Interview: David Cross

RAGHAV MEHTA | Updated 12/12/2013

"Arrested Development" star talks Tobias Fünke, "Community" and returning to standup ahead of his appearance Friday on "Wits."

David Cross in 2007.
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From "Mr. Show" to "Arrested Development" to "Alvin and The Chipmunks" to the wheelchair-bound basket case from "Scary Movie 2," David Cross’ work is as diverse as it consistently hilarious. caught up with the comedy great ahead of his sold-out "Wits" appearance Friday at the Fitzgerald Theater (with music guest Har Mar Superstar) to talk about fame, the obligatory ("Arrested Development" updates) and returning to standup.

So, the publicist said you were in the midst of a busy post-production schedule for something. What are you working on?

I’m finishing a movie I shot and directed in December. It’s called “Hits.” It’s basically about fame and how you become famous and what people think fame is and should be in modern day America.

Is a lot of the content influenced by your personal experience with it?

No, not really. It’s just what I observed from what we make popular in this culture. I just started observing what’s on the Internet and what you get successful for, and there seems to be a very low meritocracy anymore. People aren’t awarded for their good work. They’re just rewarded for simply getting a lot of hits.

Q: You get famous quickly and it fades quickly.

A: Right.

Q: Well, you were just in “Kill Your Darlings” playing Louis Ginsberg. Have you started seeking out more dramatic roles? Is that something you’re particularly interested in?

A: Yes, but I don’t really seek anything out. It’s very rarely you hear about a project that happens once a year. You hear about something and you call your agent or manager or both and go, "Hey man, I want to throw my name out there to be considered for this. I read the book and really resonated with it and it sounds really interesting." But most actors at my level don’t seek out that kind of stuff. I don’t really have any kind of juice or anything. It’s rare when I hear about something that’s still in its beginning stages unless people tell me I’m on the list of people for doing this part.

Well, obviously your acting experience is rooted in comedy. And I understand Louis Ginsberg isn’t your first dramatic role, but are you ever apprehensive about taking those roles or question whether you’re capable of doing them?

A: No, not at all. It remains to be seen. I know there might be something that seems daunting or intimidating and there are certain directors I might be intimidated by. I think if you’re the kind of actor that can be in the moment and ... I think I’m confident and capable as most people out there to reach a level of believability and make it interesting at the same time. I think that’s true of most actors I know.

Q: Do you think being on "Mr. Show" and doing sketch comedy was a sort of training ground for these kinds of roles and being more versatile?

A: Well, for dramatic roles, no. But it laid the groundwork for the experience. It’s second nature now to go in front of the camera regardless of where the setting is, whether it’s a shitty studio or on stage or outside and being able to do that wasn’t second nature when I first started. But, I mean, at this point, any experience is helpful to lay the groundwork to being able to get what needs to be done.

Q: This is the obvious question: But what is the probability of an "Arrested Development" movie or fifth season?

A: I have no idea. I would say due to the fact that it came and went in May and it’s now December, I have not heard a word about it and it took years for that thing to get going. The trickiest thing is you have a bunch of people who are spread out around the country and involved in various projects, so just that would make it difficult. I want to speak out of school. I don’t know what they’re talking about, if they’re talking at all, just that I haven’t heard a thing. Who knows?

Q: Would you on board if it happened?

Oh, fuck yeah. One of the highlights of my life is getting to work on that show. When it’s done right, it’s really enjoyable.

Q: Do you ever feel like your role as Tobias Fünke overshadows the rest of your career?

A: Well, in a sense there are people who only know me as Tobias or only know me as one of three characters. And in that sense, yeah, it overshadows it. But of all the things I’ve played and all the parts I’ve done, I’d rather be known for that one if it’s just one. But there are tens and millions of people who know Tobias who don’t know "Mr. Show" or any of the other work I’ve done, so that’s just the way it is. It’s not necessarily a negative thing.

Q: So, you don’t ever really get annoyed by “Never Nude” fandom or people who are constantly quoting Mrs. Featherbottom or things of that nature?

A: I mean, occasionally depending on the situation. If I’m on the phone and I’m getting some bad news and dealing with personal stuff with my family and somebody is pretty persistent on it, then yeah, that’s annoying. I’m glad it’s so universally loved and makes people happy. So, yeah, it’s a great project to be affiliated with.

Well, another project you’ll be affiliated with soon is “Community” next season. Is that just a guest role or will it be reoccurring?

A: Well, as of now it’s a guest role. But I’m not ashamed to say I’m a huge fan of the show and I think that was maybe one of the most fun weeks of work I’ve had in a long time. It was nice to just socialize and riff with witty people rather than sitting in a windowless room looking at cut after cut of this movie I’m working on. I’d certainly be happy to go back and it was a fun role. They’re very encouraging to improv and those are amazing actors to work with. I was lucky enough to know that Joe Russo, who I’ve known for a long time, was directing this episode and so that was a real treat to do. But yeah, I’m a huge fan of that show.

What I love about that show is how deceptively sweet it is. But it’s just so dark and dense and smart at the same time.

Yeah, right. But I don’t know if it’s deceptively sweet, but in a sense they did a thing that “South Park” does and they do it very, very well. It’s really a small part of what separates it from other smart and funny well-written shows is they make it almost mandatory that there is a moral to each episode and there is a character, usually Jeff Winger (Joe McHale), who has a monologue at the end and tells us what’s wrong and right and how to treat people.

In “South Park” it’s usually Kyle and they summarize the basic moral lesson where they do it in a kind of, "You can have your cake and eat it too." But they take the piss out of it a little bit and in other shows if they did that, you’d just roll your eyes. As a writer, I know how difficult it is to stay within the parameters of, "OK, we have this crazy world but we have to have a resolution at the end. But it has to be about something and we have to make a conclusive statement about what that something is at the end of the episode - but not make it corny."

It’s very difficult to do and “Community” and “South Park” are the best at it.

After spending so much time acting, do you find it difficult to transition back into standup?

A: Very much so, which explains why there are such big gaps in the years between standup releases and tours and what not. I’m not good at focusing at two things at once. I can read two books at once but I can’t write two things at once. I filter things through different comedic lenses. I do really need to be free and clear of other projects to get my standup going. But once it gets going it really snowballs. If I take two months and really concentrate on building a set and developing stuff and it exponentially gets better and tighter. But when I’m doing other stuff, I’m just not good at it. I don’t know how other guys do it.

It must be hard to come up with content considering you’re basically living in a studio most of the time.

A: Oh, yeah definitely. At least for my kind of standup, I don’t really write jokes. The less you experience, the less material you’re going to be able to pull from. Especially in L.A. when you’re driving in your car and you’re getting out and going into a studio. You don’t really engage very much and then 12 hours later you go home, have a glass of wine, checking the Internet and then going to bed. It’s the same process over and over again, so there’s a lot less to comment on.

But I’m conscious about mining the same material from the sources that I had so frequently in the past, like religion and what not. And I’m not really a political comic. A lot of that stuff is being covered on a daily basis in much funnier and smarter ways by "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report," Bill Maher and stuff. So, if I went on the road and developed this bit, by the time you heard it, it’s already been covered in different ways and better ways than I ever did. But there’s something to be said of the live experience of seeing someone do standup. But listening to it on CD is a completely different experience. So, I’m trying to focus more on anecdotal stuff, which is sort of what I did on the last CD.

Even if you did those political bits and they worked, it might sound as you were pandering.

A: Yeah, I don’t care about how it’s perceived, really, because I’ve been accused of that before. But I’m just going out and saying what I believe, especially at this stage. So, yeah, it’s definitely like preaching to the converted, but then you just can’t [reference] any of that stuff. You know, people are probably sick of Obama just like me.

"Wits" is broadcast every week 8 p.m. Sat. on MPR News and 9 p.m. Sun. on the Current. Click here for tickets and more info.