David Cross is not a household name, but to certain comedy fans, he’s a superstar, even a kind of hero. A decade ago, he and his comedy partner, Bob Odenkirk, created Mr. Show, an inventive, absurdist sketch-comedy program that ran for three seasons on HBO, earning much praise for its innovative structure (each sketch ran into the next, threading a single theme through the show) and a small but cult audience. After HBO yanked Mr. Show in 1998—well, not yanked exactly, as Cross points out: “It’s unfair to them to say they booted us out. Though they did everything they could to help us make that decision for them”—after Odenkirk and Cross folded the show, burned out and embittered (on their Website, they advertise a book, written by Odenkirk’s sister, titled Mr. Show: What Really Happened), Cross had every reason to feel defeated. After all, what kind of future could Hollywood offer a funny, bald, bespectacled alternative comic, save perhaps a sidekick role on a sitcom, with the occasional 10-10 discount-long-distance ad thrown in?
And yet Cross now finds himself enjoying the kind of ultracool career that many comedians dream of, yet so few are able to pull off. He’s got a showcase role on Fox’s Emmy-winning sitcom Arrested Development, as Tobias Funke, a self-deluded psychiatrist pursuing a career in acting (or, as Funke puts it, a life “in the business called show”). He did voice cameos on the biggest video games of the year, Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And he’s released two gold-selling comedy albums, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! and It’s Not Funny, that are passed among his fervent followers like samizdat, with a “you’ve got to hear this” urgency. He’s even got political sway: In the world of angry, anti-Bush comedy, he’s become a neo–Lenny Bruce, the scruffy, street-level complement to Jon Stewart.
So how does it feel to be David Cross, hipster-comedy superstar? Let’s start with Arrested Development, that darkly hilarious sitcom about the dysfunctional family of an imprisoned CEO: “The Emmy has only translated into the fact that we get to keep doing it,” he says of the ratings-poor series. “And I don’t think we’re doing that well.” Okay, but how about the success of Mr. Show on DVD, where it’s found the audience and widespread influence it never had on cable? “They’ve made millions off us,” he says of HBO. “We don’t see a penny from any of that shit. Not a penny.” But surely there’s some satisfaction in having created a seminal comedy, one as influential as SCTV and Kids in the Hall? “People in Hollywood have this view of Mr. Show as this little culty thing that doesn’t mean much,” he says. The rabid comedy fan might assume that Cross and Odenkirk could waltz into any Hollywood boardroom and sift through the offers, once the executives are done genuflecting. But the rabid comedy fan would be wrong. “We don’t have trouble selling a script,” says Cross of his efforts with Odenkirk. “We cannot sell a script. We cannot sell several different scripts. It’s not a matter of, oh, it’s a pain in the ass. We can’t. So it really doesn’t mean much. It really doesn’t matter.”
In L.A., Cross is faced with the paradox of being the most successful comedian in the country who can’t sell a script.
It really doesn’t matter—to be honest, it’s shocking, and a little bit unsettling, to hear Cross describe Mr. Show this way. But talking to him reveals a funny thing about the ecology of Hollywood. From a fan’s vantage point, Cross is the best kind of star, an indie refusenik who speaks his mind, does cool projects, and flourishes outside the mainstream. But from where Cross is sitting—which right now is in L.A.—he’s just a guy on the fringe who can’t get a meeting, can’t even land the auditions he wants. That’s his vexing dilemma: He’s got all the credibility in the world, but what he’d really like is a little more clout.
Alternative comics, like their alt-rock cousins, are often driven by the belief that (a) the comedy that’s out there is essentially crap, and (b) if they provide something better, the mainstream audience will denounce Rob Schneider’s movies and flock to what they’re offering instead. They’re usually right about the first part, but wrong about the second. Cross has built the perfect screw-the-mainstream résumé, yet he still seems confounded, and more than a little frustrated, that this hasn’t translated to mainstream success. “I’ve done two big, dumb—not dumb, but forgettable, disposable—movies that I did in part for money and in part because I thought it would help my career,” he says. “Small Soldiers and Scary Movie 2—I kind of hoped that would kick-start the ability to do other stuff but, you know, whatever. It didn’t.”
Some of this depression, it should be said, has to do with recent political events. (Of Bush’s reelection, he says, “I’m resigned. I’ve settled into this attitude of ‘Fuck it, bring it on, make it as bad as you can make it’ ”—and here he sounds like a haggard, I-told-you-so prophet, cackling at the onset of the plagues.) Not to mention that he’s once again living in L.A.—a city he loathes, a city he fled after Mr. Show and later described, on a comedy album, as “a nonstop parade of delusion.” Now, thanks to Arrested Development, he’s back in L.A. six months a year. “In New York, it’s not an exaggeration to say that, five days out of seven, I’m out till four in the morning,” he says, sounding wistful. “I’ll go see bands, I’ll go to some opening, I’ll hang out with my friends. I’ll get really drunk—happily, lovingly, excitedly. I’ll take a handful of whatever drugs are around. I have a really, really good time. In L.A., it’s a complete 180. Today, I was up at eight o’clock in the morning. I go to the gym,” he says, as though that last part is so absurd he can barely believe it himself.
And in L.A., of course, Cross is faced daily with the paradox of being the most successful comedian in the country who can’t sell a script. But in New York, a city where most people feel an escalating pressure to achieve, he’s found a refuge in the East Village—a place where cred is its own kind of clout. When I ask what he’s enjoying the most these days, he says, “I’m doing The Tinkle show, which is fun”—it’s a live night of stand-up and oddball sketch comedy he hosts with comedians Todd Barry and Jon Benjamin, and which they’re remounting at Pianos on December 30. “They’re just these little throwaway shows,” he says, his voice finally brightening. “They’re kind of hit-and-miss. We get to fuck around. That’s really satisfying.” He’ll be back for only a week or so during the holidays, but it should be long enough to creatively reload—to relive, however briefly, that time when he and Odenkirk were part of the stand-up underground, scheming to overthrow mainstream comedy, rather than struggling to find their place within it.