With Bob Odenkirk, David Cross created, wrote, and starred in one of the funniest programs in the history of television, HBO's Mr. Show. Though it lasted only 30 half-hour episodes before fatigue and (relatively) low ratings took their toll, Mr. Show earned great reviews and a rabid cult following that continues to grow despite Cross and Odenkirk's decision to redirect their attention toward movies, acting, and living comparatively normal lives. They've already written two film scripts together, the political satire Hooray For America and The Ronnie Dobbs Story (a Mr. Show movie), while Cross' hour-long stand-up special, David Cross: The Pride Is Back!, makes its HBO debut Sept. 18. A mixture of traditional stand-up material (airports, pornography, pot), non-traditional political rants (euthanasia, fetal-tissue research, school prayer), and jokes about Jesus, the special reveals a side of Cross' personality often hinted at on Mr. Show. He recently spoke to The Onion about his various projects and many opinions.
The Onion: It seemed like 75% of Mr. Show's audience was people who were actually writing glowing articles about your show.
David Cross: Oh, fuck, yeah. But I'm constantly surprised when… I was on the subway in New York last year, and this guy—I'm guessing 50, kind of blue-collar, construction-worker-looking guy in his work clothes—was sort of looking at me. And I'm thinking that for some reason he doesn't like me, like he thinks I have an attitude or something. And then, after three stops, he turns to me and goes, "Hey, I think your show is the funniest thing on television." And I'm just, like, wow. That's fuckin' awesome.
O: I thought the show was actually pretty accessible.
DC: I don't know, that was one of the complaints. That was one of the perceptions that were felt by some people—that it wasn't that accessible, that it was very niche-oriented. It was certainly promoted that way, as this little underground secret.
O: "Watch Mondays at midnight!"
DC: Yeah, if you can. If you can remember. "We're gonna tell you once and then not tell you anymore. In five months, watch that show you've watched Friday at midnight Monday at midnight. Gotta go, bye!"
O: What exactly happened to Mr. Show? Was it canceled, or was it a matter of workload?
DC: No, it wasn't canceled. They would have been happy to have us do another season—they've got very little programming that's like it—but we just… To be fair to Bob, he was more willing to do another year of it, but I wasn't. I woke up and I was 35. I used to be 31. I feel like this show has just aged me. Not to take away from the benefits of doing the show, and the great times I had, and the creative outlet, and the fact that it's probably… I hope I'm wrong, but that show is kind of the thing that I do best. But I just couldn't take another year of not doing anything else. If we were just writing, or just performing, or just doing one thing, it wouldn't have been such a big deal. It would have been great. But after a while, it's like, you're there from roughly 10:30 in the morning until 8, and that's on an average, and sometimes it's longer because you have to edit stuff. And you don't do anything else. A couple of times, I got offers to do tiny little parts in movies that I really wanted to do. You know, like, "Oh, you gotta go to Toronto. It's gonna shoot over the weekend, and they're gonna accommodate your schedule. You'll fly out Thursday night and come back Monday night, so you'd miss two days." "Um, well, we actually work on weekends, so…" And then you really want to do this thing, but you're like, "I can't be gone for 48 hours, man." And that was it. There's nothing else. You don't see shows, you don't see movies, you don't do anything but sit in that unventilated room yelling at each other and making fun of everybody else. So, that's the reason. Plus, HBO wouldn't have given us any more money, which meant we would have basically been making very little money to, you know, work our asses off, and it would have been another year lost. And my career, the show, and show business are not the most important things in my life. When I'm talking to people, certainly in the last couple of months, people go, like, "Hey, man, I love the show." "Thanks!" "Is it coming on? I haven't seen any ads for it." "Oh, no, we're not doing it anymore." "What? Oh, dude. Dude! You've gotta do it!" "No, no. We've been working on a movie…" "But the show, man…" "But, no, this has allowed us to do other things, like, I actually biked to the store the other day and bought my own potatoes, which I haven't done in four years." "But dude, you gotta do the show, man. It's funny!"
O: Do you feel that, career-wise, it might have been better to have your signature show be a limited-term thing that everybody can speak of fondly forever, sort of like The Ben Stiller Show?
DC: Absolutely, without a doubt. It's not even a question. The idea of doing 30 shows and not doing a bad one… Some are definitely weaker than others, but we never did a bad, labored, sweaty, tired show. Absolutely. And in a cynical way, it's helped that it hasn't been that popular. I mean, we're not subject to the backlash that a lot of those popular shows are gonna have. I am wary of people looking at the next things that Bob and I do separately and going, "Well, that wasn't that funny. I wish they'd do the show again."
O: But you're still working with Bob, right?
DC: Well, we're doing a movie. I explain that to people who go, "Oh, I wish you were doing the show." We're doing a major, full-length movie, a totally different medium. We're able to expand things, take our sensibilities, put them in this totally different form, and get away with a lot more. We would not have been able to write that movie, or film it, or have a hand in the post- or pre-production if we were doing the show. It's the show and nothing else, or other things and not the show. People don't seem to get that equation.
O: You're going to continue working with him in the long term, right?
DC: Oh, yeah, absolutely. He and his wife had a baby, and it's really mellowed him out quite a bit, but… We're similar in a way, and our personalities are very… I don't know. But anyway, we wrote this movie with three of the other writers—Brian Posehn, Scott Aukerman, and B.J. Porter—and it looks like we're gonna start filming around the third week of October. Hopefully, it'll be out next summer. It shouldn't be too hard to do. It's fairly straightforward.
O: You're doing it for New Line, right?
O: And it's a Ronnie Dobbs movie?
DC: It's The Ronnie Dobbs Story, a Mr. Show movie. The bulk of it is the Ronnie Dobbs story, but we'll veer off into other forms of comedy. Three Times One Minus One [Cross and Odenkirk's R&B love-man duo] has a music video in it, things like that.
O: It's going to flow cohesively like a standard movie?
O: And they're planning a full-on release? It's not just going to play in New York and L.A., and then everyone else is going to have to…
DC: That's a decision they'll make later. The thing is, it's a relatively low-budget comedy, and those are the most bankable things you have for a studio. It's of very little cost to them, and all they've got to do is make three times the cost in gross to make money, and these kind of comedies usually do well for them. They know the show, they know us, they like us. We set a precedent with the show about working, having creative say, and not having to… We've got our creative freedom, which is paramount.
O: It just seems like, with these sort of movie spin-offs, the good ones fail and the bad ones succeed. I thought Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy [which bombed] was pretty fun, whereas A Night At The Roxbury made something like $30 million.
DC: Well, first of all, I doubt Brain Candy opened as wide as Roxbury. It certainly didn't get the push or the promotional tie-in stuff. They were able to advertise Roxbury on Saturday Night Live for their direct audience, whereas I doubt Brain Candy did that. Brain Candy didn't have a very easy channel to their audience, so people were unsure of how to reach them. I'm sure they made [A Night At The Roxbury] for X amount of millions of dollars, and they just fucking pushed it until they made the money. It's no big deal. They know it's not gonna win any awards, and they know it may not even be that good, and may not be a success critically. They hope it'll be critically successful, but it's just, "No one's gonna like this, we fucking hit it hard, we get it out there for three, four weeks during a holiday, let it taper off, make our money, and that's that."
O: What happened to Hooray For America?
DC: Well, we wrote it and wanted to do it, but then we decided that the next step should be to do a Mr. Show movie. I think it was the right decision. We could have done Hooray For America, but it becomes… In order to enjoy that movie, I think you have to know who Bob and I are, and you have to like us. I think that, coming off the season, just doing that movie next would be asking a lot of people who didn't know who we were. This way, more people will be introduced to us, and it'll be easier to see us as a comedy team, whereas this movie, the Ronnie Dobbs thing, is purely character-driven. It's crazier, and it's a more palatable way to get to Hooray For America.
O: So, that hasn't been dropped or anything?
DC: No, not at all. We still plan on doing it. It's funny. I like it. It was a pain in the ass to have to write a new movie. We had to come up with a story and write a movie, which took a long time, and then sell it and get it made when we had this other good script sitting there.
O: Watching the HBO special, I was kind of taken aback by just how risky some of the subject matter seemed for television: getting raped by the Virgin Mary, talking about fetal-tissue research, stuff like that. But when you think about it, it's actually a lot tamer than a lot of comedy acts I've seen on television. It's weird how jokes based on strong views can be more confrontational and shocking than, you know, jokes about pussy.
DC: Well, they're both different. Joking about pussy is kinda easy. It's only risqué because that's sex and we're uptight about that stuff, but when somebody states their opinion about something that… First of all, anything about religion, whether it's pro- or anti-, is gonna prick up some ears, because we all have a knee-jerk reaction to that. If we hear "Jesus," we don't have to hear the rest of the joke; we just know it's either going to be offensive or it's going to be risky. It doesn't matter. Plenty of people do really lame, hacky religious material, but they can be considered risky because they're talking about it, just 'cause they mention it onstage. And that's no big deal to me, and it shouldn't be considered a big deal. As far as sex, that's not my take on it. When somebody talks about pussy, I don't go, "Oh, my God!" That's just easy. I can do that, and I have done it. It's easy. Unless you have some sort of clever spin on it, who gives a shit? It's just risky because it's risqué.
O: It's a funny show.
DC: I'm so close to it, because I've had to sit and do editing and stuff like that. I'd been doing the alternative stages, but I was really concerned about getting an hour in shape for TV, which is different from doing it in clubs. I think it was okay, I think it was good, but I look at it now and there's so much of it where I go, "Fuck, man, I could have done so much better. I could have made a better… I'm not saying the thing I want to say here." I don't know. I think it's funny when I think of it in context, like, "This is a cool hour of comedy." It's certainly not most of the other things you see out there. But then I feel like that's a cheap way to compare it. I'm not… Like, I thought Eddie Izzard's special was really bad, because he does what I really dislike, which is kind of… He'll bring up a kind of heady, intellectual topic and not really do much with it. His jokes will be kind of hacky and not clever. 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. I'm afraid of falling into that category.
O: I liked it. I was surprised to hear fetal-tissue research and euthanasia in a straightforward comedy routine that I thought was funny.
DC: I don't think it's for everybody. I think there'll be plenty of people who don't like it, and perhaps I'll agree with some of their assessments.
O: It seems like it would upset more people than Mr. Show does, because it's not as veiled. It's more explicit in its point of view.
DC: Definitely. It's one guy up there. I gave my name up front, and I said this thing and this thing and this thing. When I was getting ready for that show, I did a week in San Francisco—seven shows in a week at the Punchline—and at every single show, somebody walked out. Every single show. And somebody walked out of the taping.
O: Well, I guess you'd rather have them leave than scream at you.
DC: No, I'd rather have them scream at me.
O: Wouldn't that disrupt the flow of the show?
DC: It might, but it's up to me as a professional comic to get back on track. I'm much more interested in having a dialogue. When you start getting into the dialogue thing, it gets dangerously preachy and performance-arty, but I'd much rather have a dialogue. The subject matter that I'm most passionate about, regardless of where I am… If I'm visiting a friend's grandma at an old folks' home, or if I'm drinking at a bar and I'm hammered, or if I'm in a cab ride with a cab driver, the thing that'll get me going is religion and politics. That's what I really enjoy arguing about—not in a put-down way, like I'm trying to win, but debating. It fucking drives me and I love it, and there's something kind of distasteful about somebody who just goes up on stage and says, "Fuck this, fuck that, Jesus is a joke, and blah blah blah. Goodnight!" I'd much rather have a dialogue about it. I would hope that it would spur people to say things and have a dialogue.
O: But you don't want people shouting you down. There's a tricky balance.
DC: You don't need to, and I don't need to, certainly, but I enjoy it. I like it. And I almost don't think it's fair for me to get up there with a PA system and just fuckin' say all this stuff, and not expect… I usually think the comments are kind of dumb, when people just say things like, "You're going to hell!" And I go, "No, I'm not. I don't believe in it. See how that works for me? That's how it works. I'm not going." "Yes, you are!" That kind of thing is retarded, but if it goes right, I love it. I got in a big, big, big shouting match with this guy at one of these bookstore shows about a year and a half ago. It was just before the peace treaty was signed between Israel and Palestine, and I was pissed off that the Israeli soldiers had killed a kid, a 12-year-old, who was throwing rocks at them. I thought that was reprehensible, and so this guy starts yelling at me about how they're terrorists, and I said, "Yeah, so are these Israeli soldiers. They torture people. That's documented: They torture their political prisoners." He's coming at me with all this, saying that I'm a self-loathing Jew, and I said I was raised Jewish but I don't believe in God, I'm not Jewish, and I don't hold those beliefs. His whole point was that Israel was good and Palestine was bad. I said, "That's just 'cause that's what you were taught, and you don't have an open mind about it." [Yelling.] "You… You… They're… Part of their religion is that Jewish blood will run in the streets." "Well, yeah, that's part of what extreme Orthodox Jews teach, that [the Palestinians are] mud people…" Anyway, we got in this big argument, and the point was that he didn't have an open mind at all. I loved having that argument. I guess part of it was 'cause I was right, but that kind of fierce reaction… I love that you can induce that, you know?
O: What is the difference between telling jokes and talking politics onstage?
DC: Well, it's your definition of what telling a joke is. Talking politics can take so many different forms. Telling a joke… Is that where I tell a standard-structure joke, and you know when the punchline is, and you laugh at it accordingly? It's referring back to what I was saying about people who are labeled political satirists, people who just say, "Quayle is so stupid, he did this," or, "Barbara Bush looks like the guy on the Quaker Oats box." It's not political comedy when you reference somebody who's known in the world of politics but make no statement. Just to call Clinton a womanizer and make dick jokes, that's not political comedy, and it shouldn't be perceived as such. And it's not religious comedy to say… Ah, whatever. It's really a sore spot with me. People who are touted as this thing that… I think they're getting away with murder.