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David Cross Talks ‘Mr. Show,’ Alt Comedy and the Longest Set-up for a Joke With Michael Cera at 92Y

David Cross Talks 'Mr. Show,' Alt Comedy and the Longest Set-up for a Joke With Michael Cera at 92Y

“I’ve got to ask the obvious question,” Michael Cera said to David Cross last night to kick off their 92Y conversation. “What’s up with the ‘Arrested Development’ movie?”

Cera moderated the talk with his once-again fellow castmember Cross, though despite the pairing the discussion didn’t delve very far into the cult favorite series, which will premiere a new season on Netflix after seven years off the air. Cross did say, going against show creator Mitchell Hurwitz’s party line, that “I don’t know that there’ll be a movie,” and later, when asked about the creation of which he’s most proud, said it wouldn’t be Tobias Fünke because, though “the show is brilliant,” he has “less to do with that than other things” he’s worked on in his past.

It was another television project, “Mr. Show,” the 1995-1998 HBO sketch comedy series he created with Bob Odenkirk, that turned out to be more central to the evening, throughout which Cross teased, bullied and coached Cera in accordance with each’s public persona. Cross spoke about the earliest days of what would become the influential show, when he and Odenkirk and a changing guest would be part of an act called Three Goofballz, which would start with them popping out of giant cardboard boxes, always with something wrong with the third box — like the comedian in there would pretend to have gotten trapped and died.

When taping those first episodes, Cross said, the audiences were bussed in haphazardly from around the larger Los Angeles area, and were primarily, as he described it, “Hispanic kids” who didn’t find the show very funny and who “were very honest” in their feedback — “they didn’t care for it.” It’s something, he noted, that sticks with him, even as he thought “well, this is who we are and this is who you are, and I hope that we can meet in the middle some day.”

Looking back at “Mr. Show,” Cross mentioned he really saw it as part of “the origin of that whole movement of what we know understand as alternative comedy.” Stand-up at the time, he said, was all Jerry Seinfeld and Joy Behar doing observational jokes at the comedy clubs, and he and the group of comics he came up with instead did shows in the backs of bookstores and laundromats, both because they weren’t able to get gigs in the established places and because their acts were so different — “we’re not going to be that.” His favorite “Mr. Show” sketch is “Prenatal Pageant” from season four, “because of the concept,” which he noted was a good example of the central ethos of the series, of highlighting what is a real thing in American society and “taking it to its absurdist but logical extreme.”

Other highlights from the evening:

  • Cross has two upcoming films — the Oscillosope comedy “It’s a Disaster” and the Sony Classics drama “Kill Your Darlings” — but the clip he played for the audience was of his appearance on “Last Call with Carson Daly” in 2005, in which he arrived as a guest with Cera and Alia Shawkat in tow, and proceeded to ignore Daly as he coached his young “Arrested Development” co-stars as part of what he claimed was a class he was teaching in how to be on talk shows. Cera and Cross then noted that that was essentially the longest set-up to the punchline that was their 92Y appearance.
  • “The Carol Burnett Show” was a major early influence for Cross, particularly the moments when the cast members would break character and crack up. “They’re on television, but they’re messing up — and people love it.”
  • That desire to get away from the smoothly professional performance seems to have informed a lot of his early comedy — his initial ventures into stand-up, he said, found him doing a lot of deliberately uncomfortable characters, including a lisping and apparently gay man who would tell a rambling, punchline-free joke about his dog, then berate the audience for being homophobic for not laughing, or a mentally disabled comic who’d tell a joke in impossible to comprehend speech, then hide under the stool and have to be coaxed out by Louis C.K. holding a lighter.
  • On that same note, in the “Cross Comedy” nights at Catch A Rising Star in Boston, he’d have friends as plants in the crowd pretend to be the winner of a dentist office comedy competition, the prize for which was a chance to do a set at the open mic. After the champ would do a set of “dumb inside jokes,” he and his friends would get increasingly rowdy until the bartender would pretend to drag one out back and beat him up with a baseball bat. It was supposed to be, Cross said, a “commentary on the shitty state of comedy,” though it grew into something beyond that.
  • Cross has never been afraid of calling people out and getting embroiled in public tiffs — the Barenaked Ladies (“they’re like corporate picnic fun”), “Year One” and Shreveport (“one of the worst places in America”) were all dinged, but the majority of his ire was reserved for Karen Rosenfelt, the “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” executive producer who he called out by name and said “really screwed me over hard” in scheduling commitments for the film versus his IFC/More4 series “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.” It was strictly a power play, he said, an example of how there are some people for whom what “they enjoy about the job is winning… They’re like — what is that shitty show? ‘Entourage.'” It’s “a gross way to live,” he concluded, “and those people are bad for the planet.”
  • Cross and Odenkirk will be releasing a book in September of annotated scripts and sketches they wrote that were never produced. “They’ll never get made, ever,” Cross said, but they’re selections the two thought were pretty good anyway when digging through their past work.

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