David Cross has been working regularly as a stand-up comic for more than 30 years. All through his time as a writer on The Ben Stiller Show, his rise to prominence with Bob Odenkirk on HBO’s Mr. Show, his stint as Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development, his three seasons on The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret, and numerous other series and films, Cross has consistently performed in clubs, bars, and theaters. That is, until the pandemic, when he found himself unable to perform for the longest stretch of his adult life.
Luckily, Cross returns without missing a beat in I’m From The Future, his new stand-up special premiering Saturday, February 12. The show, which will livestream via his website and on demand thereafter, finds Cross returning to his signature themes: Politics, religion, dark-laced absurdism, and the idiosyncratic weirdness he brings to it all.
Because we’ve spoken to Cross for nearly every comedy special he’s done, it seemed apropos to catch up again. Over the course of two days (Cross kindly didn’t want to end our conversation in the middle of a thoughtful discussion, so he called back a day later to continue the chat), he held court on creating a special from scratch, the dismaying direction of popular discourse, and getting choked up during his post-lockdown return to stand-up—not that he wanted to admit it at the time.
The A.V. Club: Prepping for this interview, Pavement’s reissue of Terror Twilight came on—like 45 tracks of outtakes and demos and all that kind of stuff—
David Cross: What does a Pavement demo sound like? [Laughs.] A lot like a Pavement song. Like early Pavement demos, I imagine just sound a lot like Pavement.
AVC: It made me think, though—you’ve done tour documentaries in the past. But would you ever consider doing a warts-and-all reveal doc, where you show your process working out bits?
DC: Well, I kind of did that, reluctantly. I’ve heard really positive things about the end result. Do you know Robert Milazzo? He teaches classes. He has podcasts. He’s a bit of a historian and critic and filmmaker, etc. He’s a really cool dude. Among other things that he does, he has this thing called Assembly, and I was the second season of that. The whole premise is, he’s going through the process, really from the very beginning to the end. And I was reluctant at first just because, I don’t know, I’m just not comfortable with somebody following me through that part of the process [laughs], but I know Robert is a good guy and certainly means well.
So I started to get a set ready and then the pandemic happened and he had to really alter it so that he wasn’t sitting on the same stuff for three or four years or whatever. So I know that’s out there, and I haven’t listened to it—I will someday, it just makes me a little uncomfortable. But I’ve heard really, really good things about it in the sense that it’s an interesting, edifying thing where you, the listener, is learning. It’s not some kind of narcissistic, ego-driven thing. I’ve heard good things. So there you go.
AVC: It’s interesting, right? With other people, you kind of want to see how the sausage gets made, and yet, it’s a very uncomfortable thought, letting people see a first draft, so to speak.
DC: Right? I guess if everything’s edited down… I think any kind of artistic endeavor is hampered by self-consciousness or, you know, an awareness of this other thing, whether it’s benign or not. And I don’t know, I was kind of afraid of that a little bit, you know? And just knowing myself, like, oh, I’d have to speak to it, and it would just somehow alter what I was trying to do.
AVC: Politics has always been a big part of your arsenal. After all this time, when you’re developing a bit on politics, does it feel like tapping a certain vein versus other topics? Or is it all just part of wherever your brain goes? You’re just following intuition, regardless of topic?
DC: Oh no, it’s all wherever my brain goes. Yeah, it’s definitely the latter. And you know, it’s it’s not because of us that that chunk of material up front is is political per se. It’s been turned into that. It doesn’t feel political to me, even though it is and has unfortunately become so. But if you asked me, two weeks from now, if we were at a bar and you were like, list your political bits, I never would even think about that stuff. There’s one reference to right wing people who are dying of COVID. But outside of that, it doesn’t feel political to me, even though, yes, it is, certainly the media presents it that way. But when I was talking about it, it didn’t feel like that. There’s definitely an us-and-them quality to it. But that could easily apply to atheists and, you know, observant Orthodox Jews or atheists and Catholics or whatever the us-and-them thing is. But it doesn’t seem political to me.
AVC: Do you find that your audience expects you to tackle certain things?
DC: Oh, for sure. The whole thing is evolving. It grows as my audience ages with me, and then younger people are made aware of me and want to check my stuff out or like it. But I learned probably three specials ago, there’s a faction of people, like, “Stop talking about religion and politics!” And then there are some people who are like, “You should talk more about religion and politics!” And then most of the people, 75 percent, are just copacetic with the set. They kind of come knowing I’m going to do a little bit of this, a little bit that, that’s that’s how it seems.
One thing I’ve said throughout my career, at least as the body of stand-up work has grown—and I was just talking to somebody about this yesterday who said something like, “You’re a political comedian”—and I’ve been saying this for a long time: I’m not a political comic. I am a comic who talks about politics. And I think sometimes because of the tone and the kind of harshness of what I do, it’s not easy stuff—outside of shitting in Trump’s mouth, that was easy—but outside of that bit, my theory is that it feels like it’s longer [laughs]. They were like, “I saw you and you did an hour and 20 minutes and an hour was political,” and I’m like, “No, I looked.” When I’m sequencing the stuff and when I am editing it and putting it together, I try for a third, a third, a third: a third political, religious, all lumped in that same category; and a third anecdotal stuff, and a third silly, goofy, stupid shit. And that’s my recipe. I’ve been following it for a long time, but I know that for a lot of people, even though it’s just a third of the set, it’s like, you know, “You get up there and you talk about politics,” I think that’s part of it.
AVC: Maybe the agent-provocateur role you sometimes adopt on stage contributes to people seeing you as a political comic. Because you’ve always had this idiosyncratic material. The Rickey Henderson bit is literally right in the middle of Shut Up, You Fucking Baby. Your last special had the great “couple’s colonic” story. You mentioned your third-third-third ratio. Do you find that sometimes when you’re sequencing, you’re like, “but this bit’s so good, what if it’s 50-20-30 this time?”
DC: It’s not a hard rule. I don’t mean to imply I’m there with a timer and I’m going, “OK, time’s up. Let’s cut the bit there.” I mean, it’s really about the feeling more than anything. And perhaps you and I or myself and somebody else in the audience might slightly disagree on, “Well, that seemed political.” And I’m like, “Eh, that’s not really political. I’m just talking about, you know, Orthodox Jewish people or whatever.” But it’s really about the feeling, and, you know, when I do these shows, when I’m putting these sets together, I have a whole process which works for me and it’s really enjoyable and there’s kind of three phases to it. And when I get to the last phase, when I’ve pretty much got all the material—this is going to be the tour, this is the set—and I ask the audience questions those last five, six, seven, eight shows that I do, like, “Did it feel like too much of this? Should this be later?” And I will ask the audience what they think, and listen to the feeling of it.
AVC: It feels like there is a strong sense of who your audience is at this point. During your last interview with The A.V. Club, you talked about changing the dynamics when you’re in Union Hall versus a 2,500 seat theater. Do you adjust vis-a-vis crowd composition?
DC: Well, adjusting, that’s purely on size. That’s not about audience. When you’re doing a big theater, you have control over how much light is in the audience. And I really like to limit the light past the first five rows. I really like it to drop into, not pitch black, but where I’m not making out any detail. Some people like more light, some people like no light, but when I’m in the smaller venues, I can see everybody and they can see me seeing them. And I love it. I enjoy doing theaters, but it’s a much different show. I’m different. The audience is different. The give and take is different. The energy is different. A theater is more lucrative and it’s better for your ego [laughs.].
Not that they’re bad shows, they’re just slightly different, there’s more performance to it, and there’s some little things that you subconsciously change. Just by doing it for decades and decades, you adjust without really thinking too much about it, just your performance changes. So in that way, it’s different. It’s not so much about my audience or who I think is going to be crammed into a basement and who might be in row H at the theater, you know?
AVC: You mention briefly in the special that the past 18 months or so were the longest you’ve gone without doing standup?
DC: Absolutely, without question. Before that, I think the longest might have been three months, maybe. During the summer after the pandemic started in January of 2020, when people were really desperately trying to do stuff, I did an outdoor show that just didn’t work. I mean, I put it together, it was outside another Brooklyn venue that I love called Littlefield. And they put it together outside with, like, plexiglass in-between people, and six feet apart, and during the day when it was still light out… it just didn’t work. And it was one of those things where we all knew; we were like, “Ah, this isn’t really the same [laughs].” You know, you can’t get work done that way. And that was it. I don’t really count that.
But I remember vividly, and I will never forget the first set I did when I was able to do it again, it was at Sultan Room in Bushwick, and I rode my bike down there and I’ve been stuck in lockdown in Toronto up until just a couple of days prior to that. And it’s one of the greatest feelings. I started getting a little emotional at the end. And that turned into the “I’ve been dreaming about this” bit that’s in the special. That was a thing that I started riffing—to cover my getting emotional [laughs]! I was like, “I’m not going to cry. That’s so pathetic.” And I just sort of found my way out of that moment. And it eventually became that bit. But yeah, it was a powerful experience.
AVC: The last time you released a special and went on tour, it was a little tumultuous, at least from a public perspective. First there were the statements Charlene Yi made, which you’ve talked about handling badly at the time, and then there was that criticism of the Times interview with the Arrested Development cast members. Looking back at that time, does it feel transformational in terms of how social media affected you?
DC: I think transformational might be a bit strong, but it definitely is a real, viable force. There’s not a lot anymore, thankfully, but I still get the occasional response to, “Hey, I’m going to be doing this thing” with “David Cross is a racist piece of shit,” or, you know, I hate Asian people, or just stuff that isn’t true at all. I just got one the other day. I retweeted the announcement of Bob and I’s show that we’re going to do. And then somebody sent one of those, “Is this you?” You know, the blackface sketch on With Bob and David, which I’m sure they didn’t see—because they’re not allowed to see it. But that’s kind of a sad byproduct, that there’s this bit that makes fun of that thing. But because that thing exists and you have to have that thing exist in order to make fun of that thing and the person and the context, it won’t be seen, because they just took the whole episode off the air. So this guy’s like, “Is this you?” And it’s about, “David Cross wears blackface in sketch,” and you go, well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but OK, if you want to be that reductive, sure.
AVC: Referencing that episode, it seems like there’s this idea that context doesn’t matter, which was a common critique about the blackface sketch, and which seems worrying—
DC: It’s the most important part of all the complaints. It starts and ends with, “Context doesn’t matter anymore.” And that’s so anti-intellectual and it goes against everything I know and believe—the fact that people are not interested in hearing your context. And that also is part of the Times interview issue. That’s what I learned from that, from the fallout of that thing, is people are not interested in context. They don’t care. You know, it’s emotional, it’s not rational, it’s anti-intellectual, and any kind of debate or argument about a blackface sketch, your legs are cut out from under you. You can’t make any points. You’re not allowed to. And then you’re just dealing with ignorance and emotion. So, yeah, that’s been a tough thing to realize, that that’s where we are now. Context just doesn’t matter.
AVC: It does seem to obscure the more interesting part of the criticism, which is that there’s a question over who gets to wield offensive language and imagery, and to what ends. You can make an argument of “read the room” moments; you’re not going to release a sketch about committing a school shooting the day after a giant school shooting takes place. Sarah Silverman has talked about regretting her blackface episode of her show for the very reason that culture can be so disassociated from context. Is that a more interesting way in, because you can go, “Yeah, let’s talk about that, because now I can have an intellectual conversation?”
DC: Well, I don’t even want any parameters. I’ve spent the better part of my life, some of my most-enjoyed moments are sitting in a pub or a bar and having a few drinks with people that I don’t necessarily see eye to eye, and you have this conversation. And sometimes you walk away more edified, and you’ve learned and you’ve expanded and grown and you understand their take on something and you become more sensitive to it. Sometimes you don’t, but you have a conversation. And sometimes we are not allowed to have a conversation anymore. And that’s really sad.
It’s not a matter of like, “This thing happened; oh, I better write a monologue apology.” And then then there’s another column, or a blog, or something, somebody writes something, and then there’s another statement… you might as well send fucking gift baskets to each other with pithy little comments. It’s garbage. It’s worthless. And so the thing that I really enjoy, which is having those discussions and debates—I mean, I’ve spent two hours on a train in England talking to a priest about stuff—and can’t do that anymore.
[David has to go, so we agree to continue the conversation the next morning.]
AVC: Yesterday, we were talking about the way that social media had shifted—how the experiences you deal with on Twitter, for a lot of people out there, the past is forever the present to them, right? They see something from six years ago and they’re like, Oh, you’re a piece of shit, or whatever.
DC: That’s a great way to put it. The past is ever the present. Or whatever you said [laughs].
AVC: But in some ways, these internet drama campaigns have been happening to you for a long time. It’s a more lighthearted one, but people tried to manufacture a big fight between you and Patton Oswalt over your respective mainstream film roles. Do you remember this?
DC: I do, because the reason it stood out to me so much was, it’s probably quite literally the first time I ever experienced backlash, as it were. It was for Alvin and the Chipmunks. I didn’t think I’d have to defend it so constantly and vociferously. I mean, that thing didn’t go away for a little while, and it kind of weighed on me. And then I wrote—I guess this might have been pre-Facebook, wherever you put stuff out there before Twitter and all that shit. I wrote this thing about, you know, where I was when in my career and mentally, where I was when I took the part and I had zero idea that it was going to upset anybody. [Laughs.]
And then because I was contractually obligated—like, who knew it was going to be a fucking billion dollar movie—and I had no choice but to be in these movies. So when that was happening, I do not remember the exact point in the back and forth, but Patton said something like, “I was offered that role too. I didn’t take it. I guess you caught the script.” I’m butchering it, but it was something like that.
And what I didn’t realize when I responded to him really upset and publicly was that he was referencing a conversation we had had. He had done some movie that was like, I don’t know what it was, it was a McHale’s Navy [laughs] or something. I don’t know what it was and apparently I said the first part to him—I said, “Oh my God, I got that script. I read 20 pages. I got so angry about it I threw it across the floor,” or something like that. Whatever the first part was, I did not remember at all.
So when he referenced that, he was referencing something that, to him, would have made me chuckle. And instead I just felt like it was a really good friend piling on, and that’s why I responded the way I did. So then Patton reached out, he’s like, “No, no, no, no, dude,” And then we were fine because, like normal human beings, we settled our misunderstandings in private as opposed to a public forum. And so that’s where that came from. Yeah, that’s a long-winded way to say, I remember it well, because that thing didn’t just happen; there was a whole backstory to it.
AVC: What was interesting about it, too, is that it also seemed like all these other people felt the need to be outraged about it, too.
DC: Yeah, but they’re not. It’s just faux. It’s not real outrage. And you know, the older you get—or I’m sure kids today have kind of sussed it out a little bit more than we did—you realize, hopefully pretty quickly, that it’s not real. Now, being called a racist piece of shit is real. But that thing in particular, like Twitter beef, is fake.
AVC: The other thing about that is it seemed like part of the beginning of this cultural transformation over the weakening of the idea of selling out, which used to be this big issue, at least in the subculture that you came out of.
DC: I remember really, really well. And now there is no more selling out. You know, John Cage would have an NFT, I imagine. But there were a couple of benchmarks: Michael Jackson bought the Lennon-McCartney library, and all of a sudden Apple was was licensing “Revolution.” Nike or Apple, one of those, and that was a big deal. It was a big uproar, and everybody was upset. And then slowly but surely—actually not slowly, pretty quickly—all of a sudden, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is being used for a car ad. And Creedence Clearwater Revival is being used for stuff. And then more and more of that stuff happened; people started cashing in, and it was really a huge snowball effect.
And then the other thing that accompanied that was, I was living in Boston at the time, I want to say somewhere around 1990, give or take a year. And there was a local beloved indie band called the Del Fuegos and they had themselves and their music in a Miller Lite ad. And it was the first time I was part of a community where these guys were fucking vilified. It was quick and it was harsh. I’ve never talked to the guys, I just was there and I was in that world. I had a number of friends who had bands and they played together—it was a very tight, incestuous little world there, the music and comedy in Boston at the time—but holy shit, it was surprising and a little disturbing, but those guys were just fucking figuratively run out of town. I mean, it was really harsh. And then, of course, not 10 years later bands are selling their music to whatever: cereal, mattresses, eye drops, you know, whatever.
And after that, starting in the early aughts, you would get a sense like, “Oh, that band wrote that song so they could sell shoes.” Like, what’s that—there’s a song by The American Authors or something like that, and it’s like [sings], “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, these are the best days of our lives.” Whatever, it sounds very much like their songs in it. And I’m not saying that this is the case. I don’t know them. I don’t know anything about them. But when you heard that song, you thought there was a conversation between the band members like, “Hey, let’s just write something that we could make a shit ton of money off of and we can sell it to, you know, vitamin supplements or whatever.” [laughs] And that was the next step in the, “There is no selling out anymore.” It’s a concept that, unfortunately, less than one half of one percent of artists, I think, give a shit about that anymore. At least in America.
AVC: Or at least the lines have been pushed so far back now—you would still probably get shit if you licensed your song to Lockheed Martin, like a defense contractor, but that’s maybe about it.
DC: Yeah, and even then, people would be like, “Good for you, man. World’s burning anyway, get yours.”
AVC: It does sort of go hand-in-hand with this cultural shift towards the idea that no one should be criticized for “doing their thing.” Like when Corey Feldman gave that terrible musical performance on the Today show, and people suddenly felt the need to defend him, because how dare you attack somebody for doing what they love? Or that bit you did about Justin Timberlake on Punk’d, how he completely changed his entire personality for the cameras, calling out that his public persona was totally fraudulent.
DC: Does that exist somewhere?
AVC: I’ve been searching for it the past few days. I seem to remember you doing it on Carson Daly’s show.
DC: I was just talking about this. That’s wild that that exists, because I had only done that bit, maybe… I want to say three times, tops. And I was at Luna or Pianos, this would have been right after that Punk’d episode aired and it was before the Grammys or something. And I mean, days later—I’d say within a week—Chris Rock did the bit almost word for word. And I’m not accusing Chris Rock of anything; first of all, if any bit is going to have a million like-minded people go, “Oh, I got a spin on this,” it’s going to be that bit. It was obvious, I didn’t say anything particularly earth-shattering. I’m sure a ton of people had the same idea, but I always wondered if there was a writer for whatever it was, the Oscars or something he was hosting, and it literally was like a week later, I’m like, “Holy shit, that’s almost word for word what I said.” But that’s really interesting that you bring it up because I didn’t even know that existed or was on TV because I remember seeing it days later going, “Oh shit. Well, I can’t do that anymore.”
AVC: But it did seem symbolic as a similar cultural transformation. If you did that bit today, the next day you would be getting a firestorm of hate tweets from people saying, “Leave Justin alone. What did he ever do to you?”
DC: Yeah, but that was different because I was pointing out like, “This is how you present yourself. This is your public persona, and it’s all bullshit.” That’s all I was pointing out was how he was like, “Yo dog”—you know, this kind of co-opting black urban culture—“Oh, man, yo, don’t diss me like that. Why you frontin’?” And then when he thinks something’s wrong and he’s calling his mom, he’s just like the scared white kid all of a sudden: “Mom, mom, can you come get me?” I was just pointing out that it was all bullshit.
AVC: That thread has always been a through-line for your comedy—to pry apart the bullshit and be like, “Oh, this thing that gets taken for granted is actually made of bullshit.” Do you find when you’re writing comedy nowadays that it’s harder to pry apart the bullshit, or is it more obvious now?
DC: I mean, I think it’s just as obvious as it ever was. I just think less people care. Like if I did that Justin Timberlake thing in 2022 as opposed to 2001, I think people would kind of laugh, but they’d also go, “So what? Who cares?” You know, I think more people cared about that stuff back then—and no judgment on it for better or worse—I just think people are like, “Yeah, we don’t give a shit. We know it’s fake.”
AVC: The idea of authenticity has become less important to people.