David Cross Interview
By Ryan McKee
Updates: May 2020
For a person sinking his entire life savings into a cutting-edge comedy magazine, I was painfully ignorant on the subject. Despite living right by the legendary standup comedy club Tempe Improv all through college, I only paid money to see one show there, Dustin “Screech” Diamond. You could count the number of headliners I’d seen live on one hand: Dave Chappelle, Janeane Garofalo, Lewis Black, Andrew Dice Clay and Bill Maher. Well, two hands if you count Screech.
Prior to purchasing David Cross’s double-CD, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!, I’d only bought two comedy “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Greatest Hits and The Jerky Boys (and only one of which aged well). At that point, I only knew three things about David. His “Chicken Pot, Chicken Pot, Chicken Pot Pie” appearance on Just Shoot Me! Sub Pop (the label that brought us Nirvana and The Shins) released his album. Cool people* and zine publishers liked him.
I hadn’t seen Mr. Show with Bob and David. Hadn’t seen David’s 1999 HBO special The Pride Is Back. Didn’t know about the ‘90s alternative comedy scene in LA. However, people I spoke with at the two indie music stores by my house (Eastside Records and Zia Records) and at our foppish neighborhood bar (Casey Moore’s) – aka cool people* – led me to believe I should idolize David Cross.
If I wanted my comedy magazine to be cool, I needed an interview with David Cross. #1 on my Modest Proposal Magazine To Do List.
I had an unpaid internship at The Hollywood Reporter the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I only learned two things of value that summer: 1) Lost & Found on National Blvd makes the best dive-bar bloody marys 2) ANYONE could call the Screen Actors Guild and get contact information for ANY of their members. Denzel Washington, Helen Mirren, Kelly from Saved by the Bell … you could call anyone, or at least their assistant, manager, agent or publicist. One time that summer, while drunk on Lost & Found bloody marys, I called Johnny Depp’s manager, just because I could, and asked her to mail me his headshot. I still remember the contempt in her voice, “Johnny Depp doesn’t do fucking headshots!”
I called SAG, wrote the phone number for David Cross’s manager on a piece of paper, tacked it on my bulletin board, and stared at it for a week, too nervous to call because I expected her to answer with, “David Cross doesn’t do fucking interviews with losers!” Finally, one day around 6pm, I decided she had probably left the office for the day, so I’d just call and leave a message. She picked up on the third ring.
“Uhhh, hello, uhhh, my name is Ryan McKee and I, uhhhhh, run a magazine, a comedy magazine, called Modest Proposal, and I wanna … would like to … request an interview with David Cross … I know, he’s …”
“Just email me the info and he can do 20 minutes on Friday,” said said.
That was it! She agreed without debate. Item #1 off the To-Do list! Modest Proposal’s first win!
Two years later in 2004, Modest Proposal co-produced a comedy benefit show Putting the Mock Back In Democracy to register college-aged voters. It featured Patton Oswalt, Nick Swardson, Brian Posehn, Dave Anthony, Naked Trucker, and David Cross as the headliner. Ron & Ryan (my duo comedy act with Ron Babcock) got a spot on the show as well, since we did so much work to help produce it.
Everyone seemed stoked backstage to perform for a packed 2500-seat theater, except Dave who quietly nursed a Heineken in the corner. I tried reminding him of this interview and telling him how much it inspired us to push forward with the magazine. I didn’t expect him to remember, and I was correct. He had no idea what I was talking about. Then he moved to the other side of the green room and avoided me for the rest of the night. It probably didn’t help that Ron kept shout-whispering, “I can’t believe we’re hanging out with David Cross!”
I’m not resentful. First, I wouldn’t want to talk to a 25-year-old me either. Second, I’ll always be grateful to him for this interview. He gave 20 minutes of his time to an ignorant, nervous kid who claimed to run a publication, but didn’t have a copy of said publication or even a website to show for it. Numerous people (mostly those aforementioned cool people) later said they only took us seriously when they saw his name on the cover.
18 years later, David Cross’s PR team is the first email I sent to request his updated comments on the original interview. True to form, they got right back to me and said David was happy to do it.
Why did you play music venues instead of comedy clubs on the Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! tour?
First of all, I love working with bands. I was at the very end of this tour with this one band, where we did like ten cities. Sub Pop called me up out of the blue, I had never talked to anybody over there and asked if I’d like to record a comedy album. I explained the situation of what I was doing and said I’ll just get another tour together. So we went home and four or five weeks later we were back on the road recording it.
I don’t like comedy clubs that much anyway. It’s much more fun to do it with bands opening up and at music clubs. I don’t like the structure of a club. I don’t like the ticket price and the two-drink minimum. It’s not all ages. You can only do an hour. Usually, you don’t get to pick the people who open for you. It’s just shitty.
2020: Well perhaps, “shitty,” isn’t the best way to describe it, but for me, the comedy clubs at the time, especially for what my status was, were waaaaaay less fun. Also the set that I was doing that eventually became SUYFB was fueled by alcohol and I was doing anywhere from 2 to 3 hour sets each show, so I could not have done that at a club.
How much were your tickets?
I was able to charge $10 to $15 depending on the city. There’s no way you’re going to find a $10 ticket price at a comedy club for a 10 o’clock Friday show. They charge like $20.
2020: True. Don’t forget about the 2 Drink Minimum as well.
Besides Ultrababyfat, what bands opened for you?
In various places, we had Arlo, the Greenhorns, the 45s, and Mooney Suzuki opened the Baltimore show.
2020: Again, rock-solid truths!
Do you think independent music has influenced you as much as comedy?
In a sense, yeah. In a sense that there’s that idea of what is successful. The idea that if you’re critically successful, you don’t have to reach billions of people. If you’re satisfied with your work and people you respect like it, then that’s success. It’s indie credo that you do it yourself and fuck everybody else.
2020: Hmmmm, not sure what I was going for here. I kind of understand it, but when someone says, “indie credo,” it makes me question everything that came before it. Sounds to me like a bit of a justification for not being (or trying to be) “successful”…which it was.
In 1990, Robin Hordon said that standup comedy had its height in the ‘80s and was overdone. He predicted that anti-comedy or alternative comedy was the future. Did his prediction come true?
It’s certainly so widely accepted now that people don’t even think of it as anti-comedy. They just think of it as a type of comedy now. It doesn’t have the baggage that it used to. There’s more people like Janeane Garofalo and people like that getting accepted and seen here and there. Subconsciously people just think of them as a comedian and not an anti-comedian.
2020: It’s so startling to read this and remember, “Yeah, back then what would become known as ‘alternative comedy’ was really new and foriegn to people outside of a few places: NY, LA, Boston, SF and that was about it. And made people uncomfortable and most people didn’t like it at all. It’s similar to realizing that a lot of the music that the world listens to and enjoys now without second thought (R.E.M., U2, The Cure, The Smiths, I could go on and on) were considered, “weird” back then and people would pick on you or beat you up if you listened to it. It seems so crazy to realize that there were some people who had a visceral hatred of “alternative” comics.
Bill Hicks CDs from ten years ago are still applicable today. Do you think your CD will be the same way in ten years?
I don’t know. I think maybe not to someone who’s 16 or 17, but maybe if you just substitute the names for whoever is in office at the time. It’s unfair to Bill Hicks to compare me to Bill Hicks because Bill Hicks was great and while I touch on that stuff and have always touched on that stuff, I think it seems more prominent than it is. Really only 33% of the album is that; it just stands out because of the unique time we’re in. I guess the comparisons are because most people are just pussies about it and they don’t really say anything. The jokes they make don’t really have any teeth to them. There are people who call themselves political comics and then they talk about how Barbara Bush looks like the guy on the Quaker Oats jar. And that’s not political comedy.
2020: “Jar”? Quaker Oats “jar”?! Quaker Oats don’t come in a fucking jar! I call bullshit on this!
How long did you wait after September 11th before you made jokes about it?
Two weeks and that’s just because I couldn’t get up and do a set. I just didn’t know what to say. It was actually the 28th to be exact.
2020: Can’t dispute that.
Is that where you got in front of the crowd and asked if it’s all right to do jokes about George Bush now?
You know, I’ve said that in interviews and they’ve left out the part that’s really important and that’s that I saw Marc Maron do that, except he did it as a joke. And I talked to him afterward, and I said, ‘You gotta keep doing that, that’s really smart.’ But then I suggested to him, ‘Don’t do it as a joke, just really ask it.” And he said he didn’t know. Then I was like, “Well, I’m going to ask it. I’m going to use that and ask them. Just to feel people out.” So I didn’t come up with that idea. Although I turned it into something serious, whereas he made jokes about it. It became a really good thing. When I was out on the road, every single time I would ask it, people would go fucking nuts.
2020: Glad I was able to give Marc the credit for this. I remember this well. I remember the first gig I had after that, it was at Northwestern University. I split the bill with Lewis Black and I did a couple of minutes of innocuous stuff and then asked the audience, and as I describe above, they responded enthusiastically, “Oh my god, please, yes!”
What’s the moment you realized you could make a living in comedy?
About twenty minutes ago. No really, when I was in Boston. I was able to support myself, albeit in a very low budget way. I had three roommates in this shitty apartment in the projects area. Cockroaches and everything. I didn’t eat really well, but I was able get by without having a day job and just playing softball all day and fucking around. Then doing comedy at night. That’s when it became a real thing.
2020: Adorable. What I considered “a living” was having just enough money for heat, rent, ramen, alcohol, drugs, and gas money. Ah youth.
Boston has cultivated a lot of comedians. What is it about that city?
I don’t know. A lot of the comics that are out of Boston were not from Boston and left because they didn’t get a lot of work. People that you see constantly now like Janeane Garofalo, Louis CK, and Marc Maron, Bobcat, Dana Gould. There’s a lot of them. They got work there, but not enough and had to move on. I know Emerson College had some weird part in it. When I was there, [Boston] had a really great scene for the amount of people there. Everyone and their brother was opening up comedy night at their whatever bar, bowling alley, T.G. Applebees, whatever. There was comedy everywhere. In every other city in America, there wasn’t that much work to go around, so you couldn’t have that many comics. I don’t why, though.
2020: Well, this isn’t necessarily true. Certainly all of those folks I listed above could get work, they left for NY or LA because you were more visible to people who worked in the entertainment industry there. Pretty simple. Not sure why I answered that that way. One thing about Boston (back then) was that it had a co-mingling of two very different types of people in respect to class and education and political bent. In a way that other cities don’t quite have. Boston is the most parochial, provincial place in America. The ultimate version of the “slobs vs the snobs” mentality you can imagine. So that lent itself to some interesting comics and shows.
How’d the Mr. Show live tour go?
Great. That was really fun. We’ll go out at the end of April, beginning of May and hit the rest of the country.
2020: I believe every word of this.
Do you think you reached people who didn’t know Mr. Show before?
I suppose we did. Some of them. I don’t know why people would go pay, whatever it was, thirty bucks a ticket to go see something they didn’t know. Maybe some people were dragged there by other people.
2020: I’m disregarding contest winners here and I apologize for that.
Did HBO always give you guys full creative control with the show?
All the time. That was just the rule, they never said anything.
2020: And in exchange we made no money!
Did you do Scary Movie 2 just for money?
Yeah pretty much.
2020: True dat.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes and no. Everybody I was working with was really fun. The movie was kind of a bummer because I was kind of embroiled in my own frustrations with a movie I’d just made which I thought was smarter and funnier. We were trying to raise $100,000 to make a cut and these guys are spending $100,000 on like a lighting joke. It was kind of frustrating. But I don’t have any regrets about doing that movie. It gave me the money to move to New York which I wanted to do. For my sanity. Also, when I do something like that, the idea is that maybe it will lead to more work and better work. It didn’t, but that’s why I’d spend two and a half, three months, working on something that I’m not that crazy about. Also, I don’t care if somebody is bummed out that I did Scary Movie 2, I just don’t give a shit, it doesn’t affect me.
2020: I’m clearly referencing Run Ronnie Run! (which was a bitter disappointment for Bob and I). I don’t know why I’m being so coy. All of this still applies, though. And this was before, Alvin And His Chippingmunks!
Yeah, I didn’t like it when I moved there and eight and half years later, I still didn’t like it.
2020: And guess what motherfuckers, I STILL don’t like it.
I read that you dug the movie, Battlefield Earth. Are you into Scientology?
I just find it fascinating. I’m a little obsessed with it. It’s just the strangest… I mean all religions are a little silly, but I understand the traditions and the history to them. But Scientology is just garbage. It’s so patently false, immediately. I’m kind of obsessed with people who are Scientologists because they’re so plain looking and you can kind of pick them out from a distance.
2020: Ha. Okay then. I think I’m underplaying it by saying I was “a little” obsessed with it. Back then, and even before that, I was a LOT obsessed with Scientology. It was like a hobby. I read so many books about it and read a couple of biographies of L. Ron Hubbard and how he just made shit up to inflate his resume and what a fragile narcissist he was. He is basically Trump but smarter and less evil. I applied for a job at the Scientology Center when I was living in Boston just to get inside and see what the fuck the machinations were. I have been locked in various rooms and watched the recruitment films. I have taken the “Standardized Oxford Personality Test” or whatever bullshit name they give to it is twice. I’ve signed up for ASHO and Sea Org, and I’ve even done that nonsense with the E-meter. It’s SO CLEARLY BULLSHIT! I was fascinated to say the least.
Why do think so many celebrities have latched onto it?
Well, they weren’t celebrities when they latched onto it, I think that’s the big qualifier. I mean, if you want to be a star, go to Hollywood and be a star, you’ve already got something wrong with you. Something’s fucked up. If you’re already self-involved, self-important, have an inflated sense of ego, I think Scientology gives you some convenient answers. Answers for people like that who need an explanation for why things aren’t going right. Why people might be keeping them down.
2020: And if Scientology doesn’t do it for you, there’s alway QAnon.
Were you brought up practicing Judaism?
Not strict. But it was important to my mom to go to synagogue on the holidays, celebrated all the holidays.
2020: Can’t argue that. Although my mom and I got in a tiff last Hanukkah when I didn’t want to introduce my daughter to the ritual of it but my Mom won out (my daughter loves to light the menorah) but I kept adding my dark, atheist addendums to what my Mom was saying about it to her so I feel a compromise was struck.
Was it tough in the South growing up Jewish?
I met some really phenomenally ignorant people. Not necessarily that they were anti-Semitic but really ignorant. I was a curiosity. There were a couple situations of anti-Semitism, you know, people would throw pennies at me or my sister or spit on us. But that was rare. Certainly, that atmosphere fostered that attitude.
2020: Boy, I seem surprisingly forgiving here. “Oh, you know, just being spit on and having change whipped at our heads. No big deal.” I must’ve been in a very good mood when I said that.
Do you feel like Atlanta is home to you?
Yes and no. It’s really the only place that feels like home because I was there for so long. My mom lives in Florida and my little sister lives in North Carolina. I’ve got one sister that lives in Atlanta and that’s where we all go. I’m there like three or four times a year. I’ve got a lot of friends there and it’s very comfortable. Though Atlanta’s changed so drastically over the last 15 years and not for the better. It’s kind of lost what little charm it had and just wants to be a big city and seem that way. Which is too bad. It’s a big sprawling LA-ified metropolis.
2020: I still have very complicated feelings about Atlanta. I am there a lot more now than I used to be. My mom moved back there and I still have a bunch of friends there, the comedy scene is pretty good, and once I move past my predictable old-man whining about “it’s all changed.” It used to be great before it got too big for its britches (which is true by the way – Atlanta peaked around 2000) I can see it through my wife and daughters eyes (they love it) and I can experience the friendliness and the pace and just general quality of life there that can be so great. And there’s great food there too! And most of the bars I grew up going to are still there (although the Stein Club is no longer with us…)
I’ve got a friend who’s going bald and trying to get into standup comedy, any advice?
Get a wig, man. Bald people do not make it in today’s world. Get a wig and fill that wig with Rogaine.
2020: I failed to reveal that I was COO of Rogaine at the time of this interview and was banned by the SEC from doing anything else to promote them after this interview came out.