David Cross - Biography

Stand-up comedian David Cross was born April 4, 1964 in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in the “safer” (meaning “whiter” according to his stand-up) suburb of Roswell. He was socially awkward throughout his youth, and completely disrespectful of authority and religion — he became a firm atheist very early in life, and found it immensely difficult to deal with his Jewish family (especially since, by arbitrary Jewish law, David was “Jewish” too). After graduating high school, Cross moved from Atlanta to Boston (“out of the frying pan and into the other frying pan,” as he put it) and attended Emerson College for one semester before dropping out. He immersed himself in drugs, booze, partying and stand-up comedy, but quickly became disenfranchised with the comedy scene, as it was surrounded at the time by “loud, dumb, pandering, racist, homophobic” comedians. Cross soon made a lateral movement into underground sketch comedy, forming the sketch group “Cross Comedy” with twelve other comics, and performed as regularly as possible for piecemeal money to avoid a day job at all costs.

In 1992, Cross received a call from Janeane Garofalo, one of the very few Boston stand-up comics he’d respected and befriended. At the time Garofalo was a regular on The Ben Stiller Show on FOX, and had recommended Cross to the producers when the show needed a replacement writer mid-season. Cross was 28 and by his own admission, “sick and tired of being poor” so he packed up his car on a Friday, drove cross-country non-stop for three days, and got to work the following Monday. Truly a show before its time, Stiller was cancelled shortly thereafter, owing to lackluster ratings and an indifferent network, but Cross managed to write one of the series’ most provocative sketches — “The Legend Of T.J. O’Pootertoot,” a bizarre, twisted evisceration of theme restaurants in which Cross had his first on-screen role as a whistle-blowing boyfriend who utters the immortal phrase, “It’s people! Pooterballs are made out of people!” Though Stiller was quickly cancelled, it won an Emmy that season for Best Writing, and Cross got a taste of the duality of show-biz success: he’d struggled for years and years with “Cross Comedy” to little acclaim, then won an Emmy for sitting around a table for a month and a half, writing a grand total of two sketches.

Another Stiller writer was Bob Odenkirk, a former Saturday Night Live writer who used Stiller as an opportunity to get funny sketches on the air that were too offbeat for SNL producer, Lorne Michaels. But oddly, it took the cancellation of the Stiller show for Odenkirk and Cross to hang out together and realize how similar their comic sensibilities were. They soon started performing live sketch shows at venues around Los Angeles, and these shows evolved into Mr. Show, a combination of live and taped sketches that segued in and out of each other. In the fall of 1995, Odenkirk, Cross and director Troy Miller produced four half-hour episodes of Mr. Show, on a shoestring budget, for HBO.

Freed from the pressure of prime-time decency standards and sensitive  advertisers, Cross and Odenkirk infused Mr. Show with some of the most cutting-edge, intelligent and funny social/cultural satire on television. Those first four episodes dealt bluntly with themes like government interference in the arts, banal advertising, provocative yet creatively empty performance artists, easily-offended viewers, people who get special treatment because they are dying, and the early days of reality TV. In the first episode, Cross played one of his most renowned characters, Ronnie Dobbs, a drunken, belligerent redneck who gets arrested on a COPS-like show so many times that they give him his own spin-off series and the success goes to his head.

A second season of six episodes followed in 1996, then two more seasons, of ten episodes each, in 1997 and 1998. It didn’t have the exposure to become the ubiquitous ratings bonanza it deserved to be, but slowly and surely, Mr. Show developed a rabid cult following and Cross' cult status developed along with it. Through the series’ run Cross played such memorable roles as Dylan, a pretentious college student who only respects archaic technology; “Grass Valley” Greg Sniper, a grinning billionaire who forces his employees to have fun (predating The Office by a good half-decade); Blueberry Head, an abrasively moronic prop comic (“It’s a paper cup hat for fruit!”); and Pootie T., one half of the white R&B group “Three Times One Minus One” whose lyrics consisted of “Ooooh” and “Damn.”

HBO rarely interfered with Odenkirk and Cross, but they soon learned the price of complete creative freedom — a small budget which required them to wear many hats over the course of a production that ran them ragged and confiscated every second of their free time. Cross did find time between seasons for the occasional acting job — mostly bit parts in films like Men In Black, Waiting For Guffman and The Truth About Cats and Dogs — but while Mr. Show was in production he was constantly acting, writing, producing, executive producing and occasionally directing. In a 1999 interview he said, “I woke up and I was 35. I used to be 31. This show has aged me.” Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Show was not cancelled, but Cross and Odenkirk were worn out. With a reputation as a comedian’s comedian behind him, Cross returned to his first love of stand-up. In 1999 he was given his own hour-long HBO special, The Pride Is Back. Cross and Odenkirk also wrote the screenplay Run Ronnie Run (New Line Cinema), a sketch film based on the Ronnie Dobbs character which was filmed in the fall of 2000. Unfortunately, conflicts with director Troy Miller delayed the film’s release, and ultimately the studio shelved it from theaters and unceremoniously released  Miller’s cut on DVD in 2003.

In the spring of 2002, Cross took his stand-up on the road, touring the country with indie-rock band UltraBabyFat, and recorded his first stand-up album, the two-disc Shut Up You Fucking Baby!, released in fall 2002 on Sub Pop Records. Cross used the two-disc canvas to talk bitterly and openly (but still quite hilariously) about his shitty childhood, the shitty state of pop culture, and all sorts of things that piss him off, ranging from blind national acceptance of a book as ridiculous as The Bible, to mindless flag-waving, to people who refer to themselves in third person and misuse the word “literally.” One of the most memorable bits was an epic true story about a drunken evening in Kansas City that ended in near-dementia (“Answer your telephone!”). Indicative of Cross’ place in a pop-culture landscape seemingly impervious to change and talent, Baby! was nominated for the “Best Comedy Album” Grammy but lost to Robin Williams. The following year, Sub Pop released Let America Laugh, a DVD documenting the 2002 tour.

The absurd track names on Baby! were a hilarious bait-and-switch typical of Cross, as none of them had anything to do with what he talked about, like “Monica Lewinsky and the Three Bears,” “Flying On A Mexican Plane” and “Diarrhea Moustache.” Titles one can easily imagine coming from a horrible, unmemorable, unoriginal stand-up comic. Cross upped the ante on his second album, 2004’s It’s Not Funny (Sub Pop), turning the tracks into a story about the unnamed hack with tracks like “My Immigrant Mom Talks Funny!,” “Pandering To The Locals” and “When All Is Said And Done, I Am Lonely And Miserable And Barely Able To Mask My Contempt For The Audience As I Trot Out The Same Sorry Act I’ve Been Doing Since The Mid-Eighties!”

It’s Not Funny included some brutal mockeries of pop-culture and their relation to society and politics. At one point, Cross mentions seeing an ad for electric scissors  during an ad for The Simple Life, and says he’ll always retain that image when President Bush says the terrorists hate our freedom. Perhaps the most chilling moment comes when Cross explains that if our terrorists TRULY hated freedom, Sweden and the Netherlands would be dust. Later that year, Osama Bin Laden released a tape saying more or less the same thing.

Cross continued to do bit parts in TV shows like Crank Yankers, Just Shoot Me and The Colbert Report, as well as movies like Ghost World, Scary Movie 2 and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. In 2003, Cross was offered a bit part on the pilot for a FOX single-camera sitcom called Arrested Development as Tobias Fünke, an insecure yet pretentious psychiatrist who dreams of becoming an actor. The producers loved Cross’ performance so much they made Fünke a regular character. Arrested Development went on to be a cult smash, and suddenly Cross was a sitcom star.

In 2005, Cross ran afoul of “Blue Collar” comedian Larry The Cable Guy. After Cross criticized Larry in a Rolling Stone interview, Larry devoted an entire chapter of his book to mocking Cross’ comments, mistaking him for a member of the “P.C. Left.” Cross responded by writing “An Open Letter To Larry The Cable Guy” on the website bobanddavid.com, taking Larry to task for selling overpriced merchandise with “Git-R-Done” on it to the fanbase he supposedly respects so much. The following year, Cross did a guest spot on the MTV2 kids show spoof Wonder Showzen as a hostage who gets slaughtered by a man in a bunny suit named “Larry.”

In October 2006, Cross teamed up with stand-up comic H. Jon Benjamin to create an animated series for Comedy Central. Freak Show centered on “Freak Squad,” a group of circus freaks with superhuman powers, recruited by the government to perform menial errands (“missions” the squad prefers to call them). More than that, Freak Show was the culmination of every satirical thread of Cross’ stand-up, from the rigged 2000 election (democratic voters cast their votes in “mushroom stars,” which it turns out don’t count as votes…then when a furious public demands that they do count, the democratic candidate wins and concedes anyway, then gets arrested by the incumbent) to the stupidity of every religion, especially Judaism (every religious leader fights over a preemie’s foreskin, which completes a giant golem brought to life) to his feud with Larry The Cable Guy (a recurring character is “Danny The Plumber Guy,” a moronic comedian with the catchphrase “Get to gettin’!” Though heavily marketed and placed after South Park, Freak Show received low ratings and was cancelled after seven episodes.

Recently, fans of Cross have taken him to task for playing a supporting role in the 2007 Alvin and the Chipmunks (Fox 2000 Pictures), a movie that grossed $200 million despite receiving bad reviews. Cross defended himself, claiming that indie credibility doesn’t pay the rent, that he has no intention to see that film himself because he’s not a kid, and that the reason he hasn’t done any fun, interesting projects since Freak Show is because the studios and networks aren’t interested in them. Nonetheless, at the time of writing he’s developing another show for HBO with Bob Odenkirk, does the occasional acting job and stand-up gig, and promises to continue being his ribald, dissatisfied self as long as the world keeps giving him reasons to.

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