David Cross is a comedian that you’re afraid to say something stupid around. His hilarious and pointed comedy and unflinching drive to ridicule everything from right-wing politics to the Virgin Mary has left no doubt in anybody’s mind that he is one of the most ambitious comedians in the industry. While Cross is most recognizable from his roles in cult hits Mr. Show and Arrested Development, he has played roles in numerous movies (Scary Movie 2, Men in Black, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), released CDs (Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! and It’s Not Funny) and written books, including his most recent effort I Drink for a Reason. He is also releasing a pilot TV show made with Spike Jonze and Will Arnett called The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, which will come out in the UK later this year. The Travesty recently got a chance to talk to Cross, and we found the conversation to be smart, funny, and surprisingly informative.
Texas Travesty: You grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. Did your reaction against conservatism begin at a young age? When you were in elementary school, were you calling people out on intelligent design?
David Cross: It was literally at the hospital when I was in an incubator. My doctor, who delivered me, was against a public option and I didn’t understand why. Well, part of me didn’t understand why because the concept of language was new to me and I was just kind of crying constantly. I spent those first couple days crying. Anyway, I looked the doctor up when I was ten and went over to his place, but he had died a couple years earlier but was still there—he had been stuffed. And we had a sit down and had a heart-to-heart. I think that’s really when I became what would be considered “progressive,” I guess. I hate the word “liberal”, but I’ll take it.
TT: At what point did you realize that you wanted to be a comedian?
DC: Actually, it was about a month ago. I was at a little grocery store upstate where there were a lot of farm stands and stuff like that and they had this corn stand. And I wanted some corn, but I didn’t have enough money. But it occurred to me, “What if I do an hour of stand-up, and then they give me the corn?” And they said yes, so I did a quick hour and then thought, “You know, there’s something to this. I could probably parlay this to get fresh corn.” So that’s when I decided to be a stand-up [comedian].
TT: When you started doing stand-up about a month ago, what was your experience like? Did you develop your persona right away, or did it take you a little while to pick it up?
DC: No. I ordered it over the Internet, and they give you a kit that’s sort of like a mix and match thing. And I took certain elements that I thought were cost-effective, and this is what I came up with from their kit.
TT: So it was purely a business decision?
TT: When you set out to write a joke, are you just trying to make people laugh, or do you start out with a point you want to make and derive a joke from that?
DC: I sort of want to make a point, but not all jokes have to have a point to it. I mean, I never write, per say. I have ideas that occur to me and I’ll write them down on a piece of paper and the bring that piece of paper on stage and sort of write while I’m on stage and then do a bunch of sets and then take the sets and say, “well, these jokes and observations worked, and these didn’t.” And then that eventually becomes the set. So that’s my writing process. I don’t really sit down and go, “Ok! I’m going to write ten jokes about whatever today.”
TT: Have you ever had to perform in front of a mostly conservative audience that is probably not very receptive to your style of comedy?
DC: Oh, God yeah. My first 12 to 15 years were like that. I grew up in Atlanta—that’s where I started doing stand-up.
TT: So did you mostly just disregard the reactions you were getting and keep going with your set?
DC: Yeah, yeah. That’s fun—being in front of pissed-off people that you don’t agree with or don’t have a full amount of respect for. And it’s only a combination of believing in what I’m saying and also having a sense of humor about it. A lot of people don’t have, and this applies to liberal-progressive people too; they just don’t have a very evolved sense of humor. And it’s fun to rile them. There are plenty of left-wing people who don’t care for me as well.
TT: I recently read a blog that listed the top 14 replacements for Jon Stewart. You were number eight. Do you think you would enjoy doing a show like that?
DC: Yes and no. I think I would be a little frustrated in not being able to do other things because of how much time that would command. I really do like my bike right now where I work in two-speed for two or three months on this thing and then I step off and then I get to do stand-up and then I get to work on the show in London and then I fly back home. I would be hesitant to give up that life—it’s quite enjoyable. But just as far as doing that kind of thing, I think it would be a lot of fun. In a way it would be a little bit much. But I’m only number eight, so there’s seven other guys ahead of me.
TT: You recently wrote a book called, “I Drink for a Reason.” Did you enjoy writing a book versus doing stand-up comedy? It seems like it would give you a chance you stretch your legs instead of being confined to an hour-long set on stage.
DC: Yeah, that’s definitely implied. I do enjoy doing stand-up more than writing. The process of writing is solitary and there’s no feedback—comedian feedback. It’s a much different form of communication. But I’m happy with the book and I’m glad that there’s this permanent, tangible thing that you can pick up and that’s not going to go away. Whereas a stand-up set, each one is different and they’re fleeting and temporary. I mean, I’m happy with the end result of the book, but the actual writing process was not nearly as much fun as a stand-up set.
TT: Did you not get a chance to sit back and sip scotch late at night and…
DC: [Laughs]. No. Well, I probably did actually. That was occasionally part of the process. But, you know, it was over two or three months. I was really busy.
TT: You do a lot of comedy at rock shows. What’s the difference between performing along side bands vs. at a typical comedy club?
DC: Well, there are several differences. In a comedy club, you’re restricted to a certain amount of time, and the audience, it’s not an all-ages show, and you don’t set the ticket price. And there’s like a two-drink minimum. Whereas in the music clubs I controlled all of those things and can create a fuller show.
TT: I was listening to an audio version of a very pointed, open letter from you to Larry the Cable Guy. What is the history of that disagreement?
DC: I was approached by Rolling Stone and did a brief interview where they asked me some stuff about Larry the Cable Guy. Then they printed it in this article about him and took a rather inflammatory remark I made and then printed that, and then Larry the Cable Guy wrote a book where he had a chapter about me and people like me and the liberal, “PC” left. He kept referring to me as the figure-head for that broad, brush-stroke of left-wing, liberal PC. And I’m about as un-PC a comic as you’ll find. I mean, it’s absurd. So then I wrote the letter in response to the chapter in the book and posted it online.
TT: Could you tell me a little about the project you’re working on in London?
DC: It’s a pilot I shot for Channel 4 that I wrote and am starring in and created with a production company up there. It will air at the end of November, I think, in the UK. And I’ll know by the end of the tour whether or not it’s getting picked up and going to series or not. But I’m very happy with it. It’s very funny.
TT: What’s it about?
DC: It’s called “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” and it’s a lot of fun. The cast is crazy good. Ridiculously good.
TT: How often do you make it to Austin? I know you’re going to be here later this month to perform.
DC: I used to go to South-by-Southwest all the time, but I think I’m kind of over it now. I love Austin and I have really good shows there, and it’s one of the handful of places that I really look forward to on a tour. It’s always a good time there.