"That's where I draw the line": David Cross has words for comics who moan about cancel culture

Cross talks to Salon about his stand-up tour, capitalism, rejecting theocracy and how a fan once changed his mind

Published February 16, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

David Cross (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
David Cross (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

David Cross, the Emmy Award-winning comedian and "Arrested Development" actor, wants you to know that he's the "Worst Daddy in the World." That's the name of his new national comedy tour that kicks off in March and spans the nation. As we discuss on our "Salon Talks" episode, Cross notes jokingly that he earned the title of "worst daddy" from a small subcommittee of experts who meet in Oslo, after being nominated for the award by his young daughter. 

Cross shares that his true passion is stand-up comedy. "Nothing would be as devastating as not being able to do stand-up." Being on a stage allows him full artistic control, without "notes" from TV executives.

But close connection with the people also comes with a sense of responsibility. Cross candidly shares how when people have raised concerns about material that they found offensive at his past shows, there are times that his attitude was,"F**k that. I'm not changing it, they're not getting it." But, then admits to moments when fans have changed his mind. "This really doesn't happen that often, but I saw her side to it and I saw how it could be offensive." Cross then dropped that line from his act.

Not all comedians see their art in this way, but Cross believes that comedy can be a vehicle for change. In fact, 10 years ago I interviewed Cross, a well-known atheist, with my co-director Negin Farsad for a comedy documentary we were making titled, "The Muslims are Coming!" designed to use comedy to counter anti-Muslim bigotry. Cross explains he agreed to be in that film because regardless of how he felt about religion, "You have a right in America to practice what you believe as long as you're not hurting anybody else."

This tour — which will be a mix of material about everything from family to politics — also has an activist bent in that a portion of ticket sales will be donated to The Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted people. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Cross here or read a Q&A of the conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

David, it's good to see you my friend. How are you? I haven't seen you in 10 years since I interviewed you in your laundry room. Good to see you.

Yeah, you too. I think I'm going to guess my clothes are done now, by now. I should really head to the dryer. I don't want to get too wrinkled.

The title of your tour, which starts in March, is "Worst Daddy in the World." How did you earn that? Was there voting? Did your daughter choose it? 

"There's certainly not a subject matter I won't talk about."

Oh yeah, there was the subcommittee, which is done out of Oslo in Norway and they meet quarterly and they just go through everything and then FiveThirtyEight has something to do with it. I know they're involved. But yeah, it was submitted by my daughter, and it went through all the levels you have to go through, and then I emerged on top.

Well congratulations my friend. Because I know it was close. 

A lot of dads who murdered their children, and I was up against them, and somehow without any of that, I managed to eke out the top spot. I mean the final judge and arbiter is my daughter.

How has having a daughter impacted you from a creative point of view? I imagine you talk about her on this tour.

Just so everyone's clear, it's not an hour of me talking about my daughter. I would say that encompasses maybe 25% of the set. I also use that to segue into other topics that have nothing to do with her or even raising a kid. It's part of my life and there's an endless well of comedy there.

I also am very, very, very hypersensitive to the set feeling like one thing, and I've never really done that. I try to embrace a bunch of different types of comedy, types of humor. Some more pointed, some just really goofy and some anecdotal, and I've done that again.

So your daughter was born in 2017. I'm not great with math, but I guess that makes her 15. Does she understand what you do? 

You are really bad at math. That's really phenomenally bad. She's actually been on stage with me. Two tours ago she popped up there. But no, she just knows, as she understands it, daddy tells jokes but she doesn't know what that means really. She doesn't have a sense of the performance part of it, she just knows – whereas other kids in her class, "My daddy works in construction, my daddy works for the housing authority. My daddy works as a lawyer" – hers is, "My daddy tells jokes."

I have nieces and I remember when one of them was like seven or eight and watched me doing stand-up online, and she said to me, "You talk and when you stop talking, people laugh." That's how she explained it to me. And I go, "You're absolutely right. That's the goal." I stop talking. People laugh. That's all she understood. Now they're older, they sort of get it. 

Part of your proceeds from your tour are going to go to the Innocence Project. So while you're the worst dad, you're a good person. Tell us why the Innocence Project. What attracted you there? They do great work preventing wrongful convictions and fighting for a fair and compassionate justice system.

Yeah, well that's it. You're talking about the innocent people who have been victimized by corrupt people, whether they're the cops or lawyers or a negligent judicial authority. I mean, I can't imagine the horror of that, of being innocent and being imprisoned in this country especially and then being lost and just screaming into the void. And so they do very good work and their work will never be done. And anything I can do to help, I will do.

Of course the flip side of injustice is that Donald Trump attempted a coup and incited a terrorist attack over two years ago, and he hasn't been charged with anything. While people of color who've done just about nothing are sitting in a prison cell.

Well a lot of the police have a quota to fill, and if they want to get the free headphones they get at the end of the month for putting enough people in jail, they've got to put people in jail. That's how it works. It's a capitalist society, and that includes the police and all our authority figures. They also work within a capitalist system.

What's your reaction to watching Republicans impose their religion as law to ban women from having reproductive freedom at day one of conception? We have 13 states right now where abortion is banned day one of conception with no exception, not rape or incest, the only one is emergency, which isn't life of the mother, it's not a life of the woman. It's literally some undefined emergency. Look, I'm a person of faith. I don't want my religion imposed as law in this land. What is your reaction as an atheist to what's going on? 

I do mind religion imposed as law. I have a big problem with that, especially under what we all understand, what we grew up to understand was the auspices of the American government and the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and all that. And there is the First Amendment, very First Amendment states a separation of church and state, which is important. It was important to the Founding Fathers. I think it's a smart thing.

I don't want to live in a Christian theocracy or a Muslim theocracy or any theocracy. I'll move if it comes to that. And I'm not saying that everybody needs to be atheist. You do what you want to do. Just don't impose your superstitions on me, what to me is obviously made-up. Please don't impose that on me.

When you watch news stories about this and consider that the Democrats are timid in saying, "Look, you're trying to turn your religion into law," – I don't hear them saying it like that. I think they don't want to offend people of faith. Is that dangerous that they don't call out for what it really is at religious tyranny? 

"It's a capitalist society and that includes the police and all our authority figures."

Yeah. Look where we are. Talk about your slippery slope that hasn't leveled out yet. There are people who are, politicians are, almost all of them I feel on either side of the aisle are duplicitous and they have to be by nature.

They want to stay in power. I'm not just their constituency, they're everybody. So they have to, and have to be disingenuous sometimes to what you believe. And that's unfortunate. And there's a handful of people who are like, "This is who I am. This is who you're electing because I would stand up for this" who are less concerned with getting elected again in two years. And people in the media as well. I mean over the last at least decade, the loss of local newspapers, which range in the thousands, have been a devastating blow. The information you're getting is filtered through so many biases. And again, it's capitalism. 

I couldn't agree with you more, especially about local media. It's something that I've written about. The media consolidation actually contributed in a way to George Santos going unvetted in Long Island because Newsday, the big paper out there, is gutted. The little paper found it, but no one picked it up after that.

Look at what's going on at CNN. It's just naked capitalism where they're saying, "OK, we need to appear less biased towards the left." Which is a joke. I mean they've never been. They've done a great job, and other people have done a great job, of framing them as some sort of liberal left thing when they're not even – they weren't like that 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago. They're certainly not like that now. The center isn't a true center.

You'll see people in the media say things, "Americans don't want this big liberalism." And then you go through issue after issue like, "Healthcare for all." Majority of Americans want it. Free universal pre-K funded by the federal government. Very, very popular. The idea of expending Medicare to include more benefits for our seniors, wildly popular. Medicare itself, social security, wildly popular, all at their essence. You want to argue socialism or not, but it is taking money from others and sharing with other people in this country.

You don't have to argue it. It's a definition. A universally understood definition. There's nothing to argue. You can argue whether you like it or not, but that's what it is.

It's also funny how when someone like, let's say Bernie Sanders, will be called inauthentic. He is authentic. He said the same message for decades. You can't hit more honest than that. But that should be the standard for everyone. It should be like, "That one guy's not authentic." Not the reverse like, "Wow. Someone's authentic finally."

Yeah, I agree.

Last year, our mutual friend comedian Lizz Winstead put together a fundraiser in New York for her organization, Abortion Access Front, to raise more awareness before Roe v. Wade got overturned. Are we delusional to think that comedy can change things? Do you think it can change cultural norms, at least contribute to it?

Yeah, I mean ask Jonathan Swift and Voltaire that same question. Of course it can. It can, it does and continues to do so and will. Absolutely. Even if it doesn't, somebody says a joke, and then 24 hours later everything is good again. Even if that doesn't happen, it's still contributing in a small way to what the tipping points are and what is allowed and what isn't allowed. Of course it can be educational too. It can be edifying.

In your last special, "I'm From the Future," you opened with jokes about people who didn't want to get a vaccine, and they invoke the Holocaust. But you began with essentially invoking the Holocaust. And later in your special, you talked about people who won't do COVID safeguards and vaccination, you joke wishing them dead. Which it was a very funny joke, if you watch it. I'm not doing it justice by just saying that's the end of it. If you watch it, there's a sense of discomfort, too. The audience is on your side. Do you enjoy making people a little uncomfortable at raising these bigger issues?

"Jokes that hurt people who are victimized, that's where I draw the line."

Again, I want to stress that that's not the entirety of the set. There's a lot of silly in there, and it's not an hour of hard stuff and confrontational stuff. There are points that I've done in every special I've done. If I'm making people uncomfortable, it's basically through a hard truth or the hypocrisy or absurdity of a thing that exists in a way we might feel about things. The thing about it's OK to wish them dead has an immediate follow-up that deflates that idea somewhat. If I had just said that, that's not very funny and it's more of just a shock thing to say, but I don't. I continue with that going down a logical path that not necessarily softens the idea of wishing them dead, but puts into a different context.

Are there times you're writing a joke and you're like, "This is just too sensitive for too many people, just can't do it." Have you ever done that or you don't care?

There's certainly some jokes I might either say or laugh at when I'm amongst friends in a private setting – if we're at a bar and somebody comes up with something, and I know the context and they know the context. Jokes that hurt people who are victimized, that's where I draw the line.

I don't have many, there's a couple of jokes that I've done before where I look back at them going, "Ah, that's really insensitive. I wish I hadn't said it that way." Or, "I wish I had qualified it in some way." That can be seen as hurtful to, not necessarily individuals, but a group of people who are victimized in some way. So that's kind of where I edit myself. But that's it. I mean, don't really . . . there's certainly not a subject matter I won't talk about.

Have your own fans come up after and they read something into it that you've never even thought about and they're like, "That hurt me." Or, "That troubled me?"

Yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I was probably putting together the "I'm From the Future" set and working out material and I don't know what the bit was. I know it was at somebody and I sat down, I talked to them and their partner, and we had a civil discussion about it, and I pushed back initially. I don't remember what it was, it was something . . . It was where it was talking about the phrase, the N-word or something. And this woman was Black and her partner was not. But she explained why that upset her. I was kind of defending it and the idea behind it. We talked for a while and then ultimately, and this really doesn't happen that often, but I saw her side to it and I saw how it could be offensive.

And also it was like, I'm going to undermine myself here, but it was also not that important. It was a throwaway line and it was like, "OK, I'll lose it." It's easy. It's easy to lose. It's not a difficult thing to do. All the comics who b***h and moan about, "Hey, they're trying to cancel me for this joke I made." Most of the time it's a nothing joke and it doesn't matter. And now you are positioning yourself as this bulls**t voice of, "They're not going to cancel me. You can't silence me." For what? Your dumb joke about trans people? Who gives a s**t? I mean, is it that important to you? Just move on and not hurt hundreds of thousands of people. It's a choice people make. 

We went back and forth and at the end I was like, "OK." And it doesn't hurt me. Doesn't affect me in any way to not do that line. I wish I could remember what it was, but I obviously had stopped doing it. I know it was for something to do with "I'm From the Future," but I was like, "OK, there's no reason to hurt." And this wasn't like some kind of like, "Oh, you hurt my feelings when you said."

I do have a line where I'll go, "I don't care. You're being oversensitive and you're seeing this thing in it that does not exist. I've made my intent clear, and that's on you." So I do have my line. But this one didn't come close to that. We had this long discussion. I was like, "OK, I understand. I get it. I get it now." That doesn't happen all the time, but it's like now that I have that information and I can see her point of view, why would I continue to do it? Just to be some hero of free speech?

It's interesting when comics will say, "I'm not changing my act." Why don't you just write some new jokes?

I've had many arguments where I've walked away going, "F**k that guy, or f**k her. F**k that. I'm not changing it, they're not getting it. F**k that. I can't make it any clearer." And again, it was a civil discussion, and she was a fan, and it wasn't like they came up and yelled at me. So we sat down – I remember it was at Union Hall in Brooklyn – and we went back upstairs, and they kind of waited to talk to me, and we talked, and then I was like, "All right, I see your point. I don't have to do that."

You're going on tour starting March 2 in Portland, Oregon. There's a bunch of cities, 40 cities through May. 

There will be a second leg announced at some point too, including Europe and more Canadian dates. If you go to my website has all the stuff on there and where I'm playing and where to get tickets and all that.

How much do you look forward to touring? 

That's the thing that I can't do without. I'd be disappointed if I could never act again or write, sketch or long form. That'd be disappointing. But nothing would be as devastating as not being able to do stand-up for some reason. And that's what "I'm From the Future" was about.

That was the longest I'd ever gone without doing stand-up since I started when I was 17, 18 years old because of COVID, there was nothing. There were these kind of outdoor shows, but they weren't really good. I know people are doing Zoom things, but it was hard. It was difficult. And I even got a little emotional, the first set I did back, which I'll never forget. I was at the Sultan Room in Bushwick and I started to get very emotional. It had been a year and seven months, I think.

And is your love of stand-up, is it the creative part? Is it the immediacy of their response, as opposed to a TV show or film? What is the passion that draws you?

Yeah, it's all. It's me, it's just me. There's nothing that has to go through, I don't have to get notes. I'm not getting notes from anybody, from producers or the network or standards and practices or any of that stuff. It's me. I love the immediacy of it, as you mentioned. I love the proximity of it. I like being on the stage and the people are right there. And it's a connection you don't have in any other setting and you can't replicate it. There's no way to replicate that feeling and that work.

I do enjoy it. I do love going out on the road. I don't like the actual travel kind of grueling, that part is really s**tty and hard. But I love going to different places. I love that I'm going to go back to Omaha and I'll be all over and I'll get to go back to Dallas and just places I normally might not be in, but my stand-up takes me there, and I have really fun, memorable shows and you get to meet new people and I enjoy that part of it a lot.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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