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David Cross is a punk—with good jokes

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David Cross
  • David Cross

Do you remember a perfect America? You know, when we all had health insurance? When we all took care of each other and didn't say hateful things? When we weren't embroiled in half-a-dozen foreign conflicts and dual energy and economic quandaries? Like, when everyone here was satisfied with everything?

Don't worry: David Cross doesn't either.

Just before George W. Bush left the White House, comedians started getting a little wistful in public—even a bit worried, perhaps. And it was understandable, since much comedic gold dust blew straight out of the window when Barack Obama raised his hand and solemnly took the Oath of Office.

But as we should know by now—what with the birthers, deathers, town hallers, tea baggers and Glenn Beck making crazy noises every day on the cable TV—comedians still have a lot to work with. Maybe more than ever, really.

"That's never going to change," says Cross. "Not in America. It doesn't matter who's in power."

Like Bill Maher, David Cross isn't afraid of calling something what it is. For instance, he calls a cracker a cracker, like when he put the word "nigger" in former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's mouth while portraying him in a standup bit. It was hilarious, spot-on, and even kind of punk rock.

In his new book of comic essays, I Drink for a Reason, and in his standup shows, his forbidden thoughts and acerbic cultural observations give way to bubbling rage, as he attacks dishonest, hypocritical politicians, lazy news media and vapid celebrities who take up way too much of our time.

Such work reminds Sup Pop Records vice president Megan Jasper of a time when underground bands addressed "cultural elements they found to be incredibly oppressive. Over the years, for whatever reason, it seems like that has softened. David Cross was willing and eager to address a lot of those issues head on."

In the 14 years since HBO's sketch comedy series Mr. Show made Cross and comedy partner David Odenkirk underground stars, Cross's profile has grown through his role as Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development, a brilliant HBO special, and some film appearances, including a part in 2007's Alvin and the Chipmunks (for which he makes no apologies).

Through it all, he's managed to hold onto what would be called "indie cred" if he were a musician. That's partly because of the integrity of his work. But he also has a foot in the indie music world, through his fandom and, sometimes, real involvement: Cross, for intance, prefers performing in rock clubs and theaters over comedy clubs because he doesn't like age limits and two-drink minimums. (Or the comedy club audiences, sometimes.)

Superchunk's drummer Jon Wurster, who's also a successful comedy writer and performer, recalls seeing Cross perform in a conventional Triangle comedy club in recent years. It was not an ideal situation.

"It was so weird, because there were a bunch of kids there to see him, but there were also a lot of people that were just there to see a comedy show," Wurster says. "Those people were not that into it. It was just not what they thought it was going to be. Who knows if they even heard of him?"

Not surprisingly, Cross avoids doing the "Morning Zoo" type of radio shows that used to be necessary for getting his name out there and for filling those types of spaces. So, no. G105's Bob Dumas won't be telling him about his best racist bits when Cross performs at the Carolina Theatre in Durham this week.

"At this point, that's really not my audience," he says. "You know how, every once in a while, you'll see some big theater, and some act that you've never heard of—'Killzone,' or something like that, is playing. You see tons of people lined up, and you're like, 'Who the fuck are they? I never heard of them. ' There's this underground culture that loves 'Killzone,' or some hip-hop act that sold 560,000 CDs, you know? And I'm one of those guys. Either you know me or you don't. Either you're coming [to the show], or you're not. "

Comedy club denizens aren't the only ones who don't "get It" sometimes. Howard Dean once scolded for doing that whole Trent Lott routine at a political fundraiser. Cross has little patience for political correctness.

"The left is the worst for that," he says. "The worst sets I'll have are in front of really liberal lefties. You say the word 'retarded, or whatever the word is, and they shut down, they don't listen to the context or listen to the joke. "

Cross was the first comedian to be signed to the legendary indie label Sup Pop, which put out 2002's Shut Up, You Fucking Baby and 2004's It's Not Funny.

"It's because there were so many people at Sup Pop that were fans of what he was doing," says Jasper. "[Mudhoney] are huge fans of David Cross. So many of the bands that we work with -- they were over the moon when they heard we were going to work with David."

Superchunk bassist and Merge Records co-founder Laura Ballance says the idea to work with him even came up years ago at her Durham label.

"I'm sure that, at some point, we were like, 'Why didn't we do David Cross's thing?'" she says. "It's tricky, though, because it's a different type of thing that we're not necessarily experts at."

He's appeared in a few music videos, including Superchunk's 1997 clip for "Watery Hands," in which Cross and Janeane Garofalo play ham-handed video directors who innocently make the band look silly.As much as Cross champions favorite bands such as Superchunk and Fiery Furnaces in liner notes and shout-outs from the stage, he's typically brutal when skewering those bands he hates. "I would rather hear the death rattle of my only child" than be subjected to rock-radio bands like POD, Staind and Creed, he once said, continuing "It's all this simplistic, 10th-grade suburban white girl lyrics that shouldn't be coming out of 30-year-old men."

On this tour, audiences can expect to hear some scathing political humor, of course, although Cross says it doesn't make up the bulk of his set.

"It's not as focused and specific as the Bush stuff," he says. "It's more of a general idea of what's going on, what's happening in the country and the rhetoric on both sides. "

He says he's sure his political material will get more targeted "as this shit continues to accumulate."

Cross is promoting I Drink for a Reason, which came out at the end of August. He says it was something he was approached to do, and he agreed to do it because, well, he hadn't tried writing a book yet. Besides, it was something he could do without any help or financing—unlike a movie script.

The process, he says, was mostly "a source of mild irritation. It certainly wasn't as much fun as performing standup or collaborating, or writing a funny script, where you're laughing a lot."

And when something bombs in your book, you can't save yourself with a snappy, self-deprecating quip.

"It would be ridiculous to write a chapter that I thought sucked, and then write half a chapter after that about how much that chapter sucked," he says.

Well, good thing most of it is classic Cross.

David Cross performs Wednesday, Oct. 7, at Carolina Theatre in Durham at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$29, and Todd Glass opens.

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