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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“I didn’t do myself any favors”: David Cross talks racism and comedy

Illustration for article titled “I didn’t do myself any favors”: David Cross talks racism and comedy
Graphic: Emma Mckhann, Photo: Jeff Vespa (Getty Images)

The A.V. Club David Cross interview is a tradition stretching back to the publication’s founding in the mid-’90s, and we’ve charted the course of his career from co-creator of a cult-favorite HBO show to prominent stand-up comedian to blockbuster Easter egg. As a comedian, Cross has always found comfort in discomfort, zealously diving into charged subject matter—most memorably doing 9/11 material on a tour a few months after the attacks—with acerbic irony and moral stridence. 2016’s Making America Great Again had a number of harsh bits, including one imagining a pro-NRA lawmaker holding the bullet-riddled body of his child and another that sets up the well-worn trope of family tension during the holidays for a stinging punchline about domestic violence. The target is in the right place, but Cross often ensconces it in layers of irony that make the laughs hurt a little. The approach has generally served him well, even as it sends the occasional audience member to the exit, as Making America Great Again captured.

But it wasn’t something Cross said on stage that has caused him the most controversy. Last October, actor/comedian Charlyne Yi accused him of making racist comments toward her when they met a decade earlier. After contacting Yi directly, Cross responded with a statement, apologizing if he hurt her and suggesting they were “both misremembering” exactly what happened. That wasn’t well-received, so he followed up with another explanation, that his ostensibly racist comments were made under the guise of the Southern redneck-type character that has long been a staple of his act. (In Making American Great Again, for instance, he dons it to imitate a Trump voter incensed by PC culture: “This PC nonsense has gotten out of hand! It’s crazy that, in the year 2016, I can’t call a thug a nigger without being called a racist!”)

The incident picked up speed thanks to social media and the burgeoning #MeToo movement, in which his wife, Amber Tamblyn, is an active participant as part of Time’s Up. Its aftereffects linger as Cross heads into a massive two-month tour that begins June 1 with a headlining spot at the Onion Comedy & Arts Festival. A few weeks before his show, Cross spoke to The A.V. Club about what happened with Yi and how that and the current political and social climate affect his material.


The A.V. Club: You said last time that you wouldn’t take such a long break between specials, because at that point it had been, like, six years.

David Cross: And I am a man of my word.

AVC: That’s right. When did you start working on this material?

DC: I was looking at a long amount of time before I found out whether the show that I was doing in the U.K. was going to go or not. My gut was telling me it’s probably not going to get picked up, and I was ready to go. Anyway, as opposed to sitting around doing nothing and then finding out, “Oh yeah, they’re not gonna pick it up,” then still having nothing to do, I thought, “You know what, I’ll just start. I’m going to assume that they’re not going to pick it up. My intuition told me that and when I do get that call, I’ll be ready to pull the trigger on the tour.” That’s where that came from.


AVC: That’s Bliss you’re talking about?

DC: Yeah, and I started doing sets really informally, very loose, just calling it “Shootin’ The Shit (Seein’ What Sticks)” back in late January. That’s where this material came from. It’s a new way of approaching it, too; I’ve never really done that before.


AVC: That’s what I was going to ask you about next, because you shot your last special in the middle of huge tour. Whereas this one you just workshopped over a period of months at Union Hall in Brooklyn. How do you think that affected the material as it was progressing?

DC: It’s a way to develop the material and everything that entails. You take an idea. You see if it works. Then you listen to it like, “Oh, I didn’t word that properly,” “I had no ending to this,” and then you’re just working on the material, the idea. Sometimes it pops in your head completely formed, and sometimes it’s very ill-formed and you gotta work it out.


Just doing whatever it was, like an average of two, three sets a week for a few months. There was some downtime here and there because I’d have to go to L.A. and do a reshoot or something, or one of those types of something would pop up. For the most part, I was able to do two sets a week. You really start getting sharper.

The set that I taped [for Making America Great Again] in Austin in the middle of that tour was much different than the first 10 shows I did at the beginning of that tour. Then the stuff I did at the end of that tour was quite different than the stuff that I taped, because it gets fleshed out. It’s all about being on stage. That’s where I do most of my work anyway.


AVC: You were in pretty big rooms on that tour, whereas Union Hall is really small by comparison. Do you think that changes the dynamics of it?

DC: Oh, for sure, yeah. When I go out, if I’m asking people to pay $35 a ticket, which with Ticketmaster means $60 a ticket, I better have my shit together. I can’t be fucking around. There’s always going to be a little bit of fucking around, but that’s, I think, fun and a positive thing. I better know what my set is, and the sequencing of it is one of the more difficult aspects to get right. I have to know what that is.


These shows that I’m doing in New York while I’m working stuff out, they’re still pretty informal. It’s fun that way, but that’s going to be a much different show than when I get out and there’s 2,500 people in the theater somewhere. That shit better be tight—at least in a relative sense.

AVC: It seems like with the current political climate, your reaction would be to go even harder on the things that have been part of your stand-up for years. I think about all the Bush material on Shut Up You Fucking Baby!, for instance. But your life is also in a very different place now: You’re married, you have a small child, your career is in a different spot. Where’s your mind these days?


DC: Well, as you pointed out, the biggest change not just in the last year, but in the last 10 years of my life has been having a kid. That is a different experience day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. Of course that’s going to inform some of my stuff, and it has been my world for—I mean, she’s still a baby, still an infant. That’s what a lot of my world is, so that’s what the observations I’ve made have been from that. I don’t want anybody to get worried—I’m not going to do an hour of dad comedy.

The Trump material that I do is more out of a kind of a head-scratching, “Well, this is where we are. This is who we are.” It’s less about Trump and more about his fans. It’s reminiscent of what I did before in that I talked about his supporters back then. There’s no nuance or subtlety to the guy. He is exactly what you’re looking at. We know he’s a liar, he lies 10 times a day, he lies right to your face. He just makes shit up. We know that.


There’s not a lot of insight to be had into Trump. He is, as I’ve said, he’s that part of America’s id personified. There’s nothing to uncover about the man, you know? To me the place to go is the people that either really do like him, and like his politics and like his personality, and think he’s a good, strong, decent man. Or the people who aren’t comfortable with that, but they are willing to overlook it because either he’s anti-abortion, as he claims to be now, or they got their tax cuts. That’s what’s more interesting to me.

It sort of starts to uncover the lie that America is, and all the exceptionalism that people claim about America—this land of equal opportunity and all this bullshit that was shoved down our throats in school, and how we’re a good, decent, equitable, democracy—is garbage. A lot of us suspected that when we were kids or younger, and then have grown, as time has marched forward and given us thousands of examples of why it’s not that, have come to that conclusion. But Trump really lays that bare.


AVC: It seems smarter to talk about his supporters, which is more evergreen than focusing on the news of the moment, because it’s just a constant torrent of shit.

DC: Yeah, exactly. It’s so constant, and I talk about that. Any outrage you have is immediately supplanted by the next thing, and people don’t… they’re over it, whatever the thing you’re upset about that happened last week. You’re like, “Huh. Oh yeah, yeah, the thing that happened last week.” It’s just a different world.


AVC: You’ve been workshopping your new stuff since the emergence of #MeToo, including after what happened between you and Charlyne Yi. Has that informed your material at all?

DC: Only in the sense that I make a #MeToo reference because my wife is a founder and prominent figure in the Times Up movement. She’s very active in that world. I have a couple of jokes, or bits around that, and being married to her, raising a daughter with her. We don’t agree on everything. There’s no material I’m not doing… Oh, actually there’s a joke I have where I do the joke—and I never would have done this prior to the Charlyne Yi thing—I say, “I feel obligated to tell everybody, because of something that happened on the internet, that I’m not a racist.” Then I tell the joke and then go into another joke that is about not being a racist, but it’s a joke. That’s something that I never would have felt obligated to tell strangers, “Oh, by the way, despite what you read, I’m not a racist.”


AVC: I was thinking about this rewatching Making America Great Again. You have this joke about how you’d be explaining the nuance of your “Muhammad on a milk carton” tattoo as you’re getting your throat slit.

DC: Oh yeah.

AVC: Which I think is the issue in a way: A lot of your humor employs this very pointed irony that I think is fairly easy for people to misjudge. You like to say that’s on the audience, as you do in Making America Great Again, because there are hours of your material out there for them to investigate, to know what they’re getting into. They’re not going to see Tobias Fünke goofing around on stage. But after all of this, do you feel any more responsible for trying to make sure the message is received the right way?


DC: No. I mean, I suppose the example I just gave is the only—and I might be wrong, I’m just not 100 percent familiar with my set yet—I think giving a bit of context, or I should say qualifying that joke where I go, “I’m not a racist.” It’s something that somebody might say if they weren’t me and they hadn’t had that experience. Because I’ve had that experience, which was not a good experience. That was a shitty, shitty week, and I want to thank Louis CK for taking the heat off of me.

It was a very strange, upsetting thing to know that people—and I still get shit to this very day—that people who don’t know me truly believe that I’m a racist, which is so far from the truth. Of course, the key to that sentence is people who don’t know me. Anybody who knows me knows that’s ridiculous.


I remember when they made the first [Onion Comedy & Arts Festival] announcement. Then I retweeted it, and then within five minutes, this was a couple weeks ago, somebody’s first response was, “Unless it’s going to be an hour of apologizing to Charlyne Yi for being a racist, then I’m not interested.” I was like, “Oh, all right.” I wanted to tweet back, “Well, it’s gonna be an hour and a half, but you can leave early if you want.” But then I thought better of it.

Yeah, I mean, I get “You racist piece of shit,” all kinds of horrible invective. It’s just weird that my daughter can at some point skim through that shit and go, “Hey, daddy, you’re a racist?” “No,” and try to explain it to her. That was a bit out of the blue.


AVC: Does it feel like a part of a larger changing climate in a way, even taking the social media aspect out of it?


DC: Well, that’s 100 percent of it. I mean, that’s all of it, is the social media aspect. I didn’t do myself any favors by whatever the thing I wrote back, which was not well-thought-out. It wasn’t worded very well. I used a terrible word. I made a choice of saying “misremembered,” which that’s not a good word to use. I could have done a better job if I had just sort of given myself, “All right, calm down, let’s think about this,” and not responded.

Also, I should say I did respond back and forth with her initially. Maybe it’s just a generational thing, but I don’t like the idea of all that stuff, any problem you have with somebody, playing out in public like that. I reached out to her privately, DM’d, and I did apologize to her on that DM. For whatever reason she chose not to make that part of the conversation later. At that point, it was like, “I’m not responding anymore.”


It was just not good. A lot of the anger that I had initially was like, “Why didn’t you mention this to me in the nine times we’ve hung out since then? Or the rest of that entire trip? You were there for months. You never said anything, ever. Why didn’t you say something then?” I would have apologized, or I would have said, “Oh my god, that’s not what I intended.” To be sure, I don’t think I articulated this well in the beginning. I do sincerely believe that she had that experience that she describes. I’m not saying that never happened. I was trying to come up with a reasonable explanation, given all the facts of who I am and what the context of the situation was—like, how this could have occurred? I’m guessing as to what happened. I reached out to Michael Cera [who was dating Yi at the time —ed.] like, “Do you remember any of this?” He didn’t even believe that she wrote it at first. He was the first person I called, like, “This is crazy. Do you remember this?” He was like, “No, my god, I totally would have remembered that. That would have been a very dark night for us, etc., etc.” [Cera’s rep had no comment when asked about this. –ed]

I think I’ve spoken plenty on that now.

AVC: It hasn’t made you feel gun-shy about material or anything like that?

DC: No. I mean, coming full circle, that qualifier is the only thing that I’ve added because of that kind of thing.


AVC: You’ve got the tour, and then what else is coming up after that?

DC: Literally nothing. I mean, it’s oddly liberating right now. I’m sure two weeks after the tour I’ll be like, “Oh my god, what am I supposed to do?! I’m not doing anything!” This will take me through early November, this tour. Look, a gazillion things might turn up, pop up, opportunities between now and then. These tours are fucking exhausting, too, and my family will be on the road with me for the most part. I’m not sure if they’ll be in Europe with me, but we’ll be on the bus, my baby and my wife, who has a book coming out. We’ll be doing what we did last time where she does bookstores in the same city and then I go do the [theaters]. I’ve got a couple ideas that are kicking around for movies. I’d like to direct some more. I hate shaving, so the longer I can stay from in front of the camera is great. I’ll just grow this beard down to my fucking kneecaps, and I’ll be happy with that. I’ll just write one of these ideas up, and who knows, maybe Bob [Odenkirk] and I will be able to figure out a time to get some more [With] Bob And Davids in there, which certainly could happen.


Kyle Ryan is a writer/editor/producer who worked for The A.V. Club in various capacities from 2005-2018.

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