Then again, he adds, “There are plenty of people who think I’m the nicest, sweetest guy in the world.” (His dog certainly seems to like him.)
But going out night-after-night and having people point at him and murmur, “There he is” or seeing his every public move recounted on blogs can wear even the nicest, sweetest guy in the world down after a while. Mr. Cross admits, though, that even before he started being well-known he was a bit of jerk, something many readers picked up and amplified in his Alvin posting.
Since publishing his message, Mr. Cross has heard from actor and comedy friends and they support with him in his parry against his critics but worry about him as well. “As Bob [Odenkirk] said, ‘I thought it was great, but, man, it’s a no-win situation.'”
So why allow himself to be embroiled in a no-winner?
“It wasn’t simply that I read somebody said I was a ‘douchebag’ for doing this. I read hundreds—literally hundreds [of comments] … Just a lot of it, enough so that when I read Patton’s thing it was the breaking point. That coupled with the fact that, and this goes to what the guy in the Onion< wrote, which was really shit, that I ‘wrote this 1,700-word blah-blah-blah,’ as if I pored over it through the night with a candle at my side and sent it in to an editor … I wrote a thing and it took me 20 minutes. It had grammar [mistakes] and misspellings … . It’s exactly what they do: I saw something, I wrote it, sent it out.”
The integrity issue—regular work within the mainstream versus smaller projects that may
be closer to his heart—has been a concern for Mr. Cross his entire life. In the book Mr. Show—What Happened, which recounts the creation and brief on-air life of his HBO series, a high-school friend of Mr. Cross’ recalls, “David always lived by the seat of his pants. He couldn’t earn what he needed, was always borrowing, then trying hard to pay it back—and still he was uncompromising. I always thought, ‘Why does he get to live like that? I have to compromise. I work a shitty job.’ But David wouldn’t bend.”
After making a name for himself in Boston’s late-80’s/early-90’s alternative comedy scene with performers like Janeane Garofalo and Louis CK, Mr. Cross agonized over whether or not to take his first real comedy writing job.
“When I was 28, I think, I moved to L.A. and I really struggled with whether I should take a job writing for The Ben Stiller Show, which was my big break. And that’s where I met all these people and [without it] there’d be no Mr. Show or any of that stuff—or me here.”
It was hardly the cushy Hollywood gig one might imagine: The FOX sketch comedy program was dogged by poor ratings and moved around by programmers like the queen of spades in a game of Three Card Monty. Yet even with such low stakes Mr. Cross was torn. “I didn’t wanna write for TV … It’s insane, but I was that person.”
“That person” still weighs in on his decision-making process. “I don’t really think about it at length, but I definitely think about how will this [choice of role] be perceived. I don’t really give it too much thought, but it does go through my mind. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t. I think I would be probably a happier person if I did get over it or just resigned myself to not caring. But it’s just in my nature, I can’t help it.”
Now, with the internet empowering people who agree with “that person” more than ever—comment threads overflow with people quick to call their favorite artists sell-outs for taking this job or that—Mr. Cross’ internal per-project gut check has been externalized and turned back on him.
“I can’t tell you how many times somebody would say to me in earnest, not saying it like, you’re an asshole for this, but really wanted to know how I could reconcile the fact that I was on Arrested Development, doing the show for FOX.”
“That’s absurd,” he said. Another absurdity lies in the fact that the very thing his fans fetishize him for, the groundbreaking sketch comedy show he created with Bob Odenkirk, was not some indie production distributed through a classified ad in a ‘zine: It was on HBO. While satirizing a mega-corporation that “owns 29 percent of the globe” in a bit about “Globo-Chem” (slogan: “We Own Everything So You Don’t Have To!”), Mr. Show was being piped into viewers’ homes directly by Time Warner, which more or less does own 29 percent of the globe.
Cries of sellout also jangle since Mr. Cross often appears at small venues, keeps his ticket prices affordable, does benefits, and takes roles in smaller, prestige projects without talking chipmunks. Just a few weeks before Alvin unspooled at multiplexes across America, Mr. Cross appeared in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There in a cameo as Allen Ginsberg. Ironically, in that film he’s counseling Cate Blanchett’s Dylan stand-in after an electric set is met with cries of “Judas.” Asked whether he thought the singer “sold out,” Mr. Cross’ Ginsberg shrugs and says in his best Lower East Side Beat Oracle accent, “I [don’t] know. Perhaps you sold out to god? … If your mission was to see whether you could do great art on a jukebox, well, then we all benefited.”
By appearing in Alvin and the Chipmunks (no one’s idea of art on a jukebox, but so what?), has David Cross sold out either to god or his dog and her frolicking in Sullivan County? “I don’t think anyone gives a shit; I don’t think anyone really, truly cares,” he said finally. Does he wish he’d never posted his message (or the second one he put up called An Open Letter to Me from Future Me)? “Well, I dunno. The last couple days have been way less boring than they would’ve been.”