Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underrated, we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.
David Cross is not one to shy away from ugliness. Whether it’s hairplug-rejecting Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development or voicing Lakeith Stanfield’s white voice in Sorry to Bother You, Cross is not afraid of discomfort. So it makes sense that he’s a fan of the British bleak cringe comedy of the early aughts. Awkward, provocative, and downright gnarly comedy ruled England from the late ’80s on. Shows like Knowing Me, Knowing You, The Office, and Snuff Box stretched the limits of unlikable protagonists. But Julia Davis out-yikes’ed them all with Nighty Night. The first episode sets the tone for the rest of the show. In a doctor’s office, Davis’s character Jill sobs, “I mean why, why me?” Her husband Terry consoles her, reminding Jill that he’s the one with cancer.
Jill immediately starts online dating for Terry’s replacement, refusing to listen when Terry’s prognosis actually looks pretty good. She also immediately starts lusting after her neighbor, Don. Packed with British comedy Thems, Nighty Night was consistently the darkest and most outlandish show on telly. Jill was casually rude to strangers and sociopathic to her friends.
David Cross is currently on his international Oh Come On tour. He spoke with Vulture about the glory of Julia Davis, the bravery of British comedy, and why he’s not a political comedian.
You’re recommending a show about a compulsively lying, racist narcissist ruled by their most base instincts. What feels relevant about that now?
Oh, I see what you’re saying. I never really saw it like that. I just, sort of, enjoyed it.
How dare you just enjoy something! What did you enjoy about it?
It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of quote–funny shows–unquote. Julia Davis is just amazing, and people really should seek her stuff out. She’s just phenomenal. It’s very dark, and it’s one of those things you can’t really imagine on American television, at least not ten years ago. Her acting is perfect, the writing goes beyond where you think it might go, [especially with] her character, Jill. You know, my wife and I will often go “Jee-ull” at each other, like her husband Terry. She’s just repellent. And the supporting cast are cream of the crop from British comedy.
We gave out [the first series] as a cast-and-crew gift when Bob Odenkirk and I did the Netflix show, because I don’t think many people would know about it or hear about it. And it’s just one of the best. It comes from that era where there were a lot of chances being taken in British comedy. She has several shows, but she did this half-hour TV movie called Lizzie and Sarah that she did with Jessica Hynes — that’s also amazing. Really dark.
What distinguishes Nighty Night as being one of the best comedies, or even the best of Julia Davis?
There are so many levels of funny to it. Her husband’s funeral, where she rides in on the horse, is one of my favorite things. You would possibly discuss that in a writers room in America. But you could see people pulling back on it, saying, “That’s a bit much.” But she does all of those things, and has her character do all those things and say terrible things. You never really are rooting for her, but it’s still such a great, fun thing to watch — the torture she puts people through.
That’s really interesting that you said the show is full of ideas that would get killed in an American writers room, because Julia Davis wrote the British version of Camping. It recently got remade as an HBO show.
She went to the writers room for like a week, and she said that every time she pitched something, it was always the complete opposite of where they were going.
Oh, I’m sure. That doesn’t surprise me at all. I don’t know what the exact experience was, but that would be my guess. And that applies to pretty much everything, across the board, that was British but got turned into an American show. Did you ever see Pulling? Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly’s show?
I think I saw the first episode.
Oh, it’s great. You should watch the whole thing. When I got approached for this, Nighty Night and Pulling were the two things that immediately popped into my head. More people might know Sharon’s back catalogue now that Catastrophe and Divorce were big hits. She’s blowing up over here, as well she should. But Pulling is great, and they made an American version, and I saw it. And it’s just terrible. They took out all the stuff you would like about it and softened the edges. It didn’t resemble the original one at all.
Why do you think when Americans take a British source material, they always soften the edges and make the characters redeemable?
Well, because they’re trying to make money. And in Britain, they’re not necessarily trying to make money. That’s not the first and foremost reason people are making television in Britain. They are doing it for the art of it. In America, you have sponsors, you have ad revenue, you have stockholders. A man or woman can have this great idea for a new kind of comedy or drama, or something that might be a little more difficult or realistic or hard. And there’s only a few steps between that person slaving away in their office, creating this thing, and somebody going, “No actually, 3M has a big stake in this network and we don’t want to upset their shareholders.”
Todd Margaret was an American-British production. What did you find the difference was making shows over there?
With Todd Margaret, it was about the actual physical production. That was IFC and Channel 4 for the first series, but the second two were just IFC. The differences I found were more about production. The actual physical production and the day-to-day — the actors, the crew, getting set locations and things like that. And those differences are: You have way less money, and it’s just not as comfortable of a situation. Not that anybody gives a shit. If it’s cold, you’re going to be cold. There’s not a lot of warming tents. You get one warming tent and craft services are a tin of cookies and some tea. Also, it’s sort of understood that you don’t work quite as long there. In the States, you work till you’re done. I mean, you get paid for it, but you can work a 14-hour day. You’re not supposed to, but you’re certainly not working less than 12 hours. In the U.K., it’s a little less than that. But everybody busts their ass and there’s no complaining.
And that’s the other thing: Nobody complains. Nobody. There’s no union guys bitching about making $62 an hour sitting in their car for nine hours. There’s nobody bitching, which is really nice. I did this other show for Sky, which was all British. It had nothing to do with the States at all. Although Sky is kind of a bigger deal, so it was a little closer to a network, a little more notes.
And they have ads on Sky, it’s not publicly funded. I mean, they don’t have ads in the show, but they have ads in between the shows on Sky, don’t they?
That’s how they do it on Channel 4, too. They have one act break in the middle, and they play two to three minutes of ads, and that’s it. It’s not like you have a minute and a half of ads every 20 seconds.
Do you think even that structural change makes a difference, artistically?
Huge, huge, huge difference. Massive. I can’t understate it. Here’s an example: When we did the pilot for Todd Margaret, for Channel 4 and IFC, IFC was just kind of starting out, getting their feet wet. We shot the pilot for two entities: one in the U.K., one in America, that didn’t have commercials. We finished it, and IFC called us and said, “Great news guys! We’re going to switch over and be an ad-driven channel. So now there will be more money for production!” But it also meant I had to go and take what we saw as a 28-minute story that was really complicated, and had all the tons of exposition and important information that was going to pay off later, and chop out like five minutes out of it. It’s just terrible.
I watch the first episode of Todd Margaret, and it makes me cringe. There’s no air in anything. We had to lose tons of jokes and scenes because we had to get that information in there for it to pay off later. So that’s a great example. Compared to what we had before, it just seems manic and over-the-top and ridiculous. There’s no nuance at all, in that pilot, and that’s the difference. Then you have to go back and find inorganic outpoints to come in and out, that you didn’t write for. Once we had series two and three, we knew what we were dealing with, so we were able to know that at around page eight we’d need to take an act break. But in the pilot, they just come because they had to. Like in the middle of a scene.
Bringing it back to Nighty Night, I think one reason there’s these huge setpieces like the coffee morning with the pole dance and the horse into the funeral is because they have time to breathe, before and after.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s one of the great things about the original Office. Those moments breathe. They talk about cringe humor, cringeworthy, whatever the phrase is — that’s because those moments sit there and you’re sitting there with that character stewing in that moment. And in the American version, you’re jumping out of there super-quick. You don’t spend any time there. They utilize that documentary talking-to-camera thing constantly to get them out of a scene. That’s as good an example as you’ll get of the difference between British “network” comedy and American network comedy. Just cramming those ads for Chevy and Casper online mattress or whatever the fuck it is.
Nighty Night was the subject of a lot think pieces when it came out. I read one where they asked women comedians in Britain whether that show had ruined or changed the sitcom forever.
Well that’s just lazy journalism. They’re just looking for something to write about.
You’re also no stranger to being the subject of think pieces. Do you let that affect you? How do you deal with being put through potentially “lazy” journalism?
You try to be diplomatic about it. I remember I got my first taste of it when whoever the first person was who coined the phrase “alternative comedy.” Every interview you did from that point forward talked about alternative comedy like it was a real thing, like there were office in Hollywood where the president of alternative comedy met with the board. It was just this presumption that it was a real thing that we all got together and created, which was not the case at all. And when I say “lazy,” I mean people just seeing something and going “Okay, I guess that’s a thing.” Not doing their homework about the reality of what that phrase or general idea is. But people would eventually have this presumption that everybody in that scene were all good friends, we all hung out, we decided to create this thing, and decided how we were going to do it and why we were doing it. And that wasn’t the case at all.
Or, when I’m doing press for a stand-up tour, roughly half the time I’ll get “So you’re a political comedian. What is it like in this [era]?” And I’m not a political comedian at all. I never will be. I’m a comic who talks about politics within a small section of my set — always have, always will — but I’m not a political comedian. And that’s kind of lazy.
Can you think of somebody who is a political comedian?
Yeah, Lewis Black. Bill Maher. I’d say if 65 percent of your set or more is about politics, then you’re a political comic. It applies to all kind of stuff. If your identity is [65 percent of your material], if you’re Jewish or queer or black or this or that, you’re a Whatever You Call Yourself Comedian. And there are plenty of people who do, but that’s just not my thing. I’m not going to do an hour of Jewish jokes. That’s not my thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.