David Cross loathes reality TV and viral stardom: "Those are reprehensible people and it bothers me that they are successful"

The "Mr. Show" creator on viral culture, "Arrested Development," Bob Odenkirk and his directorial debut, "Hits"

Published February 11, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

David Cross     (AP/Arthur Mola)
David Cross (AP/Arthur Mola)

The Internet has been pretty good to David Cross. After burnishing his comedy credentials pre-Web 2.0 as the co-creator of "Mr. Show" (along with Bob Odenkirk), Cross went on to star as Tobias Fünke in "Arrested Development," a show whose militant online fandom is arguably responsible for its rescue by Netflix after Fox dropped the show in 2006. Now, his feature directorial debut, "Hits," will also appeal to the benevolence of his digital fan base: Released online via BitTorrent this Friday, fans can pay as much as they like to download the film, a model inspired by the likes of Radiohead and Louis C.K. And thanks to Cross’ wacky Kickstarter campaign, fans will also be able to pay whatever they want to see the film in movie theaters when it debuts this Thursday.

Yet "Hits," which stars "Veep's" Matt Walsh and Meredith Hagner and features Cross' "Arrested Development" co-star Michael Cera and fan favorite Amy Sedaris in small roles, is all about the dark side of our contemporary culture of virality — a merciless satire of YouTube America rooted deeply in Cross' personal frustrations and anxieties. Walsh plays Dave, a small-town libertarian whose enraged rants at city council meetings go viral after being seized upon by a group of Brooklyn hipsters, while his daughter, a fame-obsessed reality TV addict, dreams of going on "The Voice" and escaping her small-town life.

We sat down with David Cross in New York to ask him about the genesis of the film, the success of his pal Bob Odenkirk, and what it's like being the world's most iconic "never nude."

I saw the movie last night and really enjoyed it. It was fun seeing Matt Walsh in a leading role.

It’s really important. It makes me happy when people recognize it too. The movie could have easily been more art; even some of the broader characters like the Brooklyn hipster guys, are so grounded I believe them. I totally believe James Adomian, I believe that guy, see his earnestness and his uselessness coming across in everything. I thought the cast just did a fucking tremendous job of making it all real.

It's so great seeing all these comics who have been in the business for so long, from "UCB" and "Mr. Show" and other places, starting to get recognition.

There’s quite a bit of talent in that world.

Speaking of which, Bob Odenkirk is killing it right now. Have you seen “Better Call Saul”?

We went to the premiere in L.A. and it was fucking fantastic, just blew me away. He’s great. It was so well directed. The DP was amazing, whoever that is is a genius, great, great DP. And I was telling these guys I am so excited for good television. I get so excited for well-crafted storytelling that’s well acted, that’s thoughtful, and that’s what “Better Call Saul” is.

Back when you were doing comedy together, did you ever think of him as a leading dramatic actor?

Well, I see the potential for almost every comic I know. There’s still that weird stigma, like, “Oh wow, that funny guy over there can be poignant." I think there were things in “Mr. Show” that Bob was poignant. A lot of our pieces had the humanity and pathos to it, so I think there’s example of that from 18, 19, 20 years ago.

Do you think he's nervous about carrying his own show?

He was, for sure. We talk all the time, and he definitely, as anybody would, he’s also anticipating how people would react to the news, like, “'Breaking Bad' is wonderful. Don’t spoil my thing! What, you’re going to give that character his own show?” But now that people see how great it is — I mean that opening is so killer, it’s great.

The woman who played Katelyn, Meredith Hagner, was amazing. It's a tricky role, but she really managed to walk a fine line between sympathetic and ridiculous. 

I had an actress that was going to do it who dropped out three and a half weeks before we were going to shoot, maybe a month, I don’t know, but it really fucked me up. It was just a verbal thing, and I think her agents put bad words in her ears. So we had to scramble. And I don’t know that many 19-year-old girls so I had to fly out to L.A. for a casting sessions and stuff. She sent a thing in from her iPhone where she read the script and really liked it. I had never heard of her before. We had a fairly lengthy process and then kept going back to her and brought her to New York, and then borrowed UCB, said, hey, I’m gonna read these two girls, this is after two weeks in L.A., and she was just fantastic. And my wife, who’s also into this, this was also quite helpful, and she was like, yeah, she’s the one.

You're releasing "Hits" in an unusual way. I know that it's going to be downloadable on a pay-as-you-want basis on BitTorrent.

It’s two things that are concurrent. One is that on Feb. 12, Thursday, it will be released in 50 cities and small towns, and you pay what you want at the movie theater for Feb. 12 in 50 different cities and towns. Then it will also stay for a week in five of those cities, and that’s regular pricing. We don’t have any control of that. But on BitTorrent, for two weeks, it's pay what you want.

Do you have faith that people have the integrity to pay for the movie?

I mean, I’m not going to lose any money. Nobody made this film, nobody had any illusion that we were going to make a bunch of money, and that’s not what it was about. We definitely could have had more money, or potentially if we had taken one of the distribution deals that was offered to us. But I didn’t want to, because they were the same exact distribution idea for any low-budget indie film that doesn’t have stars in it — play in New York and L.A. for a week, pick three of your favorite big cities, add those to the list, then one week later it’s on Video OnDemand, iTunes, and then it goes away forever. I made this movie so people could watch it. So if I get money, that’s great. But that’s not why I did it. I did it so people could see it. You know, it was very much inspired by what Thom Yorke and Radiohead did and how Louis C.K. bypassed Ticketmaster and went directly to the fans.

And that totally worked for Louis.

Yeah. I want to make sure the investors get their money back. But if it happens, great, but if that doesn’t happen, that’s fine. I’d rather trade a hundred grand for a million people getting to see the movie. I make my money in other ways too.

Do you see this as a future model for indie films?

Absolutely, for somebody who's smarter than I am at this kind of stuff. I’m not a business guy at all. I didn’t know BitTorrent, never been on BitTorrent. I’m also not a social media guy. Somebody smarter than me will take this step and improve upon it, and they’ll figure out a way to do this without a Kickstarter campaign, they’ll figure it out. The idea of bypassing sales agents and distributors — and sales agents basically created their own reason to exist — bypassing them is the idea. Then filmmakers can get their films directly to people. Sales agents take a cut, distributors take a cut and you don’t get anything. Their interest isn’t about the most people seeing the movie, their interest is getting as much money as possible.

You said that you’re not a huge social media guy, but this movie really captures the zeitgeist in terms of our anxieties about viral culture and social media.

Yeah, I can account for those people, I don’t like them. I understand why they think the way they do because that’s the world they’re brought up in, that’s the world I gave them, that my generation created for them. So they’re a direct product of that. And I don’t want to be all Grandpa and get off my lawn guy, but every generation has ridiculed the generation that’s come after it, every single one. I remember being a kid and people kind of freaking out and lamenting the advent of video games as "this generation is growing up mindless in front of a TV pressing buttons, no direct link with reality!" It’s the same shit I’m saying about those guys. So you have to take with a grain of salt.

In some senses you do feel contempt for some of the characters, but I personally sympathized with Katelyn a lot as well.

I love that. We’ve been doing a lot of press and some people we talk to are 50, some people are 35, some people are 24. And definitely as you get younger they’re like, “I felt sorry for her.” And I don’t feel sorry for her, but as I said before, I don’t share her values. I have contempt for her, but I don’t blame her. I have empathy because that’s all she knows. She’d be foolish not to take advantage of all the shortcuts that are now available to people to obtain fame, which in our culture is also end-all, be-all for so many people. It wasn’t necessarily 40 years ago.

When you say shortcuts, do you feel that people nowadays have to work less hard to achieve the kind of success that you worked for over so many years?

I know that for a fact. That’s what, in part, the movie is showing. Probably some of this comes from jealousy, too. I spent years and years and years on the road, doing stand-up in harsh environments where you travel for an hour and 40 minutes to a cowboy bar in Central Massachusetts and you get $40 and you get heckled throughout the whole thing and then you go home, doing that a lot. Now a kid can make nine or 10 successful Vines and they get a million-dollar deal? Yeah, some of that is jealousy. But nevertheless, that exists and that’s what it is, so they’d be foolish to not take advantage of that.

I take it you’re not a fan of “Teen Mom.”

No, those people are abhorrent to me. Anything on Bravo, if it's on Bravo or TLC, then those are reprehensible people and it bothers me that they are successful and rewarded by the very people who pretend that they are watching with detached irony. It's tough, because I spend a lot of hard-earned work and a lot of time writing stories and crafting stories. Whether it’s this movie or “Todd Margaret” or anything I’ve written, you spend a lot of time coming up with these, what you would hope, are interesting stories that you are never ahead. And in our culture, that has as much value as “Honey Boo Boo.” Going back to “Better Call Saul,” that’s one of those things, I see the crap and I appreciate the insane amount of hours they worked to figure things out and make it make sense. People don’t care as much about that stuff. Some people would rather watch “Millionaire Matchmaker” and make fun of people, and that’s their entertainment.

When it comes to “Arrested Development,” that show wouldn’t have survived without the Internet and the sort of rabid fan-base it developed online. Do you respect that sort of online populism in any way?

Yeah, I’m not saying it's all bad. There are positive qualities to it, for sure, and that’s a great example. If Fox had not been attached so late in life to an antiquated model, the Nielsen ratings, and not just them -- any show like that --people could say we have a rabid fan base and we sold 80 million DVDs or whatever, then we would have been on the air for another, who knows, three or four or five years until Mitch wanted to stop. That was 2006 and they were still using Nielsen ratings as models, and a lot of people didn’t watch it at whatever-the-fuck it was on, Sunday at 7:30.

Are you guys working on a fifth season?

I’m not. I will if it happens, but that is to say I don’t know of anything. It was extremely difficult to get everybody together and make schedules work. When you’re doing a show you’re contracted, you sign a contract, “I’m going to work from whatever April to October,” and you go and you work. The show comes out, you do your press for it, and then you go back if you’re picked up. But that day was a special, very unique model. Because it wasn’t a studio and they didn’t have the money to bring everybody out and say, “OK now you’re going to stay in L.A.” Fox is a mega-mega-big studio and they have the money make the show like that, and Netflix didn’t have that. So I don’t know that they could figure out how to do that again. It was tough.

The character that you created with the show is such a big deal on the Internet. I constantly see Tobias quotes being shared and there are “never nude” GIFs... do you get a kick out of that?

I do, yes. It’s cool. I’m thrilled that that guy’s so popular and the show’s so popular. And it’s a real fun character to do. They wanted me to take a look at Buster and Gob, I don’t think they had cast me yet, they were having difficulty casting Gob. I didn’t get Gob at all, I didn’t know what that was. Tobias was initially going to be a throw-away character, barely recurring. But I instantly knew who he was. I had a handle on him immediately and talked to Mitch and the directors Anthony and Joe Russo and described who I thought he was and what’d he wear and how he’d look and they were like, “Yeah, great.” So I ended up as Tobias. As I said, I immediately got the guy.

By Anna Silman

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Arrested Development Bob Odenkirk Comedy David Cross Hits Matt Walsh Movies Mr. Show