David Cross on His Friendship with Bob Odenkirk, Creating the 'Anti-SNL' and Why He'd Like to Be the New Pitchman for Cheetos

About to embark on a new tour, the alt-comedy legend has built his career out of proudly following a DIY ethos. At 58, he has no intention of changing things up now — or worrying about making TV shows to fit an algorithm
David Cross on His Friendship with Bob Odenkirk, Creating the 'Anti-SNL' and Why He'd Like to Be the New Pitchman for Cheetos

Which is your favorite David Cross? In a career that’s spanned nearly 35 years, the Emmy-winning artist has done a little bit of everything. Maybe you love the sketch comic who, alongside longtime collaborator Bob Odenkirk, created Mr. Show, the influential, still-terrific series that was one of the epicenters of L.A.’s alternative comedy revolution of the 1990s. Perhaps you prefer his portrayal of Tobias Fünke, the wonderfully ineffectual brother-in-law in Arrested Development. Do you deeply dig the absurdist, pointed comedian whose 2002 live album Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! was Grammy-nominated? Or maybe you’re a big fan of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, the acclaimed show he created and starred in for IFC — or his low-budget satire Hits, which premiered at Sundance and poked fun at all the wannabe celebs hoping to emulate the toxic reality stars they worshiped? Truly, there’s a David Cross for every occasion.   

Acerbic one minute, astonishingly silly the next, Cross (who’s now 58) is an institution, celebrated for his politically outspoken comedy and DIY aesthetic. If he’d been a musician, he would be an indie rocker. (In fact, he’s toured with indie bands, putting out Shut Up through vanguard underground label Sub Pop.) But of all the different creative endeavors he’s tackled over the decades, stand-up remains among his truest loves. His last major tour was cut short because of COVID, forcing Cross to improvise, turning one of the few shows he did into a lo-fi special, 2022’s I’m From the Future. But in 2023, he’s back to do a proper tour, entitled the “Worst Daddy in the World Tour.” Which reminds me: There’s yet another David Cross, the one who’s a husband and father. (His daughter Marlow was born in early 2017.)

It’s mid-January when Cross jumps on Zoom from Brooklyn to talk to me about his new tour. Other comedians mellow over time, downshifting to become more heartwarming or endearing. But while Cross is the furthest thing from abrasive during our 80-minute conversation, there are fundamental aspects of his personality that haven’t changed simply because he’s a family man. Discussing wanting to be careful not to inundate Marlow with his pessimistic — some might say realistic — worldview, Cross says, “There’s certain things (about the world) that I am totally cool with lying to her about, which is a hard thing — I have a weird thing about lying and even exaggeration. There’s certainly some things I’m just not going to explain right away, and I will outright lie to her. But a lot of things that other people might sugarcoat, I don’t.”

Cross was the same way during our interview: He didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about cracking jokes, instead being incredibly thoughtful and honest about his career, his legacy, the mistakes he’s made, the dream projects that didn’t come to fruition and his evolving feelings about the concept of “selling out.” Whether the topic was mental health or the 2017 controversy involving offensive comments Charlyne Yi (who uses they/them pronouns) accused Cross of making to them, he was refreshingly forthright, allowing himself to be candid and vulnerable in his responses. Which doesn’t mean he wasn’t funny, too: I consider it an honor to have been the straight man for one very expertly wry punchline he delivered. Serious or hilarious, the man contains multitudes. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You’re doing a show tonight, and then the tour starts rolling soon after. How are you feeling right now as everything’s about to get going?

There’s a couple different things. One, in the general sense of how I usually feel at this stage of getting a tour ready — and I should just know better at this point because, what is this, my seventh, eighth tour? — I’m ready to go now. Literally, the same thing happens every time: I’m looking at the (tour start) date that’s way in the future, and I’m like, “Oh man, I have a lot of work to do.” I don’t start literally from scratch, but pretty much — there’ll be a handful of things that I won’t do when I get to the point where I record a special, because I’ll have developed new material, and I’m not going to do a two-hour thing. 

So some of that goes in the back pocket for next time, but roughly 90 percent of it has to be written from scratch, and it’s daunting. I’m like, “Oh, this is never going to work. I’m not going to be able to make it in time.” Then halfway through the time I’ve given myself, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m good. I got it all. I’m ready to go.” 

I think I was ready, truly, a month ago. Now, I’m just sitting back waiting. I’m doing one (warmup show) every two weeks so I can just stay fresh and sharp, and if anything else occurs to me while I’m on stage, I’ve got that. But I’m ready to go.

Obviously, jokes are the most important thing, but when you’re putting together a new set, are you also thinking, “Where am I in my life? I want this tour to be a snapshot of my mindset at the moment”?

I never approach it that way — it’s really about the jokes. Roughly, a third of my sets are usually anecdotal — like, “This thing happened to me. I was in line at…,” whatever. A third is jokes that occur to me, and a third are just sort of commenting on topical, current events or things in the news. You get up there and see what happens. 

The process of starting from scratch, I’ll take a little break after I finish a tour, but not too long. Then I’ll start the process again, where I just am doing these shows called “Shootin’ the Shit (Seein’ What Sticks).” It’s nice because I don’t feel a whole lot of pressure to kill — that’s not what it’s about. It’s about finding with the audience — and through the audience — what’s working, what I should pursue, what’s not a good idea. It’s a really fun part of the process. I’ll always have special guests, so we go up and do three 15-minute chunks initially. Then I winnow the guests down until it’s just me. I’m kind of lucky that it’s just like, “All right, here we go, let’s see if it works.” There’s not a lot of pressure and it’s fun for everybody.

During Oh, Come On, one of my favorite bits was you talking about having a kid and then pointing out that an audience at a stand-up show will immediately think, “Oh god, are we gonna have to hear a lot of jokes about being a new dad?” The name of the new tour made me wonder if that’s a hint of what this new material was going to be like. 

One of the things I struggle with is coming up with a title for the show, because the ones that I come up with are either way too silly or way too pretentious — or a pun that I don’t like. The reason why I went with “Worst Daddy in the World” — which is something that my daughter has called me numerous times, she lets me know that I’m the worst daddy in the world — is, like a lot of my sets, I have a lot of provocative bits and ideas that some people may not care for, but I want to sneak those in. I have my fair share of stuff about being a dad and having a daughter — and who I am and the kind of person I am to be raising a kid with my ideas. Not that I raise her with my ideas, but it’s filtered through my sense of what is morally and ethically right and what’s morally and ethically wrong. But I don’t have a whole lot of that. 

So, really, the title is kind of a feint. It really is just designed to sound a little sweet and a little benign, because there’s plenty of stuff that will upset some people. But trust me: Not even a third of it is stuff about, “Oh, she said this, and I did this.” That’s really just to ease you into the other harder stuff.

You released your 2022 special I’m From the Future directly through your website as opposed to going through Amazon or Netflix. Did you learn anything from that experience?

The only thing that’s different is you get to see the numbers. Netflix isn’t going to tell you what you did — I think, in part, so they control how much you’re going to make the next time. It’s good that I can go, “Oh wow, I didn’t know I had so many fans in Scotland — I’ll definitely make sure I go there on tour.” Stuff like that is helpful. But I’ve self-produced a bunch of stuff — I guess it’s the distribution that’s different. But I can’t say I learned a whole lot outside of that, because it’s all the same: Whoever is distributing it, once it goes in the audience’s hands, there’s no real control. 

When you put out something like I’m From the Future, do you revisit it, say, six months later and go, “Okay, I want to do my next tour differently”? Do you go back and reevaluate yourself that way?

By the time that I’ve put it out, I have been through hours and hours and hours and hours of editing, and I know what the set feels like from my perspective and now I can see it from another perspective. A lot of it is, it’s still different to watch a set on TV and watch it live — those are just different experiences. I mean, I’m always going to think of better ways after it’s shot and out there: “Oh, you know what I should have done? I shouldn’t have mentioned this thing then — I should have waited ‘til this thing.” That’ll always occur to me later. 

But I’m From the Future, I didn’t have time to refine that set. I mean, that set would’ve been quite different if I had been on tour and I had done 80 dates, but I shot that around the 40th date. That one, I’ll forgive myself a little bit because that didn’t get a chance to really cook out on tour.

Because you’re into music, I think of I’m From the Future almost like a band going into the studio and not worrying about overdubs and just playing live. There’s something that’s really appealing about that special in that it feels much more immediate. 

There was more of a DIY type of approach to it as well — I did it all myself. It’s not in a huge theater — it was at the Bell House and I think it’s 450 people, but you can lose at least 25 because we had to put cameras around. So it was more intimate than doing a taping at a big theater, which is nice, too. 

Last year, there was word that you and Bob Odenkirk were working on a new comedy series about “rival cult gurus” for Paramount+. Is that still moving forward?

No. We got the order to write the first four episodes. We wrote exactly what we pitched — we had the whole outline, it was really funny, we were looking forward to it. And they didn’t pick it up. They said no, but they were kind enough to let us go back out to the people who initially wanted to buy it, and then they all said no as well. So that show looks like it will never happen.

That’s too bad. It sounded like a funny idea, especially because it would be you two guys doing something that wasn’t about sketches, but instead telling a full story. 

It’s a whole different landscape that’s hard to predict, to anticipate what people are going to want and what they’re not going to want. It would be one thing if we wrote something different than what we pitched, but we wrote exactly what we pitched, and our pitch was quite extensive — we had outlines we gave them that were basically half of a script. I don’t know, I throw my hands up in the air. I have no idea.

You’ve been in the business for a long time, and part of it, obviously, is being told no. Does that ever get easier to deal with?

Well, this one hit a little harder. I was working on other creative endeavors with numerous other people, and we would go out and pitch the idea and the team and all that stuff — and you get really good feedback. But they’d say, “Oh man, we love you guys, but this idea just isn’t for us. This is not the kind of thing we do.” And you go, “Okay, I get it.” It’s disappointing, but it’s never bothered me. There are times when you get all the way up to the stage where you get to shoot something, and they’re like, “Oh, the tone is this but we thought it was going to be this.” It’s disappointing, but you’re like, “Oh, okay, all right, I see.” 

But this one was way more hard to come to terms with because it was Bob and his brother Bill and I, and our pitch was really good. It was a really fun project to work on. We had all these great ideas. We had a cast in mind that would’ve been just stellar and director Jason Woliner attached, who’s amazing. Half of the people that we pitched to were really enthusiastic — we almost had a bidding war — and then we went with this company where we knew the head of it very well and had a good relationship with them. 

We delivered what we said we were going to deliver — in no way did we stray from that idea. The scripts were funny. The idea of Bob and I getting to work together and riffing with some of these other comic talents and doing these scenes — it started with such a strong foundation with the script and then doing these characters and this whole story that we were telling. It was a limited series, eight episodes, beginning, middle and an end. Everyone loved it. Everybody was happy with it. We were very happy with it, and we’re our own toughest critics, and we were just so excited to move forward. That (rejection) wasn’t easy — that was pretty disappointing, and kind of crushing, too.

Obviously, I’m biased, but I’m telling you the script that Bob and Bill and I wrote that we would’ve gotten to act in with all these other great comic actors, directed by Jason Woliner, would’ve been quite successful and people would’ve liked it. They’d still be talking about it. But we didn’t get a chance to do it. There you go.

How do you process that disappointment? Do you just think, “Well, they’re idiots, so…”?

I never say they’re idiots. But what they’re looking for is not the same thing that I’m looking for, or what Bob’s looking for. We want to do the best work possible, but this is just capitalism — and culture and art being part of capitalism. They’re talking about numbers that we’ll never see. 

One of the things that came back in the notes — and in a very diplomatic and complimentary way they said, “No, thank you” — was that it was about their marketing department. I can’t help out with marketing — I mean, I could, I don’t think they’re going to want to hear it. But if you don’t know how to market something, that’s kind of on you — that’s your job. Maybe it’s not successful, but you could certainly try to figure out marketing. I’m happy to get on the Zoom for an hour and go through some ideas that might be helpful. But if the marketing department is just throwing up their hands going, “This is beyond me,” then perhaps get another job or a pay decrease. 

But, yeah, it’s really about the algorithm — and I can’t dispute it. You never had to deal with algorithms before — you just dealt with raw numbers, basically. If it’s not a critical success, are a lot of people watching it and are you driving ad revenue? Or is not a lot of people watching it, but you’re getting critical success, so it’s got longevity? 

But I’m never going to be able to write anything — nor would I want to — with the idea like, “God, I hope the computer likes it. Okay, computer, is this good for you?” That’s a fool’s errand. That is frustrating and difficult. You used to be able to have your idea and go, “Okay, here’s who we should pitch this to — this is an FX show, or maybe HBO, but definitely not NBC.” You’d have your list, you’d go out to the places that seemed right for it. Now, when people go, “That’s not really what we do at Apple TV,” I’m like, “Well, what do you do at Apple TV? There’s plenty of shows that I enjoy — I love Severance, that’s great. You only don’t do this because you don’t do anything like this, but why wouldn’t you give it a shot?” 

I can’t imagine pitching Mr. Show to HBO was remotely that difficult. 

It was not difficult because it was a live show. I think if we had to write down concepts — “How about two guys you’ve never heard of who are going to do sketches and then the sketches go like this, and then there’s a fake commercial and then this happens and then this thing happens?” — it would not be successful. That’s not a good way to get that show on the air. But before it was on TV, we were doing these live shows — they’re fun to do and we enjoy them. That was just part of the comedy scene in L.A. back in the 1990s: We were doing shows and people could just get in their cars and drive to wherever the theater was and valet-park their car (laughs) and come into the room and watch what we wanted to do. We did enough of them, and HBO was like, “Yeah, great, that’ll work.” That was easy to pitch: “What you just saw is the show — you don’t have to read anything.”

When you and Odenkirk were first getting to know each other, was it the similarities or was it the differences that were the thing that were the glue for the two of you creatively?

We’re different people with different backgrounds and frames of references. We mostly have very strong ideas and strong opinions about comedy and good comedy and what’s not good. I was less specific and focused on sketch comedy, and he was very specific and focused on it. But we’re just way more similar than we are different, but we are different — that’s part of what works, too.

Are you two more different as you’ve gotten older?

I think less. Bob was always pretty straightlaced and a workaholic, focused, healthy — and I was not. (Laughs) I was the opposite of that. I was much more of like, “I want to have fun — the most important thing to me isn’t spending 14 hours making the script work. I’ll give you 10 hours, but then I’m going to go have a drink and I’m going to have a separate life from what we’re doing in this room.” Just enjoying life, in a sense, and being able to pick up and go, “You know what, this weekend, I’m going to go to San Francisco with some friends and drop acid and walk around.” 

I slowly got out of that — Mr. Show was quite helpful, and the lessons I learned from Bob — and I became more responsible. Then I started producing my own things, which you need to have that work ethic for. When I was doing things like Todd Margaret, for instance — I mean, I did everything. You can’t afford to leave work at eight at night if you aren’t finished with stuff — you’ve got to stay, there’s just no choice. Then I got married and now I have a kid, and I’m older — I mean, that guy back then was 30 and now I’m almost 60. 

Bob and I are still very, very close. We love and respect each other, and we’ll keep working together, but he doesn’t have to wrangle me anymore. We’re in fairly constant touch with each other — even if it’s just about “How’s it going? What’s happening?” He’s one of my best friends and remains so. Twice, I’ve hit kind of writer’s block where I had a problem within a story or a script, and I’m like, “I can’t figure this thing out. How the fuck am I going to do this?” And I’ll call him, and he just has the answer straightaway. 

In your stand-up, and also something like Hits, anger guides your comedy. There’s catharsis in that. But when you’re developing the material, are there moments where you think, “Is this too angry?”

It’s not whether I’m too angry, but whether it’s coming off too angry. I think that can be a little abrasive and nobody wants to see that for an hour. 

Part of my work in developing the material is to really be judicious in where that anger comes out. Sometimes I’ve had to write little notes on my set list, a reminder — “Slow down” or “Don’t be so angry” — because I’ll get tripped up, too. Obviously, not when I’m out on tour when I’ve got the material done, but in the beginning, yeah, it’s like, “Dial it down, dial it down, bring it down, make it relatable, find a new way, find a new angle.” 

A really good example of that is in I’m From the Future, when I talk about the bit that lent itself to the title about going back in the past and talking to kids about what they were going to become — because no five-year-old looks at these (bigoted) adults behaving this way going, “Ooh, I want to be like that!” You develop into that. It took me a long time to figure out the angle — I had a much different approach to that idea. Eventually, after working on it for months, half a year at least, I was like, “Oh, I know what I’ll do: Instead of doing the adult version of these things, I’m going to go back and talk to children about it.” Then I’m not doing the yell-y thing — I’m actually talking to them (imitates a patronizing tone of voice) how an adult talks to a child, very measured. 

It’s just a much better way to get that same idea across. It took me a while to figure it out, but I was like, “Oh, that’s the way to do it — that’s not off-putting to the audience.”

Do you remember how that aha moment came about?

I was watching the A-ha video, oddly enough, “Take On Me.” I was squinting at the screen like, “What is the name of this band? They don’t seem American to me.” And then I saw it, and I was like, “A-ha.” Then it all clicked into place.

It was lucky you saw that video when you were stuck.

Quite often, it’s just you walking down the street. It’s not like I’m sitting down at my desk going, “How am I going to make it work?” It’s a thing that’s in the back of your head — that happens a lot, and there’ll be nothing to even trigger it — and somehow something subconsciously triggered it. 

I’m resisting asking what the material on the new tour is about, because I’m assuming you don’t want to reveal anything. 

The less you know, the better. It’s not like I’m taking you on this journey, like a monologist — it’s not theatrical in that sense. I will say one thing you get with me as a comic — and this applies to other comics as well, but certainly not all of them, not even half of them — but there’s a 95 percent chance you’re going to get a completely unique show that’s different to the show that I just did in Pittsburgh, that’s different to the show I did in Nashville. I’m very extemporaneous, I’m in the moment — things happen, things occur to you. Each show has its own personality and feeling to it. 

People know your political leanings, obviously, but do you prepare for shows differently if you’re going to be playing in, say, the South or the Midwest? 

You should learn early on that it’s foolish to prejudge an audience or a show — I’ve been wrong so many times. The very last American show of “Oh, Come On” was in Omaha, Nebraska. I’d never played there before. And it was at one of these newer civic-center type things — it just had that vibe, very antiseptic and white and felt new and gleaming. I didn’t know anything about Omaha — they had the little video monitors when you’re backstage in the green room, and I could see the audience. I’m like, “Oh my god, this is my last show — this tour has been so much fun — and this is going to be a lot of work. It’s not going to be fun.” And it was easily one of the top three shows of the tour — it was a big tour, and the Omaha show was so good, the crowd was awesome. 

It just goes to show you: You never know. I’ve had the inverse happen where I go, “All right, I’m in Madison, Wisconsin — I fucking kill in Madison. Madison’s great!” or wherever. And it’s just like, “Meh.” My wife will be like, “How was the show?” “Eh, it was all right. Not great — it wasn’t bad, but a little work.”

Recently, Brian Posehn did an interview with us where he said some really nice things about you. He was talking about doing stuff DIY-style, and he said, “David Cross always does that. He’s the Fugazi of comedy. He’s always had his finger on how to get it directly to his people. He’s always been good at that. He was one of the first of us to do an independent record label, going with Sub Pop before anybody else.” I was curious how you felt about that quote. 

With Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!, like so much of my career and the worthwhile projects I’ve worked on, it wasn’t initially my idea. I was literally in a van with a band — I was touring music clubs, having a band called Ultrababyfat, which were friends of mine from Atlanta, open for me. It couldn’t have been more than 20 rooms up and down the Eastern Seaboard, just having fun and with no idea of “Let’s record this, let’s put this out there.” We were driving to the very last show in Savannah, Georgia, and I got a call out of the blue from a guy: “Hey, my name’s Tony and I’m with Sub Pop — would you have any interest in making a live album?” And I’m like, “Oh my god, you’re never going to believe this — I’m actually on tour right now. I can just extend this tour and we can add more dates and we’ll just do what I’m doing.”

I never would’ve even thought, “I should get an indie record label that I love who has an amazing roster and artists…” But that idea has gone into everything. I mean, even prior to that, I was on a tour where it was just music clubs with no curfew, and we’re doing fucking three-and-a-half-hour-long shows. Band goes up, plays for 30 to 45 minutes, and then just right into me, no downtime, keep the energy going — I come out and I’m going for two hours, basically as long as I can until I have to pee. That’s the show. It was awesome. 

But there’ve been all kinds of projects that I’ve done like that. Hits was a good example: I did a Kickstarter for that, self-funded, released it, went to theaters where people basically paid to have it screen there. I gave out Kickstarter rewards for getting it going. What a treat that was: Not having to deal with any of the other shit was great.

It’s a cliché now, of course, but you were part of the alt-comedy scene back in the 1990s. But so much of what you’ve done on your own since then seems like it still applies to that label. 

It’s an ethos more than anything else, and I definitely subscribe to it. It’s built into my DNA — that’s just how I approach almost everything that I’m doing myself. Alt-comedy was a label that somebody at L.A. Weekly or somewhere else came up with — and then, the next thing you know, that’s who we are. It’s somewhat applicable, but it’s an ethos, an approach — and a value system, I guess, as well.

I think about all the mumblecore filmmakers who hated that term because it sorta straitjacketed the kinds of movies they were “expected” to do. “Alt-comedy” never seemed like it hemmed you in. 

Yeah, and it doesn’t apply anymore, and it hasn’t for a long time. It only applied for a handful of years, and then mainstream culture caught up with it. Alternative comedy was alternative to the kind of standard club comic who had the blazer and the rolled-up sleeves and the skinny tie and the setup-and-then-punchline kind of joke. I mean, that was alternative for a couple minutes at some point early on. But now there’s no such thing as alternative comedy. It’s just that.

I remember when Mr. Show aired, and people would call it the “anti-Saturday Night Live.” Seems like every sketch show that comes along is described that same way. Back then, did you guys ever think, “We’re doing the anti-Saturday Night Live”?

Yes, but it didn’t drive us. We didn’t have motivational posters up that we would kiss our hand and then tap the poster going, “Anti-SNL.” But it definitely informed what we were doing. And Bob had a much more direct conflict with it because he had worked on SNL and did not have a very good experience — completely understandably because of the restrictions of how they work. He didn’t want those restrictions, and good comedy should not have those restrictions. 

But SNL is not good comedy. I mean, it is what it is — it serves a certain purpose. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to turn around a show in six days and service the personality of somebody, whoever the host is, who may not have any particular set of acting or comedy chops. They do a good job at it — they do the best that can be done — but that best thing is never going to be like… Every once in a while you get a little nugget in there, because they let it air at the end of the show. But that’s not good comedy writing — it’s not a good formula, it’s never going to be a great show. It’s an institution. 

Back when it started, it was really cool and everybody was so happy that it existed and it was ballsy. But, I mean, you can say a lot of positive things about SNL now, but ballsy? No, it’s not ballsy. It’s got no teeth. But it’s not supposed to! So you can’t fault it. For all the critics who are like, “Well, this show sucked” — yeah, it’s not ever going to be that thing. You’re creating a vicious, cutthroat writers’ room and you’re psychologically fucking with people and you’re only giving them X amount of hours to create a comedy sketch that has to run through censors and standards and practices and all that. And it has to make Elon Musk seem funny. Yeah, okay, they’re doing a good job for that, but who wants that? Well, the answer is “Some people,” but people like Bob, myself and numerous others are like, “That’s not what we’re interested in.”

Part of me wonders if, 20 years ago if we were talking about SNL, you might have been more “They suck.”  

I’m sure you forgive certain things that you might not have forgiven when you’re in your 20s. Part of that comes with the perspective of “Oh, this is harder than it looks.” 

One thing that I’ve forgiven a lot more is people kind of selling out — or the concept of “selling out,” which was a much different thing when I was younger. There truly was “selling out” and the feeling of it. But that just doesn’t exist anymore. You see an actor, a comic or somebody you admire shilling for a bank that makes their money by in part exploiting other people and ripping people off — you’re like, “How much fucking money do you need?” I know these people are multi-, multi-, multimillionaires — they have anywhere from $50 million to $500 million — and you’re like, “How much more money do you need that you’re doing this gross, weird Capital One ad?” 

I think when I was younger, that would’ve really been infuriating. And now you’re like, “Oh, whatever. Go get your money.” Nobody cares anymore. People like me with that attitude are dying off. So, go get your money.

So if Chase Bank calls and says, “We want Tobias to be in a commercial where he does this…”

That I don’t think I would do — not that they would let me do it, but I don’t think I would do that. But I’ll hawk Cheetos. I don’t care — I like Cheetos. Cheetos are good. 

If Cheetos is reading this…

Listen, I’ll go beyond that. I’ll go to Frito-Lay. I’ll go to Pepsi. Anybody in the Pepsi brand, because they own Frito-Lay, Frito-Lay owns Cheetos. 

I wanted to ask about the Charlyne Yi controversy. It’s been several years now since that happened: Did it change how you felt about social media in terms of just the stuff coming at you and having people you’d never met say, “Oh, he’s a racist. Oh, he’s a sexist. He’s a horrible person”? Did it change how you interacted with the world because of what you had to deal with?

Of course. I mean, I will never forget that feeling. I’ll never forget the moment that I became aware of (Yi’s post). I was actually in an Airbnb in Melrose and just off of Highland, and I was going to Target on Santa Monica, I believe, to get some stuff because I was flying back to New York later that day. The first thing I did was call Michael Cera, who was their boyfriend at the time. And I’m like, “Hey man, I just saw this thing that somebody sent to me” — somebody was like, “You want to explain this, David Cross?” and then showed me (Yi’s) post. And I’m like, “Oh my god, I had no recollection of that at all.” So, I call Michael Cera. He said, no, he didn’t remember that at all. First, he thought it was a prank thing — he didn’t think that they had written it. I’m like, “I’m looking at it right now — I’m telling you, this is the thing.”

I do remember the occasion: All these actors were gathered in this open hotel bar, like in the lobby of the hotel, in Shreveport. I mean, there must have been, I’m going to guess, 30 people, give or take, that were working on this movie, other actors. There’s one other actress that I reached out to and said, “Do you remember this at all?” She had no recollection of it. And Michael goes, “Boy, that would’ve been a really dark night — I would certainly remember that.” So I thought, “Okay, I’m not crazy here.”

My response was not smart. I responded immediately (online), which wasn’t good. I misspelled their name. I used language I shouldn’t have used like, “You might be misremembering this” and things that would make people go, “Fuck you, asshole.” Then I speculated, which I still… It’s the only possible explanation — the only thing I can think of is I thought I was being funny and doing this redneck character, like Ronnie Dobbs, this thing that I’ve done a million times. We were in the South. Again, I don’t remember this. 

And also, as my sister pointed out immediately when she saw (the controversy), she's like, “You would never, ever make fun of somebody for being poor or for their clothes, ever.” (Editor’s Note: In Yi’s original post, they wrote, “He made fun of my pants (that were tattered because I was poor).”) I grew up poor — we grew up poor — and it’s really deeply personal to me, and I’m hyper-aware and sensitive to that shit. I, on my own, David Cross, would never laugh at somebody for having ripped jeans. I would never try to belittle them for not having money — it’s just so out-of-character and something that never occurred either before or since. 

Then, I stupidly reached out to them, and we went back and forth and I did everything privately. I apologized to them privately, which I learned the hard way you’re not supposed to do: Everything’s supposed to be in public. You have to make that, all the discussions we had, I was supposed to put out in an open thing to them out in public. 

I learned a lot of lessons about that and about how nobody cares about context, which is disappointing. But that’s the new world we live in. Nobody cares about your context at all. To this very day, I will still get responses from people saying I’m a racist piece of shit, anti-Asian, I hate Asian people, I’m racist, I hate whoever. I know there was a writer on a show — somebody I’ve never met, to the best of my knowledge, who doesn’t know me at all — who wrote like, “David Cross is a racist piece of shit. Fuck him.” 

It’s just a tough thing, and it will follow me forever. Forever and ever and ever. People who actually know me know that I’m not racist or whatever -ist you want to attribute to me. But, yeah, that was a shocker and a bummer and remains one to this day. 

Maybe you actually did this and I just wasn’t aware, but were you ever tempted to talk about what happened and the fallout up on stage? It’s very different, obviously, but Chris Rock is doing his new special in March, and everyone just wants to hear what he has to say about The Slap

Yeah, I didn’t say, “Call the booker, I’m going to address this.” But I had a number of sets that came up shortly after that, and I talked about it. But it was a thing where it wasn’t funny — I was still angry. “How dare you sound like you’re the victim? You made this poor young person feel terrible, and said racist, awful things to them. How dare you try to explain it so that you can get our sympathies?” It wasn’t eloquent and it was angry, because I was angry, and it’s just not a good look.

Charlyne’s memory is their memory — I’m not going to dispute it. I checked with two other people — one that was literally as close to them as anybody, both physically and intimately — who had zero recollection, truly thought it was a fake thing. But something happened, they wouldn’t make that stuff up out of the blue. The only thing I can think of is that I was trying to be funny doing this character. 

But my comedy isn’t about making you cry — I’m not a fucking conservative Republican who delights in the pain of others. I mean, that’s not who I am or my comedy — I try to punch up, not punch down. It’s just so out-of-character. I’m sorry that that was their experience, but it certainly wasn’t intended and I just don't remember it. It’s just terrible that it happened and that they felt that way.

You’ve talked about depression and anxiety in your stand-up. I think artists across the board, when they’re younger and are facing that mental-health stuff, can be like, “I don’t want to take anything because I don’t want to hamper my creativity.” That journey for you, did it take a while?

Absolutely, totally. I felt like I was going to lose a part of myself and I wouldn’t be true to myself. Look, everybody’s different — we’re all made of chemicals and we take other chemicals to neutralize or enhance those chemicals — and everybody reacts differently to different things. But, for me, I really struggled with it. It also lent itself to more anxiety and the catch-22 of that. But then, things got so bad I just didn’t have much of a choice. I started some medical treatments in the form of different cocktails of different things, finally found the one that worked, and it was great. 

I was on and off of them for, geez, 15 years, I’d say — close to 20. Then, when I wanted to get married to my wife, I said, “Listen, I’m going to go off of this stuff, so you know what I’m like when I’m off of this stuff.” I thought that was fair and important, because I had reactions to going off of that stuff cold turkey. I had to bring down my dosage, then eventually went off, and I haven’t been back on. There have been occasions where I’ve thought I should go back on — or my wife thought I should — but I learned so much by going to therapy. I learned a skill that I didn’t have prior to that of not going so far deep down the rabbit hole and being able to get myself out. Sometimes it lasts longer, the dip, but it’s never lasted for more than three days — maybe four days tops. It’s never gone as deep and as far down as it did before. 

That’s something I worked on. Now that I have a daughter, I can’t afford that at all. And I have no pride in this, zero pride: If I felt I needed to (go back on medication) again, then I’ll do it again in a heartbeat. But I haven’t. I’ve had moments, but it’s like not a week of being catatonic and not eating and being lost. Those days, knock on wood, seem to be in the past for good. I’m in a better place, certainly, than I was before.

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?