If there’s been one constant spanning David Cross’ thirty-plus years in comedy, it’s been his ability to hone in on the specifics of what makes people tick – whether it’s for laughs, shock value, or just to piss them off. Cross, whose diverse body of work continues to influence generations of comics and actors, isn’t resting on his laurels, and is probably busier than he has ever been.
Between putting finishing touches on his latest creation, a TV series called Bliss that premiered a few months ago on Sky One in the UK, and preparing to tour his newest hour of material in David Cross: Oh Come On, Cross also shot episodes of Arrested Development, Archer, Goliath, and had roles in a couple of feature films. Throughout it all, Cross and his partner, actress Amber Tamblyn, welcomed their first child in February 2017.
Cross and I connected over the phone in late June of this year, just a few dates after the kick off of the Oh Come On tour. He was at his place in Brooklyn, a rare day off back at home before the real grind of the summer schedule. Cross was as funny, absurdist, and direct as I expected him to be – with a certain degree of guardedness that seems natural for someone who has spent a majority of their life making provocative statements in the public eye.
David Cross performs at Washington DC’s Warner Theatre on August 2. His latest special, Making America Great Again, is available on Netflix.
Brightest Young Things: How’s fatherhood treating you? How’s everything in New York?
David Cross: Everything so far, so good. The weather in New York is great, so I want to thank the Jews for that. I’m not one of those guys who’s just bitching about the Jews when the weather is bad – I also want to thank them for the nice days as well. It’s a really lovely day here.
BYT: Giving credit where credit is due.
Cross: You know, I just learned that from an African American City Council member – I can’t remember his name [note: Washington DC Council Member Trayon White Sr.] – who said the Jews control the weather, which is something I didn’t know. So now I know, and am acknowledging the good parts as well as the bad parts.
BYT: You’re familiar to most audiences as a comic, and have an extensive resume as a comedic actor: Mr. Show, Arrested Development, Archer, your stand-up specials. But you’ve also done some really wonderful dramatic work, including The Post and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. Is there any difference in how you prepare for more serious roles? How do you get in the right frame of mind?
Cross: The serious roles – and there haven’t been many, but a handful more in indie movies – for those things I never prepare. I just go in, get drunk the night before, don’t sleep very much, fill up on Fritos and popcorn and onion rings, and stay awake for a couple of days. That’s how I approach that stuff.
For comedy stuff, I’ll work out with a personal trainer for about three months, and I’ll spend ten days at a silent retreat and try to be alone with my thoughts. I do Rolfing and put myself in a Skinner box for about a week. So, they’re different in that aspect.
BYT: Understandably. Would you say that you’ve gone “Hollywood” since you’ve been able to afford these silent, meditative retreats?
Cross: Oh, absolutely. I’ve never not been “Hollywood” – I’d say the first two-thirds of my life, so far until now, I was all over the place, and I was poor and never had any money, but I was always Hollywood. Growing up eating powdered milk and government cheese, and going down and getting limited medical care with government help – I was still very Hollywood. I was able to embrace it, and I’m not happy that I had to move away. Anyone who knows me, and is familiar with my material knows I love LA, I love Hollywood, I love that world. Now raising a daughter in Brooklyn – it’s just very diverse and urban and cultured. It’s so troubling and upsetting for me.
BYT: I’m a big fan of the show Atlanta and know that you’re from that city. I was watching the “Teddy Perkins” episode a few months ago and saw the trailer for Sorry To Bother You. I was so happy to recognize your voice as Lakeith Stanfield’s character’s “white voice.”
Cross: Ah, the quintessential white voice.
BYT: I know you’ve done a fair amount of voice acting, but how did the role of “white voice” come up for this specific movie?
Cross: Well, in all seriousness – and obviously I’ve been joking about the earlier responses – I know Boots (Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You) from way, way, way, way back. We did a couple benefits together. A long time ago – and this is going back at least 8 years – he sent me a screenplay and asked me to take a look at it and share thoughts. And I was not expecting much, to be honest. It’s truly one of the funniest things I’ve ever read; truly top five. I was laughing out loud all throughout – it’s so imaginative, and cool, and the dialogue’s great.
Years and years went by and he was finally getting it together and he said to me “would you be one of the white voices?” And that was it. No magic story – just getting in touch and asking, and me saying yeah.
BYT: I could really relate to that bit in the movie. I am Afro-Caribbean myself, and as you can probably tell, I’m using my white voice on the phone with you right now. My name gives away that I’m Latino, but until then they’re probably envisioning a charming white man from the Mid-Atlantic region.
Cross: [Laughs] Mmmhmm. Ok, so drop the pretense and give me some of the interview in your Afro-Caribbean patois.
BYT: [Voice drops an octave, slows down, slides] Man, I’m not gonna fuckin’ bullshit you and talk white to make you comfortable. Not this white man shit, bruh.
Cross: [Laughs] That’s just more swears, that’s all! [Laughs]
BYT: No way – that was a lot less nasal, and a lot looser, more relaxed.
Cross: Listen, you don’t have to explain. I’m familiar with Justin Timberlake’s work, I get it.
BYT: [Laughs] Yes! And the movie’s premise – at least from the trailer – was really resonant.
Cross: And it’s so inventive, really. But that’s indie filmmaking, man, and I’m very, very impressed by what Boots did. I know he worked really hard on it.
BYT: You’re coming to DC to perform this summer, as part of your upcoming comedy tour, titled Oh Come On. From what I understand, the structure of this set is a lot looser than what you’ve done in the past; a lot more informal. How have the early performances of this material been received?
Cross: I don’t know where that came from – I wouldn’t say it’s looser. I don’t recall saying that; I don’t feel that way. Perhaps I was referring to the way I put the set together; that was something I’d never done before. I just saw an upcoming chunk of time on my calendar and this was the first time I’ve approached it that way. I had nothing going on and wanted to do stand up again.
I had just done this show in the UK and that was my entire focus for a while – I wrote, and directed, and did post-production and it was the opposite of performing. I didn’t even act in it! Then I came back home, had a baby like nine days later, and a couple months after that went to LA to work on The Post and then Arrested Development. I was itching to get back into stand up which is such a different thing. I saw this spot of time coming up, and decided to get ready for that.
Normally what I do is take five years in between tours and in five years you recruit so much material dicking around and having fun and doing drop in sets and benefits. Usually I can pick and choose material and can put it together in a couple of runs and think about whether that’s the right sequencing. But this time all I had was a handful of jokes when I booked all of these nights at very small rooms around Brooklyn. I called it Shooting the Shit and Seeing What Sticks and that’s where the informal part was. I went up there with reams of paper and notes and recorded everything to try and figure out if things were funny, talking them out. I did that over several months and the set developed out of that. Now it feels like any other set that I would work on. I know exactly where everything is and it’s all tested material and it’s good stuff. It’ll change and evolve a little bit by the time I get to Washington, I’m sure, but the set itself is solid even if the approach to getting it together was very informal.
BYT: Making America Great Again, your 2016 comedy special, is an obvious reference to Trump’s campaign slogan. Two years later – are you still interested in mining that well of political material? Do you even want to? There’s a real challenge to doing comedy about current events – sometimes older material doesn’t age nicely.
Cross: Well – that is very true, but I’m not a political comic, per se. I’m a comic that tends to touch on whatever’s topical or current or political just because that’s what I’m thinking about.
If you go back to my sets – and this goes back to the Bush Era stuff – those specific things are sort of time capsules; that’s what we were thinking back then. And it’s also surrounded by a bunch of other dumb jokes that are just dumb jokes and anecdotal things. That’s a recipe I have when putting these sets together, and this one is no different: roughly a third are dumb jokes that anybody can like, roughly a third are anecdotal experiences, and roughly a third is current events, topical stuff. A bunch has to do with politics or religion – and that’s probably always going to be the case. It’s not like I’m not going to talk about things that I think are particularly egregious because years from now they won’t age well. This is for now. And if nothing else, at least they’re a time capsule for what one person and one audience was feeling at that point in time.
BYT: Speaking of topical things, your wife, Amber Tamblyn, is one of the leading voices in the #MeToo movement. And you’ve talked about how she helped you get off Twitter in the wake of the infamous interview between the Arrested Development cast and the New York Times last month, where the male cast members seemingly failed to understand your colleague Jessica Walter’s perspective with regards to Jeffrey Tambor’s behavior towards her. You haven’t shied away from the controversy, and have apologized to Jessica.
What have these experiences taught you? How has your perspective shifted? What actions are you taking to be a better ally?
Cross: Well, let’s go one by one on that. I’ve learned a number of things and I’ve discussed them; I don’t want to repeat myself too much, because as you might imagine I’ve been doing a bunch of press for this and have been asked that question thirty times. I don’t want to sound like I’m giving this PR-crafted response or something.
You know, it’s a new…I’ve learned that whatever I have learned is not going to satisfy. I know that whatever lessons I take and I subjectively feel are things that make me a better ally or person or better man or better human or better whatever. I know – just because of the numbers – that it’s not going to be satisfactory to people who want a wholesale change. I can’t worry about those people; they’re gone forever, and that’s fine. I know that if I am able to at least not bum out or disappoint my wife or my female friends – the people that know me, and not from a transcribed interview, but that actually know me – if I can have a conversation with them and we can all come to a civil, respectful, through the discourse understanding of each other, that’s what I’m concerned with.
I can’t be concerned with what some nameless person – or not even nameless, someone who works at Jezebel. Ok – I just can’t. I have to stop worrying about them. The people that I need to take my queues from are my wife and my female friends and colleagues, of which I have numerous. I’ll base my self-esteem and progression on what they’re telling me and not what somebody else is screaming at my avatar.
BYT: I know you’ve been asked this so many times, so thanks for the thoughtful answer. It would have been remiss not to address it.
Cross: Well, the other thing is there’s more I could tell you. [Pauses] There’s more I think, but one of the lessons I’ve learned is you don’t get to hear it. I would happily discuss this over a beer – I could opine on this forever, and we would have a back and forth, and that extends to literally every other human being on the planet: people who vehemently disagree with me, people who are predisposed to hating me. I would sit down and talk to them and I think there’s a very good chance it would be edifying and we’d come to see different viewpoints. But I’m not going to talk to – and no disrespect – I’m not going to talk to you about that stuff. People may be interested in it but you’re never going to hear it in an interview again. I mean, I’m not a fool. Once bitten, twice shy. So yeah – I have a lot to say on it but I’m not going to tell the press. You and I can talk about it when the microphone is off.
BYT: Fair enough.
Switching gears – Arrested Development is such an important show and comedy classic. Is Tobias your most recognizable character? Do people in around town come up to you all the time, or do they not really get that fanatical in that New York City way?
Cross: People’s approach is different here. You still get a sense that they’re super interested or excited, they just go about it in a different way. And it really depends on background and ethnicity on what I’m known for, but Arrested seems to cut across the board. It’s definitely one of the most recognizable characters I’ve played.
BYT: Candidly, I dressed up as Tobias Fünke a few years ago for Halloween. I still think it’s some of my finest work. I’ve got a photograph around there, although it’s not as good as when I went as Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Cross: There are plenty of similarities between me and Neil. You should share the Tobias photo when this publishes.
BYT: What are you most excited about for the remainder of 2018?
Cross: It’s really about November. It’s all about November. I see things and am much more sensitive and anxious about things now that I have a little girl- I’m hyper aware of this culture she’s being brought up in. I don’t think it’s very good and even the people who are very well-meaning and intentioned are a big part of the problem. I just am concerned about taking this existential, innocent being that doesn’t understand the concept of borders and nationalism and tribalism, and doesn’t have any idea about free-market capitalism or Keynesian economics, or anything. [Laughs] Trying to explain who we are and what she’s seeing and what she’s witnessing, and and trying to explain behavior – it’s concerning.
BYT: It seems to be a very difficult time to be a parent. But it’s also a very important time to be a parent – and be able to convey your values to your children and your family.
Cross: I’ve got a really good partner in that and I’m hoping between the two of us we can raise an at least halfway decent human.