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Real-life family trauma becomes fodder for sitcom laughs

Sunday, March 19, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- It's been almost 12 years since "Roseanne" put the fun in dysfunctional TV families, but now a new batch of programs promises to take this sitcom sub-genre further.

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Already, Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" has become a hit, due in part to its depiction of an off-kilter family. In the upcoming comedy "Sammy," actor David Spade re-creates his relationship with his father in cartoon form.

But perhaps the bleakest familial history comes to light in Fox's "Titus," premiering tomorrow at 8:30 p.m.

Stand-up comic Christopher Titus relates his life growing up with a father who called him a wussy and a schizophrenic mother who was institutionalized.

Although it may seem an unlikely premise for comedy, Titus said his mantra is "find the pain, make it funny." And, said the 35-year-old Titus, his sitcom isn't about placing blame.

"Lots of people do blame their parents for their life, but here's the thing: If I blame my dad for all the bad stuff, I have to blame him for sitting in front of you guys with a national TV show coming out," Titus said at January's TV critics winter press tour.

"People live out of their past. Dad was raised the way he was raised. He was a 21-year-old father ... and he did the best he could," Titus said. "He was raised in that generation where you follow your responsibilities. As long as those were covered, you can do whatever you want."

Titus said his father never failed to pay the rent, never missed a car payment, but the way he's depicted caring for his children goes beyond tough love. In one scene, Ken Titus (played by Stacy Keach) teaches his son how to swim by throwing him into a lake. Young Titus is also depicted as a pawn used by both his father and stepmother to conceal one another's infidelities.

"To write the show, you had to have gone past it and see the positive aspects of whatever your life was," Titus said. "It's great to laugh about it because ... it turns it into a joke instead of what life was."

Titus, who started doing stand-up comedy at age 18, found he could work through his past by incorporating true stories into his stand-up act, starting in 1996. Two years later, he premiered the one-man show "Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding."

"In stand-up, being able to talk about it every night on stage, that's what you go to therapy for," Titus said. "I got to go to a room full of 300 people every night for 16 years around this country and talk about it. And what happens is you blow it out, because you see the funny side of it. You see the power in it, as opposed to the pain in it and dragging that through your life."

TV's new obsession with dysfunction may be a reaction to the fun and fancy-free sitcoms of recent years. Producers can only go to the single-gal-making-it-in-the-big-city well so many times before the concept (as seen on "Caroline in the City," "Veronica's Closet," "Suddenly Susan," etc.) runs out of steam. Now producers are looking to what worked in the past. Titus said he was inspired by "All in the Family" when making "Titus" "as opposed to smart-ass people yelling at each other."

"Titus" executive producer Brian Hargrove said TV comedy goes in phases and that by hearkening back to "All in the Family" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," they're actually thinking "out of the box."

"[Those are] real situation comedies that are driven by characters and their interrelationships, people that you get to know week after week after week and fall in love with," Hargrove said.

"Malcolm in the Middle" depicts a functional family compared to "Titus." The "Malcolm" clan is an intact family; they just come off closer to the Conners of "Roseanne" than the Cleavers of "Leave It to Beaver."

"Malcolm" creator Linwood Boomer said most of the stories come from his own childhood memories and those of the show's other writers, "filtered through a lot of self-serving lies and distortions."

"When we're pitching out an idea for an episode, it always seems to work out the best and gives us the best scripts if it's something that happened to one of our writers," Boomer said.

When he was 10 years old, one producer got picked on endlessly by another kid. He finally snapped and retaliated, beating up his tormentor, only to discover the kid was a really big 7-year-old. That became the basis for a "Malcolm in the Middle" episode.

That kind of real-life story isn't painful with the distance of time, but others, like "Titus," have the potential to cause hurt feelings.

NBC's animated "Sammy," which will likely air this summer, fictionalizes the relationship between David Spade ("Just Shoot Me") and his father Sammy, who abandoned Spade's mom and brother in real life. But Sammy returned to his son's life when David got older and he's now a consultant on this show.

"I think he kind of has to be cool with it," David Spade said of his father's reaction to the series. "It's not so much payback, but there is a certain leeway he has to give me because he did put us through a lot."

For Titus, getting the approval of his father didn't require a credit on the TV show.

"He was really concerned at first," Titus said. "And then he said it was OK as long as I bought him a car." In January, they were shopping for a Ford Expedition.

While "Roseanne" was a reaction to the goody-two-shoes image of family life popularized on "The Cosby Show," "Titus" and "Sammy" arrive from a darker place. Just as some viewers could identify with a not-so-pristine home on "Roseanne," viewers can also relate to a show about a father who abandons his family, but isn't a purely evil guy.

"We have to make him a likable guy, because he's a very likable, charming guy in real life," Spade said of Sammy. "He made no bones about leaving. ... And he's kind of like Teflon, every dig I get at him just kind of bounces off and doesn't really hurt him."

Although not everything in "Sammy" is real, Spade said the root of the relationship between his character and Sammy is based on their lives.

Unlike "Titus," which has the additional complication of mental illness, Spade called "Sammy" a depiction of a textbook broken family.

"It's kind of really what would happen in these situations," Spade said. "The tough part is making that a straight comedy. It was hard to do, but we want no dramedy feel. It's not a sad story. It's just fun to poke fun."

That's the key to dysfunctional TV families -- they have to entertain even as they replicate real life. Viewers can watch as Spade, Titus and Malcolm laugh all the way to the therapist.

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