For an actor who has carved out a niche playing impish sidekicks and clueless buffoons, David Cross is well-aware of his limitations. “I auditioned for The Big Lebowski and I thought I did a really good job,” he tells Vulture. “But then I saw what Philip Seymour Hoffman did with the part, and I was like, ‘ Oh— that’s the way to do it.’” Of course, aspiring sketch comedians have been saying the same about Cross ever since HBO debuted his endlessly influential Mr. Show With Bob and David. In the years since, Cross has appeared in a spectacularly wide range of programs and movies — a fact that will be nicely illustrated this Friday, when IFC airs the season finale of his low-budget pet project, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret (in which he plays another clueless buffoon), and DreamWorks releases Megamind (in which he voices Will Ferrell’s impish sidekick). Vulture asked Cross to take us on a backstage tour of the highs and lows of his career, from his comic roots in Boston to, yes, that weirdly controversial role in Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Performer (as Twangly Jackson):
Up in Boston, I was doing this character, Twangly Jackson, a tone-deaf guy from a foreign country doing Christmas songs. Tom Kenny, who was later in Mr. Show, was a comic-relief guy on Friday Night Videos and he was like, “Oh, that’ll make a great little piece for the comedy segment I do.” So I drove down to New York. It was, like, a 30-second commercial for Twangly Jackson’s Best of Christmas album. It wasn’t very funny, but it was the very first time where, you know, I could call up my mom and say, “Hey, I’m going to be on TV. I made it. I’m a super-duper star.”
[The bit featured] two women who for a short-lived period of time were Prince’s backup singers, and I asked one of them out for some drinks. Her reply was that she couldn’t go out because — and this obviously left an impression, because I remember it — she had an eye appointment the next day. You don’t want to be fucked up for an eye appointment!
I was deeply ensconced in Cross Comedy, my sketch group in Boston, and it was doing really well. Janeane Garofalo was a good friend and she had moved to L.A. to start working on The Ben Stiller Show. At mid-season, they needed to replace a writer, and Janeane called me: “Get a sketch packet together and fax it as soon as you can to Judd Apatow.” I was working within 72 hours of that.
I came in with a lot of attitude. Like, not cocky, but I had a self-imposed overly dramatic response to [moving to L.A.]. It was this bullshit angst: Oh, I don’t know if I should leave Boston, and I don’t want to write for fucking TV. TV’s bullshit! You know, just every dumb thing that a guy in his 20s who considers himself an artist would say. It was very immature and to this day I regret it.
But it really changed everything. I had never had more than a couple hundred dollars to my name in my entire life — ever. I came from a pretty poor family and we never had any money. Literally, I think the most money I’d ever saved up at once was $900. Within seven days of me getting there, I had a paycheck for maybe $2,700. And then a week after that, it was like, “Holy shit, I’ve got $5,200!” And then just three weeks after landing in L.A., I had fucking over seven grand. I wasn’t eating my dinners at happy hours with free buffalo wings from six to eight. I wasn’t stealing laundry detergent.
Actor (as Reporter at Dock 2):
That was the very first thing I did after The Ben Stiller Show was canceled. I had moved out there and it was like, “Now what am I going to do?” So I started going out on acting work. I played Reporter No. 3 or whatever — the camera pans by us as she gets off the plane. We’re all yelling shit out, and the camera sort of stays on each person for a beat and then moves on. I yelled some question out, and that’s all it was … I was put in the extras camp because I wasn’t an actor actor, and the funniest thing was the overt blatant jealousy that some of the extras had. A handful were openly contemptuous and suspicious of me, like, “How did you get a line?!” These people were fucking delusional. I mean, they were just really nuts and pathological liars.
I don’t mean to be dismissive at all, but there’s just nothing that hasn’t been said about Mr. Show or that hasn’t been covered in the book … Basically, after the fourth season, we all sort of parted ways. You can trace it to HBO taking Mr. Show and moving from Fridays at midnight, following Chris Rock, to Mondays at midnight, which was death. Somewhat demoralizing. But I had pretty much resigned myself to not doing another season after that anyway. I was pretty burned out and missing my personal life. Because you just don’t have any. So I was more than happy to end it on a good note.
Actor (as UFO Expert):
Christopher Guest and I had talked a couple of times over the phone, so when I landed in Texas I had all these ideas for my character … When I arrived, Christopher Guest was eating lunch and, like, it’s weird when you have to talk to somebody and they’re in the middle of shoveling food into their mouth, you know? And I had these ideas and, not in a shitty way, he listened to them and then struck all of them down. He was like, “No, no, no, no.” That was a little off-putting and intimidating … And then I saw the outfit, which I didn’t like at all. Just the idea of the nerd wearing a bow tie I thought was a little obvious. Even weirder, I [was acting] in this circular field and the crew was a good twenty yards away. So I was talking to, basically, no one. You just can’t tell if it’s funny or not because I’m not talking to anybody. And then he’d yell, “Cut!” And he’d walk over, from twenty yards away, and it was a good 30 seconds before he got to me. Then he would just quietly go, “Do more of this, do less of that … ” It was not terrible. It was just odd.
Actor (as Newton the Morgue Attendant):
I remember that audition. I went to Barry Sonnenfeld’s office, and I had on a T-shirt that was a little risqué. It was a big, gaudy thing with some sort of inflammatory slogan and graphic on it, like I IS FOR IGNORANT next to a Nazi KKK Republican or something. He made a comment, like, “That’s not a proper shirt to wear when you’re meeting a director.” And I said, “Oh, sorry, it was just on top of the pile.” And he’s like, “That’s the way you think?” And I was like, “All right, fuck it,” and I took the shirt off and just stood there in my pants without a shirt, and did the reading, thinking, Who is this asshole?
And then I left. I had literally just left the lot and I got a phone call that I got the part. And they obviously put me in the next one. I like Barry. I get along with him quite well.
Co-creator and executive producer:
I don’t know how to describe it better than disappointing on a personal level that Bob [Odenkirk] and I weren’t involved with the film [2006’s Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny]. And not only weren’t we involved, but I found out about it, I think, in Entertainment Weekly.
[Around 1999] we had been trying to figure out whether we were going to do another season of Tenacious D [after Cross had produced three half-hour shows beginning in 1997]. When we did those three episodes, we shot them while we were shooting Mr. Show. It was the same skeleton crew and, you know, it really took up a phenomenal amount of our time. We busted our ass. And we got them — we went to HBO and brought them this idea of the show. It was Bob’s idea to do two twelve-minute episodes in the half-hour. That was all his idea. And we were very proud of it, too. We were psyched to get those guys seen … So yeah, it was just a little upsetting when I read that they weren’t going to do another series and that they’d signed to do a movie with Liam Lynch. I went, “Whaaaa?” We were just not ever a part of the conversation.
Co-writer and star (as Ronnie Dobbs):
I don’t think I’ll ever watch this again. The last time I watched it [2002, he estimates] I had some friends over and they were psyched to see it, because it never came out in theaters and they didn’t even know it was coming out on DVD. My mind was just spinning out of control. You’re editing yourself, going, “Oh, this could have been better if … ” And. “Oh, this was supposed to be … ” And, “We lost control of this because … ” The whole experience, it’s another “too bad it ended up that way!” story.
Actor (as Tobias Fünke):
I had just fucking moved to New York after being in L.A. for nine years and spending every minute of those nine years going, “Okay, when can I get out of here?” I just knew, “If I don’t leave now, I’ll start working on something else again, and I’ll never get out of here.” So I packed up a moving van and moved to New York …
I can’t remember how long I was here before I got the call — maybe a year, having a blast, and loving it, loving it. But it’s a good thing I did get work because I wonder, in a very real sense, not a dramatic maudlin sense, if I would have survived. I was really burning the candle at both ends. So the idea that there was this character who was recurring was very attractive to me. And I loved the character. When I was shooting the first episode after the pilot, I remember calling my girlfriend and going, “I’m so sorry. I think I have to stay and do this show full-time because it’s really something special.”
Actor (as Rob):
There are a handful of people who, when you get a call going, “so-and-so is interested,” you’ll say, “Yes, I’m in” before they even finish the sentence. “Is it shooting in the bottom of a drainage ditch and I get maggots poured on me? That’s fine, let’s do it.” I’m a huge fan of Michel Gondry’s, so whatever it is, I will do it.
Actor (as Ian):
I kind of brought [the Internet flame war
] upon myself, or certainly exacerbated the situation, by stupidly responding to some of the stuff that was being posted about me taking the role [mostly at the AV Club
]. Trust me, I have learned my lesson. I have learned to — which I should have done the entire time — say, “I don’t give a shit what Paygo23 in Amarillo thinks about me doing Alvin and the Chipmunks
… ” Why should I care? I’m an adult. And even more than that, since then I have not just owned it but have unabashedly gone, “Yeah, I did it for the money.” I made a ton of money. I bought a house upstate. I have five and a half acres in the woods. I’m there constantly. That’s where I finished writing my book [I Drink for a Reason
]. I also do shows. I wrote a lot of Icelandic Ultra Blue
show for Adult Swim there, and Todd Margaret
. Because of Alvin and the Chipmunks
, if I didn’t work again for two and a half years, I’d be fine.
Besides, it’s for fucking kids. Don’t go see it! Kids love it. I travel constantly—Chinese kids that don’t speak English in London knew me from Alvin and the Chipmunks
. I mean, everywhere kids fucking love it. So what kind of assholes are like, “How dare you sully my memories!”
Actor (as Andy Weeks):
I’ve got some bad news for you. I cannot see it getting picked up. It would be great if it did and I know how hard Will [Arnett] has worked, and how much he has invested himself in it, and I see the potential for the show. But the ratings are just … I’d be very surprised — I’d be shocked, really — if it got picked up for a full season. I wish they would, but I’m not holding my breath.
But I like doing the character. I don’t know what you call the rat tail for your chin — let’s have a contest for New York Magazine readers to name it. I don’t know what it is. It’s just a Bad Idea, how about that?
Creator, co-writer, and star (as Todd Margaret):
I’ve lost money on Todd Margaret because of two factors. One is I put my own money into production because we needed it for a parade scene I wanted to shoot in episode five. And two, because when I was working on this in London, I kind of took myself out of [the loop for] making money. But I don’t care. It’s a great show.
The parade scene needed 150 extras, horses, and costumes for 150 people. It’s based on a real parade that takes place in a very solemn event in London every year. It’s their Memorial Day. You’ll know it when you see it in the show because it’s a bigger scene than anything in the rest of the series. Most of our stuff is claustrophobic — you’re in the little flat, you’re in the office — because it was a tiny budget, minuscule. I got paid 72,000 pounds to create, write, star in, and produce the show. And IFC wasn’t going to give me any more money. So I took 65,000 pounds of that and put it into production against my manager’s protestation. If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had the scene. It’s an important scene that contributes to a lot of the story, and so, there you go … Season one is six episodes and it doesn’t wrap up. So if you want to see the ending, you have to ask IFC to pick up the show.