I have complicated and conflicting feelings about David Cross’s work, which is appropriate, as he’s a complicated, difficult performer. As I told him when we met, I think he’s talented. He has a nimble mind, great timing, and a knack for absurd humor. However, his performances often seem driven by an anger and smugness that overpower his appeal, particularly in his stand-up. I was managing editor of New York Press when he released his second CD, It’s Not Funny, which was the prime reason for his inclusion on the paper’s “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers” list. We called him “meandering” and “not funny,” and wished that Andrew Dice Clay would inflict bodily harm upon him. Even though some on the staff, including me, were inclined to agree with his liberal anger, we thought Cross’s tone was alienating and shrill.
In addition, Cross has waged public crusades against seeming straw men like Creed’s Scott Stapp, Jim Belushi, and Larry the Cable Guy. I’ve always been confounded by the attention Cross paid them.
I chatted with Cross in late 2007 at his East Village apartment. He was extremely self-aware, willing to speak frankly about awkward subjects with admirable candor and introspection. Honestly, I came away liking him a lot. Also, he had embroidered towels in his bathroom. One read david’s. The other read also david’s. I’m not sure what conclusions should be drawn from that, but it’s the kind of detail that as a reporter I would feel remiss if I kept to myself.
HATER: Look, I think you’re a very talented guy. But I think there’s a core of hostility to your persona and performances that—
DAVID CROSS: —I think you’re right. And I’ve gotten that a lot. I can’t sit here and say that’s bullshit. Obviously, if enough people think that, it clearly is true. And I’ve gotten “condescending” a lot. I actually probably get that more than anything.
DC: Yeah. It’s not a good trait. I have to honestly and objectively look at it, because clearly I’m coming off that way. Even my friends, when we’re having conversations about politics, say I’m condescending. I hate being condescended to. Hostility doesn’t bother me. I am angry. I had a shitty childhood. There were a lot of ignorant people in positions of authority throughout my life. My personality is influenced by the time I spent in Roswell, Georgia. I’m also very vocal about my belief that all religion is garbage. Most of my friends are religious or at least spiritual. These are people I like and I know are intelligent. It’s this thing that I carry around. I know I’d be a better person if I was fairer, but it’s at the core of who I am and what I believe.
HTR: Here’s something you said about Eddie Izzard to the Onion A.V. Club in 1999. “He’ll bring up a kind of heady, intellectual topic and not really do much with it.… Then he gets rewarded for bringing that thing up. He’s a social satirist, a political satirist who skews American politics. But he really isn’t.”
DC: Are you saying the pot is calling the kettle black?
HTR: I am, to an extent. Do you think I’m wrong?
DC: Well, it’s one of my fears. I can see that. I think sometimes yes and sometimes no. There’s a bit of that kind of sophomoric “Fuck Bush, he’s an asshole” in my act. And that’s inexcusable.
HTR: Here’s a quote from a different interview: “You have to educate people and do it in a calm, rational way with logic and facts. You can’t just sit there and go, ‘Bush is a Nazi,’ and then expect people to go, ‘Hey, he is a Nazi.’”
DC: Oh, well, I totally agree with that. Absolutely. As far as just my stand-up is concerned, I don’t care about changing your mind. I’m not making an argument. I’m a guy doing comedy.
HTR: You don’t think that politically charged comedy could change someone’s mind?
DC: When has your mind been changed, ever, as an adult, by a comedian? When have you ever totally thought one way, then saw a comedian—George Carlin, Jeff Foxworthy, whoever—and your mind was completely changed? Never. That’s not what I’m doing. Those are two separate things. I’ve gone on Air America a dozen times or two dozen times. I’ve done interviews on NPR. That’s not comedy. I’m not being funny. I’m having a conversation where I am using facts and explaining my rationale.
HTR: You don’t care if you come off as shrill?
DC: Not at all. I mean, I don’t want to be shrill. When I was doing that stuff, in 2000, in 2001, it was fresh and raw and unrefined. I was angry. I was dumbfounded at how predictably ignorant people were. And it made no sense to me. And that’s a lot of where the anger came from, seeing how easily manipulated people were.
HTR: I understand that you were angry, and it was a free-flowing of expression. And, I feel like a dick for saying it, but did you forget to write punch lines?
DC: What I’d say to that is that I’ve never written jokes. I mean, I’ll write things on a piece of paper and riff on them onstage. What I don’t think is fair, and what I think you’re implying, is that there’s nothing funny in it. That’s fine, that’s your opinion.
HTR: I’m not saying it’s not funny. I’m saying that it’s undernuanced at times. It could be more clever or well constructed.
DC: Yeah, probably. You can continue to craft it and hone it. But that, for better or worse, is not what I do. It might read funnier, definitely, but it would feel false. I think I could have a funnier, more economic set. But that’s the comedy I do. And I understand if people aren’t interested in it and would rather listen to someone else. But I’ll never understand the anger people have toward me.
HTR: One person you’ve managed to anger has the last name “the Cable Guy.”
DC: Well, let me say this. I’ve never met him, but I think he’s pretty much taken the high ground.
The impetus for the whole thing—what got me angry—was the posturing of “You can make fun of me all you want, but don’t mess with my fans.” A Rolling Stone journalist talked to me for, easy, ten minutes. And he did what journalists do, he picked the most inflammatory two sentences—and I still stand by them. I said Larry the Cable Guy represents dumb, anti-intellectual, easy, cheap comedy. He used what I said to appeal to his fans. He’s smart. He’s not a dumb guy. He appealed to his fans’ sense of victimization and the idea that the left thinks they’re yahoo idiots, “but y’all are the best people, salt of the earth.” He used me as a focal point for all that. I don’t hate the guy. He doesn’t anger me. I reserve hate and that kind of emotion for other things. Not Larry the Cable Guy… I haven’t listened to [my stand-up] CDs since they came out, but I believe on both of them, literally all the stuff on there, I was correct. I was right. I was right at a time when it wasn’t that popular to say that stuff. I feel vindicated in my condescension.
HTR: [Mimes writing down a note] Mr. Cross defends his condescending attitude by saying he’s right.
DC: Right. How about that? It just gets worse and worse. But I feel like there’s at least a reason for the anger.
HTR: Not to belabor a point, but that was one of the jarring things about hearing those stand-up discs. I knew the gentle, absurd humor of Mr. Show, and then there was, like, a guy ranting onstage.
DC: It probably does make it more difficult to enjoy a good laugh at someone who’s onstage, seemingly yelling at you. But I’m not yelling at the audience, I’m yelling at the world. It genuinely sucks if people are taking it that way. But I’m not talking to individuals. Where I really get the condescending stuff is when I talk about religion.
HTR: You’re an atheist. Why do you feel compelled to make that point over and over?
DC: I’d like to think that I’m not just making the point that I’m an atheist over and over—which is the conclusion you’ve made—but that I explore different facets of religion. I talk about Mormonism, Scientology, Judaism, Catholicism, and Christianity. I don’t think people realize how intrusive religion is.
HTR: Is it different when you’re behind the microphone than when you’re talking to your friends at a bar?
DC: Well, I guess that’s one thing people don’t like about me is that there isn’t a difference. I don’t make a distinction. It’s going to come off as a little preachy, because it is.
HTR: You said you have friends that are religious. Are you tolerant of their beliefs?
DC: There’s no way of bringing up religion without sounding like an asshole. I like hanging out in bars with my friends and talking politics and religion. That’s something that’s satisfying for me. I’ve had a good day when I’ve had a heated discussion.
I am a nerd for David Cross. My fanboydom began in the mid-’90s, when I discovered Mr. Show with Bob and David and developed a comedy crush on “the bald one.”
Around the same time, I was working at the Second City theater in Chicago, and plastered the walls of the box office with publicity shots of David, so that it resembled the bedroom of a very confused teenage girl. One fortuitous evening, David Cross came to the theater for a show, and when he was coaxed into the office by my fellow employees, he was confronted by dozens of tiny reflections of himself. “Now I know how Leif Garrett felt,” he said, eyeing me nervously.
I spoke with David by phone. He was at a dog park in New York City. To get the full effect of this interview, you should have at least six to seven dogs barking in the background. At one point, David noticed a used condom deposited on a nearby bench. This disturbed him, for obvious reasons, and he wondered aloud at the sort of person who would have sex in a dog park. “Where can I fuck a dog?” he asked in a rednecky accent. “Oh wait, I know, the dog park. They’ve got plenty of dogs over there.” I don’t often get sentimental, but ten minutes of David Cross riffing on dog-fucking made me wish I was a kid in Chicago again, hanging on his every word.
LOVER: I should probably admit up front that I’m a fan.
DAVID CROSS: Really? Whatever, man.
LVR: I liked Mr. Show, but I was blown away by your first album, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! It came out in 2002, shortly after 9/11, and I remember being shocked that anybody would talk so honestly and brutally about Bush. Did it feel, at the time, like you were saying something that nobody else had the balls to say? Or were you just frustrated and needed to vent?
DC: More the former than the latter. I’d say that it’s probably—no, I take that back. More the latter. Wait, I—OK, let’s say it’s 51 percent one way, 49 percent the other. I didn’t feel any sense of obligation. That’s never been the impetus for my comedy. It’s just Bush and 9/11 were at the forefront of my consciousness virtually every moment, especially living in New York. So the album was an extension of what I was going through personally, and the conversations and arguments I was having.
LVR: Did it ever cross your mind that it might be too soon to be making jokes about 9/11?
DC: It was never calculated. It was surprising to me how comics wouldn’t talk about that kind of stuff in the aftermath of 9/11. How could they just ignore it and talk about, you know, their funny sneakers or their grandma? It was really strange to me. I guess it was different living in New York. If I went to St. Louis, maybe I wouldn’t have said anything. But I didn’t care, really. I’ve never concerned myself with “Boy, I sure do hope everybody likes me.”
LVR: Quite the opposite. Sometimes it seems like you’re making a concerted effort to piss people off.
DC: Yeah, in the sense that it’s kind of thrilling. But I don’t want to piss them off just to piss them off. I’ll only say something if I believe in it, if deep down in my core I think it’s true. Like “Oh, Christianity is based on a pack of lies.” Or “Your government is destructive, lies to you, doesn’t care about you, has no respect for you, and holds you in contempt.” If it’s something like that, then I feel fine making my “jokes.” And please put jokes in quotation marks.
LVR: When you say things like that about religion and government, it’s easy to compare you with Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce.
DC: I’ve never made those comparisons and I’d go to lengths to explain why they aren’t apt. I’m not nearly as funny or sharp as Bill ever was, and I’m much funnier than Lenny Bruce, though not as courageous. He said some funny things, but it was more about his courage and conviction. Bill Hicks was a friend and an inspiration and a way, way better and purer comedian than I could ever be—or ever hope to be.
LVR: Both Hicks and Bruce had a modicum of fame when they were alive, but became cult icons after they died. Could it happen the same way for you? Will you need to croak before you’re truly appreciated?
DC: No, no, of course not. I think I’ve blown that opportunity. If I’d died in 2002, maybe. But then you’d go, “That guy was awesome. Look what he did when nobody else was doing it.” And somebody would say, “Oh yeah? Check out this Scary Movie 2 DVD and tell me how much you like him now.” I cashed the paycheck and moved to New York and bought an apartment.
LVR: Wow. You’re more critical of your own career than some of the hard-core Mr. Show fans.
DC: Dude! You’re telling me.
LVR: Do you ever feel like the fans hold you up to a higher standard than your worst critics?
DC: I really do. When I was doing Arrested Development, every once in a while we’d do a press thing or a Q&A with the fans, and somebody would ask me, “Do you feel like a hypocrite for doing a show on Fox television?”—which is inane to me for what I hope are obvious reasons. Did I feel like I was somehow responsible for lining the pockets of Fox Broadcasting, who then took that money and put it in Sean Hannity’s hands? Of course not. Arrested Development was a great project, and the project is more important than the context in which it’s seen.
LVR: Your fans may sometimes doubt your intentions, but they’re never as bad as your critics. The most vocal ones accuse you of being a smug, smart-ass comic who thinks he’s better than everybody else, the court jester for the liberal intellectual elite.
DC: Maybe. It’s funny you’d say that. You know this is part of a two-part interview, right?
LVR: I do. I’m the “I Love David” part.
DC: That’s right.
LVR: How’d the interview with the hater go?
DC: It was a little strange sitting in my living room with somebody who really doesn’t like what I do or what I represent. But he was definitely civil, polite, and articulate. There were a couple things that I completely disagreed with him about, but he made a few points where I had to go, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
LVR: Like what?
DC: Like that I’m condescending. It bugs me. But then again, I just have no patience or time, especially as I get older, for these long-winded and rational discussions about religion and Jesus and whether America is truly a Judeo-Christian society. I did for decades, but at this stage, I’m like, “You really believe there’s a devil? You’re a fucking moron. I don’t know what to tell you.” I know that’s condescending, sure. But Jesus isn’t coming back, there’s no happy old Wilford Brimley in the sky waiting to give you some presents.
LVR: When you go off on one of those antireligion tirades, I get goose bumps. Honestly, I really don’t feel like you need to be less condescending. If anything, I’d like to see more condescension.
LVR: I want more of that satiric bile, not less of it. I want to listen to your records and get so worked up that I smash the TV and set fire to the furniture.
DC: It’s funny, I wouldn’t ever intentionally do this, but it’s easy to think, I gotta win back the people who don’t like me and find me shrill and strident and too angry. I need to do more funny bits about the holidays and my sister’s driving. But if I do that, I’m going to lose you guys.
LVR: Just throw us a “Christians-are-idiots” bone now and again and we’ll always be here.
DC: I shouldn’t try to balance it. I should just be true to myself, and the people who like it will like it and the people who don’t won’t.
LVR: Is there any reason you’d ever retire from comedy?
DC: I was really discouraged by some of the negative press I got a few years ago, after my last CD came out. A part of me feels like if I dish it out I should be able to take it. If people disagree with me and want to articulate it, that’s not only their right but almost their obligation. It probably peaked with this thing in the New York Press.
LVR: You mean the “Most Loathsome New Yorkers” list in 2004?
DC: Yeah, that’s the one. It really got to me. I stopped doing stand-up for a few years because of it. I just had no desire anymore. I’m disappointed with how much it bothered me. And when I did perform, my sets suffered because of it. For two years, easily, my act just sucked. My heart wasn’t in it. I’d go into a set with a chip on my shoulder. I’d think, All right, some body is gonna blog about this tomorrow. And sure enough, it always happened. I’d be doing a free set at a friend’s show, trying out new shit, and some blogger would write something like “Can you believe that motherfucker brought notes onstage? What the fuck?” It just made me not want to do it.
LVR: But why do those opinions matter? You’re not going to let some kid with a computer take the wind out of your sails, are you?
DC: It’s not just one of them, it’s the collective. If it were just one person, it wouldn’t matter. Maybe because I can do other things, I was like, “I don’t need to get on a plane and go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for five thousand dollars, for which I only make thirty-six cents of every dollar I earn anyway.”
Yeah, not worth it. I’ll just go and do fucking Curious George and get paid a hundred grand. The choice is not to be miserable.
The Believer has a new publishing home with the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (You didn’t see that coming, did you?) Follow the link to read a full letter from the new editor-in-chief, Joshua Wolf Shenk. The next issue will be out August 1, 2017.
Love the magazine? BMI is hiring a managing editor and, in partnership with McSweeney’s, will bring the magazine to a live audience this month with the two-day festival called American Dreams, in Las Vegas.