Actor David Cross talks about the state of comedy, reprising the role of Tobias in ‘Arrested Development’ and his abiding love for NYC
David Cross is a comedian known just as much for his off-color stand-up humor as he is for giving life to a television character who can never ever be nude and wears cut-off jean shorts under his clothes at all times. This May, the world will finally get to see more of Tobias Fünke, Cross’s character in Arrested Development, as the series’ long-awaited Season 4 will premiere on Netflix. The show originally aired on Fox and was cancelled in its third season in 2006, but sky-high DVD sales and a huge fan base prompted the show’s creators to bring it back for a brand-new season with all of the original cast members, a phenomenon previously unheard of for long-dead TV shows. On Wednesday, March 20, Cross will be reunited with Arrested Development cast mate Michael Cera at the 92 Y on the Upper East Side (92Y.org for tickets) as Cera moderates a conversation with Cross on his work and career. Cross, who lives with his wife, actress Amber Tamblyn, in Brooklyn, spoke to us about his comedy career and what it was like to get back into those cut-offs after a six-year hiatus.
You started out doing standup. How do you think the comedy scene has changed since you started?
If you’re talking specifically standup, the biggest difference is that you used to really only be able to do sets at comedy clubs, which there weren’t that many of, and I cut my teeth during the 80s comedy boom. I happened to be in Boston, which was great for a person like me, who wasn’t particularly audience-friendly, because they just had to fill slots. There were so many: every country western bar and college and coffee house and Laundromat. There were standup gigs everywhere. Chinese restaurants, oddly enough, a lot of the time. But now, with the internet and the ability to get your shit shown potentially by a million people in a week, is the biggest difference. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was coming up.
When Arrested Development ended in 2006, did you or anyone working on it ever think you’d have the chance to revisit it?
No. Absolutely not. For us it was very unceremonious dropping. It was a relief, in a sense, because we lived week to week, day to day really, not knowing if it was going to be our last week. It’s a shitty way to do a show and a shitty way to do any job. The idea of grassroots saving the show was fairly new.
It was almost like you guys were making a show for rewatchability, before people were rewatching stuff in general.
I don’t know how much of an edict that was, but that was certainly something Mitch [Hurwitz, the show’s creator], and James Vallely [one of the head writers] thought about, and took pride in that there were all of these extra jokes in there that paid off on that second or third watching. But you certainly can’t pitch a show that way. “People won’t like it the first time, but by the second or third time they’re really gonna like it!”
So you come back to this character you essentially thought you were done with. Was it difficult to get back into playing Tobias?
No, no. All I did to prepare really – I needed to refresh my memory on certain little nuances and ticks that the character had. But I just watched like three episodes. I hadn’t seen any of them since we did the commentary for them. So it was kind of fun to watch, and I had never seen any of them with my wife. There were a couple of times on set [filming season four] where they would show you something – not that you weren’t matching it, but it was to show you “This thing happened. This scene is taking place 12 hours after this episode of the third season. So take a look at this.” But outside of that, it was a pretty easy character to slip into. The key to Tobias is not saying contractions, saying the whole word. Like instead of “can’t” saying, “cannot.” That’s pretty much it.
Did you have to get ready to wear those jean shorts again?
Well, I certainly gained a little weight since we stopped shooting in 2006 – that became apparent. You know, I look six years older.
That much time has passed for the characters, right?
Yes and no. There are flashbacks, flash-forwards. There are a couple of scenes that take place shortly after the last episode. But we travel quite a bit, through them.
The fact that you were shooting for Netflix – did that affect anything? For example, did you have to bleep curse words?
Oh no. Not at all. In fact, I think there was one joke for Tobias where I said one curse word – I think there’s two or three times I say it, which is kind of surprising. Yeah, you can say whatever you want.
The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, a show that you co-wrote and starred in, also has a very well-planned narrative arc. Do you find yourself drawn to projects like that?
I’m definitely drawn towards storytelling. It’s harder work, but it’s more satisfying. It’s more of a challenge, but if you can make something funny within it, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and if some of its parts are entertaining – I’m much more interested in that. It’s just where I am as a human and consumer of entertainment. I prefer the kind of story that has a beginning, middle, and an end, that’s not open-ended to something that’s just gags.
What was it like to work with Will Arnett on that show in this different character dynamic?
It was fine. Shaun Pye, the British co-writer of Todd Margaret, and I wrote with Will in mind. It was never going to be anyone else but Will. I love the British model. You do six [episodes] and that’s it. We got to write every episode before we shot anything and then shoot everything before we went into the edit so you really have more control. I think it’s a better way to work.
What are the things you love most about living in New York?
The tangible, moment-to-moment things I miss [when I’m away] more than anything, it’s walking. When I go to LA, my wife has an apartment on the West Side in Venice, and I stay there. You can walk for a while, but aesthetically, it’s not as pretty. Where I would walk a 3-mile circle in Los Angeles, you kind of see the same old shit. Jamba Juice and CVS, and some sushi place and one of those haircut barbershop things, and a tattoo parlor. In New York, when you walk three miles, you travel through all different kinds of neighborhoods. You see people, there’s everything happening on the street. There’s just an energy – the visuals are beautiful.
Is there any small tidbit you could share about the upcoming Arrested Development season?
I’m so sworn to secrecy on all of it.
All of the episodes are going to come out at once. Do you recommend people watch them in order, or out of order, or all in one day, or space them out?
The way it’s designed is, there’s a story being told. So if you watch it sequentially you’ll get that story – but you don’t have to. It is not paramount to your viewing experience. If you do watch it out of order, it’ll be interesting because there’s nothing detracting about that. But your experience will be different. You can’t make a mistake. The only thing you can do that’s dumb – some characters have two parts – is watch the second part first. Outside of that, you can watch George Sr.’s episodes, then you can click over and watch Lindsay. Everybody at some point interacts with the other people. It’s like a large venn diagram.
What are some other projects you’ve got coming up?
I did two indie movies. One is out now on video-on-demand and iTunes, and it comes out in theatres April 12th. It’s called It’s a Disaster. It’s really good. I saw a screening with a real, actual audience at the LA film festival. And there’s another movie called Kill Your Darlings that I have not seen, – but I assume it’s good. It has a pretty killer cast, and just got picked up at Sundance. I start work tomorrow on The Heart, She Holler, the PFFR [mini-series] production for Adult Swim.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know?
You know, just get checked for Hep C.
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