David Cross is one of the greatest and hardest working US comedians currently on the circuit. From his humble beginnings, Cross has worked with many big names and established himself as a performer in his own right. From his cult sketch series Mr. Show through to his many appearances in films such as Men In Black, Small Soldiers, Ghost World and more recently er… Alvin And The Chipmunks.
His most famous role as the dysfunctional Dr Tobias Funke in Arrested Development brought him more recognition in the UK along with his reputation on the live circuit, all of which led him being offered his own show by Channel 4 and now his first UK DVD release.
We caught up with him to talk about his past, present and future…
First up, welcome to the UK! How you doing?
Good, good! Y’know, getting ready to start shooting the TV show. Looking forward to that. This is kind of the boring part for me, where it’s mostly written and we’re just doing pre-production, so it’s not my favourite part.
Let’s go right back to the beginning, what was it like where you were growing up?
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia which is the short answer. The long answer is pretty much everywhere. We’d move once a year, if not twice. Up and down the eastern seaboard, New York, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia and then settled back into Atlanta. I was born there and came back there when I was nine and lived there ‘til I was nineltten and then moved to Boston.
So, it was a bit of a nomadic existence?
Yes, very much so.
Is there much that stands out from that time in terms of what you were seeing or experiencing?
Well, it’s less of the more tangible stuff rather than what you’re feeling as a kid when you’re constantly uprooted. I got very used to, almost comfortable with, constantly being the new kid and I supposed I honed a keen sense of judgement of character.
I’d be the new kid and I’d be sitting in the back of the room and I could pretty quickly, within a days time, go, “Ok, that’s the tough guy who’s going to pick on me and that’s the guy who’s gonna be my friend and that’s the guy who’s gonna get me out of trouble and she’s the girl who’ll take pity on me,” and I’d get really good at that.
What was the moment when you decided you were going to get on stage and make people laugh?
I was always the class clown, goofy guy, loved Monty Python. I was always quoting Holy Grail. And as I got older, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, I started going to open mic nights at a place called The Punchline in Atlanta.
The first time I went, I distinctly remember, it was just awful, bad 80s southern, lowest common denominator comedy. And I was thinking, “Oh, I could that.” And then I signed up for it and went up two weeks before my eighteenth birthday.
The first night I ever went on stage and did it, I fucking killed. Which is crazy and really threw me for a loop because the next sixteen times I went up I sucked. People were wanting me to get off stage and all that.
You mention the scene at the time was catering for the lowest comment denominator. Did you make a conscious effort to get away from that kind of material?
Well, yes and no. The first year I was doing stand-up, it doesn’t resemble what I’m doing now at all. I was very influenced, specifically by Andy Kauffman and Steven Wright. So, I was a sort of weird sweaty combination of the two. That didn’t really work.
The material was very esoteric but not clever. There was a germ of cleverness there that, y’know, I might have been somebody that you might have said, “You know what? That kid’s got some interesting ideas. I’d definitely want to check him out in a couple of years, but not right now.”
I guess I became the comedian’s comedian.
How did your first TV writing work come about?
I had a group in Boston and I was friends with Janeane Garofalo, who had moved to LA and started becoming successful. She got onto The Ben Stiller Show and they needed a writer. I had met Ben Stiller prior to that through Janeane, so I got a packet of sketches together, sent them to LA and a couple of days later they were like, “Ok, we’re hiring you”. So, I flew out and it was very much like baptism of fire, you know? Boom, right into it!
Coming from a stage background, did you find it easy to write for TV?
It was less about writing for the medium and more about tailoring it for Ben Stiller’s personality. That was the challenge, writing for somebody other than myself.
Did you work with Ben a lot?
Not really. We had writers meetings and he’d make time where he could. They all tried to make themselves as available as possible, but they would only have so much time.
Back in the mid 90s you started a partnership with Bob Odenkirk. How did you two meet?
On The Ben Stiller Show. He was writing there and so was I. Obviously, there’s a longer, more kinda boring story, but yeah, we hung out as friends and started working together. Not initially for TV though.
Mr Show came about soon after, which was the springboard for a lot of people like Sarah Silverman and Jack Black, for example. At the time were you aware you were doing something more leftfield than typical sketch shows?
Yeah, absolutely. That started from a stage show with me and Bob where we weren’t doing it to get on TV but pretty quickly, around the fourth or fifth stage show, we realised there was the potential to make this show bigger than something for just us and our friends.
But we definitely knew we were doing good stuff and different stuff.
I first saw Mr Show only five years ago myself, and I wondered how I could have missed it for so long. It’s a shame it never got a UK broadcast.
Bob and I were always frustrated by the apathy from HBO, or whoever owned it, about releasing it in the UK. We were such anglophiles and half of our comedy influences are British.
In the comedy nerd world, the hardcore comedy guys, British comedy is half of what you trade and talk about and discuss and seek out. We were just frustrated by their inability to understand, “Oh, it could be huge over in Britain.”
Which shows or comedians were you really into at that time?
Never really stand-up. Python would be the obvious one. And then as I got older, Harry Enfield and Steve Coogan. As I got even older than that, it was anything Chris Morris or Armando Iannucci did and all the people they worked with. The spidering out family tree of comedy.
Yeah, the British comedy scene was centred around about ten people but, like you say, spidered out.
Yeah, you’d see The Day Today and think, “That Steve Coogan guy is really funny,” so you’d watch his thing and go, “Oh man, that guys really funny”.
After Mr Show finished, you took on a lot of different acting roles. Did you just want to try something new?
Yeah, I’d always been interested in that. I’d been in school plays so I was acting before I really did stand-up. The two go hand in hand. And depending on the project, acting would pay ten times as much as creating, writing and performing and editing your own comedy show. It’s sort of a vacation and it allows you to do the stuff where you don’t get much money. Y’know?
You got the role of Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development soon after. Did you have much influence into how he turned out or was he already pretty fully formed?
Eight months earlier, I’d moved to New York after being in LA for nine-and-a-half years. I was settled and having a great time, so the last thing I wanted to do was take on a regular role in a sitcom that was shot in LA. It was literally the opposite of what I was hoping.
Then I started this show on Monday nights and I had a blast doing it. But (Mitchell) Hurwitz, the creator of the show, urged me to check out the scripts and it’s really great, so I read it and it was immediately great.
He wanted me to look at Gob and Buster, I don’t think they had been cast yet. I read the script, and Gob, I had no idea who that guy was, and Buster less so, but Tobias I knew immediately. I conjured up this kinda guy, this kinda fey, over sensitive, full of shit, mixture of touchy feely and yoga-ish Jewish intellectual pain in the ass guy.
So, I immediately got it and I lobbied for that role. Discussed it with Mitch and the directors like, “I think he should wear this, he should have a moustache and wear turtlenecks! I think he’s like this guy,” and they were totally cool about it.
Once everyone signed off on that, the writers did the rest. As actors, we got a lot more credit than we deserve for adding and ad -libbing. There was some of that in the beginning, but not towards the end. The scripts were so dense and specific and perfect.
Now we move on to The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret. This is your first UK show. As an anglophile, was this your dream project?
No, it was not my idea. I was perfoming at the 100 Club in London for two weeks and these two women came up after the show and were like, “H,i we work at RDF Media and wondered if you’d be interested in creating a show here.”.They approached me and there was a very long process to getting the pilot finished, really two years between talking about it and finishing up the pilot.
Anyway, it was well received and we got a co-producer in the States. I just sort of co-developed the idea with a venue in mind, being London. I didn’t pitch the show. They came up to me about it.
Having watched it again recently, it’s a lot closer to a UK sitcom in tone.
Yeah, I wanted to use all the positive aspects of how shows are shot here.
I noticed it wasn’t a typical culture clash comedy. It wasn’t a case of ‘American comes to England, thinks the British use funny words’.
We definitely wanted to avoid that. Hopefully, you enjoy this character and his responses to situations, rather than just the situation.
Going back to live comedy, now there’s a liberal black man in the White House, do you think it still has a message to convey?
Yeah, it’s ever-changing, it’s always going to be amorphous, the zeitgeist. In America more so. There’s about 350 million people over there. In a sense that all the people on the right have a physical tangible focus for their anger so you can make fun of them now. Comedy will always change, but for most part remain the same going back to Jonathan Swift’s time.
Thank you, David Cross!
David Cross’ new DVD Bigger And Blackerer is released today at all good shops.The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret will be showing on More 4 later in the year.
Thanks to www.cookdandbombd.co.uk for their help too.