Christopher Titus comes off as one scary guy. From the moment he appears in Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding, his features made thick and primitive by overcast lighting, we know we're not in for an evening of gentle kvetching delivered by one of those coquettishly neurotic standups who rule American comedy. Instead, the blond, athletic-looking 33-year-old reminds us of some Marine Corps washout quietly seething at the end of a bar in Torrance or Redondo, the kind of human hand grenade who, if you're stupid enough to make eye contact, will gladly start a conversation with a punch. Which is part of Titus' uneasy charm: While today's “whiner” standups are heir to a rich legacy of urbane, urban wit gracefully descended from Oscar Levant to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld, Titus represents a deviant strain whose desperate passage begins in the country's deranged suburbs and paranoid heartland.
It's not that Titus is particularly hostile or mean – he's neither a vulgar oaf like Sam Kinison nor an insult comic a la Don Rickles. “Volatile” probably comes closest to describing his loud, hyperkinetic stage persona, a mien that menaces because, as with that rejected or AWOL jarhead at the bar, we never know where he's coming from or, more important, where he's headed. When he makes offhand references to “fags” or to slapping a girlfriend, we begin to squirm; the civilized, predictable ground rules of Caucasian comedy have been fractured. And indeed, from a distance Titus appears to be the proverbially angry white male that both fascinates and repels the entertainment industry – although our perception undergoes several changes throughout the evening.
Titus knows this much about himself: He comes from a “dysfunctional family,” and it is around this given that his solo show revolves. On a stage barren except for what looks like an execution chair (its significance remains obscure), he alternately sprints and writhes while bringing to life a family album that includes a six-times-married alcoholic father and a manic-depressive mother with a 180 IQ and some shockingly lethal tendencies. “Normal people terrify me,” he admits, and we believe him.
He describes growing up in Newark, a town in Northern California, in a family that is part Rockwell, part Manson, in which Mom out-Bettys Betty Crocker with elaborate Thanksgiving meals even as she slides into clinical insanity, and Dad's television debut comes when a news crew captures his arrest at a DUI checkpoint. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Chris, who's already been grounded, gets so wasted at a beach party that he falls into a bonfire, is taken to the hospital and comes home to face an even worse ordeal – Dad, it seems, was not exactly Benjamin Spock when it came to disciplining his kids, and had an unerring knack for undermining his sons' self-esteem, rebuffing their every complaint with the admonition “Stop being a wussy!”
In fact, Titus' family confronted pain, adversity and emotional flaws the old-fashioned way – with denial and a bottle. This may qualify them as dysfunctional, but on some level also squeezes a nostalgic tear from our eyes, recalling that vanished time when GIs returning from war never mentioned the horrors they had witnessed, while their president, during four terms in office, made but one light public reference to the fact that he was a cripple. As Titus says, for all his father's excesses, he never missed a car or house payment, and was never late for work. Such denial may strike us now as macho posturing, but it was also the kind of ruddy fatalism that got many generations of Americans through wars, poverty and hellish childhoods. Until today, that is, when an underfrothed cappuccino is cause for jumping onto a therapist's couch or into a lawyer's lap, and when the hangnails and paper cuts of life form the grist of standup comedy.
Titus, of course, is not a man of his father's generation or Spartan mindset; unlike young men in the past, his response to an out-of-control family life and his own wanderlust was not to join the service but to become, at age 18, a peripatetic comedian. Neither, obviously, does he keep silent about his family's travails. But he has resisted becoming that all-too-familiar figure in comedy clubs from here to Bangor, that of the put-upon American, the leisure-seeking introvert for whom hell truly is other people.
Instead, Titus' humor is rooted in confession and admissions of culpability – sure, his family has been monstrous, but then, so has he. Moreover, in Rockwell he doesn't inflict upon us some moment or slogan of easy enlightenment, some plug-and-play epiphany that allows him to effortlessly turn his life around before it spirals into the same suckhole as his father's, or his mother's. By the end of his show, we realize that Titus has gained understanding during his life, and gained it the tried-and-true way – by pounding his head against a wall for 20-odd years.
As I've said, our perception of Christopher Titus changes throughout the evening. At first he seems to be what Sandra Bernhard once called “apocalyptic white trash,” but then he keeps throwing us off balance with references to his collection of first-edition books on the one hand, and, on the other, to his penchant for dating “psychobitches” – bright, physically abusive women who happen to resemble his mother. We may never feel totally relaxed with his routine – this, again, is one of its disarming strengths – but eventually Titus turns into someone with a point of view we want to hear and, more important, someone we feel we can trust.
In some ways, Titus' account of 12-pack, muscle-car living in Alameda County has more in common with contemporary California literature than it does with contemporary comedy. He describes the kind of fool's Golden State recorded in some Sam Shepard plays and in Carolyn See's memoir, Dreaming – a California of addictions and violations that many of us have lived in longer, or at least seen closer up, than we may care to admit, and that seldom finds expression in Hollywood, much less on comedy stages. Because of this fact alone, Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding reveals a place and a time in which we live, something very few plays have been capable of doing lately.
Like all storytellers, comics and even diarists, Titus embellishes his life, and has created some fictional putty to connect its segments. (And despite its hair-raising moments, the show ends on a note of redeeming uplift.) All of which is to be expected from a seasoned performer, but is even less surprising here when we remember that Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding is, frankly, a showcase to gain the attention of TV people. Hopefully he will not let television soften and commodify his story, or his persona. For just as Titus' hard-hitting performance is a welcome relief from the parade of adorable complainers we've grown used to, so would his Mickey Spillane brand of comedy help clear the airwaves of its debilitating cleverness. If Seinfeld was the show about nothing, Titus' freebase mix of turmoil and glee is bound to teach us something – if only not to be a bunch of wussies. As he says, “If you are normal, people will accept you. But if you are deranged, they will make you their leader.”