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For a time, it seemed like David Cross’ writing voice—which was so profoundly, excellently displayed on Mr. Show With Bob And David—would be limited to his stand-up. He’s worked magic with other people’s material in recent years, most notably as Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development, but he wasn’t at the creative helm. The animated Freak Show—which he co-created with Jon Benjamin—didn’t get past its first season, and a re-teaming with Bob Odenkirk for an HBO pilot, David’s Situation, didn’t pan out. That streak should change tonight with the U.S. première of The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret, a six-episode series written by, created by, and starring Cross. (British comedian Shaun Pye co-created and co-wrote.) The show tells the tale of inept, egotistical Todd Margaret, an American who’s sent on a whim by his boss—played with asshole-ish perfection by Will Arnett—to England to sell an energy drink called Thunder Muscle. Cross spoke with The A.V. Club about the new show, as well as his other current role opposite Arnett, as an eco-warrior on the confusingly maligned Running Wilde (which, like Arrested Development, comes from the mind of Mitch Hurwitz), and the Adult Swim show that almost was, Paid Programming.
The A.V. Club: I had low expectations for the Running Wilde pilot, because word was that it was not very funny. I actually thought that it was pretty good.
David Cross: I’m surprised at the amount and the level of, in a simple word, negative reviews, and specifically why they’re negative.
AVC: What criticisms specifically struck you?
DC: More than anything else I’ve heard the theory posited as fact that you can’t have a comedy where your leading man, as it’s usually phrased, is unlikeable and a goof, a bumbling, unlikeable guy. I don’t know where that came from, and I’ve read that a lot. “Oh, you can’t have a comedy where the leading man is unlikeable. That won’t exist. It’s not possible.” I just don’t believe that. It’s a head-scratcher to me.
AVC: It seems strange, too, considering The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm and even The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret.
DC: It’s a situation and characters that were developed just to cram as many jokes as you can in there. There are tons of jokes, and I think they’re, for the most part, pretty funny. I don’t know. The level of criticism is surprising.
AVC: How big is your role on Running Wilde? I’ve only seen the first one.
DC: It’s not that big. I’m gonna keep popping in and out. Steve, Will Arnett’s character, keeps sending me to various places to get rid of me, but I keep showing back up. Two episodes will go by, and then I’m back again, and then they get rid of me, and then another episode goes by, and here I come again.
AVC: And you weren’t involved with the writing and development of that show at all, right?
DC: No, no, not at all.
AVC: But you are intimately involved with Todd Margaret.
DC: Yeah, that’s 100 percent in. All in, cards on the table. Let’s flip over the cards.
AVC: We exchanged e-mails when you were shooting Todd Margaret, and you said something to the effect of, “I’m in England, shooting your new favorite show.” Did it turn out as well as you felt it was going at that point? Do you have high hopes?
DC: Absolutely. I wouldn’t say high hopes—I’ve learned not to have high hopes about anything anymore. Sometimes in the middle of a project, you’ll think it’s really great, and then you see the end result and it’s lacking something. But with this, I’ve seen everything. They’re all finished, they’re posted. They start airing Friday. I’ve seen them all, and I know what they look like, and I know what the finished version is. I’ve been very, very happy with it. And I have never done anything where I believed that the sum is greater than the parts, but the parts are all really great.
AVC: So what was the process of getting this show off the ground? It wasn’t the typical development process, right?
DC: I came to this in a kind of backwards way, as opposed to everything else I’ve done, where I’ve had an idea—or a writing partner has—and pitched that idea. With this, I was in London doing stand-up back in ’07, and after a show, these two women came up to me—they didn’t look like my typical audience. They said they were from [British TV production company] RDF, and asked if I would be interested in—this was their idea—being put together with a UK writer/producer and developing this show for the UK that I would write and star in, and that could potentially be sold to the States as well. Obviously, I said yes. If I haven’t said yes, I really should let them know. I approached it with very specific parameters. RDF and Channel 4, the British network, and myself were all in agreement that this shouldn’t be a typical fish-out-of-water story. That’s been relied on so heavily, and there’s not that many differences between British and American culture—not that many that the educated Brit or American wouldn’t figure out. So we just didn’t want it to be, “Hey, you drive on the wrong side of the road!” and, “You drink tea instead of coffee!” and all that kind of shit. The great thing about the British template for a show is you’re only doing six episodes. You have much more freedom, content-wise and creatively, to tell the story you want. And they tell stories over there. I mean, The Office: There’s a journey the character takes. There’s a sense of travel to the characters.
AVC: Is a project like this the only way to get your type of vision out to a larger audience? Hollywood or even American TV wouldn’t make sense.
DC: Well, it’s not the only way. It’s a way. There’s still always going to be money versus creative economy. That’s always going to be an issue. I haven’t met the guy personally, but I know a couple of people who’ve developed shows with FX, and whoever the new guy is there—or relatively new guy there—they fucking praise that guy to the heavens. They love it. The budget is minuscule, but they get their way, and they get to do what they want. But that’s kind of always been the case. If you want to do a show on Fox, you’re going to have to make a lot of compromises, every step of the way.
AVC: You think the same is true for doing a feature film?
DC: It’s such a bigger gamble. You’re so many steps away, you really don’t know what it’s going to look like. I could create a 30-minute script, and based on a pilot, you have a good sense of what that script is going to turn into, whereas with a film, you don’t. And that’s it. If that doesn’t work, then there’s no going back and fixing it up, fixing your mistakes in episode four, because there is no episode four. There’s an 18-month or two-year turnaround from when you start writing the script and selling it to seeing it done. By then, they’ve put in millions of dollars, so they want to get their investment back. So then you get the people who distribute the film saying, “I don’t care what you think, we can’t sell this. We need to make our money back. This is how we’re going to market it and distribute it.” You lose your say every step of the way. That’s what I love about TV: the immediacy of it. I write a script, then you can shoot it a month later. Then you take a month to post it. And it goes on the air. You get much quicker feedback.
AVC: Considering that, is this something you’ll want to do again? Will there be a second Todd Margaret season?
DC: Well, there could be up to three seasons. I do not resolve anything in these six episodes. In fact, I leave it on a major, major cliffhanger in the sense that a lot of the bad stuff that has happened all culminates and builds to a head in this one last scene, the very last 30 seconds of the episode where you look at it and you go, “How the fuck is he going to get out of this?” So nothing is really resolved. In fact, it’s made much worse. But I always knew what the end is. I know right now, and a handful of people know how the story ends. Whether IFC picks it up remains to be seen. If it’s dead in the water, I’ll tell everybody how it ends. [Laughs.] But, hopefully there’ll be a second and third series, and then it would end. And that would be that.
AVC: Do you have any of it written, or do you have it sketched out in your mind?
DC: It’s just kind of sketched out on index cards. I actually met with Shaun Pye yesterday and we went over some stuff. We have to back into the end. You see the courtroom—you know where he ends up, just how does he get there? [Each episode begins with Cross in a British courtroom, being read a list of crimes. —ed.] I know what happens in the courtroom, and I know what happens past it. Each episode begins the day after the last one ended. So, if there are eight more episodes, it will bring us up to the courtroom, which means he has to get arrested, and we know how that stuff is going to happen.
The most important thing that I think helps people going into this show is the idea that the story is unfolding, and you need to pay attention. If you do, you will be rewarded, but it is a story unfolding. As I said, every single episode takes place the very next day. There’s no relief from the pressure that’s being built up, and it all kind of gets compounded. And I think that, knowing that the six weeks it takes to watch these six episodes, which will really only take place over six days, kind of makes for a slightly different viewing experience than you’d normally have with a comedy. That’s usually more associated with, like Lost or The Event or something like that. Like, “Oh, shit, what happened?” There’s a bigger story happening and unfolding than initially appears to be, and I think that’s kind of a cool thing that I don’t think has been done in comedy.
AVC: Is Spike Jonze’s involvement just as an actor?
DC: Yeah. And catering.
AVC: What’s his specialty?
DC: Uh, Bison pops?
AVC: Sounds like molecular gastronomy, which you poke fun at on the show a bit.
DC: Not really. It’s just freezing bison on a stick.
AVC: Is it fair to say that this is the thing you’ve been most passionate about recently?
DC: Yes, since I’ve been working on it. I did something with Jon Benjamin that I fucking loved that I can’t believe didn’t get picked up by Adult Swim, especially because the budget was, I think, $50,000 an episode. But that—I wouldn’t say I was passionate about it, but I am adamant, I have no doubt in my mind that it would’ve be very successful and very funny. We shot one episode and we have a script for another. We’ll get it somewhere. They’re just crazy for not picking it up. But that—I don’t know if “passionate” would be the right idea—but I’m very optimistic about that project as well.
AVC: Is this the Paid Programming: Icelandic Ultra Blue pilot?
DC: It is.
AVC: Was that supposed to be some sort of a secret? Someone mentioned it to me just a couple weeks ago and said, “Hey, clearly David Cross is in here somewhere.” So you guys made it…
DC: Well, the way that we intended to do it… This guy at Adult Swim totally fucked us, because he announced it at—it wasn’t Comic-Con but it was one of those cons. Dragon Con maybe? I don’t know. They just didn’t know what to do with it. He blew it, so unfortunately you won’t get to enjoy it this way; but the idea was it would be this fake infomercial that wouldn’t look fake, because they all look so cheap and weird, that starts off seemingly innocuous, at least for 20 seconds or so. It’s this product and this family of products, and you don’t know exactly what they do, it’s all commercial jargon. And the show was called Paid Programming, so the intent was it would air at 3 in the morning, or thereabouts. It would air in the middle of other infomercials. If you look at the scroll on the TV Guide Channel, it always says Paid Programming. You wouldn’t know, but it would be on Adult Swim. You’d flip through late at night, and you’d see this infomercial that slowly reveals itself to be this crazy thing that’s just silly. There’s no recognizable people in it—they’re all actors we got from Central Casting. The only sense you get of Jon and I is that you hear our voices at one point. And then kind of like in Mr. Show, every commercial unfolds into another commercial, but it’s all within the context of this infomercial for Icelandic Ultra Blue. So there’s all these products that keep zooming past you, and telescoping outwards in the way that Mr. Show did.
And that was it. There’s never going to be a shortage of products to parody and commercial styles to parody, plus all these actors who were just awful. It was really funny. We had ideas for a number of different scripts, and we wrote a couple scripts out. It was always Icelandic Ultra Blue, and at the end you would get the sense that there was something nefarious going on. It would have been great.
AVC: It actually aired a couple of times, right?
DC: Yeah, it aired as part of our plan. You’d see the boards, you know, the comedy-chat things or whatever, on Adult Swim. Like, “Holy fuck, did anybody see this crazy thing?” That’s what we wanted. Because then you can’t keep it secret for very long. Eventually, people are going to figure out it’s us. In fact, we didn’t expect it would take more than a week or two for people to figure it out, especially because it’s on Adult Swim and you do hear Jon and I’s voices. And it’s crazy. It’s obviously a joke. Yeah, but then Adult Swim were scared, and they didn’t know what they would do with it. “What if nobody watches?” And blah blah blah. So, they just basically let the whole cat out of the bag. But people did watch it and go, “What the fuck was that?” By that time, they had chosen not to pick it up. It just aired a couple times.
I showed it at a show in London called Popcorn, which is once a month, and it’s at the Tabernacle Theatre, which is an old church, and it holds about six or seven hundred people. Once a month they have this Popcorn Comedy night, where comedians go on, but every act shows a video clip, and it can be whatever you want. It could be something you made, something you saw on YouTube that you liked, a clip from a movie, whatever. So you do your set, and you also show this thing. I expected that people might not get all the references, because they don’t even have infomercials there. They have plenty of American TV, but they don’t really have half-hour infomercials. And I was a little apprehensive. I didn’t know how it would go over. The reception was ridiculous. I never would have anticipated it. They were laughing so hard. They were missing jokes because they were laughing so hard. Quite often they didn’t even get the references, but they got the context, I guess. But it went really well, and it really pissed me off after that. I was like, “Wow, if these guys from a foreign country liked it…”