By Brendan J. O’Reilly
Comedian Christopher Titus’s first one-man show, “Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding,” a monologue about his dysfunctional family, inspired his dark sitcom, “Titus.”
Both the stage show and the Fox television series were deeply personal, drawn on tumultuous familial relationships and tragic events. By finding the comedy in tragedy, he also found success. Though the sitcom was short-lived, airing from 2000 to 2002, his stand-up career never stopped.
Speaking in June from Chicago, where he would perform on tour at the Raue Center for the Arts that night, Titus said that his new show, “Stories I Shouldn’t Tell” — which he will bring to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 30 — is the darkest he’s ever done. And that’s saying something, considering his past work. In fact, he says “this one makes ‘Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding’ look like a Jeff Dunham special.”
His last show, “Amerigeddon,” was a “hardcore political show,” he said. Coming off filming it for a comedy special, he decided to go “full personal.” He talks about losing partial custody of his kids in a court battle with his ex-wife. He talks about living with his mother, who had mental illness, and about his sister, who took her own life.
“Her life makes my life look like nothing happened,” Titus said of his sister.
For fear of ending up in lawsuits, he hadn’t shared these stories before.
“I had to wait till some people died because I couldn’t tell some of these stories.”
Now that is no longer a concern, and he said they have gone from “stories I couldn’t tell” to “stories I shouldn’t tell.”
“I’ve never talked about my mom’s side of the equation,” he continued. “I made surface jokes about her mental illness, but I’ve never really went in depth through it, when I lived with her and how weird it got. So that’s what this one is, man. If you have a screwed up life, this is like ‘Norman Rockwell Part 2: The Revenge.’”
He acknowledged some audience members will take offense.
“I do a joke about my sister’s suicide in this show that is probably the darkest thing I’ve ever written,” he said. “And when I wrote it, I knew. I said audiences are going to be angry at this joke — and it’s three jokes in a row. And the weird thing is half the audience is just stunned and half of them are laughing hard. And I tell them, I go, ‘Guys, you people that are angry at me right now for that joke, you’re absolutely right. Hundred percent. I’m horrible and you’re right. But those of you who laughed with me? We have to now form a cult — we have to go buy a compound and move in together because there’s no one else like us.”
Even though he often finds himself writing dark jokes, he doesn’t set out to.
“I don’t try to be dark, to be dark. I think that’s a mistake,” Titus said. But his dark jokes grow out of telling the real story. “The audience, they’re with you. They’re on the edge of their seats going, ‘Are you really talking about this?’”
And 99 percent of the time, when he tells a story, it really happened.
“I’m not smart enough to make stuff up, honestly,” he said. “When we had the TV show, ‘Titus,’ I would come with between 16 and 22 episode ideas a year, and they would be based on stories from my life.”
New writers who joined the show wouldn’t believe him that the stories were real, but he had a way of convincing them.
“I had a letter from my mom that she had obviously written on a serial killer typewriter,” Titus recalled. “My mom had actually been investigated by the FBI because she told people she was working for the FBI. And so she wrote me this letter and it just said, ‘Your sister’s been messing with me. She has no idea who she’s screwing with.’ And it was a serial killer typewriter — all the ‘S’s were dropped about halfway down, like half a font down. Crazy. And it was the craziest looking letter. And then it said, ‘I’ve got a new job. I can’t talk about it because they’re listening. Love, Mom.’”
He stuck the letter on the wall of the writers room at ‘Titus’ and whenever a new hire wouldn’t believe something really happened, he’d point it out. “I would say: ‘Read this letter. Stand here and read it out loud.’”
Titus said that though he believes in putting the past behind and walking forward, he has an exception. He mines the past for his comedy. It’s cathartic, and when others laugh with him, it’s cleansing, he said. “I realized I’ve saved hundreds of thousands in therapy by just writing punchlines.”
Even though he had many untapped stories that he is only now revealing in “Stories I Shouldn’t Tell,” writing his new show didn’t come easily at first.
“I can’t write a show until I have a concept,” he said, explaining that if he has a beginning and an ending, he can fill in the middle. This time, he had no ending, but then his children came back into his life this year after he hadn’t seen them since Easter 2017. “All of a sudden, I had an ending.”
He explained that anyone who’s been through a divorce or been a child of divorce, this show’s for them. He said writing the show has helped him get clear on how adults screw up children.
Every time his children would visit him after being with their mother, he would have to spend the first 24 to 48 hours convincing them he wasn’t going to kill, cook and eat them, he said. “It was like deprogramming a Scientologist every week.”
Titus said he doesn’t know what it is about the show, but just six performances in he received a partial standing ovation. “It takes about, usually, six months to get into some sort of shape where the audience really responds. I can get them laughing, but to get them to really go nuts,” he said. This time around, he got a full standing ovation only 12 shows in.
His wife, Rachel Bradley, who had urged him to discuss his sister’s suicide, offered an explanation for why the show has been so well received early on. She told him: “I think it’s the most honest thing you’ve ever done on stage.”
Honesty always make comedy better, he agreed
“If you look at the best comics, [Richard] Pryor, guys that are renowned, even Louis [C.K.] before we knew about him, the honesty of it always made it better,” Titus said.
When he spoke in June, he said he was still learning “Stories I Shouldn’t Tell” and it won’t be done until there are no holes and every sentence has a punchline. But by Labor Day weekend when he arrives in Westhampton Beach, he’ll be much further along. “I guarantee it will rattle some people,” he said, “but again, I’m 12 shows in and getting a standing ovation. By the time I get there, it will be awesome.”
Ms. Bradley, who is a stand-up comic and the co-host of his eponymous podcast, will be his opening act.
“She’s getting really good,” Titus said. “She is coming into her 10th year, and we’re going to film her special this year.”
But she wasn’t a comedian when they first met — she was a comedy booker. After they got together, she started giving him jokes to use.
“I was so offended because the jokes were so funny,” Titus said. He’d tell her that he was the comedian and didn’t need her help — but, yes, he’d be using the jokes. “Finally, I told her, ‘You need to get on stage and start talking.’”
Christopher Titus presents “Stories I Shouldn’t Tell” at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 30, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $61 and $71. Call (631) 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.