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Dysfunction junction

It was a 20-minute conversation. But 20 minutes talking to Christopher Titus is like two hours spent with anyone else.

That's because the motormouth comic speaks to reporters the way he lives his life: at breakneck speed, with little caution.

Ask about the rumors that he once physically confronted a producer while working on his self-titled sitcom for Fox, the 36-year-old launches into a story about pitching his new series idea to NBC.

"You go to a meeting, and people would sheepishly ask me, "I heard you pitched a chair at (Fox entertainment president) Gail Berman,' " Titus said. "I may have said I'd like to beat her with a chair . . . but nothing happened. Still, it's a great story. . . . I hope people keep talking about it like it did."

Titus remains the high point of his career: a dysfunctional family sitcom that debuted as an enormous hit in the spring of 2000, only to be wiped off Fox's schedule two years later.

These days, Titus speaks of the experience the way some men talk about old girlfriends, with equal parts anger and regret. To hear him tell it, the show _ a bruising sitcom based on his life with a beer-guzzling, insulting womanizer of a father, a suicidal mother and a loving girlfriend _ was caught in a war of wills between himself and Berman.

"She always wanted to soften the show, and I never did," he said. "She once asked us to do something (ABC sitcom) Dharma and Greg had just done. She wanted Titus and (his girlfriend) to cheat on each other. And I said, "You know what that's going to do? That's going to make the audience hate us.' You look at Dharma and Greg's numbers the next year, and they dropped in half."

Titus says he can be a handful at times. He's the product of a home where intimidation was the only way to win an argument.

That attitude fueled the TV series, which grew out of the anger-filled one-man show that made his showbiz reputation, Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding.

In sitcom and standup, Titus mines a childhood that would have crushed lesser men: Living with his dad through a series of stepmothers, he left at age 12 to stay with his mom, a talented pianist who spent time in mental institutions before killing herself.

Onstage, that prompted a decision to abandon conventional, "happy boy" material for darker fare. (In a TV Guide Father's Day tribute, he tells of his dad's admission that he was conceived by "revenge sex" after his mother had left him for another man.)

Onscreen, that meant refining his concept of "hard funny:" humor based on bad times that could leave an audience laughing even as its members questioned their propriety.

Some Titus story lines: Titus and his brother wonder if their father (Stacey Keach) is dead when he doesn't leave his room for a beer for days; Titus masks his mother's insanity when she is tried for killing her boyfriend; Titus' father becomes such a loser when he stops drinking that family members stage an intervention to make him start again.

Little wonder the series ended with Titus committed to a mental institution.

In conversation during a TV critics convention in January, Titus seemed to sense that he and the show were in danger, all but begging critics to help build buzz on a show that was slipping in the ratings.

Still, it was something of a surprise when Fox decided in May to cancel Titus while keeping lower-rated shows including Grounded for Life and Andy Richter Saves the Universe. Titus, who has a tendency to divide he world into "for me" and "against me" camps, blames Berman, who was involved in the development of Grounded and Andy Richter.

"We had David Hyde Pierce as a guest. Nobody gets David Hyde Pierce . . . and they didn't promote it," said Titus, noting that the co-star of NBC's Frasier used to watch the show's famously fast-paced tapings. "They moved us every year, and they stopped promoting us. . . . It was a systematic assassination _ like someone took a bullet and slowly pushed it into my brain."

A spokesman for Fox declined to comment on Titus' allegations regarding Berman. Though general household ratings for Titus were larger than Grounded and Richter during the 2001-02 TV season, Richter was ranked 52nd among viewers aged 18 to 49 (Fox's key demographic), while Titus was ranked 54th and Grounded was ranked 66th.

Since the show's end, Titus has returned to his standup roots with a show dubbed "The Fifth Annual End of the World Tour," with material mined from raising a baby born three weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. Told by Tonight Show host Jay Leno that most comics turned sitcom stars quickly lose their onstage chops, Titus values live performances as a way to stay connected to the sensibilities of average TV fans.

"I actually had one (network TV) executive tell me, "People don't care what they watch on TV. They come home, . . . put their feet up and watch whatever's on,' " Titus said. "But . . . people watch what they like, and they switch around every half-hour if they don't like what's on. That's why there's 500 channels instead of, like, two."

His new stage show reflects a new world, where he hears the voice of his now-deceased dad, Ken ("He'll be saying, "You've got a new kid, and the world is coming to an end. Good job, idiot.' "), and riffs on leaving his baby in a chair while taping a Titus episode and watching her fall out.

There's also a new deal with NBC to develop an hourlong action-adventure series _ think 48 Hours meets Midnight Run _ about a cop whose wacky pal gets him kicked off the police force, compelling him to become a bounty hunter while trying to rebuild his life.

(Titus has dreamed up a commercial for the series, in which the wacky partner shows off by twirling his gun and drops it. A round goes off, and the camera falls to the ground, as if the viewer has been clipped. Titus then says to his pal: "You're an idiot.")

This time, the comic has learned that it pays to be, um, flexible when it comes to executive input.

"I'll be a lot more diplomatic," said Titus, recalling a moment when NBC Studios president Ted Harbert offered a criticism. Instead of acting on his initial flash of anger, the comic incorporated the idea. "I figure I can get what I want without being a d_-."

Of course, he's still in that honeymoon period with NBC _ before a script is written, when the project is all pitch meetings and enthusiastic discussions, when everything seems possible. As he has said before, with the bravado of those who have survived real family dysfunction, "Normal people can live with happiness; screwed-up people will try to destroy it."

"(An NBC executive) called me and goes, "Hey Titus, I want you to go as far as you can with this script,' " he said, laughing at the inevitable implications. "I thought, "This guy is either really smart or really stupid.' "

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