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David Cross on ‘Shitty’ Improv and the Mysteries that Brought ‘Todd Margaret’ Back to IFC

David Cross on 'Shitty' Improv and the Mysteries that Brought 'Todd Margaret' Back to IFC

[Spoilers for Season 2 of “Todd Margaret” follow.]

If you watched the second season finale of the IFC comedy “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” you might be a little confused as to how the series is coming back for a Season 3. Last we saw, after all, Todd (David Cross) and everyone else in the world had just died in a post-apocalyptic flameout. 

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But television is a medium of twists, so here we go back into the awkward world of Todd, albeit a different Todd with a different attitude towards life. Below, Cross reveals what got him interested in returning to the show (and its filming location of London, England), why he personally financed some of the filming of Season 2 and the difference between great and “shitty” improv. An edited transcript is below. 

I watched the show when it originally aired and rewatched it all this week. It’s such a delightfully weird thing.

Oh. Thank you. I think outside of my stand-up it is the most polarizing thing I’ve ever done. I think this show has that kind of– People either love it or they hate it. For the most part. There’s certainly plenty of people who think it’s okay. But people tend to really like it a lot or really hate it. 

What’s so interesting about the first two seasons is that you end on a very bleak note.

[laughs] The bleakest note you could possibly end on. Yeah.

Honestly, the thing with bringing it back for Season 3 is that a lot of people thought it was done.

Yeah. I had no intention of bringing it back at all. The way we did it was obviously years later IFC got in touch with me about bringing it back. Because I think it didn’t make much of an impact when it first came out, but it lived and grew and thrived on Netflix and got this whole– Even internationally, it got this kind of cult thing to it. And so IFC looked at that and said, “Oh shit. Let’s try and bring it back.” 

And as you might imagine I said, “No. The story is told. What else am I supposed to do?” And they were like, “What if it’s a prequel?” “No, I don’t want to do that.” “What if it’s post-apocalypse and Todd’s trying to–” I mean. No. The things they were saying just weren’t interesting to me at all. And I said that I would out of common courtesy approach the other writers and see if they had any ideas. I couldn’t imagine doing it. Nor could I imagine going back to London — a city that I truly do love — but it means I’m away from home for eight months and outside of my house and my family and my dog. But then I sent an e-mail to two of the writers to see if they had an approach of doing this. I said, “I don’t see it happening, but if you see a way we could do a third series.” And then less than an hour later one of the writers, Mark Chappell, wrote back this really intriguing, amazing idea that when I got it I was like, “Fuck. I have to do this. God damn it. Oh well. Alright.” And that’s how it came about.

What was it about the idea that made you realize it was the idea worth doing?

I can’t give too many things away, unfortunately, but it was the mystery of it. The fact that it allows me to play this different character, but he’s sort of the same, yet different. And why is that and how do we get to where we end up? It was less the challenge and excitement of playing the role. It was the idea of writing the story that was a real creative challenge. How do we do this? It took us two and a half weeks — I went over there in the middle of the summer and we spent all day, six days a week in the writer’s room coming up with the beats. How do we get this person to be like this? How do we get them here? Who is Todd? Why did this thing happen? It was a real challenge.

And it was fun. That’s not even the talk about how much fun it would be to get back with the same production people, the same writers, the same actors. That’s kind of a treat you rarely get to be a part of and I’ve gotten to be a part of it a couple times now.

You mentioned that you’re more excited about doing the writing than playing the character. Is that typically how you approach things or do some projects fill you more a performer versus a writer?

As far as things that I write. The things I generate for myself, it usually starts with an idea. I’m never approaching something like, “Here’s a character I want to play.” And then I try to fit the story around it. It’s always the story comes first and if it doesn’t… If I can’t think of the story, then I just dismiss the idea. To me it’s about the story. Obviously, this character is pretty twisted. But this new Todd is quite different. He’s more close to Brent Wilts [Will Arnett’s character on the show]. Confident. Arrogant. Takes no quarter from people. And that’s a fun way to play that character. But acting is like a paid vacation for me. That’s always fun. It’s the easiest part of any of it. The writing is the most challenging and satisfying.

There’s this one line that really struck me from Season 2, and it was when Todd exclaims, “It’s improv comedy. It doesn’t have to be as funny as scripted comedy.” Was that something that came out of you or was that almost a commentary on other things that are happening?

I think that’s something where people dismiss shitty improv with that excuse. I don’t think that character was the first one to say that. I think that’s probably been said a million times to justify a night of shitty improv. And look. I love improv. And when it’s done right that’s a skillset that I’m in awe of. But there’s a lot of shitty improv and I think that it was more a commentary on how people go, “Come on folks. It’s improv. It doesn’t have to be that funny. We didn’t get to write this. We’re coming up with it right here in front of us, so let’s cut us a break.”

I don’t mean to paint the whole genre with a broad stroke because I feel like a lot really great comedy right now is a mix between the two.

As I said, I’m not denigrating improv. I love it. And as I said, it’s a skill that I’m just amazed at people when I go and watch really amazing improv. You watch Scott Adsit and Matt Walsh or any of the UCB guys and you’re just like, “Holy shit that’s amazing. They’re telling this whole story.” And “TJ and Dave” is as good — more often than not — as any theater I’ve ever seen. That’s something I could not do. I’m not capable of doing what they do. So, I’m not mocking their improv at all. Just the shittier improv.

What is it you feel like separates the shittier improv from the great stuff?

The intuitiveness. It’s hard to describe, but it’s the ability of somebody to take the moment, build on that moment in a way that is both funny and self aware of their character and the world they’re creating and hyper aware of everything around them. Almost a sixth sense and a memory of what was spoken on stage as the improv started 10 minutes ago. Having that in your head and to pull that reference out and creating a world that makes sense and is grounded and isn’t about somebody just struggling to get their joke out. 

Bringing it back to “Todd Margaret,” you mentioned that it’s really polarizing. Is it also really personal for you?

No. I mean. No. My stand up is personal. But “Todd Margaret,” first of all, the story is absurd, and he is one of the dumbest people on the planet. Adorably laughably dumb, but it’s not like Mr. Bean or Inspector Clouseau. He’s really just– It’s painful to watch how clueless he is and he’s well meaning, but there’s nothing personal about it. There’s a very tenuous connection that my real dad is from Leeds as is Todd’s dad. Or Todd is and his real dad as it turns out is. But that’s the only real connection, but it’s not personal.

The reason I ask that is that this is something you have your name on as a sole creator, and I think I read somewhere that you personally financed a portion of it?

Yeah. That happened with round two. That was the first time I had no choice but to give up my money and give up my salary so we could shoot a scene. The budget was minuscule and then when you put in the exchange rate in London, it’s really very little money to work with. For the cenotaph, Remembrance Day is a real thing in the UK, where they have that minute of silence. It’s like our Veteran’s Day except they actually observe it. It’s not just some federal holiday with empty symbols and empty gestures. It’s a real thing. And we couldn’t shoot that with the extras and the fake cenotaph unless I gave them my salary. And then there’s a big reveal that happens later on and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without more money. I had to front my money again.

People will commit to a project, but they won’t necessarily commit on that level.

If I was just an actor in it I probably wouldn’t have. But since it’s so all-encompassing for me, you know, I wanted to tell the story right. And I’ve got money now. Every “Alvin and the Chipmunks” allows me to do “Todd Margaret,” so there it is.

How are you feeling about this season?

I think it’s fucking awesome. It’s so different and the challenges were so massive. And not to get in detail or be boring, but this production, as opposed to the other productions, had so many more problems with pre-production through production — where we lost an actor five days before we were starting a shoot that was pivotal. There’s a scene that he’s pivotal. It’s an important moment with a revelation that Todd has that we had to completely rewrite. Spend time over the weekend. We had no break. We had to figure that shit out. Just all kinds of challenges — losing locations that didn’t exist anymore…much like between Season 1 and Season 2, there’s a reason when he goes to the office you only see the exterior and the lobby of the office. And that was because the building that we shot in got imploded. They tore it down to put up condos or something. 

But we had a lot of that — tons of stuff that just fell through that we were scrambling to make work. I’m very happy with it. It’s such a cool idea. Originally, it had a slightly different ending. The end was told in a different way, but then one of the editors — we have two editors that are fucking geniuses — and one of the editors put kind of his own version of the ending on which is what remains and it literally gave me chills. I just think it’s so cool what we did with this story. I don’t think to the best of my knowledge that this kind of thing has been done before. I mean there have been extensions of shows, you know, like “Arrested Development” came. You know they’re doing the “Full House” thing, visiting these people — what’s happening 10 years later. But this is a completely different approach.  

“Todd Margaret” premieres tonight on IFC.

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