When comedian Christopher Titus got a development deal for a sitcom based on his stand-up routine, “Normal Rockwell is Bleeding” it could have been a slam dunk. Instead, his show “Titus,” despite getting decent reviews was cancelled after 3 seasons and some shark-jump-type changes that are usually a telltale sign of a show on the bubble.
(UPDATE: Please see Christopher Titus’s comment below. Network politics were to blame for the cancellation. And lest it seem that I didn’t like the show… I LOVED it. Just thought that first episode wasn’t representative.)
To say his routine is based on his true story of growing up in a dysfunctional family would be an over-simplification. Every comedian grew up in a dysfunctional family. But shows based on stand-up tend to be about family life, with relatively unattractive guys being nagged by better-looking wives and obnoxious kids, with love winning out over all manner of adversity.
In Titus, which debuted in March 2000, Christopher is a single guy still shell-shocked from what he’s been through with his insane family. (“Not as in, ‘your mom is insane,’ but as in, ‘We the jury find the defendant…'”)
It is remarkable when someone like Christopher Titus can not only survive what he went through but embrace it. If you don’t know the whole story watch “Normal Rockwell,” but suffice it to say his dad was the worst imaginable role model and his mom killed her husband and then herself. The series focused primarily on Titus’s relationship with his father, Ken, played with no redeemable qualities by Stacy Keach. His younger brother Dave (Zack Ward) is something of a sidekick, while his friend Tommy (David Shatraw) and girlfriend Erin (Cynthia Watros) round out the cast.
Word is that Titus wanted the episode “Dad’s Dead” to be the pilot. In watching the episode that actually aired as the pilot “Sex With Pudding,” you can see where the show may have gotten off on the wrong foot. It’s freaking awful. In the end, however, the show was cancelled for being too edgy. So maybe the blandness of “Pudding” was an attempt at a safer choice. It makes one wonder how it’s decided in what order a show’s episodes will air. Except in a show where the pilot involves heavy exposition and character introduction, there is some choice available. The first episode of Firefly to air was “The Train Job,” a great episode but not the “pilot.” Could a different choice have changed that show’s fate?
But back to “Sex With Pudding.” Isn’t that an awful title? The episode is not, like most of the others, set in the Titus household, the scene of so much of the referenced crime. It’s not about Christopher’s dad, or about his family at all, aside from the fact that his brother is always hanging around. It’s a stereotypical sitcom story about a jealous guy who thinks his girlfriend is cheating. It opens, as does every episode, with Titus talking directly to the camera in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room. He talks to the camera about trust. His inability to trust, thanks to his parents, affects his relationship with Erin. But although trust is the theme of the episode, if you will, it’s a story we’ve seen a million times.
Most of the episode is set in Erin’s workplace, a bland office environment that might as well be Veridian Dynamics or Dunder Mifflin. Christopher makes an ass of himself going down there to try and gather evidence. Erin soundly reprimands him in a series of exchanges that tells us nothing about their relationship. And the big twist is, the person who has a crush on Erin, the person calling themselves “Pudding” is a woman. Shock me, shock me, shock me.
By contrast the episode “Dad’s Dead” captures the personality of the show. Christopher opens it with, “The Los Angeles Times states that 63% of American families are now considered dysfunctional. “That means we’re the majority.” He goes on to explain, “Normal people terrify me. They haven’t had enough problems in their lives to know how to handle problems when they come up.” And that’s really what makes him a good “character”–he’s been through some shit and come out stronger.
Titus arrives at the home his dad and brother share to find Dave freaking out. Dave thinks their dad may be dead since he hasn’t emerged from his bedroom for a beer in four days. See, that’s funny. Things get a little scattered midway through, when we meet a nurse that Ken is nailing, but that’s kind of a good thing. It’s not formulaic, and nothing is resolved by the end. Titus is just going to keep on living this life because it’s what he knows. And it will keep on making us laugh–and cringe a little, too. Would anything have been different if “Dad’s Dead” were the pilot?