“I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh hey, Tobias is in town! I didn’t know he told jokes. What’s he gonna do? Just fuckin’ dress up in blue and fall down on stage?’” David Cross asks mockingly in his new Netflix special, Making America Great Again!, not long after cameras catch a woman heading for the exit. It’s a fair point. As Cross himself notes, by now he’s amassed “eight-plus hours of my stand-up to peruse, check out, maybe see if we’re on the same page,” which might prove helpful to neophytes in delineating between Cross’ onstage persona—acerbic, opinionated, delighting in needling conservatives and the deeply religious—and the lovable-loser characters he’s played on series like Arrested Development, or even the surrealist sketches of Mr. Show. Still, with that moment arriving after an especially graphic reverie about a pro-NRA congressman holding his dying, bullet-riddled daughter, and just before a joke whose punchline is “raping children,” even fans already well attuned to Cross’ comedic point of view seem to have bristled at his first stand-up tour in six years, to the point where, as Cross acknowledges, someone walked out during almost every single show.
If Cross’ material seems to have turned more pointed, or challenging, or openly confrontational lately, call it a reflection of the times. When he taped the Netflix set in mid-April at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, Cross was grappling with Donald Trump months before he actually became the nominee, and contending with a spate of mass shootings that didn’t yet include Orlando. In short, it’s been a troubled, troubling year, and while Cross doesn’t think of himself as a “political comedian,” caustically pointing out hypocrisy and intolerance has always underscored his work. With so much of that to go around these days—and getting increasingly harder to laugh about—it’s no surprise that Cross’ newest set would feel especially barbed, even if it means driving some people away. Before a Chicago appearance at The Modern School Of Film, Cross spoke with The A.V. Club about some of those negative reactions—both on the road and right here in The A.V. Club comments—as well as why so many people, now more than ever, need someone to say these kinds of things on stage.
The A.V. Club: You just wrapped up your first tour in six years. Any highlights—or lowlights?
David Cross: Oh, dozens. I mean, some of the lowlights were the highlights in a way. There were a handful of shows that were just painful. Not many, but things where I just said going into it, “Why am I here? What am I doing?” It was a bit nostalgic, too, because I’ve gone on tours before, but nothing this extensive, and in a lot of smaller, more rural places than I normally would go to, but where I used to go to back when I was starting, and I would get on the road and struggle for a week in Augusta, Georgia, or wherever. And at least half the tour, I was with my wife on the tour bus. She’s a poet, and she would set up readings at bookstores in cities I’d go to, so that was really nice. Kind of keeps you sane. But I’d say, in a general sense, Florida was the low point.
AVC: The entire state of Florida?
DC: The entire state, yep. I’m not sure I’d go back. And going to Europe and having really fun, successful shows there—minus one show in London that wasn’t that great, but that was my fault—was probably a highlight. Like, holy shit, I can fucking rock the house in Stockholm and Oslo.
AVC: For your tour, you commissioned Spoon to do a David Cross-themed rewrite of “The Underdog.” I was trying to think of another comic who had his own theme song, but the only other example I could find was Larry The Cable Guy.
DC: Oh yeah, well. He’s an inspiration, so I will readily utilize those ideas. I didn’t even know he had a theme song.
AVC: It’s called “Git-R-Done.”
DC: Really? There’s a shock. I’m sure it’s available to buy on iTunes.
AVC: Yep. So, you wrote the new lyrics for that version of “Underdog,” and there’s that line, “We’ll laugh again like it was 2010.” Do you feel like your comedy is tied to that particular era? Has there been some noticeable change in the six years since you were last out?
DC: I would imagine there were more people who weren’t familiar with my stand-up on this tour. That’s just a guess. But no, it’s not like I noticed something, some marked difference between the audiences or myself or any of that. That was just the last time I went out.
AVC: Though it does feel like, especially compared to 2010, right now is a very weird time to be making political comedy. The targets have never really been bigger—or louder, or dumber.
DC: Yeah. Yes.
AVC: And since any idiot can point out the reasons why Donald Trump is terrible, it seems like it would be exhausting to be a professional comedian trying to come up with new, inventive ways to do that.
DC: Well, it would be if he didn’t provide material himself, yeah. There have been a couple points where, certainly as the tour kept going—because I filmed that thing in mid-April, and I didn’t wind up the tour until end of July—where all you had to do was quote him and add some sort of pithy little summation. But now it’s at the point where all you have to do is read his own words back to an audience and they’ll laugh. You don’t even have to put any attitude into it.
AVC: We’ve heard a lot from comedians and pundits this year that Trump is “impossible to satirize” because he’s already living satire.
DC: Those people are wrong. That’s just not true. I think that’s kind of an easy, lazy thought to have. You can satirize it in the bigger picture, for sure. Just go back and read Sinclair Lewis—It Can’t Happen Here or Babbitt. For a guy or girl who’s going to do an hour of political comedy, it might be a little rough, sure. But I think if you’re spending 10 minutes or less, and you’re talking about—not necessarily him but his supporters and the media coverage, there’s all kinds of angles to explore. It doesn’t just have to be simply, “This guy is crazy!” It’s more about the idea of that kind of guy rising to the prominence he has, to actually become the Republican candidate.
AVC: Do you have any regrets about filming the special so early—putting it in this time capsule back when Trump was still just a fun hypothetical? There’s been so much more crazy shit to talk about from just the last month alone.
DC: To me, it’s still interesting to watch it from back when he wasn’t quite as viable and he was still a bit of a joke. They were safer, more carefree times, I guess. The problem is there’s turnaround time. I wanted to tape the special when I was in the middle of the tour and knew that I would have refined the material. The set I did in Austin for the special is quite a bit different than the set that I started out with back in late January, and the set that I ended up with at the end of July was different from what I did in the special. It was really the sweet spot. If I had taped the special in Canada, where I ended the run, the Trump material [would have been] tighter. It’s better, there’s additional stuff—that would have been great. But that wouldn’t come out until around the election, and then it would feel even more dated. Especially since he’s going to lose.
AVC: You’re pretty sure about that.
DC: I’m fairly confident, yeah. So because there’s a four-month turnaround, looking at the calendar, it was the best way to do it. The other thing is, I don’t want to do 20 minutes on Donald Trump. I want to do 10 minutes and move on. I wouldn’t even do that with a live show, because I don’t want it to feel like “An Evening Of Political Comedy.” It’s a time capsule that I’m not bummed out about. I think that this is so unprecedented—and as you suggested, there’s going to be more and more and more and more outrageous, outlandish, awful things he’s going to say, so that history will teach this for generations. Not that I intended it this way, but it’ll be similar to that feeling of when you listen to the Bush and 9/11 stuff on Shut Up You Fucking Baby!. Like, this is what we were all going through at that time.
AVC: It seems like we’re still going through some of the same stuff, actually. A lot of Making America Great Again is about a lot of the same things you were talking about back then—hypocrisy and the lack of empathy for other people, which underscore your new bits on immigration and gun control.
DC: I riffed it one night somewhere in Europe, and it became part of how I set it up from Europe to Canada, where I introduced the idea of Trump by saying, “It’s important for you all to know that the majority of Americans are as confused and concerned and as nervous as y’all are. I think we had a feeling once Obama was elected and took over for George Bush where we all collectively let our breath out and went, ‘Oh, phew! Okay, well, at least that’s over with. It certainly can’t get worse than George W. Bush! That is the absolute lowest we will ever go.’ However, I would say that America’s full of surprises. Don’t count us out.” I’ll be releasing some audio from the Toronto shows at the end of my tour, and you’ll hear a difference. The “Trump’s America” material is even more evolved. There’s more of a “Holy fuck, this is really happening.” Do you remember in Rosemary’s Baby when she doesn’t eat all the pudding they’ve drugged so the devil can fuck her, and she wakes up in the middle of it going, “This isn’t a dream! This is really happening!” That’s America right now. We are Rosemary getting raped by the devil.
And I’m projecting, but this is something that I experienced and I think other people have this feeling as well: It was funny and a punchline until Brexit happened. I was in Leeds for the vote, and I was in London the next day, and for the next few days, it was a shock that I haven’t experienced before. You woke up the next day and people around London were walking around like zombies, like, “What the fuck just happened? Oh my God! This is permanent. This isn’t going to change. We really did this.” And I think that would be the feeling if we woke up and Trump was president. Those people were “sick of the establishment,” or just fools, or “Fuck you, Bernie or bust!”—or whatever reason that Trump becomes president. The multiple reasons that would lend themselves to Trump becoming president for at least four years, because people are like, “Fuck it, man!” They vote one issue, they don’t like Hillary, they think he’s a billionaire, and he’s going to teach everybody in America how to make a billion dollars—or whatever the fuck they’re thinking.
Brexit had similar themes, you know. They can say what they want, but it was really about immigration—that was at the core of it. The underpinning of immigration concerns is xenophobia and racism and nationalism. And the underpinning of that is white nationalism. So that’s what we’re talking about. And once Brexit happened, it really was sobering. A lot of people were like, “Holy shit, it could happen there? It could really happen here. It could happen.” Again, Sinclair Lewis—It Can’t Happen Here. It could happen here.
AVC: You’ve talked about having a lot of walkouts during this tour, and you even address it in the special. Who do you think those people are, and what set them off?
DC: I think it’s important to note that there were also people on the extreme left—lefty social-justice-warrior folks who were vocal as well—though not nearly as many as the right-wing, Christian conservative folks. But I did one of the worst shows for that kind of thing in Northampton, Massachusetts, which is one of the most liberal spots on the planet. There were numerous people who walked out, somebody had thrown a beer, I had people yelling and screaming. And one woman—the woman who started the whole thing—got out in the aisle and, to myself and the audience, twirled around very slowly with both arms extended, flipping the bird. Literally turning in circles, going, “You’re a fucking asshole! Fuck you! Fuck you all!” That started a tiny deluge—I guess that’s an oxymoron. But the floodgates were open for people to leave and scream and yell and all that shit.
I think for a lot of people, it’s just where their saturation point was. Once you get into the Trump stuff and the Republican stuff and the Ayn Rand followers, it doesn’t let up for about half an hour. It gets hard and stays hard for a while. Some people would leave in the middle of the Trump stuff, some people would leave in the gun control stuff, some people would leave in the Catholic church stuff. I think those people just had enough. Because the first half hour is really benign. There’s nothing offensive in there, and that’s by design. It’s just goofy anecdotal stuff and observational shit. Nothing that’s really going to offend anybody. Whether you think it’s funny or not is subjective—and that’s fine if you don’t think it’s funny. But you don’t think it’s not funny because you don’t like the subject matter. It’s just not your type of comedy.
And then once you get into the Trump stuff, you get people going, “I didn’t come here to have my political views bashed.” I think it’s easy to stereotype and go, “They’re kind of older, uptight, white Christians,” but I don’t know that. I mean, they were definitely white. I’d say 95 percent of my audience was white. They were mostly kind of older hipster folks like myself. But as I said, I know that there were people on the left who were upset, too.
AVC: It seems like that’s a new phenomenon since the last time you toured. The “social justice warrior” has become a much stronger, much more vocal contingent.
DC: Yeah, I think it was there before, but—because of social media, too—there are these people who fancy themselves as tolerant, and don’t see the hypocrisy and double standard of how they’re not tolerant at all, and they’re just strident and they don’t listen. There’s no dialogue anymore. That’s maybe, truly, the worst part of Trump’s legacy is just people yelling at each other. That’s what social media is, that’s what Twitter is, that’s what Facebook posts are. It’s just really anti-intellectual. No one’s sitting and listening and considering what the other person is saying. They’re scrolling through to find the fucking point that they can go, “Aha! Well, you’re wrong, because I just looked it up, and according to Al Jazeera, this happened.” It’s not a dialogue anymore. [The problem] was there before, but social media definitely made it worse—and unfortunately, we’re not going back. I will always prefer going to a pub or a bar and having a spirited debate with five other people and learning, where people can’t sit on their computers and pull shit up.
AVC: You included a scene in the special where a woman walks out—though I have to say, it looks like she was just going to the bathroom.
DC: Oh, she left. And there were other people that left. I was a little surprised it happened during the taping, but I did tell the director and the camera crew, “I know this is counterintuitive to what you’re trained to do, but if somebody leaves, don’t worry about it. Don’t frame them out. Let them leave—it’s fine. If they cross your camera, it’s okay.” We had other people leave, but I thought that putting other people in would be egregious, a little obnoxious. But I did want to leave the part in where I address the crowd about that, because that happened eight out of 10 shows—if not more, really—where I’d get to that point. So in order to do that, I had to show somebody walking out.
AVC: What does that do to you internally—seeing people walk out on you?
DC: Well, there’s a couple aspects to it. One is that, most of the time, it breaks up the show in a good way, and I’m happy to have that break from saying the same thing that I’ve said 72 times in the last couple of months. It creates a spontaneous moment that will always be ours, that is unique to that show. But believe me, I do not want to encourage heckling and outbreaks at all. As most people can tell you who saw me on this tour, I’ll fucking bury you. I’m a professional comic. Whether you think I’m funny or not, that’s, again, subjective. But most of the audience—depending on the room, you’re talking about anywhere between 900 to 2,800 other people—have my back. They do like me. They disagree with you, the person who’s going, “You suck! Fuck you, asshole. Say something funny!” or whatever the fucking trite thing is. It’s not like reading a negative review—and believe me, I’ve had plenty of negative reviews. I have my entire life.
And some of the worst shit is on The A.V. Club. You go in the comments section, people hate me. I don’t know if they truly hate me, but you know what I mean. But when that’s happening when I’m on stage and I’ve got the mic and I’ve got the power and I’m on a roll, and 98 percent of the audience has my back—and you’re talking about thousands of people—that’s not the same. It’s still shitty, but it’s not quite the same as if the entire audience said, “You suck,” and walked out and flipped the bird and threw a drink at me.
And the other thing is, I stand by everything I said. I absolutely can defend my material, and I take issue with people who say, “It’s just shock value. It’s not even funny.” I disagree. There’s different ways to be funny and to be a comedian. Hopefully people will be reinventing comedy forever and ever. This is just what I do, and it’s a type of comedy. It’s not one-liners, I’m not the funniest guy out there, but there’s a point to what I’m doing and what I’m saying, so I feel like I can defend it. So if people leave, then it goes back to what I said at the taping: “That’s on you. If you haven’t done your homework, that’s on you. There’s hours and hours and hours and hours of my material out there. So that’s on you for not doing your homework.”
AVC: Some of the negative feedback, both on the Netflix reviews and also in our comments—and even from self-professed fans—is that they felt like this set was less comedy routine than lecture.
DC: Yeah, I’ve gotten that my entire life. And clearly that is an issue, and it’s how I come off. I don’t intend it to be like that, and I don’t like the idea of that, but clearly that’s not the first time I heard that, and it won’t be the last. And, you know, I truly am sorry that it turned out that way for you. But I would say just stop watching me, I guess, at this point. That is what I do, and it probably is, in some way, a bit of a lecture. I can see how that’s not something that would be enticing for you to watch in a stand-up hour. But having said that, I just did 101 shows in 86 different cities in America and Europe and Canada, and I’m not lying or exaggerating when I say, at the vast majority of shows, they loved it. There were encores, there were standing ovations. You’re talking about whatever the cumulative numbers were—like 140,000 people, something like that—they didn’t feel that way. And I know this is obviously biased as well, but in my Twitter feed, on my Facebook, 90 percent are gushing, glowing, “Thank you for doing that”-type of reviews. “It’s ballsy, it’s honest, it’s hilarious”—that kind of stuff. Obviously those are fans.
And I have a handful, too, where 10 percent are like, “I’m a fan but I thought that special sucked. I didn’t want to be lectured to”—or whatever. Again, I get it. I wouldn’t want that kind of feeling. But I still think that, hopefully, you’re not ahead of the jokes, and I think that has value. There is a punchline and it’s pointed—and, again, whether you think it’s funny or not, that’s subjective. But at least there’s a point to it. I’m not Noam Chomsky, and I’m not wagging my finger and going, “You’re a fucking asshole”—unless you’re a Trump supporter. But again, I’ve gotten that that’s how I come off, unfortunately. And I’ve gotten “condescending” a million times, and that’s not good. And sometimes I can hear it, and I try to dial it back. Especially when I’m talking to people I respect or friends or family, or something like that. It’s not a good way to communicate.
AVC: A lot of those reactions might come from most of your audience already agreeing with you. They do want stricter gun control. They do think it’s insane that we still have so many mass shootings. They have empathy for immigrants. They don’t like Trump. Those people are like, “Yeah, we got it. We don’t need you tell us.”
DC: That’s an interesting take, but I would argue that point. Because you can go look at my routing schedule and I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chandler, Arizona. I was in Fargo, North Dakota, Sioux Falls—much smaller, conservative areas, lots of them. And those people were, I think, elated, so thankful that a guy did come to their town and say those things, because they’re in the minority. And I grew up in that minority. I grew up in the South, in Roswell, Georgia, and it was heavily white, Baptist, conservative. And the idea that somebody would come there and say those things that I said created an atmosphere where some people would walk out, and suddenly they weren’t in the minority. For an hour and a half, they were the majority. So I would argue that it does need to be said. It may be—and I don’t mean to sound condescending, but I think it’s an apt example—but maybe in Chicago you don’t need it? Maybe if you live in Brooklyn, you don’t need to hear that? But please, trust me, in most of America, they do need to hear it. And they’re quite thankful that somebody came out and did it. For an hour and a half in that theater, for once, they’re in the majority.
AVC: I think that’s a good point. Again, because everybody does live within this sort of social media version of their world where they can filter out all the people they don’t agree with, you can end up with this idea that we live in a monoculture, where the kinds of ideas you’re expressing aren’t especially revelatory. Or even necessary.
DC: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I just experienced it. I was there, live, and it’s an important point to bring up. It goes back to how we were talking about how there is no dialogue, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a connection, because it is all likeminded people. But yeah, I would very much argue that it does need to be said. And it’s all things that I’m passionate about. I am truly passionate and concerned about the lack of empathy that people show towards one another. I’m concerned about how and why there is no gun control. And I’m concerned about organized religion getting away with what it gets away with. Those are all passionate things.
For a good example, I don’t give two shits about a female Ghostbusters. Don’t give a fuck. It’s upsetting that people do. Some of those people who don’t want to be lectured about gun control, or whatever… When people give me a negative review, I’m like, “I don’t know what you like, so if you are way into fucking Wolverine, then your opinion doesn’t mean quite nearly as much to me as someone I know and respect who is perhaps a peer, who gives me a negative review or a constructive criticism.” That I take to heart more than a stranger. If you think, like, Big Bang Theory is the funniest show on TV, why am I going to give a shit about what you thought of my special? Yeah, sorry.
And believe me, when this thing comes up and you go to the comments section of The A.V. Club, it’s just going to be a ton of negative shit. There always is. And it’s one more shitty thing to write about somebody, in between getting really, really, really upset at female Ghostbusters and Gamergate, and the things that really matter.
AVC: Speaking of that, maybe you’ll want to get out ahead of this: I have seen, in the reviews and comments, people who think you stole your joke about airport luggage stores from Dave Attell. Do you want to address that?
DC: Yeah, absolutely. I was in Antwerp—which, I had about 20 shows left at that point—and a guy said, “That’s Dave Attell’s.” Also, Antwerp was my smallest audience, so the guy was right there. I was like, “What?” He said, “Dave Attell does a bit about, ‘Why are there luggage stores in the airport?’” I had never seen that, and I would never ever, ever, ever—please believe me—I would never lift material from somebody ever, and certainly not knowingly. Subconsciously, I might have heard something, but I would never do that. Everything was cut together and sent to Netflix, and I continued to do the bit for the next 20 shows with the kind of justification that I had no idea that Dave Attell did that. And I know Dave and we’re friendly, and I have nothing but respect for him. But it does sound like the same bit.
AVC: It is kind of a basic observation, though: Airport luggage stores are stupid.
CD: Absolutely. It’s easy to see that two people might come up with that same idea. And I felt really stupid and shitty and now I’m going to have to—as well as I should—address it, and I’m glad you gave me the opportunity. And fuck, I was dropping bits left and right on that tour. I had tons of material. I would never do that. To find that out later, I was like, “Oh shit, that’s in the special. That’s already gone to Netflix. It’s done and dusted. Now I’m kind of fucked.” I do add kind of a little performance to it, but it’s the same fucking idea: “Why are there luggage stores? Let’s extrapolate.” But why would I ever invite that kind of criticism? Again, I would never knowingly do that, ever. But that’s what happened, and I wish somebody had told me sooner. Even just a comment on Facebook or whatever. Then I would have been able to drop it and it wouldn’t be in the special. It’s just not worth it. I’d just drop the bit.
AVC: You’ve been outspoken about not particularly liking Hillary Clinton. Is that somebody you could work up material on? She doesn’t seem to lend herself to comedy quite as easily.
DC: There were a couple things as the tour progressed that didn’t happen by when the special was being recorded. It’ll be in the audio, I assume. But it was really more about how I’m finally going to be able to finally criticize her without being accused of being a sexist—that idea. I’m not a fan, I don’t like her, but you can’t say anything without being accused of being a sexist pig, which is unfair. I’m not a centrist, and there’s nothing about me that’s centrist. I never have been. In my political philosophy—which is definitely more socialist Democrat than centrist politician like Hillary Clinton—I think regulation for banks and those platforms that Bernie Sanders had are good for the whole of America. I’m not going to benefit from free college education, but I think all those things are good for the country. And I think the policies, for the most part, that she’ll put in place are not going to make positive changes. There’ll be more status quo. She’ll certainly be good for some groups of people. Whatever.
AVC: Is it funny, though? Is there anything about her that’s funny?
DC: Not really. There’s the disingenuous duplicitousness, but you can apply that to every politician, really. So yeah, nothing really that stands out. But hopefully that’ll give us all a breather. You know, we’ll find other things to make fun of.
AVC: Every time we talk to you—almost once a year, at this point—it seems we have to do a rundown of projects you might be doing more of. Not Arrested Development, because we know, no one knows anything. But let’s do some others real quick: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?
DC: Uh, I have no idea. You mean the third season? I don’t know. If they write me in, sure. I don’t know.
AVC: Todd Margaret. Done?
DC: Yeah, absolutely done. Fo’ sho.
AVC: With Bob And David?
DC: We will absolutely do some more of that at some point. It’s really tough. Bob and I really want to do it, Netflix would like us to do it again, everybody’s on board. It’s just a matter of scheduling, and Bob’s got a very strict, specific schedule with Better Call Saul. Mine’s more fluid, but it’s just the last two winters when we would’ve been able to do it, we haven’t been able to because of our two schedules. And it’s not going to happen this winter as well, because I’m about to head to London for the next six months or so to do another show for Sky. I leave in October and I won’t be back until the spring. I can’t say anything about it, because those guys like to really handle the release of information. But I’m heading over in September for a week to do casting and stuff like that. So that’s the next project I’m working on.
AVC: Now that you’ve done Hits, do you have any plans to direct another movie?
DC: No. I’m directing the Sky show. I’m not going to be in it. I’m just writing and directing it. So that’ll satisfy that part of my brain. And I know I said this the last time I went on tour prior to this one—that I won’t wait another five years—but this was so much fun and so rewarding and satisfying, the plan is, in two and a half years, I’ll be back on the road. I know I have a lot of other projects, and I’ll do this thing, and I’ll probably start getting back into scheduling With Bob And David. But it won’t be another five years before I go back out. I’ll be working towards that in a way I never have before.
AVC: Let’s say, worst-case scenario, Donald Trump does get elected. Where do you see yourself in the Trump regime?
DC: You know, probably Secretary Of Reeducation. Or I don’t know. I’ll probably end up working in the cafeteria.