David Cross is famous. You might remember him from the HBO sketch comedy show Mr. Show, which he created, wrote for, and performed in with Bob Odenkirk. Maybe you know him as Tobias Fünke from the beloved and recently resurrected Arrested Development. Then again, maybe you remember him best for his decades as a successful stand-up comedian, or a multitude of other film and television appearances.
His latest project is Hits, a comedy that premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival, which he's planning to release in theaters independently. The film is about virality and unintentional celebrity in a small town. I spoke to Cross, and asked him some questions about fame.
The film is about fame. Your project video also riffs on that theme. Why did you want to do a film about fame?
Well, the short answer is that of the roughly 25 ideas I have kicking around in some form, this was the one I felt I could do the cheapest. The other ideas are a little bit more expensive or fantastic at points, and this idea is really grounded. It takes place in a small town, and I knew I could shoot it up there. I live up there and I knew I could call in a lot of favors. And I knew I could shoot it for under a million dollars. It was 100% a practical decision.
So this is your directorial debut?
For a feature film, yeah.
And you wrote it and directed it.
I also did craft services, and filled up the peanut-filled pretzel nuggets.
You filled the nuggets or you filled the bowl?
The bowl with the nuggets. The nuggets are made in a factory in Sri Lanka. I would get them from Costco, but I’d be responsible for filling the bowl.
It seems like you rail against the way fame works nowadays. Where like, anyone can do this kind of thing — like fame is almost cheapened by American Idol, or…
It’s not almost cheapened, it is cheapened. But it’s not the people that are good singers on American Idol that I have a problem with. They deserve it. It’s the people that are terrible, who then become famous for being terrible. And it’s really less about, “Hey do you mind us making fun of you for a couple years? We’ll give you a couple million dollars that you never would have had, but we’re going to present you as a fool.” It’s less about that than the people who don’t have any discernible talent, but just feel like they deserve to be famous. They have this sense of entitlement, which I get in this culture, especially if you’re born and raised — I mean, we’re talking about millennials at this point.
Anything on Bravo, or TLC, or Honey Boo Boo — to me, Bravo and TLC and the like, they’re really responsible for what I’m talking about. There’s nothing of any merit and it’s kind of disgusting to me that these people are rewarded just for being awful personalities. At the absolute best they’re just shallow people. And at the worst, they’re some form of evil.
This idea of fame — when you were getting started with stand-up, was that a thing that crossed your mind? Did you think, I want to be famous?
Insofar as fame is a measure of success, yeah. I wanted to be successful. I didn’t have any vanities like, you know, “I’m going to be the next Charro.” I hoped to be a successful stand-up. Back then that meant you’d appeared on, what, the three shows you could go on? So I hoped to work steadily, and perhaps do some movies, and then eventually write and direct movies. Therefore, fame will determine that I’m able to do that thing. You can’t divorce the two things.
Do you remember the first time you thought to yourself, I might be famous?
Oh, I can tell you exactly when it was. I was at Bumbershoot, the art festival in Seattle, in 1996, I believe. Up until then I’d been doing mostly stand-up and I definitely had a name that other stand-ups knew. People who booked shows knew who I was. But audiences didn’t. But then I was there at the Bumbershoot festival, which I had done a couple times before, and Mr. Show had aired — the first four weird little nothing episodes.
And this is before the internet, so there was no immediate feedback — we were just out there in the vacuum. Then I was at the festival for three or four days, running around to see bands and I don’t think 30 minutes went by on any given day when people weren’t coming up to me and going “I saw your comedy show. It’s really funny.” I remember calling Bob [Odenkirk, Mr. Show co-creator] and telling him, this is nuts. I’m wandering around and everyone knows who I am, and they’re talking about Mr. Show, and the stand-up shows are packed.
I tried to find you on Twitter.
I’m not on Twitter.
That’s a conscious decision?
[laughing] Yeah, of course. The government hasn’t said I’m not allowed to be on Twitter. My mommy didn’t take it away. Of course it’s a conscious decision.
Right, but some people have PR teams run these, or they don’t give a damn about it but they at least have a presence there.
Oh, I completely understand the value of it. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I would be wealthier and working more if I focused on that presence. If I had a million followers on Twitter, I’d probably be able to get a book deal and an advance for two million dollars. That’s the reality, and I can’t deny that.
But it’s also just a headscratcher that people can monetize having a million likes on Facebook. To me, that’s crazy — it’s a stranger clicking a button. I do believe that in the pretty near future people will understand that it doesn’t really translate to much. The people with all the money who are financing things will come to discover that it’s not a good measure of what determines financial success. I think that day is coming in a few years. Anybody who’s getting a million-dollar book deal or anybody who’s got a lot of followers for their Vine channel or whatever should absolutely take the money now, because I think it’s going to dry up shortly.
Right, it’s a funny thing trying to recreate virality. It’s totally inconsistent.
To me, my reluctance to engage in social media is . . . it seems like a waste of time. And I waste my time in other ways. I’m not saying that every waking second of the day I’m doing something worthwhile — I play video games, I lay around, I read dumb magazine articles, I go out drinking at night. I waste my time, you know? But somebody’s pithy comment about a movie that came out — I don’t care to engage in it in either direction. I’d rather be known for other things than my take on the situation in Ferguson. I’d rather develop that and talk about it onstage. I think it also takes away from the specialness of seeing somebody, especially stand-ups, come to your town, if you can follow that person and they’re constantly throwing shit out there. It waters down your voice.
But like I said, I do truly enjoy going out to bars and getting into heated discussions. I debate things beyond 140 characters. And I know that if I tweet it, I’d get in trouble pretty quickly — I would tweet something, then have to apologize for it or explain, then I’d get even more frustrated, and who wants to be famous for that?
I guess some people?
Right, yes, the answer is obviously quite a number of people. And again, they can monetize it.
Look, I’m the dumb one. I readily admit it. And I absolutely understand that I would be more successful and I’d be a wealthy man if I did that, if that’s what I concentrated on.
Do you think there is even such a thing any more as selling out?
No, that’s gone. That ship has sailed. That’s a Carnival Cruise called the Dreamliner and it’s now docking in Orlando. I’m old enough to remember the chipping away at that notion, but again, it’s … if you’re an indie band, and you’re not gonna make a lot of money, and you’re getting ripped off by Spotify and Pandora, and people are taking your music for free, and you worked hard on it, and the old ways of getting money for your work are gone, then fuck it. Sell cars. Sell a Prius, I don’t give a shit.
I mean, Tina Fey does a commercial for American Express, a credit card company with some dubious past history, and she’s phenomenally wealthy. Alec Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson are doing commercials for banks. And there’s all that synergistic “Stay at the Reebok House in Brooklyn for a month. You can stay rent-free and record. You just gotta give Reebok some of your songs.” Nobody thinks twice about it.
Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m just one guy, but I think now it’s fine — it’s a good thing. If I could go back in time 20 years to when this shit started happening, well, that’s a bad thing. But now it doesn’t mean anything anymore. If I say to you, “That band fun. is doing a commercial for Chase bank,” and I’m surprised and slightly disgusted by it, then I’m the idiot. I’m the old man. You look at people that age and I just seem like some weird dinosaur. They’d be like, “I don’t get it, they offered us a million dollars, dude. Why is that a bad thing?” And for the world they’ve grown up in, it’s fine. That’s what we are as a society — we monetize and commodify ideas. You’re a fool if you believe in some sort of purity of your ability to express yourself. Go to Art Basel, or whatever that thing is in Miami. Go anywhere — art is to be commodified. And the last couple generations have grown up where that’s just what you do.
You act, you do stand-up, you write, now you direct. What’s the most important art to you?
Writing, absolutely, writing is what’s most important to me. And writing is a part of stand-up, but.… Acting is very impressive when somebody can do it well, but I don’t think it’s nearly as important as good writing. I’m not saying that I’m a good writer, but I think that’s the more important thing. You don’t have any acting without writing. You don’t have any directing without writing.