David Cross has no wife and no kids. The comedian and actor, best known for his role as Tobias Fünke on the little watched, but much lamented FOX sitcom Arrested Development and as co-creator (with Bob Odenkirk) of Mr. Show with Bob and David, an HBO sketch series that ran for four seasons back in the Clinton Era, has a dog. Her name is Ollie Red Socks.
Ollie, like a lot of dogs that live in the city (she resides with her master in a modest but comfortable apartment full of tennis balls and squeak toys in the East Village), sometimes likes to get out for a little fresh air, run around in the country, maybe dip her paws in a fresh-water stream.
For that reason, and because her human companion likes to get away sometimes, too, Mr. Cross recently bought himself and Ollie a small cottage in Sullivan County. To make this purchase—and because everything else in the world from squeak toys to HDTVs requires money, lots and lots of money—Mr. Cross took a minor role in Alvin and the Chipmunks, a film you probably didn’t see unless you play with Webkinz after school and still occasionally have accidents in your OshKosh B’goshes.
A few weeks’ work on a kiddy flick in exchange for the down payment on a house with a stream seemed logical enough to the 43-year-old Mr. Cross, but to a certain Internet-empowered subset of his fans, this was nothing short of a betrayal.
You could be forgiven for not knowing about this during a news cycle that included the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Obama victory in Iowa, the continued war in Iraq, and the emotional collapse of Britney Spears, but to the sort of pop culture obsessives who spent their high-school years memorizing the ‘Dead Parrot’ routine from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, own the Donnie Darko director’s-cut DVD, and whose female ideal (since the Cross agonistes seem to be exclusively straight males) runs towards, say, Natalie Portman and the Asian girl in Rushmore, Mr. Cross has done something entirely unforgivable. Think: Dylan going electric, plus Nirvana’s "Breed" in a commercial for XBoX’s Major League Baseball 2K7, times a thousand. For his Alvin role as Ian, the Chipmunks’ agent, plus other recent career choices like a one-off role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Mr. Cross has been pilloried by commenters on The Onion AV Club’s blog, where they called him a hypocrite, a "smug, condescending asshole," and "a huge prick." (Some of those observations came from commenters who professed to like him.)
After reading things like, "Cross is creating his own style comedy: Double-Standard Standup," as well as a mocking MySpace post by his friend (and onetime Mr. Show guest star) Patton Oswalt, Mr. Cross decided to respond to his critics with an open letter on his Web site, bobanddavid.com. In the searching post, which begins "Enuff Znuff" and is signed "Yours until the next piece of shit I’m in," Mr. Cross clarifies—perhaps a little too defensively—that his decision to appear opposite those adorable CGI chipmunks was born out of needing (and enjoying) work and being unable to buy his country place with his "artistic integrity."
The tone of the post—"I have no regrets at all" he says about his various endeavors—calls to mind Richard Nixon’s famous "Checkers" speech with Ollie (or maybe the cottage? or was it Alvin?—it gets confusing) in the role of the irresistible inducement against his integrity.
Speaking directly to one’s critics might not be the best idea for any celebrity—especially one with a cultish online following—but, as he wrote in his open letter, Mr. Cross "wasn’t prepared for the level, or amount I should say, of vitriol that’s been flung about like so much monkey poo."
He offered four and half "mitigating factors" for his role and assumed he’d settled the Chipmunks contretemps once and for all.
He was wrong. Displaying the sort of reasoned commentary one has come to expect from unmoderated blog comments, a reader of Defamer called the letter "the shittiest fucking defense since the Nuremberg trials." A commenter on a follow up Onion AV Club post wrote in, "He’s digging his own grave, professionally." On Stereogum, one reader simply stated that he or she "wouldn’t mind if he dies."
Speaking with the Observer a week after he posted his open letter and dozens of blogs and message boards answered with an outpouring of hostility, Mr. Cross seemed, well, cross. He also seemed genuinely hurt by the criticism he was being subjected to online.
"There’s no small part of people wanting to call you on your shit. And I think some of it’s deserved on my part, but I also think a lot of it isn’t. I think a lot of it is lazy and not really thoughtful, " he said, sitting on a leather sofa beneath a painting of Ronald and Nancy Reagan with Michael Jackson in his apartment.
"Look, do I really think that Lobsterboy103 thinks that I’m ‘evil’? Of course not … But it’s just the Internet, you know. It’s tippity-tappity-tippity-tap … [here he mimics simian typing] … Done. Hit send."
Mr. Cross thinks that much of the criticism—particularly anonymous recollections of unfriendly encounters with him at bars or events—has created an false impression of who he is.
"I’ve gotten ‘bitter’ a lot. I don’t think that’s applicable," he said. "People genuinely don’t like me. They find me arrogant and abrasive."
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."
He’d like to just let the whole thing go, but then, why did he allow a journalist into his apartment on a Saturday afternoon to discuss it at all?
"The biggest joke of all is that the fact that when this article comes out, it will only make things worse," Mr. Cross said, laughing. "That’s the ultimate punchline … You can give me this opportunity and this context … but it’s gonna go on and then people will talk about this fucking thing." (Especially since the Observer‘s website has comments.) Mr. Cross even has a suggestion for the accompanying art: "Please make it an illustration of [me with] a big head, just tears, ‘boo-hoo!’ and a stack of money."
Participating in his own ongoing evisceration aside, Mr. Cross knows this tempest in a comment section will die down eventually and he can get back to work and, when he has time, spend some weekends in the House That Alvin Bought.
As he described the place in his now infamous posting, it’s "Nothing fancy, a small cottage on at least a couple of acres near some water where I could get out of here, get some fresh air, buy a smoker, make some b-b-q and hang out with my dog on the porch … best of all it’s in the middle of nowhere. No town, no nothing. Two hours outside the city and only about a ten minute drive from the Delaware River. Perfect."
Reading that description and knowing that his fans’ online attacks are pinged directly to him in almost-real time via Google Alerts sent to his wireless device ("that’s really being a glutton for punishment," Mr. Cross conceded, calling the alerts "pure vanity"), the Observer wondered whether Mr. Cross ever felt, well, lonely. (It was the Barbara Walters moment: Time for the funnyman to cry on cue.) "Definitely," he said. "That’s why I’ve got Ollie. And Zoloft."
So now you know: If an you’re an actor and comic who does the occasional Hollywood work and you need a friend, get yourself a dog.
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