Poster: Mr. Television
(see this users gallery)
Normal People Terrify Me : A Look At Titus, The Last Great Sitcom About Truly Dysfunctional Families
By Andrew Husband
Everything you need to know about the plot and format Titus, the Christopher Titus-led sitcom that ran from 2000 to 2002 on Fox, is laid out in the first 45 seconds of the pilot. Statistics on domestic dysfunction in the United States, how the main character's family fits into this national portrait, whether these delicate subjects are joke-worthy all of this and more pops up in the opening monologue of what was the last great American television show about modern, truly dysfunctional families.
The Los Angeles Times states 63 percent of American families are now considered dysfunctional. That means we're the majority. We're normal. It's the people that had the mom, dad, brother, sister, little white picket fence those people are the freaks, Titus says to the camera. Normal people terrify me because they haven't had enough problems in their lives to know how to handle problems when they come up. When something little happens, they just snap.
The shot contains only Titus, a dangling light bulb, and a wooden chair in a neutral, black-and-white space. A fully-colored cutaway briefly interrupts the introduction with a visual gag, but only to illustrate the main point: That normal people who have never dealt with problems like divorce, abuse and suicide in their family life can't handle a crisis.
Such is the basic format for each 22-minute episode of Titus. They begin and end with this neutral space, during which the titular character introduces and reflects on the main elements of the actual story. This black-and-white monologue sometimes interjects additional nuggets of information during the main narrative, but only to provide further background and jokes. Add a significant number of cutaway gags similar to Family Guy, which premiered a year earlier and you've got yourself a full episode.
On the one hand, neither the plot nor the format were really all that special for the time. Sure, the use of the neutral space and the cutaways was noticeably unique, but television was overflowing with dysfunctional families especially Fox. As the New York Times pointed out at the time, the network already [had] one dysfunctional family in its lineup with Malcolm in the Middle. Other shows, like Married with Children, The Simpsons and King of the Hill, could also lumped into the dysfunctional family category.
But there's a difference between the kind of mild, comic dysfunction those shows trafficked in and Titus. Titus was the first sitcom of its kind to come along and inject some reality into the word dysfunctional. None of the other Fox shows named above featured major characters from a broken home. Nor could the words suicide, rape and murder be used to describe anything integral to their plots. Real issues with bona fide statistics to back them up such as divorce rates, domestic violence and child abuse were on full display, albeit in a multi-camera comedy series.
There was no narration performed by a child star turned Academy Award-winning director (Arrested Development). Handheld camera shots mimicking the mockumentary style that became popular years later never crept in (Modern Family). Titus was just a typical, studio lot-bound sitcom complete with a live studio audience, except most of Christopher Titus jokes had to do with his father's womanizing, his mother's paranoid schizophrenia, his ex-girlfriend's physical abuse, and other topics.
Unsurprisingly, a few critics were not too fond of the mid-season replacement when it premiered in March of 2000. One critic labeled it an uneven comedy amid a season of gimmicky shows, while another brandished a much less positive outlook when describing the first few episodes as more painful than humorous. However, just as many television writers praised Titus ability to refashion real-life tragedies with wit and startling insight. Titus was somehow able to tell fictionalized stories based on his own awful childhood via a comedic lens. I'm sure it's really, really difficult to craft and crack jokes about mental instability and murder when you're talking about your parents, though I wouldn't know. My father is 100 percent more monogamous than Ken Papa Titus (Stacy Keach), and my mother never took a page from Juanita Titus's (Frances Fisher) book and shot her boyfriend at a wedding.
Complaints and concerns aside, viewers flocked to their televisions to watch the premiere in stupidly large numbers. As the Los Angeles Times noted, Titus ranked first in the time period for all key demographics and beat out the nearest competitor by 141 percent. In other words, enough people who thought the show would be more humorous than painful decided to tune in.
Unfortunately, these debut numbers weren't enough to save the show from eventual cancellation. Titus stayed afloat for a short first season and two additional full seasons, but was axed when Christopher Titus refused to alter a major plot point. A revival series was briefly entertained, but the comedian revealed in 2014 that, because Fox owned the rights to the show and all its characters, he and his team wouldn't be able to make it happen.
No other supposedly dysfunctional television family has ever come as close to exemplifying the most literal definition of that word as Titus. Maybe that's a good thing, especially for anyone who doesn't think subjects like marital infidelity, mental illness and abuse are grounds for humor. Then again, as Titus explains at the end of the first episode, when the apocalypse causes the normal 37 percent to freak out, the new majority will say: Hey, there's nobody watching the Lexus dealership.