Mr. One-Man Show

David Cross is funny as hell. So why isn't he laughing?

Dan Savage Borders Books and Music, 3466 Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights 7 p.m. Saturday, November 23; free; 216-291-8605.
Shut Up or put out: When not discussing the pope's sexual proclivities, David Cross is livin' large with the ladies.
Shut Up or put out: When not discussing the pope's sexual proclivities, David Cross is livin' large with the ladies.

This is the story of David Cross as told only by David Cross, since no one else contacted for this story, this oral history, would comment on the subject of David Cross. That is not entirely true, as no one else was actually contacted for this story; really, who has the time to make that extra phone call or two? Nobody, that's who. Besides, they would all say the same thing about David Cross: He's "bald," a "Jew," "from Georgia," very "funny," "very" creative, one "half" of HBO's "defunct" Mr. Show and a stand-"up" comedian who likes to talk about all that "flag-waving, rah-rah bullshit," how the Catholic Church "has gotten a whole lot sexier" in light of recent revelations about priests molesting little boys ("Hello, fresh meat") and how George W. Bush "may, may, may" be a "dangerously bad" president.

Such material can be found on Cross' new Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!, a two-disc comedy album released last week on Sub Pop Records, the first label to which Nirvana signed, which explains Cross' eight-year marriage to Courtney Love. He remains best known for Mr. Show, which lasted four seasons (or until the money ran out, which actually occurred midway during the first season) and was a tremendous success with stoners and community-college dropouts, who adored the brilliant way Cross and writing partner Bob Odenkirk managed to blend the unbridled lunacy of Monty Python's Flying Circus with the sexual irreverence of Sesame Street. Earlier this year, HBO released the first two seasons on DVD; the final collection is due next spring, as is a Sub Pop-distributed DVD taken from Cross' stand-up tour earlier this spring.

The 38-year-old Cross began doing stand-up at open-mike nights in Atlanta, when he was attending a high school for the performing arts. He then went to Emerson College in Boston, where, after time spent "studying," he started "Cross Comedy," a sort of sketch-filled precursor to Mr. Show. Early on, his comedy was observational, of the have-you-ever-noticed school, out of which he quickly flunked. When his comedy became more topical, Cross found himself uncomfortable with the tag of "self-righteous asshole."

David Cross: I still do a bunch of silly, goofy shit, and I make a lot of empty observations. I think they're funny, and I think they make for a funny routine about how people misuse the word "literally" and stuff like that. That's funny, and that's a true thing, but ultimately who gives a shit? I think that's where a lot of my comedy came from when I was starting, which was I would see the shitty, hacky comics and continue to work with them over the years as I developed, and I'd go, "That is garbage. I can't believe you're fucking laughing at this shit." So my comedy, while it would be political, would be different and a little confrontational.

On his new CD, Cross refers to the pope as an "incontinent, senile, fuckin' palsied motherfucker with Parkinson's disease...a good man." He refers to Catholic priests as God's representatives, which, he figures, must mean that "God fucks little boys." Granted, these comments are taken out of context for the purpose of shock value, and only a small portion of the two-disc collection deals with such topics, but even in context they still elicit gasps from the audience, which threatens to turn on Cross but comes just short of nailing him to a cross. He now refers to his comedy as being of the "oh-shit" variety, meaning when you hear it, all you can do is turn to the person sitting next to you and say, "Oh, shit, did he really just say that the pope likes to have sex with children?"

David Cross: Not that that's anything I ever strive for or care about, but I dunno, maybe it's a result, subconsciously, of just pushing as far as you can go because the other stuff has been talked about. There are comics who are talking about priests fucking kids, just not in a way that's interesting to me. But I do think there is some valid logic to the idea, like all these people who run around and quote God and have a selective memory when it comes to God and his history, his presumed history, and what he's done and what he does and that kind of ignorant, rainbow, pie-in-the-sky Jehovah's Witness bullshit about a forgiving God. I don't expect you to sit there and go, "Hey, you might be right"--ever. But, it's just something I wanna throw out there. You're thinking of it this way, but, you know, try this on for size.

In addition to his work on Mr. Show, Cross would also appear on such TV shows as Just Shoot Me, NewsRadio and The Drew Carey Show. Cross resists the theory that he appears on sitcoms to bring his edgy brand of comedy to the prime-time mainstream. Rather, he does it for the paycheck, and because he is not offered the kinds of roles he would prefer. He also took cameos in such films as Men in Black II, Scary Movie 2 and Dr. Dolittle 2, though he resists the theory that he will only appear in films with the number 2 in the title.

David Cross: I did those things so I could get more work. I did it so I could get the kind of work that I think I deserve and am capable of, which may sound a little arrogant, but I think I could be doing stuff like Rob Schneider and Adam Sandler and actually making that material better or move up to stuff Jim Carrey gets to do with the pseudo-dramatic stuff. I could do all that, but I'm not gonna be able to walk into an office right now and do that. I have to start getting out there and getting people to see me, even if it's a piece of shit. That's how it works. It's about money, and it's about doing something that will allow me to do more work. Doing Scary Movie 2 wasn't the easiest decision, but it gave me more money than I made on four years of Mr. Show. It was three months' work, and it was fuckin' around. I did other stuff while I was doing it, and it allowed me to move to New York and buy an apartment, which was pretty much what I wanted to do.

Cross has been criticized by friends, not close ones, for whoring himself out to Hollywood. Yet, he has not been in front of a camera for almost two years, which is why he continues to go on the road and work comedy clubs, as well as write for Vice magazine and, most recently, Playboy, so, the theory goes, he can masturbate to his own work.

David Cross: I'm not well-known, which is probably a small part of it. I just haven't gotten any auditions. I dunno. Could be a zillion factors. Maybe my management and agent team isn't as effective as it could be. Maybe I'm not scoring in these auditions. Maybe I'm being overly critical of the material I get. It could be a bunch of stuff. But whatever it is, I'm not working, so in a sense, that's why you go out and you do these stand-up tours, because I have to work. If I'm not working, I get very depressed and a little crazy. Just keep working, then when another Scary Movie 2 comes down the pike, ya know what, I'll fuckin' take it, because I did a lot of work for nothing. I'll take it and enjoy the reward that some big dumb movie provides. And I also learned a couple of years ago, and this is really key to happiness in my life, not to care about what somebody in their basement typing on their mom's computer on the Internet in the chat room thinks of me 'cause I did Scary Movie 2. Like my friends--not my real friends, not old friends, but people I work with on the West Coast--kinda have that attitude, that kinda sneer and scoffing, like, "Well, you did Scary Movie 2, so you can't be all that pure." All right, whatever. I don't give a shit.

Last year, Cross and Odenkirk finished production on their first feature film, Run Ronnie Run, based on a recurring Mr. Show character called Ronnie Dobbs, a white-trash doofus played by Cross. The movie, about Odenkirk's character's attempt to make Ronnie a TV star, was scheduled for release in 2002 and screened at a handful of film festivals this year, but Odenkirk and Cross were unhappy with the finished film. New Line took the film away from the pair and producer and director Troy Miller and recut the movie, rendering Run Ronnie Run an incoherent mess, a bunch of skits loosely bound by a narrative. New Line will never release Run Ronnie Run in its current incarnation, which is just fine with Odenkirk and Cross, who would prefer to forget the movie exists altogether. For now, the film is available only on eBay, where pirated DVDs sell for approximately $20, or $17.24 more than it's actually worth. Cross now refers to the movie as a "debacle."

David Cross: Run Ronnie Run is about as average a movie as you can imagine. Very hit or miss. When it hits, it's really funny. When it misses, which is quite often, it's just sorta, "Uh, what a weird choice. Fuckin', how about something funny, guys?" It's been cut a billion times, and there was a cut that was at Sundance that went to screenings that Bob and I went back and tried to salvage something from it, because we don't think it's that great. We think it's slow. It is. We know it is. There are jokes that could be better. So we made these suggestions based on the existing print, because we were never given access to dailies, which is like cooking with broccoli and salt and being asked to make something amazing. And we have some good suggestions specifically for the ending that would make things better, but the movie was taken out of our hands and Troy's hands, as well. I think Troy would want to do those cuts if we could, but New Line's got it, and New Line's not gonna pony up. It's very frustrating. I don't even talk about it anymore, except in occasional references or something like that.

To his cult, David Cross is the funniest man in the world. But the cult doesn't offer distribution deals; the cult doesn't allow Cross to write and direct and star in movies of his own making. And the cult does not pay for food.

David Cross: In a perfect world, I'd be doing what Ben Stiller does, I guess. I'd be doing what Woody Allen does. I'd be doing what Albert Brooks does. I don't have millions of dollars in a distribution deal, and no one's willing to gamble on me. Not yet. That goes back to why I take all that kind of shitty work and why I keep doing this stuff--because if I don't, I don't work and I don't eat.

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