A conversation with David Cross in 2013 presents a microcosm of the comedian’s career. Open with an obligatory question about the future of Arrested Development. Openly mock the conventions of a conversation, seeking to entertain his friends first and foremost. Then if anyone is left to listen, eventually open up and sincerely acknowledge his body of work and the fans who have stuck around to appreciate it.
On Wednesday night at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Cross had a welcoming audience and an adoring fan with inside knowledge of him to lead the conversation: His Arrested Development co-star, Michael Cera.
To wit, Cera opened the line of questioning by saying, “I’ve got to ask you the obvious question. What’s up with the Arrested Development movie?”
Cross: “I don’t know that there’s going to be a movie.”
Cera’s retort, pre-empting an audience reply: “Booooo.”
Instead, they assuaged fans by relaying that the new fourth TV season, which debuts exclusively on Netflix in late spring, will be either 14 or 15 episodes. “There were going to be 10, but then we stretched them out,” Cross said.
That out of the way, Cera continued: “So, let’s have an actual discussion!”
“What kind of boy were you?” he asked. Cross said he was attention seeking, overly sensitive, introduced to Abbott and Costello by his dad, and moved a lot until he was 10. “I was always very different.” He especially felt that way living in the South in Atlanta. He read books on Jerry Rubin, Lenny Bruce when he was a kid, and that led to his politically active side. But he also loved The Carol Burnett Show and laughed just as many of us did when the actors cracked during sketches. “I didn’t understand what was happening,” he said of his youthful reaction to it. “They were messing up!”
Cross did take away a couple of valuable lesson from Burnett and her cast of comedians, though:
- “Keeping things loose, having fun, that became important.”
- “My influences were always my peers…I cared about making them laugh.”
At first, as a bored teenager in Atlanta, that peer influence was Mark Rivers. Cross they’d get drunk after school and make fun of drunk rednecks, and make a game of trying to convince each other to get the other drunken teen back up into his home.
When he moved to Boston, he became leader of a collective known as “Cross Comedy.” But he doesn’t take too much of the credit for it now. “(Marc) Maron, it was half his idea, too,” Cross said. And the name itself came from a guy at Catch A Rising Star in Cambridge, Mass., where Cross was hosting open mic nights. “I had the idea, what if it devolved into something else?” Cross said. He involved his comedian friends in the elaborate jokes he’d play on audiences — H. Jon Benjamin, Sam Seder and John Ennis were three early, active participants as audience plants. “The audience was always unsuspecting until it became a big thing in Boston. But that wasn’t for a year,” he said. A typical idea had Cross welcoming “New Hampshire’s funniest dentist” onstage at the mic, only the “dentist” was one of his friends, who be acting the part even before the show started, waiting in line and causing a scene. Once inside, Cross said Helene Lantry was in on the joke, too, playing the waitress they’d harass. “It’s all inside jokes,” he said. “I don’t remember, but something bad would happen.” Perhaps the bartender, also in on it, would grab a prop bat from the wall, lead the offending comedian offstage and pretend to beat him up with the bat — the comedian emerging with fake blood stains. “It was initially a commentary on the shitty state of comedy. Then it grew and blossomed….we even hosted an Oscars party.”
Cross loved it. “It was an exciting creative outlet to have, as a loser partying all the time,” he said.
Because for about a decade, he didn’t really care about a career or long-term goals. He simply enjoyed having fun with his friends onstage for 10 minutes or more a night.
Cross recalled an early trip to NYC. “We were brought down to showcase for SNL,” he said. He said he and Cross Comedy bombed at that showcase at Caroline’s.
A generation removed from it all now, Cross owns up to the label and idea of what he and his friends were doing taking on the mantle of “Alternative Comedy.” Because it was an alternative to what was going on in the mainstream comedy clubs. “There’s all kinds of comedy that isn’t that. That doesn’t have to be that,” he said. Not that Cross himself didn’t also want to be a part of the mainstream. He says he auditioned at both the Improv and at The Comedy Store in Hollywood, and couldn’t get passed as a regular.
Cross also recalled going onstage in comedy clubs in characters, such as one gay guy pretending to be performing stand-up for the first time. “Napoleon something something,” he tried to recall. “Really long name.” “I did it at the San Francisco Comedy Competition and ate shit for it,” he said. “It was the dumbest, stupidest shit about my digs. Nobody would laugh…I would accuse them of being homophobic. This was the late 80s. This was when Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay was popular.”
“I would just bitch at them. ‘Fine. Is that what you want?'” he’d snarl. And then Cross would switch out of an effeminate gay voice to a Dice impersonation of sorts and tell the most offensive, misogynist jokes he could. “And then they’d laugh.”
“I did a deaf guy once. I did this on TV!” Cross also recalled. He had himself introduced as a great impressionist. His idea of great: “Can you imagine if Jack Nicholson was a gynecologist? Then I’d sit there and imagine it. (after a long pause) ‘Yeah, that’d be weird.'”
Cross said part of his immaturity and messiness onstage came naturally, as his comedy career began while still a teen. “My first show was literally a week before I turned 18,” he said. What changed for him and his comedy was the election of President George W. Bush in 2000. “I couldn’t believe it,” Cross said of the state of the nation. “It was just this sense of, ‘How can you not see this?’ It coincided with maturing as a person.” Of course, even before that, Cross and Bob Odenkirk had made names for themselves in the late 1990s with HBO’s Mr. Show.
Cera asked about Cross “starting fires” with other comedians and people in show business, from a producer on the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies to Jim Belushi and Larry the Cable Guy. Cross has been there and talked all about that, though.
A woman in the front row of the audience turned out to be a childhood friend of Wendy Cross, David’s younger sister, and reminded everyone that David Cross was cracking jokes even back at Northside High School in Buckhead, Georgia. Cross would deliver announcements over the p.a. system, including not just the school menu but also weather and traffic reports. “We got taken off of the air twice,” Cross remembered. “We traffic is heavier than Miss Jackson.” The other time: “We dedicated the menu to Bobby Sands, who was in the IRA and starved himself to death…I swear maybe nine people knew who Bobby Sands was.”
Fast-forward back to 2013.
Cross is in two new movies, Kill Your Darlings, in which he plays Allen Ginsberg’s father, and It’s a Disaster.
Speaking of which, Cross joked with Cera about them being in Year One together. “We went into it thinking this was going to be really fun,” Cross said. Cera: “I think the audience in deference has been waiting to go see it.”
They also reminisced about how, during filming of Year One, Cross almost got himself into a fight while he and Cera attended a screening in Shreveport of There Will Be Blood, because two men behind them kept talking during the first half-hour of it.
Cross also said he and Odenkirk will release a book this fall full of their unreleased and unproduced scripts, and do a combined book tour and stand-up with it, bringing Brian Posehn along as a support act. After which, he promised the audience that he would do a separate stand-up tour that visits more than just the biggest 10 cities in America.
He also apologized for not being more sincere toward his fans in the past, and noted that he took more time after shows on his most tour to acknowledge them personally. “I didn’t think I’d be here now with a body of work,” he said.