PLAYBOY: Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: You’re an American comic who went to London to make a TV show called The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, about an American office temp who goes to London to sell energy drinks, and the show was picked up in the U.S. by a cable network devoted to independent films. Is there not an easier way to get on TV?
DAVID CROSS: (Laughs.) I guess I did choose the more roundabout way. I totally bypassed being a YouTube sensation and signing an eight-digit contract with a big-four network. Well, it’s not like I went looking for it. I was in London doing standup, and some producers from a U.K. network asked if I’d be interested in developing a show that could potentially be sold back to the States. And they wanted to do something more interesting than the same old fish-out-of-water story. It wasn’t just about an American idiot in a foreign land, “Gee, I’m in Britain and things sure are different!” I had more creative freedom to take risks in the U.K. than I ever had in the U.S..
PLAYBOY: After shooting two seasons of Todd Margaret in London, does it feel more like home than New York City, where you’ve lived for over a decade?
DAVID CROSS: In the beginning, I vacillated wildly about whether I liked London or not. The first time I was there, it was for nine months straight without seeing my girlfriend. And for the second season of shooting Todd Margaret I was there for seven months. It could be frustrating and lonely, but that’s no reflection on London. I guess New York is about as close to London as you’re going to get in the States, even though they’re wildly different. They’re both very condensed, and very conducive to walking, and aesthetically beautiful. They also both smell like urine, but New York has more of an asparagus quality to the pee, and in London it’s like sour clotted cream and broken enamel.
PLAYBOY: Have you taken on any British mannerisms or colloquialisms? Do you call a bathroom the “loo” now?
DAVID CROSS: I’ve started saying “Take the piss out of,” as opposed to “fucking with.” It just seems more appropriate and civil than saying, “Oh, we were just fucking with you.” That was one thing. And then the first time I got back to New York after being in London, I was at St. Mark’s and crossing over Avenue A to go to the park, and I totally looked the wrong way for traffic. I looked the English way and almost got side-swiped. Oh, and I also tried to use my Oyster Card at the Metro station.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been beaten and abused quite a bit on Todd Margaret. Most recently this season, you were crushed under a rugby team. Did that hurt as much as it looked?
DAVID CROSS: I had a stunt double for the really rough stuff. If you freeze-frame it, you can clearly see where the double is taking most of the shots. He just got walked on. That was probably the best pseudo-Thai massage he ever got. But we did have to get some closeups of my face, so I still ended up getting trampled on. And those guys weren’t professional actors. They were an actual rugby team. They were big, beefy fucking guys. They’re thick. Even though they were trying to go easy on me, they got some digs in. In the heat of the moment, it got ugly.
PLAYBOY: Arrested Development, the short-lived but beloved TV series, is reportedly returning in 2013 with another season and a movie. You were one of the few cast members who insisted for years that a reunion would never happen. Are you more optimistic now?
DAVID CROSS: I’m semi-optimistic. It’s not just about whether (series creator) Mitch (Hurwitz) wants to do it. It’s a matter of the network divisions talking to the movie divisions at these different studios and production entities. Who knows how long that will take, and hopefully it won’t turn it into a typical Hollywood pissing contest. I’m definitely more confident than I was before, but that’s not to say I’m 100% confident. I will not be 100% confident until it’s completely made. When we had that Arrested Development reunion at the New Yorker Festival last September, we were all like “Oh my god, it’s been too long! We’ve got to hang out!” I’ve talk to Will (Arnett) and Jason (Bateman) a couple times, but I haven’t heard from anybody else since.
PLAYBOY: Tobias Fünke, your character on Arrested Development, had an obsession with joining the Blue Man Group, and often wore the blue makeup. Was putting on all that blue paint a pain in the ass?
DAVID CROSS: It was a huge pain in the ass. It took a long time to get completely made up, and then you couldn’t touch anything. The paint is fairly greasy, and if you touched anything at all, even just a finger to your nose, it’d smudge and you’d have to go back to makeup. So I’d be sitting there for hours, trying not to touch anything. And then at the end of the day, I’d have to take a minimum of two showers and quite often three before I’d get it all off and could go to bed. There was no jerking off without serious colorful repercussions. And then in the last season, the real Blue Man Group was on the show, and George Senior (played by Jeffrey Tambor) had become a member and they were putting the blue makeup on him, and the Blue Man guys were like, “No, no, no. What are you doing? We don’t do it that way.” Apparently they just wear a big blue unitard with an oval opening for the face, and their face is the only part they actually paint blue. Makes sense, if you think about it, but I wish I had fucking known that two years earlier. It would’ve saved me a lot of misery.
PLAYBOY: Tobias suffered from “never-nude” syndrome, a fictional disorder that made him incapable of being naked. But there’s a real phobia called “Gymnophobia,” a fear of nudity. Have you ever met an Arrest Development fan with gymnophobia?
DAVID CROSS: I wish I had, but no. Speaking of Gymnophobia, that’s going to be my new rap name. I’ll be Jim, spelled J-I-M, No Phobia, two words. Jim No Phobia. That’s my Christian rap name. (Laughs.)
PLAYBOY: You don’t seem to be the kind of guy who’s bashful about his body. When was the last time you were naked in public?
DAVID CROSS: I’ve been kicked out of a number of places for getting naked. The last time was the Soho House. Or was it the Metropolitan? It was some fancy place in London where I took my pants off. Cause I didn’t want to be there anymore, and all my friends wanted to be there. I was really drunk and being a brat, so I was trying to get us kicked out. It worked, by the way. I love nudity. It’s just such an easy, cheap laugh. And it’s fun to do. I have no qualms whatsoever about taking my clothes off for no reason.
PLAYBOY: You grew up poor in rural Georgia, sometimes sleeping in motels or the couches of friends. Does that instinct ever leave you? Do you still have those survival skills?
DAVID CROSS: One of the skills I learned early on was how to get cheap food. You learned which bars or restaurants were having happy hour specials, or where you could get a baked potato on Thursday nights for half the price. There was a period when we didn’t have a TV, so I made friends with the guy who had the biggest TV, with a mom who let him watch all the time, so I could go over there and watch Six Million Dollar Man. I was a kid for most of the really, really poor times, from seven to about fifteen, so it’s not like I was being asked to do all that much, except at a minimum just understand what my mom was going through. She found herself suddenly abandoned with no real skills and three hungry kids who were going, “Why are we in fucking Roswell, Georgia? Why do we have no money? What happened to Dad? What’s going on?” You just have to be mature a little bit faster.
PLAYBOY: You went to a performing arts high school in Atlanta. Please tell us that it was exactly like the movie Fame.
DAVID CROSS: I was at that school right around the time that Fame came out. I remember one day I was in the cafeteria and we were all eating. Everybody in the school hung out in their little cliques. There were the dancers and the theater kids and the musicians, all at their own tables. I don’t remember how it started, but clearly somebody… (breaks down laughing) I’m sorry, I’m sorry. This is one of my favorite memories and I will treasure it for the rest of my life. There’s a scene in Fame called “Hot Lunch Jam,” where a guy in the cafeteria starts banging on the table with his knife and fork and then someone joins in with a piano and a saxophone and pretty soon the whole place erupts in music. A few people at my school tried to start a hot lunch jam. There was like a drummer and a trumpet player and some girl jumped up on the table and started to dance. I guess they thought the rest of us would join in, but we were like, “Oh, are they…. they’re not…. wait, are they trying to do Hot Lunch Jam?” We just stared at them, slack-jawed, and it petered out in the most embarrassing, pathetic way possible.
PLAYBOY: You were voted “Most Humorous” at your high school. What kind of class clown were you? The irreverent, authority-hating kind, or the kind that made the teachers laugh?
DAVID CROSS: If I made any teachers laugh it was despite themselves. I was very much a playing-to-the-back-of-the-room guy. Still am, I suppose. Also, it was the South in the 70′s and early 80′s so just saying the word “transvestite” could get you into trouble. Which in 6th grade, it did.
PLAYBOY: When you first moved to Los Angeles in the early 90s with fellow comic John Ennis, you lived in a frat house on the UCLA campus. Was it a non-stop party, or a nightmare of drunken douchebaggery?
DAVID CROSS: It was both. It was a non-stop party for them, and a nightmare of drunken douchebaggery for us. The rent was something like $210 a month, which was all we could afford at the time. We’d been staying in a car, so this was definitely a step up. It was a low-rent frat house. Zeta Si, I think it was. They were not very well respected in the frat hierarchy. And they all gave themselves these really stupid names, like Doctor and the Frenchman and Dutch and Smoky. It’d be like, “Hey, nice to meet you. I’m Animal!”
PLAYBOY: Did Animal name himself after the Muppet Show drummer?
DAVID CROSS: He might have, I don’t know. But he wasn’t a drummer. He did, however, throw furniture off the roof cause he was drunk and pouty. He was a big guy in that John Matuszak way. He looked frightening from afar and he liked to pretend that he was, but up close he wasn’t really that scary. It was as if everybody who lived in the frat had just watched Animal House. There’s no other explanation for why a 21-year-old college student would be smoking a pipe.
PLAYBOY: When you’ve done standup comedy, it’s usually at a music venue or concert hall rather than a conventional comedy club. Why is that?
DAVID CROSS: Comedy clubs just don’t feel comfortable. When I was getting started, I spent well over a decade and a half performing at comedy clubs, and audiences have too many preconceived notions about what they’re going to see. You get more money at a comedy club, but there’s not as much freedom. At a music club, you can dictate all of it, every aspect of what happens. You can make it an all ages show, you can decide how much they’re going to charge at the door, you can sell merch or not sell merch, whatever. You have total free reign.
PLAYBOY: You have strong opinions about music. You once criticized popular bands like Staind and Creed, claiming that you would rather “hear the death rattle of my only child” than listen to their albums. Were you being hyperbolic?
DAVID CROSS: Of course it’s hyperbole! I mean, if I had a number of kids? That’d be different. But my only child, no. With Creed and a lot of those bands, it wasn’t so much the music as much as the posturing. The music is insipid and cloying and empty and pretentious, but it’s the posturing that really annoyed me. It’s like watching Ice Cube try to do gangster rap. You can’t help but be “Wait, weren’t you the guy in the fucking movie about taking your kids to camp?” I guess I just hold music and musicians to a higher standard. A lot of emotional touchstones in my development as a person can be traced to music. Some music can express emotions and ideas that if I tried to express the same thing, it’d just come out as obnoxious sarcasm or cynicism. I’m just not capable of it. Music is able to express those feelings I have in much more clever, original, different ways.
PLAYBOY: You played Allan Ginsberg in the movie I’m Not There. Were you cast just because you’re a bald and bearded Jewish guy with glasses?
DAVID CROSS: There’s that, sure. But also Ginsberg and I both happen to be dues-paying members of NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association). That’s where the similarity between us started. I tried to do my homework on him. I studied his videos and familiarized myself with his poems. But really, my performance was almost entirely based on the man/boy loving part of him. I even picked up a copy of the the NAMBLA newsletter from the magazine store over on St. Marks.
PLAYBOY: You infamously appeared in the Alvin and The Chipmunks movie and its sequel. Given your reputation for subversive humor, were you ever tempted to tell any of the chipmunks to go fuck themselves?
DAVID CROSS: (Laughs.) What good would that have done? It just would’ve ruined the take and I’d have to stay on the set even later. Also, I wasn’t acting with actual chipmunks. They animate the characters in later. I would’ve been yelling at air. Honestly, I tried to be as professional as I could. I always had my lines memorized and I hit every mark. All I wanted was to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible. They encouraged me to improvise and come up with funnier lines if I wanted. But my entire strategy on those movies was come in on time, shoot as much as I could as quickly as I could, and then get the hell out of there and buy a summer home with the check.
PLAYBOY: Your stand-up has gotten more confessional in recent years. Your last comedy album, 2010’s Bigger and Blackerer, featured stories about your chronic depression and struggles with drugs. Is that a product of age?
DAVID CROSS: It wasn’t something I consciously chose to do. I guess it’s a combination of maturity and just never being uncomfortable talking about the embarrassing aspects of myself. And also, there’s not a whole lot more I can say about religion or politics. There are some people that do that for their entire career. I definitely have strong feelings about politics, but I don’t know if my perspective is especially unique. I mean, Jon Stewart is on TV talking about politics every night. Colbert is on every night. Bill Maher’s on once a week. People are already saying these things that I agree with, and all I can do is reiterate that. I suppose without thinking about it, I steered towards confessional stuff because it’s unique. My experiences are unique. An audience may empathize with it, but my anecdote is my anecdote.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been an avid recreational drug user until very recently. Is there anything you still dabble in?
DAVID CROSS: Not really. I still get curious about whatever new drug comes down the pike. I remember somebody giving me Meow-Meow at a party in London last year but I didn’t get anything out of it. There was a long period where I would indulge in drugs, but I don’t think I was ever addicted to any of them. I do think crack is addictive. I smoked it once in Camden (England) and it was a huge wake-up call. I remember that there was a small fish tank that was filled with dirty dishes. There was trash — not filthy but just messy — all over the place and I loved crack! It was pretty amazing. I totally get the hype on it. But when it came time to get some more I knew, very clearly, that if I stayed there — and I wanted to — that my life would change right then and there for the worse. I would have to cancel my show — I was doing a month run at the Soho Theater — and that was always my litmus test. I never wanted to get to the point that I couldn’t perform a show or whatever work I was engaged in. So I left. I got home about 7 am, went to sleep, and then got up and did my show. It was great, and I never touched crack again.
PLAYBOY: Rumor has it that you did cocaine at a White House Correspondents Dinner, just 40 feet from President Obama. How the hell did you not get busted by the Secret Service?
DAVID CROSS: Maybe 40 feet is a bit close. It was probably more like 65 feet. And it wasn’t even that much cocaine. It was literally the size of, I don’t know, a tick. It was a tiny little granule of coke that I put on my wrist and said, “Watch this, I need a witness.” And then I ducked under the table and did it. It wasn’t like I got high. The jolt was similar to if you licked an empty espresso cup. It wasn’t about that. It was just about being able to say that I did it, that I did cocaine in the same room as the president. I’m not proud of it nor am I ashamed of it. My one regret is that I got my girlfriend (actress Amber Tamblyn) in trouble by association. I was her date, her “plus one,” and she got dragged through the mud because of what I did. She had nothing to do with it. She didn’t know I was going to do it. And because of that, she’ll never be invited to the White House again. That’s not cool.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of Amber, you got engaged to her this summer. Paint us a picture of the wedding. Will the vows have at least a few punchlines?
DAVID CROSS: Neither one of us has any desire for a traditional wedding. You know, like Kim Kardashian did. We’re definitely planning on a lot of goofy, fun stuff, and it remains to be seen where we end up compromising. We don’t have any of the details yet, so I can’t really go into specifics. But we have asked (comic) Jon Benjamin to dress up like a rabbi and (long pause, barely able to stop smiling) ask certain… questions of us. (Bursts into laughter.) We know that will be happening.
PLAYBOY: There’s a popular YouTube video of you being dragged off the stage by bouncers at a Jim Belushi concert. What happened exactly?
DAVID CROSS: I had a very unpleasant experience with Jim prior to that. We were working on a movie together (1995‘s Destiny Turns on the Radio), and his behavior was just so reprehensible and shitty and awful. I don’t want to rehash what he did, but from that point on he was fair game. So my girlfriend and I were visiting friends on Martha’s Vineyard and I saw in the local paper that Belushi was performing. We go to the show, and it’s like $45 to see his shitty cover band, which is basically just a vanity project. I decided to hop on stage and dance with him, I got kicked off, and then I hopped on again. What you don’t see in the video is Belushi saying to the crowd, “Hey, come on stage and dance with me!” And of course only pretty young girls got up there, which he had obviously hand-selected. So I was like, “Well, he invited us.” I thought it was hilarious that I got kicked out of the club. Jim Belushi is such a cock.
PLAYBOY: You’re a big supporter of political protests, and you took part in several big demonstrations against the Iraq War. What’s your take on Occupy Wall Street?
DAVID CROSS: I rode my bike down there about a week ago. I have mixed emotions and I did from the very beginning. My fear, which is born out of experience, is that the majority of the people will be well meaning but ultimately feckless and perhaps may do more harm than good. I remember when I went to the anti-war marches in Washington and New York, it felt like something significant was happening. During the Washington protest, 15 million people marched around the world that day. 15 million people, and it did nothing. It didn’t slow down the Iraq War, not even a hiccup. I hope I’m wrong, but it feels like not a whole lot is going to come of this. I’ll support it emotionally and physically and financially, but I’m at a stage where I don’t think we need a Batman to come in and sweep up all the bad guys. What we need is a Joker to blow shit up and kill people. That’s what our economy really needs.
PLAYBOY: The Church of Scientology purportedly had extensive files on South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Given how much you’ve mocked Scientology in your comedy career, are you surprised they aren’t investigating you?
DAVID CROSS: I am, actually. I wish they were! I remain disappointed that they don’t consider me important enough to put on their threat list or harass. I guess it’s because what most people would consider annoying would not be nearly as annoying to me. It would just be an invitation to be confrontational right back. I’ve gotten a few emails from Scientologists asking why I’m not making fun of other religions, which I am. But that presupposes that they’re a religion, and of course they’re not. There’s nothing they can do to me. I’m an open book. I’m not secretive about anything. They want a fight, they know where to find me.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been an outspoken atheist. But as you grow older and closer to death, have you started to soften on religion?
DAVID CROSS: Of course not. Every day brings a fresh, exciting new example of religion’s and/or religious people’s hypocrisy and utter inability to reconcile with science and the basic, simple tenets for the betterment of all mankind. It’s a delightful patchwork of man-made precepts designed to dress up the chaos and injustice and disorder of life with ideas that supposedly make miserable, unfortunate people feel better and assuage the guilt that the better off have. I have no need for either of those things.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2012 issue of Playboy magazine.)