The Definitive Oral History of ‘Titus’
The opening line to the opening episode of the Fox sitcom Titus, which premiered on March 20, 2000, pretty much said it all: “The Los Angeles Times states 63 percent of American families are now considered dysfunctional. That means we’re the majority.”
Based on the life of stand-up comedian Christopher Titus, Titus unapologetically dealt with issues like addiction, mental health, domestic abuse and even suicide. It also took a sledgehammer to the traditional sitcom format by having every episode unfold in one environment, like a play, and having Titus speak to the audience and express his thoughts from a black-and-white “Neutral Space.” Not to mention, it made use of flashbacks for jokes well before mockumentary shows made it customary.
Created by Titus and writers Brian Hargrove and Jack Kenny, Titus starred Titus as himself alongside a foursome of actors playing barely fictionalized versions of his friends and family. Cynthia Watros was Erin, Titus’ longtime girlfriend who comes from a dysfunctional home of her own. Zack Ward was Titus’ dim-witted brother Dave, while David Shatraw was Tommy, Titus’ anxious best friend. Finally, the role of Titus’ tough-as-nails father Ken was played by stage, film and TV veteran Stacy Keach, who brought a level of gravitas that made for dozens of poignant and hilarious moments.
Coming at a critical point in time when the single-camera show would soon replace the traditional sitcom, Titus served almost as a bridge between the two. As James Poniewozik wrote for TIME, “(Christopher) Titus has more to offer than affable my-wife-won’t-have-sex-with-me jokes; his every sarcasm and tic betrays an intense, coiled anger. The pilot — in which he and his brother confront their father’s possible suicide (Dad’s been in his room four days without getting a beer) — is a brutal, hilarious and audacious set piece. Above all, Titus subverts TV’s definition of dysfunction.” Many other reviews echoed the same sentiment, with Newsday calling Titus “TV’s most original voice since Seinfeld.”
So why is Titus not hailed as landmark television today? While it started out strong in the ratings, there was a bitter, ongoing feud between Titus and the head of Fox during the latter half of the show’s three-season run, which resulted in frequent time-slot changes. When the show was abruptly canceled after Season Three, there were only 54 episodes of it, meaning it would never be able to be syndicated on cable. Lastly, the show ended on a cliffhanger with Titus being sent to a mental-health facility, and so, the series didn’t come to any real conclusion (at least, not until Titus himself funded a proper finale in 2020).
But two decades after its cancellation, it’s more than time for Titus to get its due, which is why we gathered its creators and cast to reminisce about the show. True to the style of Titus — whether the subject was how the series came to fruition, the biggest laughs on- or off-stage, the real-life suicide of Titus’ mother or the many figurative fistfights with Fox — they were unflinchingly honest about whatever topic was broached.
Christopher Titus, writer, co-creator and star of Titus: I hate sitcoms. I fucking hate them. I grew up watching them, but when I was coming up in comedy, all these comedians were getting sitcoms and there were so many bad ones. So when it came around to my turn, I didn’t want to do what everybody else had done — it was kind of like what I did with my stand-up career.
I had decided that I wanted to become a comedian at five years old. Then, I fell into a bonfire when I was 17 and decided that my life could end at any second, so I just went for it. I started doing stand-up in 1983, and I was touring with Kenny Loggins by 1987. But for the first 12 years of my career, I was a run-of-the-mill comedian. I was one of a hundred guys trying to be Jerry Seinfeld, and I hated what I was doing.
Out of necessity, all of this stuff about my family started to creep into my act. Finally, like a cyst, it popped, and I wrote this bit about my mom’s mental illness and her going into a mental hospital. I hadn’t realized that I never really dealt with it, because when I first did the bit, I started to cry on stage.
That eventually grew into the show Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding, where I talked all about my family and some more current stuff, like how I had an ex-girlfriend who used to punch me in the face and how my wife at the time had cheated on me early in our relationship. Once I wrote the show, I took the last $8,500 I had and rented the Hudson Theater in Los Angeles for a few weeks in 1998. One night, when like 16 people were there, Kary McCool from Fox saw the show. She then went back to Fox and said, “I think this kid’s got something.”
I’d had a few deals before that, but I’d get assigned a writer and the ideas always turned into these shucky-ducky sitcom ideas where I’d say, “I’m not wearing that outfit!” and then it would cut to me wearing the outfit. Those deals never went anywhere. I had people failing for me, and as I’d eventually show during Season Three of Titus, I can fail just fine on my own. Anyway, when Fox came along, I decided that I was going to write on the show. Next, we went through a bunch of writers who were all pitching themselves; then Jack Kenny and Brian Hargrove came in with a legal pad and 60 pages written about what this show could be.
Jack Kenny, writer, director and co-creator of Titus: A friend of mine at 20th Century Television came to me and said, “There’s this guy who’s got a one-man show. It’s very dark, very dysfunctional and very funny. I think there’s a series there.” He told me that, if we could pull some of the anger out of it — because he’s clearly very angry — it could be a network show.
Brian Hargrove, writer, director and co-creator of Titus: Basically, we thought if we could get his act onto the television screen, that was a show. If we could capture on-screen what Titus created on stage with an audience, that would be lightning in a bottle.
Titus: I started pitching Jack and Brian on the idea for the first episode, “Dad’s Dead,” which was based on a true story. I was living in L.A., and I got a call from my brother Dave saying, “I think dad’s dead.” Eventually, he told me that he wasn’t sure if he was dead, he just hadn’t come out of the room in three days. But he didn’t want to go in there because he was afraid dad would be pissed at him. I had to have my Aunt Kathy go over there and check on him. Turns out, my father had had his fourth heart attack, and he tried to sleep it off.
I pitched that to Jack and Brian, and we broke the story out. Then they went and wrote a script. It had some of what I wanted, but not all of it. They also wanted to write together without me, which I didn’t want. Finally, Jack said, “How about you write your version, we’ll write ours and we’ll combine them?” I wrote the stuff about the black-and-white Neutral Space and the flashbacks and sent it to them. I didn’t hear back for like eight days. Finally, Brian called me and said, “This is great. We’re going to use most of your script and add some of our stuff, but it’s great.” Then he added, “Because of what you wrote, we went to Fox, and you’re now a co-executive producer on the show with us.” That’s how I became an executive producer on the show. I didn’t demand it; Jack and Brian stood up for me.
Assembling the Cast
David Shatraw, Tommy Shafter on Titus: Have you ever been in a hurricane? That’s what it was like working with Christopher Titus. He’s a troubled genius, and he wore 25 hats on that show. He’s also very open about his life, and the things he suffered from. It was interesting to be around someone who was so open about those things. He also demanded a lot of all of us, but he was incredibly protective of his cast.
Titus: We saw 221 women for Erin. Cynthia was actually the first one to audition and the last one. She’s awesome, she has like a “Lucy” ability for comedy. During the pilot stage, they almost fired Cynthia, but it was our fault — me, Jack and Brian. We were in the rehearsal stage for the pilot and tons of people were coming down because there was a ton of buzz around the script. But after some rehearsals, (Fox executive) Sandy Grushow said we had to fire her because she wasn’t funny. Then me, Jack and Brian went to the writer’s room, and Brian said, “We fucked it up. Her character is lame, she’s just ‘the girlfriend.’ Why don’t we make her one of the badasses?”
So we totally flipped her entire character with her opening speech in “Dad’s Dead.” With her new intro being that she got a message on her pager saying “dad’s dead,” and so, she drove to her parents house thinking he was dead. Then I say, “Honey, your dad is not dead.” And she says, “I know that now, because if he were, what I walked in on my mother doing to him would be so sick.” It immediately took her character to this snarky, badass place and she was awesome after that.
Zack Ward, Dave Scouvel on Titus: I based Dave on my dog. When I lived in Australia, I had a red cattle dog named Apache, and Apache was loyal. He was a little puppy with a huge heart and that’s what Dave was. Whatever kind of dickery Titus got up to, he would defend Dave and Dave would defend him. That’s what being a brother is about.
Titus: My actual brother Dave isn’t as goofy as Zack Ward was. That very much became its own thing because Zack is a gold mine of funny. He and I are still best friends. Zack is funny as shit, and him and I together is just ridiculous. Oh man, he would fart on set all the time. Just as they were saying “action,” he’d let one rip.
Ward: That’s correct. I did fart, and usually, it was malicious. But at least one of my farts was an honorable fart. We did an episode with Frances Fisher, who played Titus’ mom, and she flubbed a line. No big deal, we reset and went again. Then she flubbed it again. Now, I knew her before Titus, and I knew her well enough that I could see a little bit of the fear in her eyes. Then she flubbed it a third time. Now the audience wasn’t laughing, and everyone was getting tired — everyone was wound up and she flubbed the line again. She had tears brimming. I could see it was too much.
I needed to take the pressure off of her, so I pushed out a fart as loud as I could in front of 500 people. Everyone turned and looked at me. The entire cast broke up, the audience started laughing and Frances looked at me and mouthed, “Thank you.” That was the fart grenade I created and jumped on to save a fellow actor.
Shatraw: Zack terrified me on the show. He used to hide in my dressing room and scare the crap out of me. He was so mean to me in the most loving way.
Stacy Keach, Ken Titus on Titus: Truthfully, it was very hard for me to distinguish between Zack and his character — they were the same person.
Kenny: David Shatraw tested opposite Steve Carrell. It came down to the two of them for the part of Tommy. Steve was great, but Tommy had to feel like the guy who didn’t belong there. He had to be a beat behind everyone else, and David Shatraw played that perfectly. He was the perfect outsider.
Shatraw: Tommy was more of a hybrid between a friend of Titus’ and his brother. He was named after Tommy Primo, a professional stuntman who is a good friend of Titus. But Tommy Primo is a badass, and my Tommy certainly wasn’t. Now, I wasn’t 100 percent like Tommy, but I was similar. I had kind of a normal upbringing in Upstate New York, whereas Titus grew up very differently. It worked for the show because Tommy was kind of the Marilyn Munster of the show — he was the normal one.
Ward: Dave Shatraw is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met — just incredibly detailed and a perfectionist when working on his bits. He was like Jack Lemmon. It was also very fun to traumatize him all the time.
Titus: Keach came in to read it, and even though it’s a sitcom, he never played it for laughs. He played it like he was in a Scorsese movie, like he was going to fucking kill me. I was scared of the guy. So we read, he walks out and I say to Jack and Bryan, “That guy scares the shit out of me.” And they go, “Then he’s perfect!”
My dad always thought the show was mean to him. After the first year of the show, he says to me one day, “I was a single father doing my best. I was just trying to survive.” Keach got that — as hard as the character of Ken Titus was on the show, you understood that he cared about the kids. And all that stuff that happened to his character on the show, it all really happened to my dad. He had all those heart attacks, and he really did end up in a car accident because he was getting a blow job.
Keach: Titus was a turning point for me because the two Cheech and Chong films I did were my only comedic venues up until then. I loved Ken’s political incorrectness, and I loved his tough love approach to life. Like, in the pilot, when Young Christopher is going to stick a fork in the socket and the mother tries to stop him, I say, “No, let him do it — that’s how you learn!” I was so proud of the fact that I was considered “the worst father of the year” on television.
Kenny: It still breaks my heart that Stacy never got an Emmy nomination for Titus.
Titus: About a day or two before we were filming the pilot, my dad came down to Fox and he was hanging out, watching the rehearsals. We broke for lunch and Keach and my dad disappeared. They were gone for four hours, and we couldn’t find them. They finally came back, and my dad was a little lit. Stacy came up to me, looked me dead in the eyes and went, “I got it.”
Keach: I had the great privilege of meeting Ken and spending some time with him. He was a big man, very large. I asked him, “How in the world can you tolerate being depicted in such an evil light?” He said, “I don’t mind as long as it’s funny.” He loved Christopher — he was very supportive.
Hargrove: There’s a part in the pilot where Christopher says, “My dad did all these things and he screwed all these women, but I never missed a day of school, he never missed an alimony payment and sometimes he went hungry so I didn’t have to.” That still gets me emotional today, and it was as important to the pilot as anything else.
‘Titus’ Hits the Airwaves
Titus: The pilot went well, but they were still afraid of it. So we only got an order for six episodes. And they wouldn’t run “Dad’s Dead” first — they refused. Still, we got a 20 share on our debut. Fox still hasn’t had a show that’s done that well for its debut. We stayed solid, too — we usually came in third for the Fox sitcoms, even after they kept moving us. I think what drew people to the show was the honesty of it. We were always dead honest about stuff.
Like the episode “The Intervention,” where we got my dad to start drinking again — that really happened. Years ago, my dad stopped drinking and Dave and I thought he’d get nicer, but he went the other way — there was nothing to lube him up anymore. So my dad and I were fighting once, and I screamed at him, “You were better when you were drunk!” Within a month, he was drinking again.
We had Phyllis Diller as Grandma Titus, and she was amazing. Keach got to play this moment where he realizes that she’s losing it. We see this little boy in him who was raised by this crazy woman who was just as bad as he was. I always wanted to be super funny for two-thirds of the episode, and then drop a hammer on people with something real.
We also did a gun episode. We did a road-rage episode. I was in a coma for a whole episode. We did so much great stuff.
Shatraw: I loved the episode “Tommy’s Not Gay.” It’s dated in some aspects, but overall the themes about bullying and sexuality and empathy and acceptance are still viable today.
Kenny: I loved the snowboarding episode, where we lowered the temperature in the theater down to 40 degrees and built this fake mountain with snow on the soundstage. It was incredible, as was the one where we built a suspension bridge. I also remember when we had David Carradine on. Stacy and David were very old friends. Every time they came out of their dressing room, a cloud of marijuana smoke would billow out with them. I’m sure that was Stacy’s favorite week on the show.
Ken Titus, October 6, 1942 - January 7, 2001
Titus: I went to see my dad the Christmas of 2000, and he died on January 7, 2001. We postponed the show for a couple of weeks, and we had the funeral. Then, the next episode when we went back was an episode where me and Keach were driving this truck together and we both thought the other one was dying. Erin told me my dad had cancer, and she told my dad that I had cancer. It was a trick to get us to bond on this road trip.
Anyway, that was the first episode back after my real dad died, and we were in this truck having a conversation about us dying. Four or five times that week, I’d go, “Hey guys, can we cut for a second?” Then I’d go behind the set and sob until I was shaking. Then I’d hear my dad’s voice in my head — “Do your job, pussy. Do your job” — and I’d shake it off and head back. Television’s a machine — it just eats. It doesn’t give a shit who died, you’ve just got to get this episode in.
Hargrove: After Titus’ dad died, I became worried because Titus got a little softer. I think it was unconscious, but he seemed to struggle with the idea of representing his dad this way. Zack and I both noticed it, and eventually we spoke to Titus and he came back around. Yes, there was no doubt that Ken loved his son — both on the show and in real life — but the real Ken wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. He was a hard-ass.
Did Titus tell you what his dad said to do with his remains? He told Titus that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes to be put in a douche and run up a hooker’s vagina. That was Ken Titus.
Titus v. Fox
Titus: My mom was a manic depressive schizophrenic. She used to say she worked for the CIA and/or FBI, and one day, the FBI showed up — and as I say in my act, it wasn’t for a peer-review. She also shot and killed her third husband — just like we did on the show — and she shot herself in 1994, which happened during the third season. I wasn’t getting along with the network, and I had a feeling that it might be our last season, so I wanted to put everything on the table.
Kenny: Our biggest disappointment was finding moms. We had three different actresses play the part of Titus’ mom, but we never quite landed on a mom that worked — none could match the presence of Stacy Keach. We almost had Faye Dunaway, which might have worked, but boy was that a big mess.
Titus: Okay, this is some Hollywood Babylon kind of shit. Faye Dunaway was going to play my mom in Season Two, and she came by the set one day before we'd officially hired her. We’d just filmed a scene with a food fight, so I wiped mashed potatoes off my face and went down to her. I told her it was an honor to meet her, and she said thank you. Then, she was holding the script with all these tabs on it and said, “I’m not going to do this, this and this.” She was going page-by-page through all these flashbacks saying that she wouldn’t do any of the crazy stuff. My mom’s crazy, that’s the whole thing, but it was Faye Dunaway, so I told her we’d rewrite it.
Then I went to wardrobe to get changed, and the wardrobe guy told me, “I can’t work the week Faye Dunaway shoots.” I said, “She’s not scheduled yet,” and he responded, “Whatever week it is, I can’t work that week.” Then hair and makeup said the same thing — and so did the camera guys. I went to Jack and Brian and said, “We can’t hire Faye Dunaway because I’m losing the crew.” Then I had to call Gail Berman, the new president of the network, and I explained that I couldn’t put the show at risk for one actor. The longest, scariest silence ever followed before she just said, “Okay, fine. Do what you’re gonna do.” That was the beginning of my relationship with Gail Berman.
See, Doug Herzog greenlit the show and gave us a lot of support. Then Sandy Grushow came in — great guy, but a weirder cat to deal with for me. Then Gail Berman came in, and that’s how the show got killed.
Kenny: It’s a shame. The show would have been a much bigger success, it would have lasted longer and it would be on the air now in syndication had it not been for Gail Berman.
Titus: After the whole Faye Dunaway thing, right before the third season, Jack, Brian and I went to a meeting with Gail in this giant conference room with about 40 people. She said to us, “You guys are doing a great job, here’s what I want to change.” She said she wanted to split up Erin and Titus and have a love triangle.
I didn’t want to do that. Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place had just done that, and so had Dharma & Greg. When you start a show, you have a pact with the audience — if you break that pact by doing something false, they feel that. That’s when you jump the shark.
So in this meeting, I said to Gail, “Do you even watch the show? We did that in episode four. Plus, the show is about two dysfunctional people who, together, make a good couple. If we split them up, they’ll be just like everybody else. If we do that, we’ve lied to the audience, and the show is going to die. I don’t think we’re going to do that.”
I felt like William Wallace, standing up against the tyranny of television. I didn’t yell at her, but I did do this in front of 40 people. That’s my one regret from being in show business at that level — I just should have shut the fuck up. Then, just like with the Faye Dunaway thing, Gail gave the longest pause and said “Okay, do what you want.”
From then on, it felt like Gail was doing everything she could to kill the show. A week after that meeting, we got the promo sheets — which showed how many commercials we got — we went from 16 promos a week down to two. We got moved too. We were on Mondays, then Tuesdays, then we got moved to Fridays. But people kept finding the show. The ratings would dip, then they’d climb up again. That last year was depressing, and I was angry a lot. I liked what we were doing creatively, but I wasn’t thinking clearly about a lot of stuff. I should have shut the fuck up. I like to say I’m a lovable asshole, but maybe I’m just an asshole sometimes.
Hargrove: It’s kind of funny, but the thing that was the most genius about Titus was also the thing that shot the show in the foot. He was unpredictable, he was exciting and you really didn’t know what he was going to do. And sometimes, you can’t always fix things after they happen.
Kenny: The show wasn’t canceled because of Christopher mouthing off. Chris could have handled it better, yes, but Gail never liked the show. Gail was at Regency when Regency created Malcolm in the Middle at exactly the same time that 20th Century Fox created Titus. Then Gail took over Fox and put Malcolm in that beautiful hammock between The Simpsons and The X-Files. Meanwhile, we were moved around the schedule because she didn’t want us to be successful, even though we had great numbers and we were pulling in the audience that Fox wanted.
When the time came for us to be renewed after Season Three, we were pulled at the last minute. We were on the schedule until the day before they announced the renewals.
Titus: They had to let us know by midnight, and I got a call at 11:56 p.m. telling me that they weren’t going to renew the show. After the last episode aired, I called Gail Berman and said, “I really get that I was difficult at times. I want you to know it was only to protect the show, but I do understand that I should have treated you with more respect and I apologize.” Then she gave me the old Hollywood “Fuck You.” She said, “We wish you continued success, Christopher.”
That was the story of how I killed my career, by Christopher Titus.
Keach: We were devastated when the show was canceled. Titus was revolutionary, there was nothing like it. I revisited it just recently and it holds up. I don’t know if a show like that could get on the air today. I just know that it was a gift to be a part of it — a blessing. It was one of my very favorite experiences of my whole career. In years to come, I think Titus will be recognized as a real, revolutionary moment in television sitcom history.
Hargrove: I wish we’d gotten to 60 shows, which is a mini-syndication. The network shot themselves in the foot because they just needed six more episodes to syndicate us. I didn’t know that at the time, but I wish I had because I like to think I could have convinced Gail to give us six more episodes. Even now, I don’t know why they won’t release the show on one of the streaming services. We did 54 episodes, and they were fantastic. I keep hoping they’ll change their minds.
Kenny: It breaks my heart that this show isn’t on anywhere because I’m so proud of what we did. I’ve even said to people I know at Disney, because Disney owns Titus now, “Can’t you put it on Hulu? I’m not looking for a payday, I just want people to see the show. I want it to exist.”
Shatraw: Titus took the cancellation hard. Even 20 years later, whenever I run into him, he’s like, “I’m sorry, it should have went longer.” He still keeps apologizing.
Titus: I had a tough time after Titus was canceled. It especially bothered me that it ended on a cliffhanger, with me going into a mental hospital at the end of Season Three. I sat with that for years and then, over COVID, I was like, “We’re not going to survive COVID, what are we going to do?” Looking back, it still bothered me that we never got to wrap up the show.
So I called everyone up and said, “If I come up with something you guys like, will you do it?” They all said they would. Keach did too, but his wife said he couldn’t be on set, which I totally understood — he was 78 at the time and it was during COVID. So we had him over an iPad in the episode and said he was in Mexico. We made it work.
The story had me getting out of the mental hospital eight years later. Tommy and Erin break the news to me that they’re together now, and the whole thing ends with me meeting Rachel, my wife now. Then me, her and Zack drive to Mexico to get my dad out of a Mexican prison. That was filmed in October 2020. It was this weird, scary time, but it was also the best time in my life creatively. After so many years, I finally felt like I got a bit of closure on Titus.