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'Titus': Beyond Dysfunction With Wit, Evolving Insight

Television * The new Monday night Fox sitcom is based on the real life of its comedian star.

March 25, 2000|SAMUEL GELERMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Darkness. A light fixture's pull-chain clicks repeatedly. Tungsten wire fizzles. Then a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling casts a fiery glow. We see a bleak square room--a space with a gloomy institutional feel to it. No color, just shades of gray.

Seated in a wooden monstrosity that looks like a modified electric chair, Christopher Titus rises up, suddenly in our face to pronounce: "The Los Angeles Times states that 63% of American families are now considered dysfunctional. That means we're the majority."

The audience laughs.

Like a smoldering ember that spontaneously ignites, Titus without apology cracks jokes about his schizophrenic, manic-depressive mother who has been committed to a mental hospital. He jokes about his father, a man who remarried five times, drinks heavily on a daily basis and loves to humiliate his children.

This dive into stark analysis is the "neutral space" opening for an episode of "Titus." The biting new Fox sitcom, which premiered Monday at 8:30 p.m. and will continue in that spot, is based on the real life of comedian Christopher Titus. The premiere turned in better numbers for the network on a Monday night among all key demographics than any previous Fox show. It ranked first in the time period, outpacing its nearest competitor, CBS, by 141%.

To understand "Titus," affectionately referred to by the producers as a "weekly domestic disturbance," the show's subject matter must be put in context. For the past decade, television has provided many dramas about adult children of dysfunctional families. Almost all focused on the process survivors go through to accept and move beyond their painful pasts. The pain was typically politically correct, informative, filled with angst. There was little humor to be found in these tales of dysfunction.

Titus, however, has harnessed wit and startling insight to maneuver through his own anger-to-acceptance process. As he puts it, "I'm not dysfunctional, I'm evolving."

Looking now like a surfer dude with blond spiked hair, Titus was born in 1964 and raised just outside San Francisco in Newark. He started doing stand-up comedy at age 18 and was headlining by 22. Titus then moved to Hollywood and married his high school sweetheart, Erin (his girlfriend in the series, played by Cynthia Watros).

By 1996, however, performing observational humor no longer satisfied him. The comedian began trying to honestly explore onstage all aspects of his life. This led to a one-man show entitled "Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding," which played at the Hudson Theater in Los Angeles in 1998, and in 1999 was featured at Ojai's Theater 150's series of single-actor performances. Critic Todd Everett, writing for The Times: "This is funny, original and thought-provoking material. . . . Titus' craggy good looks and shattering intensity are more than a little reminiscent of Gary Busey and Denis Leary; his material wouldn't sound out of place coming from either."

With the stage show's success, 20th Century Fox Television signed Titus to a development deal to create, produce and star in his own sitcom. The company's co-presidents--Gary Newman and Dana Walden--believed the actor's brutal honesty and edgy qualities weren't currently on the air, at least not in comedy.

Jack Kenny and Brian Hargrove, who were producers on "Caroline in the City," were hired to create and executive produce the project with Titus. In constructing the show, Kenny and Hargrove applied techniques culled from their shared theater background at Juilliard in New York.

Though taped, "Titus" is crafted to feel like a live television broadcast. Each scene is shot in sequence as if it's a play unfolding before the studio audience, with virtually no pauses for scene breaks or retakes. On the sound stage, camera setups move effortlessly in ballet-like precision. A number of dramatic devices--in addition to the time Titus spends in "neutral space"--are pulled in to help tell the story. Grainy Super-8 film clips from Titus' childhood, for example, are used rather than having a character describe a historical family event. As much as possible, the production is designed to allow the audience to experience Titus' life firsthand.

*

Stacy Keach had just finished working on the London stage when he was asked to play Papa Ken Titus. Keach was reticent about taking the part. The father is essentially a lout and not a very lovable one at that. Papa Ken often denigrates Titus because he doesn't want him to become a "wussy."

Before passing on the project, however, Keach showed the script to his 11-year-old son, Shannon. Nonplused, the boy told Keach, "When do you ever get the chance to play a funny character, Dad?" Keach accepted the role.

"In creating Ken, I had to start building the character from a place of love," Keach said.

The cast is rounded out by Zack Ward playing Titus' brother Dave, and David Shatraw, who portrays Titus' best friend, Tommy.

Though a different type of sitcom, Doug Herzog, president of Fox Entertainment Group, said " 'Titus' absolutely fits within the network's programming lineup."

Ultimately, whether "Titus" survives as a series will rest on whether viewers find humor in Titus' unsparing take on his unconventional family.

Titus on "Titus": "Once you've driven your drunk father to your mom's parole hearing--what else is there?"

Back in the gray "neutral space," Christopher Titus gives the episode its wrap-up. "We live with our parents for 18 to 20 years of our lives. However, their impact lasts a lifetime."

Titus smirks. Not because he told a joke but because he just told the truth. Titus pulls the chain to the glowing lightbulb; tungsten wire fizzles. Everything goes black.

*

* "Titus" can be seen Mondays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox. The network has rated it TV-PG-DLS (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex).

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