ASPEN - Laughter, as the phrase goes, is the best medicine. For the person who creates the laughter, comedy might be all the best medicines - penicillin, protease inhibitors, marijuana, Gas-X - rolled into one. For Christopher Titus, creating his stand-up comedy shows has relieved the pain of a harsh childhood, cured him of a ruinous self-image, alleviated the aggravation of the George W. Bush years. Among his shows was "Love is Evol," which dealt with Titus' marriage and divorce from a woman who faked an identity theft to steal Titus' money.
"If I hadn't done 'Love Is Evol,' I would have been Oscar Pistorius. I would have killed someone," Titus said, referring to the Olympic sprinter charged recently with murdering his girlfriend. "But because I did the show, I was able to see things, make sense of it, get over it. Just like 'Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding' got me over my childhood. Getting up on that stage is what gets me through."
Two years ago, Titus opened the Wheeler Opera House's inaugural Aspen Laff Festival with an epic, two-hour performance of "Neverlution," which took aim at how anemic the United States had become in the W. Bush years, with a particular focus on the country's overly delicate handling of its children, and "how we've become such weenies in this country," Titus said.
Titus returns to the Laff Festival, this time as the closing act, on Saturday. He will be giving the last full performance of his latest show, "The Voice In My Head," which addresses the mistakes Titus has made over his 48 years, and his image of himself as a loser.
"I don't make little mistakes," Titus said in a phone conversation. "And I've noticed in my life, I didn't necessarily get more successful, but my mistakes got bigger."
Among the smaller missteps were appearing at a children's birthday party dressed as Darth Vader; and breaking several bones doing a martial arts demonstration on the day he earned his black belt ("the only thing I could use it for was to make a splint," he said). Titus gradually worked his way up to bigger misfortunes: When he was finally able to afford a Dodge Viper - his "redneck dream car" - he destroyed it on a racetrack while a driving instructor was in the seat beside him. ("That's a mistake.")
Titus entered the major leagues of epic failure when he cost himself $30 million in a television deal because he couldn't agree with network executives over "Titus," the critically acclaimed sitcom, based not so loosely on its star's own dysfunctions, that lasted just three seasons. On a more personal level of blunder, Titus watched his father get divorced five times, swore it would never happen to him - then found himself in a horrifically bad divorce of his own.
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Titus' breakthrough fail came through his encounter with Bruce Springsteen. Titus had met Nil Lofgren, the E Street Band guitarist and a hero of Titus'. Lofgren invited Titus to a Springsteen concert in Phoenix, and encouraged him to come backstage, assuring him that Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa, were big fans of his comedy. He told Titus to be nearby during the final song, because Springsteen wanted to meet him.
Titus' low self-image mentality kicked in. "I said, 'Bruce who?' Because there's no way Bruce Springsteen wants to meet me," he said. Titus warmed up for what was sure to be a memorable blunder by chatting with the rest of the people who were backstage: Jackson Browne, the Edge, Tim Robbins, Henry Winkler. "And I said something stupid to almost every single one of them," Titus said.
Springsteen, it turned out, was intimately familiar with "Titus." Springsteen told Titus that for two months, his teenage son, Evan, had routinely come home quiet and gloomy, headed straight for his room, and came out with the cloud lifted. "I didn't want to know what he was doing in there," Springsteen told Titus. One day Evan told his dad about the sitcom he was obsessed with, and invited the Boss to watch it with him.
"Bruce said, 'You know what I like about that show? It's these horrible family stories, but you make it funny. A big roller coaster. It's kind of like art,'" Titus recalled. "My first response was, Bruce Springsteen doesn't know what he's talking about. I like John Cougar Mellencamp better."
But Titus couldn't ignore for long the fact that someone as prominent as Springsteen thought his comedy was worthy. And if Titus wasn't a complete loser, the whole foundation on which he had based his self-image needed to be re-examined.
"I had to face up to my entire life," he said. "Everything I had done, I didn't do it to be good - I did it to prove to everyone that I wasn't a loser. All those mistakes are all about me being not confident, but being arrogant, like, 'I can handle it.'"
Following "Neverlution," Titus began working on a show, "Titus 2012," based around a pretend run for president. Titus deemed it a failure and pulled the plug: "Like a band that starts recording a concept album, realizes it isn't working, and scraps the whole idea," he said. Last January, his girlfriend dared him to make a list of all his screw-ups, and Titus began using these as material in his stand-up act. Even before he had it worked up into a fully thought-out show, he was getting standing ovations. The reception prompted him to develop "The Voice in My Head," which Titus says has, like his previous shows, helped him soothe his psyche.
"When I started writing this show, I was just going to tell all these screw-up stories," he said. "But then I looked at all these things and think, 'Why did I do them?' I lost a TV show that was a hit because I was an idiot.
"Doing the show has given me a calm confidence. As opposed to trying to prove something to everybody."
The first, and almost certainly the most psychologically pressing of Titus' stand-up shows, was "Norman Rockwell is Bleeding," which he debuted in 2004 and was released on DVD in 2008. The theme was his childhood, marked by a mentally ill mother who eventually committed suicide, and a hard-partying, hardass father, Ken.
Titus found comfort in comedy. At 5 he was putting himself to sleep with Bill Cosby albums. When his dad would snooze on the couch, half-stoned, watching the Johnny Carson-era "Tonight Show," Titus would sneak in to watch the stand-up comedy segments.
Ken was the butt of his son's first jokes. The elder Titus would go water-skiing with his drinking buddies and a bunch of women in bikinis. "I'd say something about my dad, and his friends would all fall over laughing," Titus said. By 18, Titus was performing as a comedian. "Getting a laugh, it's a disease. It's a sickness, an addiction. You need another one of those. I could be a comedian and get paid for it, or I could be the idiot who wouldn't shut up. I'm both of those."
For years, Ken disapproved of Titus - his choice of career, and that the bulk of that career was built on jokes about Ken - to the point where he never spoke to his son about comedy. The only comment Titus remembers getting from his father about his work was on a purple Post-It: "Son, I didn't even know you could write your own name." "That was my dad being a Little League dad," Titus said.
Titus has come around to seeing that harshness as a gift - perfect preparation for anyone aspiring to do stand-up comedy. "What's a heckler going to do to me? Yell, 'You suck?' Hey, welcome to my life," Titus said. "My father gave me a thick skin for this world. If you look at what it takes to do stand-up well, that's what you need."
Titus clearly has some warmth for his late father; his daughter, Kennie, is named for his dad. But Titus believes his father is also paying an eternal price for his ways as a parent.
"The price you pay is to be horribly ridiculed in every piece of art I've ever done," he said. Titus offers no apologies: "If it was made up, I'd feel bad. But this is all true."
If there is one mistake he won't make, it's creating comedy bits out of imaginary situations, fantasy episodes. That disagreement over his sitcom, that cost him $30 million, it reportedly stemmed from network executives insisting that the sitcom Titus break up with his girlfriend. Since the real-life Titus was married at the time, he refused, on grounds that comedy needs to be reality-based.
"You've got to ground it in some sense of truth," he said. "If it's just outrageous, people aren't going to laugh as hard."
"The Voice In My Head" works because everyone has that same voice, incessantly whispering to us our faults and our foul-ups.
"We all fail," Titus said. "We all feel like losers."