“I’m very excited about this,” said David Cross, the 40-year-old comedian and TV actor. It was Sunday afternoon, May 14, and Mr. Cross was accompanying The Observer while we bought his new comedy album, It’s Not Funny , at Manhattan hipster mecca Other Music.
“Ask him what he thinks of the record,” he whispered.
“Honestly, I didn’t think it was as funny as that other one,” said the dreadlocked record-store clerk, referring to Mr. Cross’s 2002 album, SHUT UP, YOU FUCKING BABY! Then he recognized Mr. Cross, who was wearing a baseball cap embroidered with an American flag and inked with the self-penned message: “#1 Flag in History!”
“How are ya?” said Mr. Cross, twinkling.
“We were all listening to it the other day and we loved it,” insisted the clerk, laughing nervously. Mr. Cross didn’t care. “And I think, if I’m not mistaken, I just made 50 cents!” he said.
The balding, spectacled Mr. Cross-whose face summons Ned Flanders and Allen Ginsberg in equal measure-had once again turned existential defeat into a gleeful bon mot of withering irony. That’s been his comic specialty since he co-starred in HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David , the ultra-clever 1990’s sketch-comedy that made him and Bob Odenkirk critical darlings among hipster cognoscenti. Since then, Mr. Cross has popped up like Waldo in memorable, if bit parts in TV and film-including his own HBO stand-up show in 1999-but has remained largely a cult phenomenon. So if a comedy album seemed like slumming for a guy who stars on a network TV show, Fox’s Arrested Development , it was also the one outlet where David Cross could unleash David Cross: the bitterly funny social comic and caustic critic of the war in Iraq.
On his latest album, when Mr. Cross sings a line from the Lee Greenwood song, “God Bless the U.S.A.”-” And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today “-Mr. Cross goes ballistic: “Really?” he says, “Well, here’s your second chance, asshole! Fucking pick up a gun and hop to it! Plane leaves from over there. Get the fuck over there, asshole! What? Put your money where you’re mouth is, you fucking hypocrite! What? Sorry, I couldn’t hear you with all the flags flapping in my ears. What? What’s that? Oh, you’ve got another gig in Branson. O.K., I’m sorry, yeah.”
On May 20, Fox ordered 22 new episodes of Arrested Development , extending Mr. Cross’ role as the hapless doctor turned thespian Tobias Funke. Mr. Cross also played the stoner husband who’s building a bird house in Charlie Kaufman’s movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind . So far, Mr. Cross said these minor but critically beloved roles had earned him lots of “useless street cred,” but not a lot of whiz-bang offers to be the next, say, Jack Black.
“And you can see my credibility on the street,” he said, walking down Lafayette Street. “I’m physically on the street. I’ve got total credibility. People are not punching me in the face, or running me over, so …. ”
Actually, a few minutes before, a little girl on a bicycle with training wheels nearly ran him off the sidewalk. “Excuse me!” she yelled.
“What, is that my fault?” said Mr. Cross. “Jesus. Kids today! No respect for their elders.”
He hadn’t sought to do a comedy album, he said, but the venerable punk-rock label Sub Pop had called him. “It’s a record of my stand-up-I’ve asked HBO, I asked Comedy Central, nobody’s interested-so, yeah, I’ll put it on a CD,” he said. “This way, somebody in Alaska can hear the stand-up and put it away and take it out again and it’s great. And hopefully nobody will miss their 12 dollars that much.”
His first comedy album-which took up two full CD’s-was recorded in 2002, just months after Sept. 11. It served as an uninterrupted comic meditation on the atmosphere in the U.S. then. Take Mr. Cross’s impression of an imagined post–Sept. 11 TV commercial for a “Freedom Kit.”
“Twenty-seven different flags! Stick ’em on your car! Stick ’em on your window! Stick ’em in your office! Stick ’em on your cubicle! Fucking shove them up your ass! We’ve got special flags to shove up your ass when you’re sleeping! No reason not be a patriot when you’re asleep. C’mon, don’t let those terrorists win. If you don’t have a flag sticking out of your ass, the terrorists win! Always have flags! Give your children flags! Everyone should have a flag! At all times flags! Eat the flag! Eat it! Special edible flags! Have flags grafted on the inside of your eyelids so at all times you have flags! Have flag pills to eat so you shit out a flag! That’s true patriotism. Don’t be asleep on the job here, America!
“So order today. All flags made by Chinese prison labor. Guaranteed. Guar-un-teed.”
In January, the same week Mr. Cross recorded It’s Not Funny in Washington, D.C., he also visited wounded U.S. soldiers from the war in Iraq at Walter Reed Hospital. Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, invited him. “I had that sense of foreboding when I was getting there,” said Mr. Cross. “We were getting closer and I could see it and I was like, ‘Oh. Oh God.’ And it’s just-you’re talking about, physically, a third of them isn’t there anymore. Half of them isn’t there anymore. And it’s difficult to look at because some of these guys are-they look hideous. These are kids, they’re 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids who are lying in a hospital with a big chunk of their side gone, left leg gone below the knee, fingers missing.”
“It was really difficult,” said Mr. Cross. “Extremely difficult. And it fueled my anger and it fueled my resolve and my hatred of this administration, and how immoral and heartless they are.”
Mr. Cross handed out copies of SHUT UP, YOU FUCKING BABY! to the soldiers.
“I was conflicted, and I kept asking Steve, ‘Are you sure this is cool? Because there’s stuff on there that, you know …. ‘ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it, you know, they’ll appreciate it.'” Mr. Robinson said it was rare for a left-leaning comedian to even get access to the hospital. “If a guy like David Cross or some other comedian-Janeane Garofalo or Al Franken-wanted to come to Walter Reed, they would have a tough time getting access,” he said. “Because the people who run it, they want people like a Schwarzenegger and these pro-administration people who shine the happy light on all the good things that are going on as a result of this war.” Mr. Robinson said that a number of the soldiers that Mr. Cross had met had later listened to the album.
“I’ve since seen a couple of those soldiers, and they laughed like a motherfucker,” he said.
On It’s Not Funny , Mr. Cross reads a news clip about a pamphlet handed out to thousands of U.S. marines in Iraq, asking them to pray for President Bush. It included a tear-out section meant to be mailed directly to the White House. Mr. Cross’ impression of a quavery-voiced, knock-kneed soldier trying to write a prayer while under fire by Iraqis-who “don’t get Fox News so they don’t know that everything’s O.K.”-is brutally real: “‘Oh God, oh dear, um, I am committed to pray for you’-[imitates gunfire]-Oh God!-‘for you’re family and your staff’-[gunfire]-‘and our troops’-[gunfire]-AAAAARGH! OH, NO! Oh … God … must … finish … prayer … God, please see to it … that President Bush … has the strength to … finish his lobster salad … please show him with your guidance … the courage … to cut 14.4 billion dollars out of the veteran’s budget … uh … thank you-and now I may die.”
Mr. Cross has appeared twice as a guest on lefty radio network, Air America, but his longtime friend, Ms. Garofalo, now a host on Air America, said Mr. Cross didn’t necessarily like to be associated with “liberals.” “David is an inveterate rebel,” she said. “He would just bristle for the sake of bristling if you were to say, ‘Hey, David, you’re one of those Sub Pop fans.”
“People on the far left are incredibly humorless,” Mr. Cross said. “They can’t laugh at anything. And I fucking cannot stand that. I went to a bunch of marches here and in Washington and it’s so difficult to be a part of this chanting bullshit, this stupid rhetoric that’s not going to mean anything-I mean I want my physical presence to mean something, but I can’t do that fucking face-painting, puns on a sign, chanting ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your racist war’-like, what are you talking about, ‘racist war’? Shut up. I hate it.”
Ms. Garofalo herself wasn’t always a fan of how raw Mr. Cross’s work was. “That’s not always my cup of tea,” she said. “In my opinion, he could be doing it more intellectually. With more words, and less inflammatory stuff. At the same time, he needs to be doing it and he is doing it.”
Mr. Cross hasn’t changed his act to make himself safer for consumption. In a performance at a $250 a plate fund-raiser for Howard Dean in December 2003, he managed to anger Dr. Dean when he used the word ‘nigger’ in a bit about Trent Lott. “Trent Lott had to go on BET! That was awesome!” exclaimed Mr. Cross in that skit, which is also on It’s Not Funny . “He probably didn’t even know BET existed! ‘What? The niggers got their own television station? What kind of futuristic year-3000 science-fiction bullshit is this? Daaaamn yoooou all to helll!'”
David Cross was raised a practicing Jew in Georgia. “The South has a certain kind of ignorance that is deeper and truer, more unwavering and steadfast in ignorance than the rest of the country has,” he said. “And just for a lack of a better term, let’s call it Southern Baptist.” Mr. Cross then did an impression of a friend’s mother trying to figure out what she was supposed to feed a Jewish boy. “I don’t know much about y’all’s people,” he drawled. “I do know y’all hate Jesus, I do know that.”
Mr. Cross said he hadn’t seen his father since he was 19 years old. His mother lives in Florida, and he has two sisters, the youngest of whom he described this way: “She doesn’t know half of what I’m talking about-half! She doesn’t know 80 percent of what I’m talking about and really is not very bright and completely ignorant. Happily so! She’s probably the happiest of anyone in the family. She’s just tickled that I am on the TV box.”
In 1983, Mr. Cross moved to Boston, where he worked comedy clubs and met Ms. Garofalo before moving to Los Angeles in 1992. He and Bob Odenkirk developed the early incarnation of Mr. Show and skits like “Racist in the Year 3000.”
“It was a really creative time,” he said. “Thousands of years from now, scientists will look back on that as being, like, possibly the greatest time in my life. That’s how scientists will view it.”
Mr. Cross recently switched talent agencies. He had previously been at United Talent Agency, or UTA. “I think UTA stands for ‘I Blew It,'” he said. If his career was going to take off-if he was going to get offered starring roles in the kind of comedies that Jack Black regularly stars in now-it might have happened already, he figured. “I think I’ve demonstrated a number of times my ability to entertain people and make them laugh,” he said. “If somebody was interested, they’d be interested. Different factors-me, them, shitty agents, I don’t know.”
For now, David Cross is doing what comes naturally. “Don’t think for a second-not for a second-that 40 percent of my comedy album and my act is about politics,” he said, “and that I spend hours a day on the Internet-you think I want to do that? You think I like it? I mean, it’s an obsession, but I also feel an obligation. How can I have any self-respect?”