David Cross started doing stand-up in his late teens, and—like most comics— struggled for years, trying to find his voice. He got his break writing for The Ben Stiller Show, but he didn’t earn his lifetime pass until a couple of years later, with Mr. Show—a half-hour HBO sketch-comedy show co-created with Bob Odenkirk. The now-legendary (among geeks, anyway) Mr. Show was a brilliant distillation of its creators’ styles: Cross’ direct sarcasm and Odenkirk’s more restrained, not-quite-straight-man act. After the show’s demise—it wasn’t particularly popular when it was on—Cross wandered, taking bit acting roles in stuff like Men In Black, Ghost World, and Scary Movie 2. The growing Mr. Show legend kick-started Cross’ stand-up career, and he took to the stage with a vengeance in the late ’90s and early ’00s, honing an act that took shape on the brilliant double CD Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! At its best, Cross’ stand-up rides the line between viciously funny and pointed—he can go from a simple goof to a tirade about 9/11 in no time, and make it all work.
Cross’ next peak came with the Fox sitcom Arrested Development, on which he played the clueless Dr. Tobias Funke, a role key to the show’s tone. This fall, he’ll hit the stand-up circuit for the first time in ages, playing much larger venues than in the past. The tour is timed with the release of Cross’ first book, I Drink For A Reason, a collection of short pieces that range from a thoughtful, heartfelt examination of a breakup to a list of “videos with babies in them that I have not seen on the Internet but most likely exist.” (Example: “A baby sitting in the toilet while rednecks laugh at it.”) He also abides no bullshit, taking to task lazy critics who think he’s bigoted, Pitchfork contributors who have wild theories about his comedy, and his arch-enemy, Jim Belushi. In other words, Cross is unrivaled in the comedy world at calling bullshit on the world’s crassness and stupidity, which is part of the reason he himself caught some shit—mostly from anonymous Internet geeks—for taking a role in Alvin And The Chipmunks. He defended that decision by being bluntly honest, as usual: He did it for the money, so he could put a down payment on a house a few hours outside his home base, New York City. Cross recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the Alvin “squeakquel,” his reputation as a condescending douchebag, and his upcoming projects.
The A.V. Club: In the interest of journalistic thoroughness, I TiVoed Alvin And The Chipmunks this weekend and fast-forwarded through it. I didn’t realize your role was so huge—you’re practically the star. Have you still not watched it?
David Cross: I haven’t watched it, but I haven’t not watched it out of some moral or ethical stance. I just haven’t had any interest. If it’s on a plane, then maybe I’ll watch it. But that’d be kind of weird, wouldn’t it? If I had kids, I’m sure I’d have to watch it three dozen times, as everybody is quick to tell me.
AVC: Do kids recognize you from it?
DC: Oh, yeah. Tons.
AVC: Are they scared of you because you’re sort of the bad guy?
DC: If they’re really young, they’ll go, “You’re mean!” But that’s it! I’m really surprised by that. I suppose things are vastly different than they were when I was growing up, when you could only see a movie in the movie theater, and then there were a couple channels and some UHF channels on TV. You weren’t bombarded with all this stuff where that actor goes on Dancing With The Stars and then you see him on TV at the baseball game or whatever.
AVC: Are you sure they aren’t saying you’re mean because they read your book?
DC: [Laughs.] As much as I think we’ve really progressed and have advanced as a society and are light years ahead of the most literate society on Earth, I doubt it.
AVC: It was sort of funny how your character was mocking the same kind of assholes that you mock in your act.
DC: It’s a universal, ubiquitous character to have be the villain in those types of movies. You’re right, but it’s a universally reviled and easy type of character to do, the sleazy exploiter-of-talent guy.
AVC: You probably understood why you got shit for doing that movie. People felt like they were calling bullshit on the guy who calls bullshit a lot.
DC: Yeah, I get it totally. It’s nice to be freed of those shackles. It’s very liberating.
AVC: Do you feel freed of them now? Are you going to do Dancing With The Stars and feel no shame?
DC: Totally. No. I wouldn’t do that. But I have no hesitation doing children’s movies. Zero. And I don’t even have kids. I haven’t even made that turn, like, “You know, now that I look into those innocent angels’ faces, they deserve a laugh.” It’s not about that either.
AVC: Have you closed the door on having children?
DC: Do you mean biologically? How dare you! How dare you. I’m not that old. No, not at all. Of course if I find the right person, the time is right. It’s not that I don’t have kids for some personal reason outside of, I just haven’t had kids. And I haven’t met someone who wanted to, as far as I know. And perhaps I’m attracted to women who aren’t ready to make that commitment just yet.
AVC: I wasn’t sure if you’re from the school of “the world is too terrible to bring life into.”
DC: No, that’s silly. I’m of the mindset that most people who have kids are, which is, “Hey, I want another me. I like me. I’m pretty cool, and I’ve got really great ideas, and the way I think is the right way to think. Let’s put another one of me out there.” So I’ll have kids one day. I think I’d be a really good dad. So perhaps I’m doing society a disservice by not having as many kids as possible.
AVC: What was the impetus for doing a book at this point?
DC: Like so many worthwhile projects I get involved with, it was not my idea at all. I got a call from an agent I didn’t even know existed, a literary agent at my agency, who said, “Hey, what do you think about writing a book?” And I said, “Why not?” He says, “Okay, let me set up some phone calls. Let me patch you through to these guys, and I’ll stay away from it from here on out, but you still give me 15 percent. That sound good?” “That sounds great. Business as usual.” So yeah, the guy conference-called me and I never heard from him again, but hopefully he’s enjoying his upstate house.
AVC: So it wasn’t any sort of deep literary aspiration?
DC: No. Zero. Not at all. But I’m happy I did it. I’m happy with it. I like the idea of something tangible. As much as I enjoy doing stand-up, and I’m happy with my CDs and all that stuff, this feels—there’s literally and figuratively weight to it. You can feel the weight in your hand, which I kind of liked.
AVC: How did you approach it? It seems like you took some of it very seriously and crafted it, and other bits are more “Here’s some funny shit.”
DC: That’s totally 100 percent exactly what it was. I would write, for lack of a better word, headier or weightier pieces, more thoughtful pieces, and then after you do three of those, you’re like, “Fuck this, I just want to do something goofy and silly.” So then I’d write a list. Like that thing about the quirks [“A free list of quirks for aspiring independent filmmakers”]… I was tired of writing about the right wing or Jews or religion, so I’d put it down for a bit. It’s just like having a refresher, like having a cold beer and sitting on the porch. “All right, I’m just going to be goofy now,” and then I’d write a list of dumb T-shirts. And those things weren’t all written in one sitting. It was like, “Okay, enough. I hate Jesus, let’s move on. Let’s go back over to fun and silly.” So it was a way to not get bogged down creatively and just have some fun with it.
AVC: Did the more thoughtful pieces scratch an itch you didn’t know you had?
DC: I’ve certainly approached similar if not the same subject matter onstage, but it’s a totally different form of expression. Onstage, you need to be a little more economic. You have tone and cadence and gesticulations and all kinds of things at your disposal, and you’re also very conscious of where the laughs are or aren’t. With this kind of stuff, you’re able to spend more time descriptively. I’d say almost 50 percent of the book is stuff that I’ve talked about onstage, but it’s just a different approach to a similar opinion. Or maybe it’s a constant itch, and this was less of a scratch and more of a cortisone shot that will last a lot longer and allow me to get back in the game and keep playing. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you plan on doing another? There’s a great chapter where you talk about possibly writing a memoir.
DC: Yeah, I’d like to. I haven’t taken any sort of serious approach to it yet. I was very, very busy for about 16 months, and then had very little work over the summer, which has been great, and I’m about to start work pretty heavily again. So when that starts winding down, maybe I’ll start thinking about writing again. And by then, I’ll know if people are interested in what I have to write, which will also kind of dictate where I want to spend my time.
AVC: You write really briefly about having a pretty fucked-up childhood, which you don’t tend to touch on in your stand-up material. Is that something that you need to approach with caution?
DC: Well, everyone in my family is still alive. It’s out of respect, I guess. I talk about my little sister, but that’s mostly just about making fun of her being kind of a dumb redneck, which is different. I have talked about some of those things, but in very intimate settings that were not about stand-up. It was more like alternative L.A. Un-Cabaret-type settings, where you’re encouraged to be more personal and not really tell jokes. And people who know those stories and have seen those sets will encourage me to write them down.
AVC: How does your sister react to you talking about that stuff onstage? Was she cool with being teased?
DC: I don’t even know if she’s seen that stuff. I know that whenever she’s mentioned it, she kind of enjoys it. And I don’t think she comes away with the same understanding. I think we view her actions much differently, Julie and I. I don’t have any anger or bitterness toward her at all. And I think it’s her attitude that allows me to continue doing it. Because there’s some fucking gold. Like every four months, there’s just pure gold and another story I can tell. And if I thought that she was really upset, then I wouldn’t be able to do it. I have to temper how I say it onstage with how I might relay the story to you or a friend, or something like that. I have to watch my language and descriptions, because I know she’ll have access to it.
AVC: Are you ever envious of her sort of carefree reaction to life?
DC: No. Never. Never.
AVC: You never wish to be blissfully ignorant?
DC: You know, I think a lot of people, almost everybody who doesn’t know me, has a misconception that I’m bitter and angry and I’m a prick and garrulous and I’m just a douchebag. And that’s not the case. I’m pretty happy. I obviously have complaints about things, but for the most part, I’m on the above-average side of happy people.
AVC: Does that surprise people when you tell them that? I mean, it’s sort of your bread and butter—what a lot of people know you for is cultural criticism, to put it in a hoity-toity way.
DC: [Laughs.] I’ve never thought of myself as a hoity-toity cultural critic. It’s a mix of Garrison Keillor, Dick Cavett, and P.G. Wodehouse all rolled into one. Look, this isn’t to imply that I’m never in a bad mood, or short with somebody. But people pretty much never include their own approach or attitude into the mix. It’s always like, “Yeah, man, I fucking went up to that guy, David Cross, and was like ‘Yeah man, I know you, who are you?’ And he gives me his first name like trying to be too cool for school. And then I was like, ‘Dude, come on, don’t try to be so cool.’ And then he’s like, ‘David Cross.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, you’re in movies, right?’ And he goes ‘Yeah.’ And I’m like, ‘What movies you been in?’ And he goes, ‘A lot.’ And then he fucking walks away and talks to his friend he was talking to when I came up. That guy’s a total dick.” And there’s plenty of those people who just don’t see that equation and factor it in. Some people have said that. Also like reporters, too. When I’m doing an interview, they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, I gotta say, I was a little worried, because you kind of have a reputation as being a bit of a dick, but you were very nice to talk to!” Oh, well thank you.
AVC: Do you then ask them where that reputation comes from?
DC: Yeah, from the reporter’s friend. They read some shit online.
[pagebreak]AVC: In the book, you directly address some of those criticisms. Do you think that’s a fruitful thing to do?
DC: I honestly don’t care if it’s fruitful or not—it is the most satisfying thing to do. Now if I were going to do that onstage… I’m not going to charge you $35 a ticket to watch me respond to shit that people have written about me. I would never do that. But with the luxury of prose, with setting the whole thing within a context and writing about it, I think it’s interesting, and I also value that opportunity to address anonymous people. The hypocrisy and the double standard of an anonymous person posting a comment about how I’m lame because I make fun of easy targets like religion and politics, and just making sweeping generalizations… I wouldn’t call it necessarily cowardly, but there’s no courage in what they’re doing. And I don’t think they ever expect to be called on their shit. I think that only happens twice in the book, though, right?
AVC: Yeah. The SFist piece that calls you a bigot, and the Pitchfork thing.
DC: There you go. It’s not like I did a whole book about that, but it was very satisfying to do, and I will keep on doing that. Especially when they get stuff wrong. That’s what’s infuriating. They get shit wrong, they post it, then the immediate assumption is that they’re right, so you have to address this thing quickly, and it’s a no-win situation, because then you look like kind of a self-absorbed, anxiety-ridden neurotic going like, [Adopts shaky voice.] “Hey, that’s not true what you said!” But it’s important. You don’t want these lies to sit there. All you gotta do is post it once and watch the comments add up afterward, and they all assume that anonymous blogger’s comments have validity. They just assign them with validation and fact when it’s just not. It’s lazy and infuriating and wrong.
AVC: As you get more and more well-known, is it even possible to respond to all the bullshit? It seems like most people just give up at some point and hope that their message is louder.
DC: You can hope that. And I haven’t responded to anything… Whatever the last thing was, the Alvin thing or SFist, that was literally like two years ago. So I haven’t responded to any of that shit since then. And I think it was a mistake, but a mistake that I don’t necessarily regret, because I learned a valuable lesson about never reading that shit. I recognize that it’s a no-win situation. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But I did learn a lesson to just not let it bother me. Those people will always be there; they’ll always have that thing to make them self-important. And maybe that’s in part why I’m happier now than I was two years ago. I’m still very surprised that I have become a person who actually prefers being up in this small town and hanging out and not being in that scene. I love that I can go back to the city and I always have that available. But I spend a majority of my time up here. And I’m still, and probably will be for a while, surprised by that. But I’m happy up here.
AVC: Is there any criticism that you’ve actually taken to heart? A couple times in the book, you bristle at the word “condescending.” Is that one you’re just going to learn to live with? It’s valid, in a way, but it’s also not the whole picture of what you do.
DC: I agree with that. I think it is valid. I don’t think condescending is a good way to be. If I come off as condescending, then I guess I am. I don’t like being condescended to, and I get hyperaware of it, and it turns me off when I feel like people are doing that. I did this interview with The Believer, and we had a fan interview me, and then a guy who didn’t like me interview me, and put the interviews side by side. And that guy brought up condescension, and we talked about it. That was another guy who expected me to be an asshole. [Laughs.] I don’t know if I will be even remotely successful at it, but it’s something that I am trying to be conscious of, not being condescending. And not to say that it’s going to take my edge away or my anger at the things I’m angry about… It’s just that if I appear condescending, I don’t like it myself. So I need to figure out a way to not be like that, or so much like that. And I hope it makes my stand-up a little more enjoyable. I’ll still be saying the same things, but I’m just going to improve myself as a person.
I have a very good friend, we’re very close, and 80 percent of what we believe in politically, and about culture and society, is completely opposite. He’s very well-informed, well-read, and we argue constantly. We try to be very civil about it, but I can hear myself being really condescending. It’s out of impatience sometimes. As much as I would probably start off trying not to be condescending if I were talking to somebody who had just come out of a town-hall meeting about health care, and were spouting the five or six emotional talking points that the insurance companies want you to say so that we don’t have a public option… I would very quickly become condescending, I think. And I don’t know where I was going with that, but I decided to end that sentence right then and there.
AVC: On your upcoming tour, you’re playing much bigger venues than you have before—3,000-seat theaters instead of 1,000-seat clubs. Is that going to be different for you? Are you going to be less able to do personal material?
DC: No. Why? Because people are sitting down?
AVC: Because the proximity makes the vibe different.
DC: But there’s more focus, wouldn’t you say?
AVC: People will be quieter and paying more attention, at least in theory.
DC: I’ve done comedy clubs, and then I went out of comedy clubs and did music clubs, and then I went back to comedy clubs to record the second album. The one thing I’ve never done is small theaters, so I figured I’d try that.
AVC: I’m mostly curious about whether it changes how you perform, or the type of material you do.
DC: I doubt it. I don’t think so. I wasn’t planning on it. Now you’ve got me worried. What should I be doing here? I should have a marching band.
AVC: Fart jokes are best for reaching the back of the theater.
DC: What if I just hire a guy, like a local comic, who can play to the back six rows from the balcony, and just do fart jokes?
AVC: I think that’s what the radio-contest winners will want. I was just wondering how playing to a thousand David Cross diehards at the Metro is different than playing to three times as many people who maybe aren’t all diehards, and are like, “Oh, I’m gonna see the guy from Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel do stand-up.” I guess you got some of that playing in rock clubs—I’ve seen you upset people at shows.
DC: Hopefully people are upset for the reason I want them to be upset. Even when I was doing open mics, 20-some-odd years ago—wow, it’s been a long time—I’ve always had people upset. I’ve never been the consummate crowd-pleaser. I hope they’re not upset because they’re familiar with me and think I suck now, like 20 percent of the audience says, “Tell more jokes about politics and religion,” and then another 20 percent is like, “Tell less jokes about politics and religion,” and then 20 percent of the audience is, “You’re crude!” If it happens, it happens. I’m going to go out there and do the material I know works in other spaces. I’m certainly not going to be winging an hour. This is all stuff that I’ve done that works well in other capacities. So I’m assuming it’s going to translate into a theater as opposed to a rock club.
AVC: Will there be as much political material now that the dark years are, in theory, behind us?
DC: I have way less about Obama than I did Bush. It’s really not heavily political at all. Let me look at my little board here. I’ve been trying to lay out the set and how it would flow. There’s definitely a lot of religious stuff, for sure. There’s stuff about… There’s date rape: date-rape postcard. Junkies. Prop. 8—that’s Mormons. I’ve got some real goofy stuff. A thing about Whole Foods.
AVC: Have you had any sort of scary post-show encounters with so-called patriots or religious types?
DC: Not in 15 years. Well that’s not true. I did a show at St. Louis University, which is a Jesuit school. Two of the students picked me up at the airport, and I was like, “What kind of school is it?” You know, just asking regular questions to get an idea of where I’m going and the audience. And they were like, “The school’s about this big, and it was founded this, and da-da-da, and it’s a Jesuit school, da-da-da.” And I was like, “Wait, it’s a Jesuit school?” And then I think I said—and I don’t think my voice could have gotten any higher—“Have you seen my act?” And they hadn’t. They knew me from Just Shoot Me. And so I was like, “Well, I do a lot of religious stuff,” and they’re like, “Oh, that’ll be fine.” So I get to the gig, and it’s a big, high-ceilinged, almost banquet-hall kind of thing, with a little makeshift stage, a table with some water on it, and about 600 metal folding chairs that had kind of an aisle between them. And everybody came in, and I started my set, and within 10 minutes, as I’m doing jokes about Jesus or religion or God or whatever, the physics of the situation got really messy very quickly.
Most people walked out. And because there was only this one aisle and the one set of double doors in the back, everybody started cramming there, and they were talking. It was really awkward and weird, and you could hear chairs scraping. There were about 150 people who were excited, and they all moved up to the front and were very encouraging, but it was really difficult to get past all the people who were leaving. And because there were only two doors, it took them a while to actually get out. And then I had a guy come up onstage and look at me threateningly and take my water and drink it all and then drop the bottle and walk off. Angry Catholics, because I made fun of their best friend.
AVC: How long ago was this?
DC: It was about a week before 9/11, something like that. That was the last time. I’ve never had the “How dare you make fun of America?!” argument. Maybe I will now, because I’m going to make fun of those people.
AVC: I’m a little surprised by that. Maybe people are just more prone to flee.
DC: The negative side of performing in a space that has 900 diehard fans is, you’re not going to get that. That’s why, when I recorded the second CD [It’s Not Funny], I went to a comedy club. I did it in Washington, D.C. purposely, really hoping and expecting to have some of that. You know, I’d say 20 percent of the room has no idea who I am. They paper the shit out of those things, and people win contests and whatever. I was hoping for more of that, which didn’t really happen. But it could happen. My first show on this tour is in San Francisco, and I notoriously have problems with San Francisco with a lot of PC people, who get upset and hiss and yell. It happens quite a bit. I’m not saying it’s going to happen—it didn’t happen the last time I played there, and I’ve had a lot of great gigs there. But there have been a good handful that just were… You know, you can’t say the word “retarded” or “Jewish” or “Mormon” or whatever without people just shutting down and not hearing the joke. So there’ll be some of that.
AVC: You’ll upset a retarded Jewish Mormon?
DC: Well, I think if you’re a Jewish Mormon, that makes “retarded” a little bit redundant.
AVC: What else do you have coming up? You mentioned in e-mail that you’re working on a British show, The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret, that you’re really excited about.
DC: I’m really, really happy with it. It’s a show I did for Channel Four. The pilot will definitely air, and I should know within the next two or three weeks whether they’re going to pick it up and see if it goes to series, which will be six episodes. It’s not an ongoing, open-ended story; it has a beginning and an end—it’ll be 12 episodes if everything goes to completion. It’s funny and it’s interesting and it encompasses a lot of different types of comedy. It’s about a guy who mistakenly is perceived by this other idiot to be a really good salesman. He’s actually a temp at this office in Portland, Oregon who’s never been outside of the country, who lies his way into this job where he’s sent the next day to London to head up a satellite office of this conglomerate. He’s in way over his head. The story is really big and crazy. In fact, the first scene you see, before the credits, is a magistrate reading this list, and he’s chained up, and there’s armed security behind him, and this magistrate is reading this crazy list of crimes, like terrorism and harboring fugitives and possession of a rape kit. And the guy’s beat up and he’s got this thousand-yard stare and it pulls back and the court is screaming, “Lock him up! Kill him!”
AVC: What else is on the horizon? I’d probably be lynched if I didn’t ask about the state of the Arrested Development movie.
DC: I haven’t heard anything in months, really. My main source of information is Jason [Bateman], and he hasn’t said anything. Usually he’s very quick to get on the phone and go, “Hey, man, here’s what’s going on.” Who knows?
AVC: There’s no script yet?
DC: Not that I know of. I know a script was due. But those guys are notorious for being late. So I dunno, I haven’t heard anything. Everybody wants to do it.
This interview got slightly off track as we began talking about movies featuring retarded characters. Talk quickly turned to The Other Sister, starring Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi as young mentally challenged people who fall in love. In this audio clip, Cross describes his favorite scene in what I contend is one of the most offensive (and hilarious, for all the wrong reasons) movies ever made.