Interview: David Cross, Stand-Up and Author, “I Drink For a Reason”

Filed Under Interview, Print, Stand-Up Comedy

A favorite of comedy geeks, David Cross recently wrote the book I Drink for a Reason, a collection of funny essays. He has also gone on tour to support the book, giving fans outside of the coasts a chance to see him perform stand-up live for the first time in five years. (You can check out David Cross’s upcoming tour dates here.) I talked with David about the differences between writing a book and stand-up, why he turned off his Google alert and how his family life is off-limits on stage, at least for now.

What were the challenges you found in writing a funny book as opposed to writing a bit of stand-up or a comedy sketch?

Well, I guess the ideas don’t flow as naturally or prolifically when I’m sitting down to write because you’re writing in a vacuum. When I’m writing stand-up there’s such a give and take in the energy. Plus I’m talking out loud. I never talk out loud when I write.

It’s all my interior voice. Ideas, whether they’re good or bad, come easier to me when I’m talking on stage. That’s sort of the way I write on stage. I have the idea and I just sort of riff the idea until I’ve done the set a bunch of times. And I pick and choose what I say and then that becomes a bit.

I’ve never met somebody who sat down and just wrote jokes. So that genre doesn’t come easily to me. But it was nice to be able to have the idea written down on a piece of paper and be able to edit it there once it was done.

Like if you set up a bit of stand-up wrong, then you’re in that place and can’t go back and fix it.

Yeah, but then I can comment on that. “Oh I fucked that up” or whatever. It’s just so different because you’re communicating in a completely different way.

I just find it to be very hard. I’m amazed when I look at old National Lampoons with Michael O’Donoghue and Doug Kenney and how they’re able to make me laugh out loud. It’s very difficult. You rely on the readers’ sense of timing. You have to figure out how to get that comic pacing in their head.

Well, I probably do have the benefit, if people are familiar with my work, of assuming that the voice that you have when you’re reading it is my own. You can sort of hear my voice in it. I’d be interested to talk to somebody who liked reading humorous books, who’s not familiar with my work at all, to see what they thought of it. Because they wouldn’t have the benefit of knowing what cadence I use. And that’s another huge difference. You don’t have the benefit of pausing and gesticulation and intonations and cadence. There’s no performance to it.

You could put something in italic like Spy would.

That’s all you get.

Italics or bold.

You get an ellipse or all caps.

There you go. The typographic ability of stand-up in print.

How do you think the book will be incorporated when you go on tour? Are you going to read anything?

I was concerned about that. I just did a bunch of shows in Seattle at Bumbershoot. And now in hindsight I probably overcompensated for what I thought would be too much of a reliance on material that’s covered in the book. But I was happily mistaken. I was concerned if I would have enough new material, said in a new way, to cover an hour plus show where I’m in theaters and I’m charging $35 a ticket. But it’ll be no problem.

You’re feeling a little more comfortable now.

I’m definitely more comfortable. I went over my allotted time, which was already significant, and I didn’t cover half the material. So I’ll be fine.

There are definitely jokes from my act that are in the book. But as I discovered last night, cause I did a reading at Borders here in New York, they’re significantly different in the book. There’s stuff I do on stage that I have been doing for a couple of years now. I feel like it’s OK to do those jokes and those bits because they’re presented so differently in the book.

Specifically there’s one piece. I talk a lot about orthodox Jews on stages. And over the years as I’ve done drop-in sets at Comedy Death-Ray and UCB and Largo, I’ve developed a good 12 minutes on Jews and religion that spins out into other stuff. And a lot of those jokes are peppered throughout the book in different places. But a good example is this thing I read last night called “Ask a Rabbi,” which is a fake reprint of a column for Jews magazine. And when I read it, it’s got an orthodox Jewish lilt to it, which makes it completely different than me on stage in jeans and a T-shirt going, “And here’s the thing about Jews…”

It’s a little bit like a combination of a sketch and a stand-up bit.

I wasn’t planning on reading anything from the book and a couple of people were surprised by that and almost disappointed. It was one of the first things I asked on my Facebook page. I just thought it was kind of lame to stand on stage at a theater and read from a book. It seems odd to me and slightly uncomfortable. So I was surprised people were like, “No, read it… Not the whole book…” (laughs) So I might read “Ask a Rabbi” but nothing more…

I listened to the Adam Carolla podcast where you talked about how people see you as a smart comedian….

That’s smart in a pejorative way. And it’s not just me. I’m part of this group of people, whether it’s true or not, who have this attitude projected on us of elitist or smug or that we think we’re funnier than everybody else.

Or PC which is one of the odder ones you hear.

Oh yeah, I talked about that in the Larry the Cable Guy thing. I’m about as un-PC as anybody. That’s insane. If anybody knows my act, they know I’m the opposite of politically correct. That’s absurd. Take any random joke about Christians or Jews or Catholics. It’s absurd. It has no merit to it. It’s baseless.

Do you think the smart label is just because you read an article and can produce a fact off the top of your head about the war?

I can’t tell you. I don’t really know… I think it’s more of what I represent than my actual stand-up.

Which is odd to me because I don’t really think you’ve ever tried to represent anybody on stage other than yourself.

I agree with you. I would hope that if anybody spent more than a couple of seconds listening to my set or thinking about it, they would realize, oh, this guy isn’t some… I’m not Mort Sahl.

You were very prolific earlier in the decade and I was curious about why there wasn’t a third album or another special or anything like that?

In the space of three years I basically burned through 200 minutes of comedy and I just got burned out by that. And those tours are fucking grueling. At least the way I did them last time. This time I’m doing theaters. I’ll have a tour bus or fly if it’s too long to drive. It’s not going to be me with a band in a van setting up and dealing with all that shit.

But I was also doing other things. After those CDs, I started doing Arrested Development and I did a few more movies than I normally do.

And also, I wasn’t very good. After that second CD came out, I did three or four sets… I just didn’t have passion for it. And if you don’t have passion for it you shouldn’t be on stage. And I just had to realize the hard way that I needed to take some time off. And approach it not as a job or an obligation but as something I’m passionate about so if it’s not coming to me, don’t force it. Because I was not funny for a year and a half after that. I was trying but eventually just stopped. When those things write themselves, you find yourself back on stage, enjoying it more and getting more material.

You also have a demanding audience in some ways. They’re very discerning but sometimes in ways that isn’t fair. You’re up on a pedestal for them but they’re looking to knock you down.

I definitely think that. That’s another lesson I learned the hard way: stop going on the Internet. (Laughs) I remember after all that shit with the Alvin and the Chipmunks things, which I now look back at as a valuable mistake. A lesson learned about taking the criticism to heart or personally.

I’m one of those people… like a lot of live performers… that you can be killing, doing a set in front of two thousand people and fucking killing. And you see the guy or this woman in a seat, arms crossed, scowling and that’s the person you notice. All of the sudden you’re like, “Oh, wow, that person hates me.” You might as well shine a spot on them and everyone fades away. It’s a strange phenomenon. You talk to other comics and they’re like, “Yeah, man. There’s one chick in the seventeenth row…” (laughs)

I was doing this interview that was a follow up on this other interview; it was much like anything on the Internet—it had a hyper-extensive quick life. Something happens on the Internet, it’s like a supernova for two or four days and then it just disappears and goes away. People move on and they don’t even think about it anymore. So in that four-day period there was a lot of shit, and I’m doing an interview with a newspaper about the response, which was posted on this or that. And of course it went away almost immediately. And I was saying to the reporter that I have a Google alert for me and I saw this and all these mean, nasty things, and as much as you try and be above it, it affects you.

And the guy’s like, “I’m surprised to hear that. Why don’t you just stop the Google alert and not pay attention to any of that stuff?”

And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” (laughs) And that day I took it off and my life immediately got better. (laughs)

If it was somebody I knew and respected and trusted, then those comments would be a little more hurtful. But then I’d have to respect them. But when it’s just an anonymous guy or girl going “Yeah, he sucks,” that doesn’t mean anything.

It’s just a way of elevating yourself where you feel like you’re in a world where you’re marginalized by celebrity.

There are a number of people who are not necessarily deserving of [celebrity], but shouldn’t be surprised that people are talking shit about them in that they don’t deserve the celebrity. In a sense that they’ve done nothing to merit being rewarded, whether it’s Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian or Nicole Ritchie. Just merely being a celebrity. I get why people… that’s from jealousy, I suppose. A sense of karmic unfairness. “How come I don’t get to do coke with Lindsay Lohan in the bathroom at Koi.”

A lot of actors will have that same attitude. They’ll look at somebody successful who is merely competent. There are some actors who work very hard. And there are some who are lucky. You look at somebody like Eva Longoria. She’s not a bad actress. But literally thousands of women who are trying to act can go, “Well, I can do that. Why not me?” I understand that.

It seems like casting is just the luck of the draw sometimes.

Yeah, and what becomes successful and what doesn’t. I know so many talented people who just honestly have had bad luck. They’ve had better luck than people who have never had the opportunity, but they haven’t had good luck because they got cast on something that just hasn’t gone to series. Like John Ennis is a great example. That guy is really funny. Really talented. Works really hard. And has been lucky in that he’s been cast on a number of shows but phenomenally unlucky in that seven pilots in a row just never went to series. Just the craziest, shittiest luck. That stuff is completely out of his control. Everything that was in his control, he did right.

I want to get back to selling out for a little bit. Bill Hicks had a quote about how doing a commercial takes you off the artistic roll call forever. And it’s a little easy to laud him for that because he only lived to be 32. Do you believe there’s such a thing as selling out in comedy or in general?

It’s interesting. I was just having this conversation with my girlfriend two days ago. We were talking about that whole idea. I’m old enough to remember when that idea was really talked about with vehemence. Two things dovetailed together at the same time.

One was when Michael Jackson bought the Beatles catalog and sold “Revolution” to Nike and NIke used it in their commercial. There was an outrage. That you never see anymore, and that you’ll never see again.

And roughly at the same time, there was a band in Boston called the Del Fuegos. Very popular, kinda grungy rock band. And they did a commercial for Miller beer. And the backlash was so severe, they never recovered from it. They were the poster boys for selling out.

Now, it’d be absurd to think about that. In this culture, Modest Mouse does an ad for a car company. And nobody cares. Not only do they not care, they go, “Good for you, you made some money.” Which is not how it was 25 years ago.

I do a lot of work in London. There’s a billboard ad campaign there. And it’s literally a close up photo of Iggy Pop from the chest up, shirtless with his glitter stuff, holding a steering wheel and with one of his hands, he’s making the Home Alone face, his hand to the cheek with the “What the?” And it’s an ad for car insurance. Iggy Pop doing a billboard for car insurance. And you don’t really blink an eye. Somebody gave him 100 grand to take a photo of him holding a steering wheel. Who gives a shit. Good, enjoy it.

If Iggy Pop is doing car insurance ads, there’s no selling out any more.

So it must have been strange for you to be called a sellout when there is no such thing any more.

Yeah. On more than one occasion, people would say to me when I was doing Arrested Development, “Yeah, do you consider yourself a hypocrite because you’re working for Fox?” (Laughs) I’m serious. I must have been asked that 50 times. “No, I don’t.”

Alvin and the Chipmunks is a blatantly crass, commercial movie but… and I think it’s a big but—it changes everything. But it’s intended for children - 5 year-olds, 6 year-olds, 7 year-olds. And there’s nothing in that movie - if I remember correctly, I didn’t see it - that was a terrible lesson. Anything that was a terrible message to give kids that I can recall.

The idea of adults shitting on a movie that is literally intended for six-year-olds but six-year-olds fucking love. They loved it. They didn’t just like it. They loved it and they wanted to watch it over and over and over again.

It’s thoughtless. This was the huge mistake I made, thinking that these people really thought this through and were deeply convicted about this. This was just a throwaway, “What he’s in that movie? That’s fucking bullshit.” There’s no thought to it.

If you really sat them down and asked what’s really the problem with doing that, I doubt they could really stand up to a rational discussion about it being a sellout after a minute. I’m assuming they would go, “Yeah. I mean, it’s not a big deal. I guess.”

Georgia and the south are often targets for you. In your book and your stand-up, one character is Jeanette Dunwoody. And Ronnie Dobbs comes from Doraville. And, as I grew up in Doraville and went to Dunwoody High School, I was wondering if there was anything particular about those two areas?

Oh, yeah. Dunwoody… I just love the name Jeanette Dunwoody. That has nothing to do with Dunwoody itself. It was near where I grew up. That’s just a good Southern name.

And Doraville…. when Bob and I… before Mr. Show when we started to write shit together and were learning about each other. Ronnie Dobbs didn’t have a name yet and was a bit in my stand-up of my impression of every other person arrested on Cops. I told him about Georgia and Atlanta and Roswell and this band that was quite popular back then called the Atlanta Rhythm Section and some of their songs. That’s where I told him about “Champagne Jam.”

Atlanta Rhythm Section had this song called “Doraville” which celebrated Doraville. Doraville’s a dump. (laughs) There’s just shitty industrial stretches.

I grew up near where Tilly Mill hits 85. There’s nothing. There’s a liquor store.

It’s a dumpy, shitty place. My mom worked there. It was her first job after my dad left us. We had no money and we were in debt. And she got this job selling toner and ink cartridges over the phone from a company in a trailer that had been retrofitted to be an office. I got to see Doraville a lot.

So Atlanta Rhythm Section had this song called “Doraville.” And one of the lines that celebrated Doraville was [singing] “Doraville. Such country in the city. Doraville. Rednecks drinking wine on Sunday.” (Laughs) Rednecks drinking wine on Sunday. They loved it! They loved Doraville!

And one of the other lines is [singing again] “Friends of mine say I ought to move to New York City. New York’s fine but it ain’t Doraville.”

Anyway, it’s just a silly, dumb song that Bob used to fucking love and make me sing all the time. So that’s how Ronnie Dobbs came from Doraville.

I read the AV Club review of your book. And it was interesting in that they kind of wished you’d written a different one. They wanted you to do more of a memoir. I reminded me of when I interviewed Brian Posehn about breaking his back. I asked him why he never used that for stand-up and he told me that he never found it particularly funny. And I was wondering if that was what you thought about the stuff with your dad. You don’t find it particularly funny?

I don’t think a memoir has to be funny. But I just feel that it’s self-indulgent at this point. I’m too young. And it just doesn’t feel right. The time isn’t right. I have no problem with talking about this stuff or writing about it. But in a long, linear 250-page memoir or whatever it would be, it just feels a little premature.

And also, it wouldn’t just be about my dad. I haven’t talked to him since I was 19. That part of the memoir would be short-lived. But there are other people who I am sensitive to writing about right now.

It’s funny. Because your comedy is personal in that it’s yours, but it’s not necessarily about you as a person. It’s a lot like [George] Carlin. He didn’t talk about himself on stage either.

No, he didn’t. Except for Catholic school.

That’s probably it. It was never, “My wife said…” or “I was talking to my kid…” So the family stuff has never been personal grist for your stand-up.

I have to correct you in one sense. Although I haven’t talked about it in stand-up sets, I have talked about it extensively on stage in Uncabaret and those type of shows where you’re not supposed to do stand-up and you’re supposed to tell personal stories.

It’s just never been committed to tape.

And I wouldn’t want it to be. I feel strongly about using my family as comedy fodder. I think that some of the stories are tragic. There’s dark comedy to them. There were long chapters that span many, many years of disturbing behavior that is cringe funny. That all of us were involved with. But I don’t feel comfortable in a stand-up setting talking about that because of exactly what you said which is. it’s not that funny, but in that setting people are going to laugh and it’s going to be uncomfortable laughs. And I’m exploiting my family.

It feels very exploitive if that’s part of my acts and I’m charging you to see it. And then I’m collecting a paycheck at the end of that from the theater and then I move on to another theater. That feels very exploitive to me.

Whereas doing these kind of one-off things and talking about the stories—because I do enjoy talking about them. Everybody who hears them encourages me. “Oh my god. You got to tell that story on stage.” But it’s really distasteful to me. The time is not right.

If I got the blessings of my family to go ahead and talk about stuff… My dad I don’t give a shit about. But my sisters and my mom. I can’t imagine they’d be happy with it though. Obviously, it’s through my eyes. But there are some specific events I would imagine that people in my family would be humiliated by. And things have changed too. For the better.

The stories don’t belong to me. They belong to my family. They’re experiences that I would relate. I was only affected by them. I wasn’t the person making these choices that upon reflection seem very unwise. Those things don’t belong to me. I only get to talk about them because I’m the son or the brother. But that seems exploitive, certainly in that milieu of stand-up. I didn’t make these decisions so I don’t think they’re my stories to tell, at least not outside the genre I was talking about.

I imagine someday I will tell the stories because they really are interesting. There’s some pretty big jaw droppers there. I just have to get the blessing of everybody.

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