The comedian David Cross has been all over the place across a career that’s ranged from the oddball sketches of “Mr. Show” to the series “Arrested Development” to standup to appearing in the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" trilogy — that last one a surprise to fans of his edgier fare, like cult-favorite comedy "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret." He’s also, along with the jokes, called out people he considers reactionaries or hypocrites, like Creed lead singer Scott Stapp and the comedian Larry the Cable Guy.
Cross’s new special, “Making American Great Again,” which dropped on Netflix yesterday, comes from a standup appearance in Austin. It’s not all political, but its political bits are gutsy and hilarious. At times, it gets close to being in very bad taste.
Salon spoke to Cross from New York. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
It’s funny — your special starts out with this observational humor about family holidays and absurd stuff like buying luggage at an airport, and then you slam right into political material. Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, gun control. I wonder if the same thing kind of happened to you personally. If you just realize that politics was getting so nutty you had to go back to it, you had to focus on it, full bore.
Well, no. The reason that occurs the way it does, in the sequencing it does, is calculated. I don’t want to come out and just start that hard. That’s designed that way for a reason so that at least, the people that walk out will have laughed just the first half hour. That the first half hour is at least palatable. They got some of their money’s worth.
You get on the internet, you read the news, and people swap stories and it becomes part of your consciousness and your day to day and your week to week and your year to year. If I’m not working, I don’t feel this compulsion. In other words, if I’m not onstage I don’t feel this compulsion to go out and talk about the thing that happened yesterday that Trump did. But if I’m on stage, virtually every single night, and I’m riffing about it, and there’s a new thing then that becomes part of the set because that’s sort of what I do.
Right. The tour is called “Making America Great Again” so obviously you had politics in mind when you came onstage.
Well, that was a mistake. I shouldn’t have … That was kind of a tossed-off idea I had. I came up with the name back in November or whenever it was; I had to start marketing it. And the booking agent was on my ass to come up with a name, and everything I thought of was stupid or silly or pretentious. And then I just thought of that because I was like “Hey, I need something right now.” I looked over and saw Trump was on the news and I was like, “Oh, let’s call it that.”
But it does make it seem like I’m gonna go out and do an hour of political comedy, which I don’t, nor would I, nor would I even attend an hour of political comedy because that sounds awful to me. I kind of fucked up because it does (understandably) give that impression.
The political comedy is so good, but you say that an hour of political comedy would be pretty dreadful. Is it too serious, or is it that you’d alienate your audience? What’s the risk of it?
It just gets boring, to me. I feel that way about any kind of, and I always have, about a specific topical comedy like, “an evening of Jewish comedy,” “an evening of feminist comedy” “an evening of gay comedy.” I don’t give a shit, I don’t want to … Fuck that. I don’t mind like, 20 minutes sprinkled in, but I’ve never understood the appeal of that kind of tribal thing.
Since you’re kind of talking about it: Some comedians have talked about comedy being limited by political correctness, and even though your politics are more or less on the left, you’ve complained about political correctness, too. Is it a real problem for people like you? Or anybody?
It’s a problem but that’s relative. It’s not like anybody is preventing me from doing what I’m doing, but I had plenty of people that walked out that were upset at some of the things I said. I’m talking about people on the left, über-left, über-PC, social justice warriors.
I wouldn’t say it is as big of a problem for me with people on the left as the right, but you know, it’s probably like 65-35. I’d say 35 percent of the people get pissed off. It’s interesting, when people have such completely opposite, polar opposite views, I can bring them together with my material and that’s a nice thought — that I can be responsible for bringing angry, white, feminist trust-fund kids together with angry, white, lower middle-class high school-educated workers. And through their hatred of me, [they] bond. So there is some good coming out of it. I’m uniting people through their distaste of me.
You’re providing a public service, it sounds like.
I think for nearly all of the major comedians who have shaped the field, whether it’s Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce, shock and discomfort have been important. Do you think of them as an important part of what you do?
Absolutely. I would say, certainly an important part of shaping who I am and what path I’ve taken through this life. I mean, I got turned onto Lenny Bruce by my mom, when I was, shit, I don’t know, fifteen? And I devoured all that stuff. I don’t think he’s particularly funny, but he’s certainly important. I got into comedy early on, like a lot of people do, and I was this weirdo alien kid in Roswell, Georgia, in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I did not fit in in any way — physically, mentally. When you find these people, and you hear these things they’re saying, it’s really important. And so it really was very important in my development and who I ultimately became and am becoming.
You talk about some sensitive stuff in the series, like kids killed by gun violence. Are there lines you won’t cross, things that you think would be funny but are just too unpleasant and too shocking even for you and your audience?
I feel like the only thing that I won’t do, or I need to try to be sensitive to, is if there is a specific innocent person that is the butt of a joke. I try to stay away from that. Somebody that has nothing to with their circumstance that is being exploited by other people, I try not to jump on that. There’s also — I’ll do this on stage, but I'll cut it out of the special, any kind of recording — stuff about my family. I have made fun of certain people, members of my family, in a light way, never harsh, but when it comes time to broadcasting that stuff, I get rid of that. It’s really about individuals. There is no theme I’ve yet to find that I can’t apply comedy to.
If a celebrity has been accused of rape, and people make jokes about whoever the fuck it is, and then there’s a big kind of dogpile on jokes about the victim and also the perpetrator, I won’t joke about the victim at all, because that’s a real person.
Let’s talk about Mr. Trump for a minute. You talk about Trump events being like white power rallies without the guilt. Besides the racism, what seems to be the appeal of somebody like that?
I don’t think ... it’s not simply racism. He appeals to a large segment of America that feels underserved, feels weakened, feels powerless, and there is something to say to the fact that the Republican establishment or the Democratic establishment, every two years, and then especially every four years, comes with a bunch of kind of patronizing bullshit that a lot of people just have gotten sick of, and don't believe, and see the fraudulent-ness and duplicitousness and disingenuousness of every person asking for their vote.
And they get to a point where they can’t ignore it. Trump has blatantly, and immediately — ill-suited as he is to be president of anything except for maybe the Donald Trump fan club — appealed to the sense of “Yeah, fuck that!” I don’t think there’s much thought given to it. Anybody who does, any two people, like, jumping ship now, are going: Now wait a minute, let’s think about this in real terms — what happens, not 100 days in, but what happens 502 days into a Trump presidency? And that’s pretty scary if you think about it, and everything that he’s demonstrated, but those people don’t think about that. I think the appeal for so many people is “Fuck yeah! Fuck them! Fuck them! I ain’t getting mine, you ain’t getting yours.”
He just taps into the frustration that is not otherwise being addressed at all.
And that whole thing about, “He’s telling it like it is,” there's truth to that. We know that he’s lying constantly, every third thing that comes out of his mouth is a lie, it’s made up, but it’s what they’re weaned on — Fox News does the same thing. They don’t apologize, there’s never any contrition, or they don’t correct the record when they’re constantly putting out either exaggerated shit or lies by omission or whatever it is. He’s just doing that, he’s doing that thing that everyone does now and you’re allowed to do. I couldn’t keep my job if I lied as many times as Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. Most people couldn’t keep their job.
One more on Trump: Did it start out kind of funny for you? It was like a great gift for comedians.
This tour started out at the end of January, and there were 12 people still, in the race. Thirteen? I think only a couple had dropped out at that point. When this tour started it was January and then, even when I taped the special, there were still Cruz and Kasich, I think Rubio just dropped out, maybe, like, a week before, but there was no guarantee. And when I finished up the tour, he was the nominee. He had given the speech at the RNC where he basically described America as the plotline to “The Purge,” it was crazy. So yeah, it was very much a dismissable joke in the beginning when I started this thing.
I was in London for Brexit, and that was about as sobering a moment as I have had in 10 years. I’m not exaggerating, the whole place was like the fucking “Walking Dead” after that. The next day it was people in shock. I was in Leeds for the vote but London for the aftermath, where 95 percent of the people voted to remain and most of their countrymen far, far away had voted to leave and were successful and that made the Trump thing — all of the sudden the comedy drained out of it.
Finally, you’ve expressed the frustration that a lot of people have about Hillary Clinton; what bugs you about her?
I didn’t like her back in 2008, I was campaigning against her. I find her as disingenuous as anybody who’s been in politics. I think she does things that are politically expedient for her, she has a record I can point to.
This isn’t hypothetical at all; I can point to her voting record. I can see how she came into New York and just sort of pushed her way into a Senate seat in a state she has nothing to do with, and I would imagine there was a whole quid pro quo with Obama and that’s how she became Secretary of State and that was probably understood that she was going to do that for one term, burnish her credentials. And I don’t think she’d be a bad president, I really don’t. I mean, I don’t think she’d be good.
I was a Bernie supporter: In my lifetime I haven’t seen somebody get that close who was close to my ideals on social issues and everything else. And that was very exciting. My wife [actress and author Amber Tamblyn] is a staunch Hillary supporter [and] has been going back to 2008, campaigned for her this time and last time, and we disagree pretty vehemently and it was a source of tension, quite a bit. I just don’t believe [Clinton]. I don’t think she’s devious and evil. I think she’s pretty much as duplicitous as everyone else.
I don’t hold a lot of [politicians] in high esteem. In a relative sense, if it’s Hillary and the other Republican nominees, then it’s Hillary. I’m gonna vote for Hillary Clinton. But I would have preferred Bernie Sanders by a wide margin, and we’ll see what happens. I’ve got a lot of gay friends and family members and black friends and Muslim friends and I know a number of friends who have just recently had children, and if for no other reason, I will vote for Hillary Clinton for them. The Bernie or Bust, Jill Stein people… go ahead. It’s your vote. But if you really do care about gay people, people of color, the people who aren’t necessarily Christian, women, women’s reproductive rights, children or people, then you might want to reconsider.