Dan Snierson
March 24, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Crisis is brewing at Coco’s diner in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, all because Christopher Titus wants a cup of coffee. Unable to flag down a waitress on this March morning, the toothsome actor slips away from the table and helps himself to a carafe warming in the server station. Then he spots an older patron also low on java and ambles over to assist. Now the waitress appears. ”Sir, please put down the pot,” she orders, reaching for the coffee. Titus holds it away from her grasp, trying to explain his random act of kindness. ”No, no, you see, I’m just getting him coffee.” She’s not amused: ”Sir, give me that pot! Right now!” Realizing the situation is approaching DEFCON 1 status, Titus finally relents. ”Jeez,” he mutters, slinking back to the booth with a sly grin. ”When I see someone that needs coffee, I bring it.”

Brace yourself, America, for one crazy cup of jolt. In Fox’s aptly titled Titus — a brutally ballsy, self-conscious sitcom that makes All In the Family look like Blossom — the 35-year-old stand-up stars as a struggling hot rod builder saddled with a hard-drinking, womanizing father and a manic-depressive, schizophrenic, institutionalized mother. ”In episode 1 we think Dad’s dead…. Episode 2 is my girlfriend being sexually harassed at work…. Episode 3 is Mom drugs us and tries to kill Dad…. Episode 4 is the ‘Intervention,’ where we try to get my father drinking again…” He stops for a second. ”Man, when you break it down like that, you really do go, ‘What the hell is this show?”’

Call it art imitating white-hot dysfunctional life. Scarily enough, the show’s blueprint was cribbed from Titus’ real vida loca: He grew up in a modest Northern California town, fist-fought with his beer-guzzling salesman dad, and endured a flurry of stepmoms; at 12, he ran away from home and lived in a garage with his biological mother — a brilliant pianist who frequented mental institutions before committing suicide. (Wow. And you thought you had it rough.)

Instead of curling into the fetal position for decades, though, he did standup. ”All this stuff in my life that people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy on became jokes,” he explains. ”I had group therapy with 300 audience members every night. Suddenly it became ‘They’re all laughing, so it must not suck that bad.”’ Observes Titus cocreator Jack Kenny, who first saw him explore these issues in his 1998 one-man play, Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding: ”This is very dark stuff, but Christopher found a way to make it funny. His point of view is ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ And now he’s the strongest man on earth.”

That’s good, because Titus — who lives in quiet Canoga Park, Calif., with wife Erin, two dogs, and four customized cars — may need all the strength he can muster in making amends with dear ol’ Dad. Perhaps the shiny Ford Expedition he just bought Papa Titus will help. ”The car wasn’t a present,” jokes the actor. ”It was more of a settlement.” Hey, it’s a small price to pay for what Titus has gotten in return. ”How can I be pissed at my life if I’m sitting here with a TV series?” he asks. ”I can show that screwed-up people can handle anything…. But I don’t want to get that deep because you know what the bottom line is? All the crappy things that everyone ever did to me — this is payback. All you guys that screwed with me? Guess what? I’ve got a TV show and I’m talking about you!” Out comes a big-bad-scary cackle: ”And I’m embellishing.”

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