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How David Cross’s Jokes — and Approach — Changed After 9/11

David Cross. Photo: Vulture/Getty Images

Since Trump starting running for office, and especially since he was elected, there has been an ongoing conversation about the nature of comedy in these times: what comedians discuss, and how they discuss it. The debate got me thinking about comedy during the last Republican presidency, under George W. Bush. Even though it’s not one-to-one, there’s something to be learned from the comedy that was produced while Dubya was in office, right after 9/11, when tensions, like today, were extremely high.

David Cross, along with his Alternative Comedy cohorts like Janeane Garofolo, is largely associated with that period. And “Squagels,” his very, very silly joke about Cosi’s attempt to sell square bagels, was maybe his most famous bit of the period, one that would result in his album Shut Up, You Fucking Baby. It’s not a joke about Bush or terrorism or anything explicitly political. But what makes it interesting is that Cross was doing the bit before 9/11 — including the night of 9/10, when he was hosting a show.

How it came together, how it changed after 9/11, and what it meant to him and his audience is the subject of this week’s Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and those who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt of our talk below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The line “Don’t be oppressed by the tyranny of round” is so good. Are you a fan of yourself? As in, when you’re writing, are you thinking, “That’s really funny”?
I will smile and feel good if I come up with a particularly choice line. That one sounds very Mr. Show-y to me. You could see it being a sketch, it just would be without a person presenting it. You would just have some ridiculous corporate context.

Occasionally I can think of certain things where it’s almost like an a ha! moment. Like that’s how I should do it. That’s what I need to do. And sometimes it is literally subtracting a single word. Maybe an article. You just find this thing, like, Oh of course. If I do it this way. If I say that instead of this. I’m proud of those moments because that’s the closest thing I have to responsible writing.

Do you think about balancing your material as a whole? “This is the sillier part,” “This is the personal part …”
Very much, very much so. I learned that just from putting shows together and sketch shows together. It really can alter in a dramatic way the way things feel, the way they are perceived, the way they are responded to, and how the whole evening feels. I always start with kind of a recipe, which is roughly a third of the set is goofy, silly things that you don’t need to have an opinion on and you can just enjoy them. And then a third of the set is anecdotal stuff, like, “This thing happened to me.” And then a third is politics, religion, topical, social.

Not in a negative way, just a lazy way, but people think I’m a political comedian. And I’m not. I’ve been doing a lot of press for this upcoming tour and people will just drop it in. You’re doing a phone interview with somebody at the Denver paper and they’re like, “So, you’re a political comedian…” It happens all the time. I’m not rude about it, but I explain that I don’t think I’m a political comedian. I do talk about politics, but it’s important to have that balance. I know that a lot of people, especially with the last special, were like, “Oh, great! Another hour of ranting about Trump.” Factually, you can go and add it up. “No, that was roughly 35 percent of the set.” It just felt like it because you didn’t like it or you disagreed with it. I’ve always been careful about having at least, minimum, 15 minutes if not 25 to 30 minutes just inoffensive sort of universal silly stuff, so that when people inevitably do walk out, that I know I gave them something.

I was talking to someone on Twitter and they said they saw you do “Squagels” on September 10, 2001.
Oh, because I hosted Luna Lounge.

God, that was crazy.

How did the bit change after 9/11?
I’m imagining if there was ever an application of tragedy plus time equals comedy: Squagels poster plus tragedy plus time really equals comedy. I have to imagine that it was a bit of a release valve in the sense like, “Here’s something silly. Remember these other things for a minute and then we can get back to grieving and feeling scared and unsure and angry.” I don’t know how long it was after that that I did a set. It wasn’t long at all. I remember I saw Marc Maron and I was deeply inspired and I even asked him, “Hey, man, I’ve gotta go do this show. Can I say something?” He asked the audience very sincerely, “Is it okay to talk about 9/11?” The audience said, “Yes, you can.” He wasn’t trying to get a laugh. There was nothing cheap about it. It was good to see because I had to go do a show maybe ten days later.

Knowing the kind of free-form riffing, that’s where a lot material ended up coming from. For just the release of all the stuff. It was particularly bothersome that Bush was being held up as this hero. I think “Squagels” is a very nice thing to have in your back pocket to pull out if it feels like, “Oh, you know what? I might have stepped over the line and I rarely say that about myself, but we all had different responses to this awful event, and I’m going to pull back on this stuff. Maybe I’ll wait till I can better articulate what I’m feeling. Make it funny. Let’s all remember a simpler, more innocent time when bagels were being marketed to us as a square.”

I was thinking about it, because now you get this sense from people who aren’t in comedy that’s, “Oh, all comedy must now either be against Trump.”
Personally, I’ve never been attracted to the idea or enjoyed an evening of fill-in-the-blank comedy. That seems so awful to me. An evening of feminist comedy. An evening of gay comedy. An evening of Jewish comedy. An evening of black comedy. An evening of whatever the fuck it is. An evening of political comedy? Fuck no. No. No, thank you. I don’t want to hear that. That sounds so unappealing to me. It’s just a part of who I am. I can be really stupid and silly and goofy and I love physical comedy. That just occupies part of the process, the brain.

Last night, you were on Colbert and you guys did a bit
That was not planned. People think that was planned.

That was my question. Did you have any idea that any of that was gonna happen?
Well, I knew the lady was gonna be under the desk, but when I was like, “Get [Spike Feresten] on the show!” Yeah, that was not planned at all. But Steve and I, we’re not close, but we go way back, and he’s one of my favorite people, and he’s a very sharp, quick improviser.

Did you know in the moment that if you go somewhere, he’ll follow you?
I didn’t know that he would follow me, but I knew I was in safe hands.

How David Cross’s Jokes — and Approach — Changed After 9/11