KC and I just finished watching the DVD box set (seasons one and two) of one of the best sitcoms of all time, Titus.
Those of you who know of the show will note that this was a somewhat twisted choice for the holiday season. Those of you who don’t, you have a fascinating and funny! discovery ahead of you. The show ran for all-too-brief a time on Fox, and it was rumored to have been cancelled for pushing the envelope too much.
Christopher Titus’ stand-up act was called Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding for good reason. His father was a irrepressible drunk who was married six times. His mother was a paranoid manic-depressive schizophrenic who was in and out of mental institutions during his childhood. All of this is translated directly to the screen with a raw, insightful presentation that is laugh-out-loud funny, more so because half the time the audience can’t believe what’s being made fun of.
Aside from his father, played by the outstanding Stacy Keach, the regular cast includes stoner half-brother Dave and childhood best friend Tommy, constantly called gay by Dad Titus, whose catch phrase is “don’t be a wussy”. He’s the kind of parent who teaches the kid not to stick a penny in the electric socket by letting him stick the penny in the socket. The only woman Dad halfway respects is Erin, Titus’ fiancee and a survivor in her own way — her family consists of a felonious brother, a drug-using sister and niece, a drunk mother, and a battling Irish father. The cast is fabulous, working together brilliantly.
Interspersed with more traditional staging are Titus’ monologues, set in a “neutral space”, a black-and-white room with a large chair cobbled together out of two-by-fours and a single light bulb. He contextualizes and comments on events, providing history and background to the sometimes insane (literally) events going on on-screen. And the show loved fire, with people setting things ablaze as a regular occurrence, either as lesson or symbolism or accident.
Here are some of the plots that confused and dismayed the network executives: Dad hasn’t come out of his room to get a beer in four days, so the sons become convinced that he’s dead, but they’re too afraid of him to go check. Mom comes back to make Thanksgiving dinner, which she’s drugged. Titus and Erin break up and almost immediately go out and sleep with other people. Dad fakes a heart attack when he has a car accident instead of admitting he was having sex while driving. When Dad stops drinking, he becomes even meaner than usual, so the family stages an intervention to get him to start again.
In the Christmas episode, Titus goes to an ex-girlfriend’s funeral. He’s very emotional, so Erin assumes he still has feelings for her… which he does, only they’re hate and fear. He’s at the ceremony to make sure she’s really dead. This kind of black humor works in so many ways: for those who can relate, it’s catharsis. For those with more normal lives, it’s an eye-opening look at what other people have survived. As Titus points out early on, the majority of families these days are considered disfunctional… although not to this degree. This show takes the typical “special episode” setup and pushes far beyond the lesson, creating humor out of truth.
The second and final set, season three is due out next month. Both sets are strongly recommended.