Over the course of his comedy career, David Cross has enjoyed considerable success -- via stand-up sets, several live albums, the two critically acclaimed sketch-comedy series he's co-created (first HBO's Mr. Show, then Netflix's W/ Bob & David), and roles in well-respected sitcoms (e.g., Arrested Development) and movies (Waiting for Guffman). That's not to say that every decision he's made has been a wise one.
In advance of the Netflix debut of Season 3 of the show sometimes known as The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, we asked Cross to assess some of his past life choices, including a cross-country road trip with some fellow comedians, the movie Run Ronnie Run!, and, yes, those Alvin and the Chipmunks movies.
Decision: attending Emerson College
"I went to Emerson College for one semester, and then I had to drop down to part-time student, but then I just ran out of money. By that time, I'd failed a class and gotten an incomplete in another class, and that was all the money I had ever hoped to have, and that was with Pell Grants and loan stuff. So I was done. But I still had my meal card. I stayed in one of the dorms on Beacon Street because I had a girlfriend who was living there. I even hosted Emerson's awards show, the EVVYs, and at the end of it, I was like, 'I don't even go here! I've been eating your meals and sleeping in your beds, but I haven't attended classes in, like, a year!' [Laughs.] But I was still in an improv group at school, called This Is Pathetic, where I met a number of people I'm still friends with 30-some years later, the preeminent one being John Ennis. We worked together on Mr. Show, and we just worked together recently on W/ Bob and David."
VERDICT: WISE DECISION
Decision: taking that cross-country road trip, summer 1985
"I guess one segment of society would see it as a poor decision -- where I see it as a life-affirming, enriching, edifying decision -- that we stayed as drunk and high as possible the entire time. But we didn't rob anybody, we didn't hurt anybody, and we didn't do anything crazy. It was the first time I'd been to the West Coast, and John Ennis and I were driving out there with this guy Paul Clay, who was a comedian. When we were driving, Paul needed to take a break -- he'd been driving for, like, six or seven hours -- but we couldn't pull over because none of us knew how to drive a stick except for him. So we got it up to about 100 miles an hour, and then we literally switched seats while we were driving. We were, like, 'Okay, you put your hand on the wheel,' and we were acrobatically switching positions so that we could keep it in fifth gear the entire time."
Judgment: RISKY DECISION, but at least no one got hurt
Decision: leaving Boston for Hollywood
"Early on, I almost made a poor decision, which, if I had made it, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I debated much longer than I should have about whether to leave Boston and move to Hollywood and write for The Ben Stiller Show. That obviously changed my life. Truly, if it wasn't for Ben and Judd [Apatow]… I mean, if you want to go to the basic origin story, I wouldn't be here if they hadn't hired me, because that's where I met Bob [Odenkirk]."
VERDICT: WISE DECISION
Decision: telling another comedian's joke
"I was in Boston at the Comedy Connection, it was a sparse crowd, I was telling some jokes, and I was bombing. And then I told a Steven Wright joke, but it was presented as my own. It was something like, 'If I can just make one of you laugh, then… that'd be pretty shitty,' or some variation on that. And a guy in the front went, 'That's a Steven Wright joke.' And I got really embarrassed and flushed. I didn't know what to say because he was totally right. And he was just so Boston: sitting back, arms folded, 'Yeah, that's a Steven Wright joke, pal.' I think it's the first and only time I ever stole a joke, but everybody saw it and heard it, all the other comics in the room. It didn't have any long-term effect on my career or anything, but I just remember really well what an awful, humiliating, embarrassing feeling and moment that was. The memory is seared into my brain."
VERDICT: POOR DECISION
Decision: creating a backstory for his Waiting for Guffman character
"Waiting for Guffman was a very daunting, intimidating experience. It was one of the very first things I ever did, and it was with a personal hero of mine, Christopher Guest. He had hired me because he'd heard this thing I'd done on the earlier Joe Frank radio shows where I was O.J. Simpson's butler or manservant, and Joe was interviewing me. That kind of got passed around Hollywood, and… it doesn't sound like me. It's me doing a black voice. But [Guest] wanted to meet that guy, so I came in, and obviously I didn't look anything like that, so he was interested in that, and he hired me to do this brief thing. 'You're going to be a professor, and you're into aliens.' 'Okay, great!'
"Ten days later I'm on a plane to Austin, and while I was on the plane, I came up with all these ideas, all this backstory and who this guy is, even though I knew it was going to be very brief, and I had this idea for an outfit and all this stuff. And I get there, and the cast of the movie had broken for lunch. 'Oh, Mr. Guest wants to see you.' 'Oh, great!' I'd literally come from the airport with my bag and went right to the set and sat down. After about five or ten minutes of sort of hovering, when he had a break -- because he was answering a lot of questions -- he said, 'Oh, great! Glad you're here!' And then I told him my ideas, and he was, like, 'Yeah, no.' [Laughs.] He just shot 'em all down. In a polite way, but he shot 'em down.
VERDICT: POOR DECISION
Decision: intentionally passing up that van ride back to the hotel while filming Waiting for Guffman
"At one point, for whatever reason, I saw an opportunity and manipulated it slightly so that I ended up missing the last passenger van back to the hotel. We were shooting about 45 minutes away, outside of Austin, so I had to ride back with Christopher Guest in a pickup truck. He had just gotten the music CD from Harry Shearer and he was listening to it, and then we just kind of started shooting the shit, and he started doing all of these characters, and he was talking about this character that eventually became his character in Best in Show. And then the other thing… Not only did I manipulate a ride back with Christopher Guest, but as he was talking, I saw that our exit was coming, and I just didn't say anything. We went past the exit, so I got to spend another 10 minutes with him before he realized, 'Oh shit, I missed the exit!' And I never said anything. [Laughs.] I was just sitting there, talking to Christopher Guest and getting my own private show."
VERDICT: WISE DECISION
Decision: letting the Mr. Show movie Run Ronnie Run! get released
"The decision to make Run Ronnie Run was a good one, but just to be clear, Bob [Odenkirk] and I feel the same way about this: we don't think the movie is terrible, we just know what it could've been. We don't like what it is now. We wouldn't make those decisions to make the film like that. And we lost all those arguments. The idea to make it look like a typical Adam Sandler/David Spade kind of studio comedy… You know, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with those, per se: people love 'em, and they're very successful. But that's not the direction we wanted to go in, and we never would've chosen that.
"Part of it was that we were dealing with New Line, and we really didn't have much of a choice but to take all of their notes. That was the fourth version of the script that we turned in, I think. Originally it was more of a sketch show linked by this story, which is about a third of the movie, which was Terry discovering Ronnie, driving to Hollywood, and all the stuff they did along the way on the road from Georgia to Hollywood, and then kind of wrapping it up. There was this whole thing where Ronnie ends up in England and fucks the Queen of England, and all this crazy shit. It was bizarre, and it wasn't as linear, and… it was very Mr. Show-ish. But we had to keep taking out those elements and focus on the Ronnie/Terry story. We wouldn't have chosen to do that.
We just went in there and we just assumed -- and there was no reason not to assume it -- that we'd approach this thing the way we approached the thing that allowed us to take this next step in the first place, which was Mr. Show, and that we'd all sit around and make the funniest, coolest movie possible. Even now, it's absurd to think that we didn't think that'd be an issue. But there was something we signed, I don't remember the particulars of it -- Bob does -- but we were told, 'Don't worry about this clause, it's not a big deal.' And then, of course, that clause became the thing that allowed us to be excised from the postproduction of the movie.
"When we got to the editing… I mean, that's where you make the movie. You can alter anything in editing. And that's where it really became frustrating, because we got locked out of the editing room. Actually, Bob was literally locked out. [Laughs.] ... There's enough funny things and funny performances and funny ideas that are in there, but that's not even close to the movie we would've put out there. And although it's unfortunately hypothetical, I would imagine that movie would've been infinitely more successful and appreciated as a great American comedy, had we been able to do it the way we wanted to do it.
"The one thing about Bob and myself that really worked in Mr. Show and works in W/ Bob and David is that there's no ego. There's no preciousness. There's nobody whining, 'But I want to have a bigger role! And I want to say that funny line!' It all services the team. And that was not the case on Run Ronnie Run. There were people involved with the movie who wanted to service their career and saw this movie as a vehicle to do that… and obviously, they guessed wrong. [Laughs.] They're on the wrong side of history!"
VERDICT: POOR DECISION
Decision: doing Alvin and the Chipmunks
"Something that had ramifications to this day that I didn't think would be such a pain in the ass -- but it truly exemplifies the idea of taking money for a project that you don't necessarily want to do or that you're proud of -- was obviously Alvin and the Chipmunks. It's a big, dumb movie, but it's for children. And children love it. I mean, they love it. Nobody expected it to be a $150 million movie. Nobody! The downside of that is, once you sign that contract, you are contractually obligated: if they need to do sequels, you're in that fucking sequel.
"I was contractually obligated to do three Chipmunks movies, so I did three. The first two were fun. They were fine. And the last one was a pretty awful experience. The producers on it were just awful people to work for, to work with, and they did things to make me miserable, too. I was like, 'Wow, really, guys?' They gave me this shitty trailer -- I have pictures of it! -- which was moldy, leaking, and broken. This was when I was trying to get out of being on the cruise ship, which I didn't have to… [Sighs.] It's a long story. It would take me 20 minutes to tell.
"So that was a decision that… I wouldn't say was a poor decision, because I've probably made more money on those three movies -- and this is absolutely the truth, this is not an exaggeration, because they bump up your salary with each sequel -- than I have on literally every other project I've ever done, including my stand-up, combined. You know, a lot of stuff I do doesn't make money. I mean, I lost money with Todd Margaret. Twice. But there's a lot of stuff that just doesn't pay off, especially when you remove yourself from other work that might be more lucrative.
"I've had to eat a lot of shit about doing Alvin and the Chipmunks. Not that anyone really cares. I don't think they really, truly, deep down, are like, 'How dare you! You sold out!' But it's an easy target, and I recognize that. It's not like I'm sitting there going, 'What are you talking about? It was an amazing movie!' I recognize that it is what it is. But, again, the mitigating factor in all of this is that it's for 5-year-olds! [Laughs.] But I hadn't worked for six months, and it was less about the money than it was that I hadn't worked. Six months is a fucking eternity, and it fucks with your head. The first three months, you're like, 'Well, something will happen.' And then, when three turns into four turns into five turns into half a year, you're going, 'I can't get hired, and I'm never going to work again.' So I was happy to take the work, very happy to be offered the work, and obviously there's a little bit of desperation there, but… it's a kids movie! So you do it. And you hope it leads to other work."
VERDICT: WISE DECISION (at least financially speaking)
Decision: taking collaborators’ advice
"So many of the really cool projects that have come to define me as I've created a career and a catalog of material, they weren't my initial idea. Bob [Odenkirk] and I did these live shows, and Bob was really the guy who was like, 'These are really fun, but let's put these on TV. I have a relationship with so-and-so at HBO. Let's call them!' And I was, like, 'Yeah, great!' I was always like, 'Great idea!' But it was not my idea. I was happy to putter through and drink and put on shows.
"Even Todd Margaret wasn't my idea! I was approached by the woman who eventually became the producer, and I hope to have a professional relationship with her forever. She has a production company, and I have another project with them pending. I was doing a two-week stand-up residency at the 100 Club in London, and she came to me after a show, 'Hey, do you wanna think about doing something for British TV, a co-production?' 'Yeah, sure!' I took her card and sort of dismissed it, but she followed up and I was like, 'Oh yeah, right! That's cool! Let me think about it!' And then, obviously, at some point I said, 'Yeah, great!' [Laughs.]
"Since Run Ronnie Run, I haven't done anything -- at least as far as something I've had a hand in creating -- where I haven't had final cut approval. It's a reason why I haven't pitched to the big networks. I'm just not interested. I mean, you make way more money, but you give up control, and I'm just not interested in that. My apartment's big enough, I've got a Toyota Highlander that works just fine, I don't need fancy shit, and I'd rather do Todd Margaret and other projects where I have full creative control. I'll live and die by that. And I'm happy with it."
VERDICT: WISE DECISION (to say the least)
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