This is to be the first of three re-uploaded posts from my old website. The others will be along in due course; in the meantime, please enjoy this interview with comedian, writer, actor and all-’round good guy, David Cross.
Victoria Station, Main Concourse. Thursday, June 21, 2007. 4:59pm.
I’m getting decidedly nervous. The crowd on the concourse seems to be swelling with every passing moment, courtesy of signal problems which have resulted in widespread delays to all southbound trains, and the mass of bodies jostling for position in front of the departure boards is hardly helping to alleviate my already-fraught frame of mind. As the station’s digital clock display changes to 5:00pm, I wipe my sweaty palms on my trousers for the umpteenth time and begin to scan the multitudinous faces before me once more.
Let’s rewind to approximately 24 hours earlier. I’d just arrived at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, and had been politely – indeed, sweetly – informed that, due to an unfortunate and unforeseeable chain of events, the interview for which I’d arrived would have to be rescheduled for the following day. Later on, at 10:45pm on the 20th, I was introduced to my prospective interviewee, who genially suggested that we meet at Victoria, an hour-and-a-half or so before my coach was due to depart, where we’d find somewhere to have a chat.
So it came to pass that I found myself waiting by the flower-stand in the aforementioned station, fidgeting nervously and sneaking endless sideways glances at the clock as my eyes searched the throng of irritable commuters.
Before I have time to register the fact, he’s standing before me: David Cross, actor and comedian extraordinaire. You may know him from his critically-acclaimed stand-up work, or perhaps you’ll remember him as Tobias Fünke, the latent homosexual never-nude from Arrested Development, the best sitcom to emerge from American shores since Seinfeld. Maybe you’ll recognise him from his roles in the Men in Black movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Scary Movie 2, or you may never have heard of him at all. If you fall into the final group, seek out one of his live CDs (Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! or It’s Not Funny, both of which are out on Sub Pop Records) before buying all three of the Arrested Development DVD sets. You can thank me later.
Within five minutes we’re sitting in the food court above the station, bottles of water – and, in David’s case, a bagel – sitting amid the tangled dictaphone wires on our tiny table.
So, David, it’s been three years or so since you were last in London. Are you pleased to be back?
Yeah. I mean, I’m glad to be back doing it the way I’m doing it, too. There’s a lot less… I don’t want to say “pressure”, but it’s less work and more fun for me because it’s a looser line-up and I do less time. It’s also a club, as opposed to a theater, so it doesn’t have that feeling to it. It’s more fun this way.
Have you ever got a handle on how British audiences have become aware of your work, seeing as Mr. Show [Cross’s cult sketch program, which ran between 1995 and 1998 on America’s HBO channel and was co-written with Bob Odenkirk] was never screened on these shores?
Well, I think initially it’s just the comedy community – people who are comedy nerds and are way into it. If you ask most hardcore comedy fans in America about British comics, they’ll know people that the rest of the country has never heard of and never will. They seek out that stuff, and people show them tapes and things. So initially that way, and I’m sure Arrested Development has a lot to do with it too.
The shows you’re doing at present are billed as David Cross and Friends: How did they come about? Were they your idea?
No. I’m the least proactive guy with my career! Both this time and last time [I was over here], it was a case of somebody else saying “Hey, you want to go to England and do some shows?” “Okay!”
So did you pick the acts with whom you wanted to appear?
The comedians? Yup.
Are they people with whom you’re friends? Have you worked with them in the past?
Yeah. They’re all from New York, or live in New York, and we do shows together all the time over there. I mean, not just the four of us, but we’re a part of the community which is always going around the same six or seven shows.
There are four of you performing each night, plus different a special guest for each show. How did the guests get involved?
That was Olivia Wingate, who’s promoting it. We’re trying to get Daniel Kitson down here, but he won’t commit; the New Pornographers are playing tonight. Just various people, really.
According to the Internet Movie Database, you have seven film and television projects due for release later this year or sometime in 2008. Are you putting comedy on the back-burner for a while, or are you doing tours and shows alongside your acting commitments?
Again, that’s part of the proactive thing, or lack of it. When I did the tours in the States that resulted in the CDs, that was somebody else putting that together. I was always… This is nothing I’m proud of, I’m not bragging about it, but I have no… I really should get off my ass and figure something out! But, once I get a new hour, I think I’ll be pretty happy about touring. I mean, it’s fun, and I really like this particular format, too.
It’s also been three years since It’s Not Funny came out, so is another album likely to follow when you finally get back out on the road?
Yeah. Nothing is in the works at present, but I just came from the Bonnaroo Festival – a big festival in the States – and that was the first time I’d done forty-five minutes of material for a while. I’m glad I did that, to get ready for these shows, and that’s just the nature of it. Especially the way I write onstage, and I don’t sit down at home; it’s almost exponential, where you start off with a little bit and just build up your material, and if I continue working at it when I go back home I imagine I’ll be ready to go back out in the Fall.
So a new record may come from that?
Do you tape every show on a tour and cherry-pick the best ones for inclusion?
Yeah, exactly. The first one [Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!] was part of a tour that was, like, twenty-one cities, I think, and I took 95% of the material from two different shows, one in Portland and one in Atlanta. You’re kind of stymied by the sound quality too: the shows sound different, and you have to pick the ones you want to go with. The second CD [It’s Not Funny] was pretty much one show. I think I did four shows at The Improv in Washington, D.C., and there wasn’t much editing for that one.
The most infamous recent event in the stand-up world was Michael Richards’ onstage meltdown late last year, which saw The Laugh Factory outlaw the use of the word “nigger” when performing at their club. They also imposed punishments, including fines and bans, for performers who break this rule. What do you make of this kind of censorship?
Well, I think it’s silly. It’s reactionary, it’s not thoughtful… It’s well-meaning, but ultimately it’s stupid and childish. I can understand if the club-owner was particularly offended and can see him making some sort of rule based upon that, but the idea that… I mean, if I said it in a different context would that be allowed, or would I be fined?
From what I understand, context doesn’t matter.
That’s ridiculous. It’s the intent behind the word that counts. It’s language!
Do you think that “clean” comedy albums, sanitized for sale in Wal-Mart, can really be far behind?
I think it’s already happened. Not necessarily just in Wal-Mart, but Best Buy, Wal-Mart, a lot of those huge chains will not carry certain things. They won’t carry certain videogames because of their content, there are certain TV shows they won’t carry.
So does that constitute a certain kind of censorship in itself?
Well, not really. I wouldn’t call it “censorship”, because now – with the Internet – you can pretty much get anything you want anyway.
Do you think American comedy is starting to get more politicized again, after an initial post-9/11 lull?
Not that I can see. Do you mean stand-up?
No, not really.
Even George Carlin announced a vague “truce” with Bush after 9/11, leaving you as one of the few comics out there who was still pushing that kind of material.
Well, that’s the thing: I’m not anymore. I haven’t made any jokes about Bush or the Bush
administration in maybe two years. It wasn’t a calculated decision. When I was initially doing it, there was a sense of urgency and outrage that I, for various reasons, don’t have anymore. You become inured to it. Maybe on some conscious level I thought “Enough’s enough.” I mean, I’ve said it already. I’m certainly happy that I was on record as saying it in 2000 and 2001, but now – especially when you have Lewis Black, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Bill Maher – you have people who do this every night. The voice is out there.
The run-up to the invasion of Iraq saw many public American figures – the Dixie Chicks being a prime example – excoriated for speaking out against Bush. Did you ever fear a similar backlash amid the atmosphere you once described as “flag-waving, cheerleading bullshit”?
No! I’d have welcomed it.
Yeah, because it would have meant that I was on the radar. I’m actually kind of under the radar, so no-one really gave a shit.
Courtesy of certain right-wing factions within the Stateside media, one almost got the impression that 1950s McCarthyism had returned, with any criticism of Bush being immediately dubbed “anti-American” or “unpatriotic.” Was this really the case?
Well, I think that impression is a little exaggerated, because McCarthyism found people being accused of something they weren’t and losing their jobs and livelihoods as a result, without any ability to reconcile that. What we had was a small minority of people who were very loud and happened to have a public platform from which they could say the same things [about the need to support Bush] over and over. It helped people! I mean, Bill Maher lost one show but he went and did another one. Phil Donahue lost a show, but I don’t know anybody who was really… There was no fear, like under McCarthyism. It was just annoying more than anything else.
During your spat with Larry the Cable Guy, you said that the country was in the grip of “vague American values and anti-intellectual pride.” This was a couple of years ago: Has the situation improved at all?
I think it has, yeah. The biggest news was the 2006 election, and Congress swinging back to the Democrats, which – if nothing else – means that things will be investigated where they wouldn’t have been before. I’m sure news will be dripping out for the next eight to ten years about some of the heinous things that happened and were covered up. The President’s popularity is historically-low, and he’s completely ineffective. That’s a massive change from 2004.
Do you think the Democrats stand a chance of taking the next national election?
I do, but not because they’re going to be particularly effective. I think the Republican slate is just doomed. I mean, it’s terrible. Their knight in shining armor is Fred Thompson – the guy’s a former lobbyist – and it’s gonna be ugly. It’s the Democrats’ to lose, and they could lose it. I’m not particularly excited by any of them, although I do like [John] Edwards and [Barack] Obama.
Who would you like to see on the Democratic ticket, ideally?
Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
Ha! I was going to follow that by asking if you’d ever consider campaigning for your preferred candidates…
That’d be weird. But yeah, sure!
Among the American Left, there seem to be two basic opinions with regard to Ralph Nader: firstly, that he offers a genuine choice at the ballot by campaigning for issues that the Democrats won’t touch; and, secondly, that he splinters the left-wing vote and helps to hand victory to the Republicans. Do you fall into either camp?
I think he’s… I admire what he’s trying to do, but I also think he’s arrogant. He certainly has an ego. He feels like he’s an incorruptible truth-teller, but he’d be a terrible president. I don’t think he’s diplomatic at all, and my guess is that even the most altruistic and well-intentioned left-winger – such as Dennis Kucinich – would find that things work a certain way, y’know? We need oil!
As a final politics-related question, it was reported in the news this week that Bush has agreed to reinstate Palestinian aid if the new cabinet is confirmed to be Hamas-free. Doesn’t this undermine his constant use of “democratic” principles to justify everything he’s done since 9/11?
Yes, that is true, at least in theory. Again, though, he has never done anything that he’s said he was going to do. He hasn’t accomplished anything. As quickly as they announced their ‘Road Map to Peace’ – or whatever the fuck they called it – it was abandoned. And with everything that’s going on in Lebanon, and all the saber-rattling with Iran, he pretty much has to [get Palestine onside].
Right, moving on! You’re doing a residency at the 100 Club, perhaps best-known for its 1976 punk festival which featured performances from the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Were you ever a punk fan?
Oh, yeah. God, yeah. Absolutely. There were the two you just mentioned, the Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, The Damned, the Ramones, West Coast punk…
So is it meaningful for you, in that sense, to be playing there?
Well, it’s not something I consciously think about, but you do walk in and go “Cool!”. It’s not like I walk in and feel imbued with the spirit of Joe Strummer, though.
You’ve been very outspoken in the past in your criticism of manufactured rock bands, including Staind and Creed. Do you think the music industry’s in a healthier state now?
I think that, literally every month, there’s another really good album out from a band which may not be reinventing music but is still putting out strong, interesting stuff. The last Modest Mouse album is great, Arcade Fire… I was just at Bonnaroo, and every band I saw just got better and better. I didn’t get to see that many because of my schedule, but I did see The Little Ones, Black Angel, The Roots and Tool. That was a really good festival.
You also performed at All Tomorrow’s Parties over here last year. Would you ever curate one of these events, if they asked you to?
Oh yeah, sure. I have a lot of friends in bands. Absolutely. I sort of did one at South by Southwest this year, a day-long thing with two stages and had a bunch of bands playing. It was good.
Given the current tendency for bands to reform in search of their glory days, are there any groups or artists you’d try to reunite for a festival appearance?
I’d like to get Scott Joplin and George Gershwin together to collaborate! Actually, I tell you who I’d like to see: The Cavedogs. I saw a couple of their reunion shows and they were great. Who else? Maybe the Sex Pistols? That would be funny. It would be anathema to their ethos, though.
It’s generally something of a mess when they get back together, from what I’ve seen.
Yeah. Weren’t they supposed to do shows, and they cancelled?
I think some shows may have been discussed for later this year, as it’s the 30th anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks in October. If memory serves, they last played over here about five years ago when they did a mini-festival called “Pistols at the Palace.” It was… Interesting, in a train-wreck sort of way.
I can imagine!
Are you interested in directing music videos at all?
I actually directed a video for The Black Keys, for ‘10 A.M. Automatic’, which I like. They’re really funny in it, and it’s good. I also had an idea for …Trail of Dead, which I really liked: it was inspired by La Jetée, the French film which inspired Twelve Monkeys. It would all be photographs – or stills, should I say – and I think they misunderstood my intent. I think they thought it was going to be really violent and bloody, but it absolutely wasn’t.
Judging by your rant on the Season Two DVD set, and from reading interviews with your co-stars conducted around the time of the show’s cancellation, there seemed to be a lot of resentment and anger at the way Fox treated Arrested Development.
Oh, yeah. Here’s the big, dark secret nobody talks about: Fox didn’t like the show. They didn’t like the fact that it kept winning Emmys and being mentioned as one of the ten best shows on TV. It was expensive, they didn’t get along with the producer, they didn’t like the politics of it. It didn’t do anything for them. That show stayed on only as a result of Emmys, Golden Globes and other awards like that. They really didn’t like it. And – I swear to God, although it sounds like I’m making this up – I don’t think Rupert Murdoch liked it. I don’t know that for a fact, of course. There were a couple of people [at Fox] who championed it but, outside of those people, the network simply didn’t like it.
The show almost ended on a positive note for its fans, with the implication that a feature film adaptation may follow. Is that still a vague possibility?
I would underscore “vague”, and make it in bold letters, with an asterisk. Then, when you look at the asterisk, you scroll down to the bottom of the page and it says “extremely vague”. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
But if they called you up and said “We’ve got the green light”, would you sign on?
Oh, fuck yeah. Absolutely.
There seemed to be a lot of camaraderie between the cast members…
Yeah, there was. Absolutely. It was fun. The other problem we faced is an antiquated and ineffective ratings system that doesn’t truly reflect [modern trends]: TiVo and DVR, lots of people watching in a room as opposed to one, and so on. People don’t watch TV in the same way they did in 1972, and yet they’re using the same ratings system.
What do you make of the trend towards watching TV shows online or downloading episodes via the Internet? Do you think this will have an adverse effect upon shows like Arrested, which receive critical claim but lower ratings than the networks would like?
I don’t know. That’s going to be the new way in which you figure out what your market is, and I’m sure someone in Hollywood right now is being paid a lot of money just to figure out how to make money from the Internet.
So it’ll end up being harnessed by the industry in the same way music downloads have been?
At the end of It’s Not Funny, you told an anecdote about meeting Scott Stapp [the one-time Creed vocalist, about whom Cross has been particularly critical] at a celebrity poker tournament. In the same vein, what was it like working with James Lipton on Arrested?
I’ll preface this by saying that working with him was quite fun, and I think he did a great job. However, it was also awkward. Mitch Hurwitz [the creator of Arrested] mentioned the idea and was like “Wouldn’t this be great?” and then, when the day came, I was kinda nervous. I mean, I really shit on him in my stand-up, and I have nothing but absolute, utter contempt for what he does. It saddens me, it’s disheartening. It’s upsetting to me to watch somebody so pandering, to people who are marginally talented at best. And what they’re talented at is being successful! A celebration of this… I mean, he’s had really good people on there [Inside the Actors Studio, Lipton’s series on the Bravo cable channel], but he’s also had fucking Ben Affleck, you know? It’s a joke. It disgusts me, just on a human level. And so I went to his trailer – and we had tiny trailers, literally tiny, for the first season – and he’s sitting there, facing the mirror, which is by the door. Just sitting there, which was odd. I came in, like “Hey”, whatever. I never said anything, never alluded to the fact that I’d said these things during my stand-up, I had no idea whether he knew or not. And we sat there for a good twenty minutes or so and had this sort of chit-chat about nothing. He kept talking about his plane – he flies – and he talked about flying a lot. I was just sitting there going “Oh. Wow. Really? Uh-huh. Mmmm. Okay.” But it was fine in the end.
Is this something which occurs with greater frequency now, as you become more successful, meeting people you’ve attacked onstage?
Yeah! It happened just recently, in fact. These guys were super-cool, though. Very recently, maybe three weeks ago, somebody somewhere posted an audio-clip of a show I’d done years ago in Austin, Texas. Literally, it must have been five or six years ago. In the middle of it, somebody heckled or something – I honestly don’t remember doing this riff – and I guess The String Cheese Incident must have been playing, because I started going off on them and then I started talking about hippies, and hippie bands. Somebody posted it, and then The String Cheese Incident posted it on their website, which shows that they have a really good sense of humor. I’d said, like “I’ve never heard their music, but I imagine it’s terrible” and just went off on that. And I ran into those guys at Bonnaroo, and they were totally cool! They asked me to introduce them on the Main Stage, which I couldn’t actually do because I had my own show at the same time, but they were really, really cool. They were awesome.
There was a rumor going around that Zach Braff wanted you to reprise your role as Tobias during the sixth season of Scrubs. Now that Scrubs has been renewed for a seventh – and, apparently, final – season, is this still a possibility?
You know, you’d really have to ask them. I haven’t talked to them or investigated it further. It’s really not my place to, either. I think it’s a funny idea, and hopefully the script will be good.
Are you still into drugs as much as you once were?
No. I’m still into the fond memories I have [of doing drugs], but I haven’t done hallucinogenics in… Well, I did mushrooms with my girlfriend about two years ago but otherwise, no. I’m forty-three now.
A few years ago you were writing on your website about your plans to buy a club in New York. What happened there?
Yeah, we were getting close to it, my friends and I. It fell through because of our own naïveté. I mean, we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing! I’m kinda glad it didn’t happen, because it would be a big headache, but I’m still with the same group of people and we’re still looking to do something.
Every time I read anything about you in the media, the same two names crop up: Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce.
That’s because they’re recycling the press release! That’s all. It was written once and now everyone’s recycling the same thing.
Do the analogies mean anything to you, or do they just represent lazy journalism?
I think it’s lazy journalism. I don’t think I’m like Lenny Bruce at all, because the [societal] context is completely different. I’m probably closer to Bill Hicks, but I’m not nearly as good or articulate or economic with my ideas as he was. We have the same ideas about things, but he’s a better comic.
Were you influenced by either of them?
Absolutely. I was definitely influenced by Bill Hicks. Well, maybe less ‘influenced’ than ‘inspired by’. When I first met him, I was doing stuff that I do now, so maybe I wasn’t directly influenced by him. But he was certainly inspiring.
Are you still enjoying living in New York?
Oh, I love it. I love it.
So when job opportunities arise in Los Angeles, do you hesitate to accept them given your oft-voiced dislike for the place?
Well, no. The thing is, I don’t actually have to move. I wouldn’t do another series, unless it was Arrested Development, as that was very special. TV means you live there pretty much six months of the year, but when you shoot a movie that’s three months at most.
You wrote an article for New York Magazine once, in which you gave advice to people on approaching celebrities, and pointed out that criticizing the celebrity’s friends is never a good idea. Does this really happen?
Oh, yeah! I mean, it doesn’t happen all the time, but I’ve had a number of people who will make fun in that way. Like “Hey, man you’re fucking funny, but what’s up with The Strokes, though? How come you hang out with those guys?” Or “What’s up with Janeane Garofalo? She’s not funny at all.” Just shit like that. I mean, why do it? They’re friends of mine! Obviously I disagree with you, and I think they’re good musicians or good comedians, depending on whom they’re talking about. Yeah, I get that. Again, it doesn’t happen a lot.
In another interview from a few years ago, you said that one of your long-term goals is to do some directing. Is this still on your agenda?
At some point, yeah.
Do you write your own screenplay material, or would you rather helm someone else’s project to start with?
Erm… Either way, really. I’ve written my own stuff, which never got made. I got close to finishing a script, but now I’d have to completely rewrite it.
So your experience with Run, Ronnie, Run [the Mr. Show spin-off movie Cross wrote with Odenkirk, which was butchered by New Line Cinema after spending two years in development hell] didn’t put you off?
Oh, no. I wish we’d directed that, man. We’d have made it a lot better. And funnier.
You’ve spoken of your admiration for Greg Palast, and also said you enjoyed reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. What are you reading at the moment?
Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett. I’m about halfway through it. It’s really interesting: He’s a philosopher, and it’s about the idea of religion as a natural phenomenon, studying that. It’s great, really good.
Lastly, one of the most popular David Cross videos on YouTube shows you dancing onstage with Jim Belushi, courtesy of the Chunklet guys. How did that come about?
I was in Martha’s Vineyard with some friends of mine, and on the ferry over there we saw that he was going to be playing and were like “Oh, shit! We’ve got to go to this!” We went to this little club, roughly the size of the 100 Club, by the airport. That motherfucker had the audacity to charge $40 a ticket to see his shitty cover-band. And then my friend had a little camera, and I was like “Okay, get ready!” I got up onstage and got kicked off twice.
It looked as though they threw you out at some point.
Yeah, after the second time they kicked me out of the club.
Thanks a lot for coming out to do this, David. It was very kind of you.
No problem, man.
Many thanks to Claire Walker for helping to arrange the interview, the guys at Drowned in Sound for allowing me to schedule it under the aegis of their site and, of course, David himself for taking the time to answer my asinine questions. Oh, and the photograph which accompanies this piece is a Sub Pop promo picture.