By Ken Tucker
March 24, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Add Titus to the list of working-stiff sitcoms that includes The King of Queens, The Drew Carey Show, and Norm. Or rather, separate Titus from this pack, because it’s attempting something different. In an early episode of Titus, for example, creator-star Christopher Titus, playing a genial lout named Christopher Titus, turns to the camera and says: ”My father never missed a drink or a joint or…a chance to get laid in his life. But he also never missed a day of work, or a house payment, or a car payment.” Christopher is trying to make excuses for his father (played with an impressive disregard for audience sympathy by Stacy Keach), who we have been told regularly humiliated his five wives and two children, and who, at this point in the show, we think might be dead in the next room. It is, all in all, an impressive moment; most sitcoms don’t usually try to make their characters unlikable, nor do they try to redeem them by exposing their faults as frankly as Christopher does here. But it’s also a peculiarly static, talky moment; most sitcoms usually obey one basic dramatic tenet: Don’t describe, show.

Titus is based on Christopher Titus’ well-reviewed one-man autobiographical stage show, Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding, and once you know that fact, you understand why Titus often has the look of a performance piece broken up with dramatizations. Clearly, Titus has been inspired by equal parts Spalding Gray (yak about personal experiences in a confiding, therapeutically knowing manner) and Roseanne (shaddup and listen ta my life, ya weenies!). The talking-to-the-audience material is shot in black and white to signify its staged artiness, but it also makes the show’s standard sitcom scenes seem even livelier than they are — a canny strategy. Titus, who plays a guy who builds hot rods for a living, has surrounded himself with a first-rate cast, which besides an admirably boorish Keach includes Zack Ward as Christopher’s dim brother, Dave, and Cynthia Watros as Christopher’s girlfriend, Erin. Watros, a graduate of The Guiding Light, is a strong actress who doesn’t play cute or coy; her Erin never falls for the macho bull Christopher’s father has taught him so well.

Having watched three episodes of Titus, however, I must say I never laughed as hard as I did at a recent edition of The King of Queens, when Kevin James’ Doug comes upon his father-in-law, Arthur (Jerry Stiller), watching TV. Arthur, staring at the screen intently, says gravely: ”I’m watching this very interesting program. Seems this young fellow Screech has painted himself into quite a corner.”

Okay, so you have to get off on Saved by the Bell references — the very sort of joking that Titus is a reaction against. Nonetheless, King of Queens is every bit as satisfying an exploration of The Way We Live Middle-Class Lives Today as Titus, and the show’s current season is its strongest, with James and costar Leah Remini sparking off each other’s line readings like a veteran comedy team.

I also decided to give back-to-back sitcoms The Drew Carey Show and Norm a fresh squint, and came away pleasantly surprised. I’d grown sick of Carey’s reliance upon the cartoonishly grotesque office harridan Mimi (Kathy Kinney) as a comic foil, but I have to hand it to Carey and show cocreator Bruce Helford: They’ve swiveled the spotlight back where it belongs — on Carey himself, one of the most likable, low-key-hepcat personalities on television. The closer any Drew episode gets to the cool-jerk vibe Carey gives off on talk shows, the better it invariably is.

Same goes for the way the Helford-produced Norm has refocused itself on Norm Macdonald’s goofball-hipster persona to good effect. Doing without Titus‘ chatterbox framing device, Macdonald is his own complicated piece of work — a comedian playing a character (a social worker) who’s forever breaking character to let you know he’s a comedian doing a sitcom. Helped enormously by Laurie Metcalf’s daringly bug-eyed, loose-limbed clowning, Norm has painted itself into quite a funny corner, in a way that even Screech would appreciate. Titus: B The King of Queens: B+ The Drew Carey Show: B Norm: B+

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