In 2006, several years after Christopher Titus’ autobiographical Fox sitcom Titus was canceled, the comedian returned with a new idea for a TV show. Its premise was controversial: A Los Angeles police department had been mandated to hire cops with disabilities, but the cop in charge was an insensitive asshole who wanted nothing to do with the squad.
Titus cast himself as the asshole cop, whose condescension was so blatant that he spoke slower to his new hires thinking they’d understand him better. Titus says Showtime initially showed interest in the idea but later backpedaled. He then took it to Comedy Central, which agreed to film the pilot with Bryan Cranston as director. Cranston also played one of the disabled cops; one scene shows him drooling on himself while wearing a crash helmet. The networks found it politically incorrect and totally untenable, to put it lightly. In spite of its star power, the pilot went nowhere.
Titus, who admits now that the pilot was offensive, maintains that he didn't think it went too far. “I’ve been doing comedy since I was 19. I kind of have an idea of what too far is in a lot of situations,” he says. “Here’s where we’re losing our minds in this country. All of the disabled people thought Bryan was funny as shit doing that. They thought it was hilarious and nobody got offended.”
Titus collected rejection after rejection and ended up shelving the script. Then, three years ago, an encounter on the street with a woman in a wheelchair compelled him to dust it off again. She was on one end of a crosswalk and Titus was on the other, he recalls, but when the light turned green, she sat there staring at the ground. “As I crossed the street past her I said, ‘How’s it going, kid?’” Titus says. “She looked up and said, ‘Thank you.’ She didn't say, ‘Hi.' She said, ‘Thank you.’” Their encounter was similar to the one that inspired Titus to pursue the project in the first place, he says. He remembers watching a crowd of people part around a guy in a wheelchair at a mall in Sherman Oaks but says that nobody seemed to look the guy in the wheelchair in the eyes — maybe because they thought their stares might be perceived as rude. “I don’t think people are mean,” Titus says. “I think what has happened is our whole lives we’ve been told, ‘Don’t bother them, don’t stare, don’t make them nervous.’”
Titus was determined to make his buddy-cop comedy work, even if he had to be the one to finance and produce it. He wanted not only for the public to pay attention to disabled people on the streets or at the mall but also to show that disabled people could be wildly funny — and just as raunchy and offensive as the next actor or comedian. This month, more than a decade after he first conceived of it as a TV show, Titus released Special Unit as a feature-length film under his own production company, Combustion Films. It premiered at the ArcLight in mid-October and is now available on iTunes. Titus has billed it as the first movie to include multiple disabled actors — including his longtime friend and fellow comedian Michael Aronin, who has cerebral palsy — in starring roles. He hopes it will lead to more work for disabled actors, who account for just 2 percent of all actors employed on television shows, according to a 2016 study that examined more than 30 shows across streaming, cable and broadcast networks.
“Every time someone does a movie where there’s a disabled cast — the main character’s disabled, which is few and far between — there’s a level of preciousness people put on top of that,” Titus says. “They’re extra special. They have special abilities or an able-bodied person has to save them. I wrote this so they have to fucking save me.”
Tobias Forrest, one of the actors in the movie, says that as a person in a wheelchair, there’s a limited range of roles he’s typically offered. He might be cast as a tech-savvy computer hacker who saves the day by using his brains rather than his brawn, or, conversely, as a military veteran who comes back from war with physical and emotional injuries. “There are really only a couple of ideas about [people with] disabilities. There’s sort of archetypes,” says Forrest, an actor and musician who became paralyzed from the neck down at 22 years old after jumping off a cliff and misjudging the water level. “Is it a hero? Is it someone that can overcome their disability with their tech savvy? Or you know, sometimes is it somebody that can’t find love, right, and deserves to be loved?”
Forrest, who got his start in the industry after winning a prestigious Christopher Reeve acting scholarship in 2003, says it’s a challenge even to find work as a background actor, let alone to get cast for a speaking part in film and TV. He says he welcomed the opportunity to star in Special Unit, even if the film is so tongue-in-cheek that the actors’ real-life disabilities are often the butt of the jokes and it’s not always clear whether the audience is supposed to be laughing with them or at them (Titus insists it’s the former). “Hopefully the movie mirrors real life for an audience member who’s close-minded, who starts off like Titus’ character Garrett [thinking] these people can’t be cops,” Forrest says. “And by the end of the film, you know them by their names. You’ve taken the same journey that his character has of education, awareness and acceptance.”
Travis Eberhard, another actor from the movie who is also in a wheelchair, says roughly 80 percent of the roles he gets cast in are written for a disabled person, although the majority of parts he auditions for don’t specifically require an actor with disabilities. “I don’t feel like my disability is something that defines me at all,” he says. “As an actor, I would like to just have a role as a neighbor or a lawyer or you know whatever it is and not be thought of as, ‘Oh, well we have this role for somebody in a wheelchair so we’ll use you.’ I want someone to say, ‘We think you’d be funny in this role regardless of your disability.’”
Of course, that was not the case with Special Unit, since its plot revolves specifically around characters with disabilities and Titus had an underlying goal of casting actors from America’s largest minority group. Eberhard says he was at times conflicted about the script’s focus on “pointing out the disability or something where it’s not necessary, but I do think it comes from a good place and I’m hoping that the positives outweigh those moments where it can seem a little bit unnecessary.” Still, he’s bracing himself for the worst among audience reactions: “I believe there are going to be people who will take it wrong, and I think there will be some blowback.”
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When asked why he didn't make a movie where he could cast disabled actors in roles that didn’t require them to be disabled, Titus says it wasn’t that simple. “You have to address the elephant in the room, especially in character,” he says. “My character, he’s so heinous, he’s such a bad guy that … it gives them the freedom to do whatever they have to do to me. In fact, you start rooting for them instantly because you want them to take me out.” But in case there’s any doubt, Special Unit is hardly a feel-good movie. “Everybody in the movie is an asshole,” says Titus, and that goes for every character, regardless of his or her disability.
That doesn't mean there hasn't already been pushback. Titus says he’s gotten hate mail about Special Unit from disability advocacy groups, one of which advised him to hire a publicist and educate himself about how to talk about people with disabilities. Titus shrugs off the criticism, suggesting his actions speak louder than his words. “The disabled community got jobs because of me, and you can suck it. I didn't see you hiring disabled people,” he says of his detractors. “And that's also why you don't see people throwing jobs at me."
It’s far from the first time the comedian has tackled non-PC subjects using language that pisses off a whole lot of people. In the 2013 Comedy Central special Voice in My Head, he argued for the use of the word “retard” — not as a descriptor for the physically or mentally disabled but as a label for able-bodied, otherwise mentally competent morons. And despite what its questionable name might imply, Born With a Defect, his stand-up special from last year, is a nod to his own dysfunctional upbringing and a case against his qualifications (or lack thereof) to raise a child.
“When comedians start apologizing, it doesn’t work. Carlin never apologized ever. And this year we had Dave Chappelle apologize, Kathy Griffin had to apologize and Bill Maher had to apologize," he says. "The second a comedian apologizes, you can no longer trust that comedian.”