows Saturday, September 27, 7 and 10 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St. For tickets, call 966-4946.