Interview Date: 08/06/2010
Run Date: 09/30/2010
Not only is this the third time that we here at Bullz-Eye have had the opportunity to chat with David Cross, but, indeed, it’s actually the third time we’ve done so in two years…and if we get another chance, then, by God, we’ll take it! (If you haven’t gotten the idea by now, we really love the guy.) Earlier this year, the primary topic of conversation was his latest stand-up CD and special, Bigger and Blackerer, but during the course of the discussion, we briefly touched upon his upcoming TV series, a strangely-titled entity known as “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” which, at the time, was airing in the UK and had just been picked up for future Stateside screening by IFC.Fast forward four months. Cross is sitting at a table in a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, pimping the program, and as our previous conversations have only been on the phone, this is the first time he and I have actually met. To my surprise, we are joined at the table by Cross’s “Todd Margaret” co-stars Sharon Horgan and Blake Harrison, but as I hadn’t known they’d be there, I hadn’t prepared any questions to ask them. As you’ll see, I did manage to throw them a few at the end, and they occasionally commented on Cross’s answers as well. The bulk of the conversation, however, belonged to Cross, who discussed his new series at length while also touching on his contributions to Fox’s “Running Wilde” and regaling both myself and his co-stars with an anecdote about the horrendous boredom of filming the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movies.
Bullz-Eye: So I’ve seen the first episode of “Todd Margaret,” and I loved it.
David Cross: Great!
BE: Now, my understanding is that this show originally started out as a pilot on a British series called “Comedy Showcase.” Is that correct?
DC: It was… (Hesitates, consulting with his co-stars) Yes, you’re right.
BE: (Laughs) So what was the process of the show going from pilot to series, then?
DC: Well, IFC was instrumental in that. It sort of floundered around Channel 4, they were trying to figure out what they were going to do, if they were going to pick it up or let go of it. Initially, they said, “We’re not going to do it,” and I was pretty bummed out. But I was literally on the phone in my apartment in New York with Jon Benjamin, who was telling me that Adult Swim was not going to pick up our pilot, and the other line beeped in. It was (executive producer) Clelia Mountford from London, and I’m, like, “Okay, man, that sucks, obviously, but let me call you right back, I gotta take this call.” Click. “Hey, Clelia!” “David, I have some terrible news…” I was, like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I told my girlfriend, “If you’re going to break up with me, do it right now. Let’s just get it all out.”
Sharon Horgan: Oh, my God…
DC: But, then, once IFC got interested, surprise, surprise, Channel 4 is back on board! So, yeah, that’s basically what happened. We just started rolling and getting everything together again and figuring it out. I was in London within weeks, really.
BE: So how did you and (co-writer) Shaun Pye hook up in the first place?
DC: For the pilot and that process, I came over to London for about four or five days, and we just crammed my time there with just five, six, seven meetings a day with various potential writers and producers. I met with Charlie Brooker (“Dead Set”), Robert Popper (“The IT Crowd”), Sam (Bain) and Jesse (Armstrong, “Peep Show”)…a great number of people, most of whom I was secretly, like, “Wowwwwwww!” And then Shaun, I remember, was at the end of one of those days. It might’ve even been the last meeting of the last day I was there…and, then, unfairly to everybody else, we went to a pub. Because I did connect with him. I knew of him from “Extras,” but we hit it off. He’s very, very, very funny. And really mean. (Laughs) He can be really mean.
SH: (Nodding) He is mean.
DC: But in a funny way.
DC: Funny in a mean way, I should say. But, yeah, from then on, it was Shaun and I.
BE: How quickly did the concept for the first series come together? Did you have an endgame from the very beginning and just work backwards? Given the structure, I guess you pretty much had to do it that way.
DC: Yeah, I mean, I knew it was going to... (Hesitates) Before we started writing and shooting it, I knew it was going to start the way it does, where I’m in the dock, and we count down, y’know, “14 days earlier” or whatever. Every episode starts with a different day, counting down. But in between shooting the pilot and writing the series, the Alice character changed dramatically once Sharon was cast. Alice was originally written as much more of a naïve ingénue, and we had this idea for who Alice was and how she would relate with Todd, but Sharon just, you know, physically and acting-wise brings something much different than that. No one will ever cast Sharon as a naïve ingénue. It’s just impossible. I mean, look at her!
SH: (Grins and waves)
DC: So we changed that character. And, also, the Dave character changed quite a bit, and his back story changed as well. I can’t give anything away, but…I will say that this is not merely a goofy show. There are story elements to it that you don’t get in a lot of comedy shows, things that, minus the supernatural elements, you might see in shows like “Twin Peaks” or “Lost.”
BE: You made a comment during the panel about how you already had an idea for the show’s third season. Were you being facetious, or do you really envision the show going on for three or more seasons?
DC: No, I could easily end it at Season Three, assuming that these are each six-episode series, but I could also go to a Season Five, because Shaun and I talked about what happens after this initial resolution. It could easily end there, but we can also extend it another couple of series. We know how to do that. So we’ll find out what IFC wants to do.
BE: So give it to me straight: is Todd Margaret someone who doesn’t learn anything from any lesson ever?
DC: (Laughs) Clearly.
BE: I envision you and Shaun in hysterics while you were writing the scripts, just trying to see how far you could take this thing.
DC: Oh, man, the stuff that we would really crack up at is when we’re writing for Will (Arnett’s) character. I mean, it just can’t be crass or rude or sexist enough. It’s just the nastiest stuff. Those were really fun to write. And I remember really laughing hysterically at…there’s this scene where my character comes into Alice’s café wearing a BNP shirt – the British Nationalist Party, which is the right-wing party there – and he thinks it’s an “I Love London” shirt. Like, “Hey, I love England!” And Alice says, “What are you wearing?” And I go to talk to her about something, but she says, “Okay, but hang on for a second, I have to throw out this black pudding. It’s too old,” and I think she’s talking about this elderly black gentleman and that it’s just an English phrase. So I get up and say, “Okay, get out of here, buddy, you heard the lady,” and I’m wearing the BNP shirt while I’m saying, “Let’s go, you’re too old to be in here.” The idea of that, along with her coming back and saying, “What are you doing? This is black pudding!” I think we laughed for half an hour at that. And there’s a lot of stuff like that.
BE: I presume you enjoyed the opportunity to work with Will again.
DC: No, not at all. It was…honestly, it was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
BE: A-ha. So you’re really excited about working with him again on “Running Wilde,” then, I’m sure.
DC: I dread it every morning I go into work. I can’t believe I have to work with that fucking asshole again. Just my luck. Ugh…
BE: You give good pull quotes, sir.
DC: Thank you. Good to know.
BE: Aside from your co-star, though, I’d guess you’re pretty pleased about working on the show. I mean, it films in New York, and you live pretty much around the corner.
DC: I am. I really couldn’t ask for anything better than to come off of “Todd Margaret” and then to get to do this, where I’m just going in and having a good time, and all I’ve got to do is memorize my lines and hit my mark. Those are my only responsibilities. And it’s a fun character, completely different from Todd Margaret. I mean, 180 degrees different. Plus, as you said, shooting in New York...what a fucking dream.
BE: Well, I’ve got a 5-year-old daughter, who continues to be impressed that I’ve talked to you. Obviously, you’ve clarified that you’ve done the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” films for the money…
DC: …although I think I did a good job. I mean, it’s not like I phoned it in or anything.
BE: Well, sure. But of the various kid-centric projects you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite that you’ve worked on?
DC: I think the voiceover stuff, like “Kung Fu Panda,” that’s really fun to do, especially when you go see it. It’s, like, “Oh, that’s cool!” To be completely honest, though, that “Alvin and the Chipmunks” stuff, I think it would’ve been more fun if I was interacting with human beings. But it really is a long, tedious process. I mean, 80% of my scenes, it was just me and those things that aren’t there when you’re shooting, and they have to be so precise, and, you know, your eye focus marks have to be precise. There’s this scene in the second movie where I’m in the back of the limo, and then the girls escape their cage and run out…? That scene… in the beginning, before I stick my head out, up to that point took 24 hours to shoot. In the back of a limo, on a closed set, with a green screen behind me. And I think…I’m going to guess that that was about 80 seconds long. Maybe 90 seconds. And that was two full days.
SH: Looking at nothing?
DC: Looking at nothing. Well, actually, it’s a long process. They will have stuffed animals. They’ll put the stuffed animals there, and then you’ll shoot it.
SH: Well, that’s all right, then.
DC: (Holds up hand) Wait. Hang on. You put the stuffed animals there, and, you know, it’s for the editors, too, so they can kind of get an idea of where everything is. You do, like, three takes like that, and then they take the stuffed animals out. And then they have the same stuffed animals on poles, and people stand back and sort of replicate where the action of the animal is going to be. “They’re going to crawl from there to there.” They do that a couple of times. Then they take those out and they put these little things there that stick up and have points on them, to show where the chipmunks are going to be, and they’re different heights, depending on how tall the chipmunk is. They shoot those, then they take those out, and…now, even though I’ve been there for all of this, now we really start shooting.
SH: To nothing?
DC: To nothing. All day long. And it’s just…I mean, I’d be lying if I said it was fun. It’s really tedious. It’s really a long day. In both movies, there was a point where we were shooting and…well, in the second one, there’s a scene where I’m breaking into an apartment, and I send in one of the Chipmunks or Chipettes or whatever, and she’s too fat to get through, and I have to sort of pull her out. There’s nothing there. There’s a camera right here. (Gestures in front of him) We’ve shot a couple of different sides. It’s the end of the day and we’re losing the location. We have to get out of there, and we’ve been shooting for about 13 hours at this point. And my hands…here’s the slot, someone has a string that pulls it open, the camera’s ready, and I’m going like this. (Clasps hands together, leaving a chipmunk-sized hole between them) And then there’s maybe 50 minutes of this. “All right, action! Nope, you’re holding them too far up. Action! No, you’re squeezing too much.” I mean, literally, it’s that kind of preciseness…and it’s been 13 hours. I’m, like, “Just fucking tell me what to do! Just put my hands where they’re supposed to be!” It’s awful.
SH: Oh, no!
SH: What voice did you do in “Kung Fu Panda”?
DC: The Crane.
SH: Did you?
DC: (Laughs) Yeah!
SH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Blake Harrison: I love that film. I thought it was so funny.
DC: I liked that movie a lot.
SH: It’s amazing.
BH: It must be great doing a voice like that.
DC: We’re actually doing the second one right now.
SH: Are you?
DC: Yeah. And we also did a… (Makes air quotes) …holiday special. It was initially a Christmas special, but it got changed to a holiday special.
BE: The last time I talked to you, you were telling me about “Icelandic Ultra Blue,” which I have since become completely obsessed with. I really wish you could’ve done more of those.
DC: Me, too, man. We had scripts and everything. Yeah, that was fun.
BE: Is there any other project that you’ve worked on that you had higher hopes for?
DC: Yeah, “Freak Show.” But there were…I think there were a number of things wrong with that, so that doesn’t surprise me. “Icelandic Ultra Blue” was a shock that they didn’t pick it up, but “Freak Show” isn’t. There were some clear problems with that.
SH: Who was that for?
DC: Comedy Central. And Jon Benjamin and I were part of the problem, but everybody…
SH: Was it a sitcom?
DC: A cartoon. I’ll get you a copy of it. But I watched it recently…like, maybe three or four months ago…and it was funnier than I’d remembered it. I remember watching it and going, “Hey, this is pretty good! It wasn’t that bad!” So, yeah, that was disappointing. And then, you know, hopefully this (“Todd Margaret”) will continue. But if it doesn’t, then this will be a disappointment.
BE: And to close, the last time I talked to Bob Odenkirk, he said that there were still rumblings of someday doing a “Bob & David” tour. Is that still a viable possibility?
DC: Dude, look, I put together… (Hesitates) See, I have very little responsibilities outside of a dog, but he has two kids and a wife. And, also, he has no balls. So when you combine all those things, it’s not good. But I put together a calendar for a way we could do a tour in which he would make money, he would be able to go home…I can’t remember offhand, but I think he would be able to go home for four days every ten days, or something like that. It would be a six-week tour, and I said, “Here, present this to whoever needs to sign off on it.” I was, like, “You can’t ask for better than this. We’re going to suffer. We’re not going to make as much money, and we’re going to be away longer than we normally would be, but it’s in order to make it so that you can go home and so that these things that you need to address are addressed satisfactorily.” I would love to do it. I am not the guy holding up the tour. It’s not me.
(Writer’s note: I sent an E-mail to Bob’s “people,” offering David’s comments and asking for either a response or an update on the status of the tour. Mr Odenkirk promptly responded with his take on the matter: "I love David Cross. I think he's funny and I consider him one of my best friends. But, sadly, he's a liar. HE is the one with family (two of 'em - but don't tell either about the other!) Plus he claims to have Philatellaphobia - the fear of collecting stamps, which he claims keeps him stuck in the basement of his house, quaking and pooping. I would love to tour. I am standing outside my bachelor condo right now with a packed bag and a stash bag for my cocaine fixes. Oh, and I have no balls.")
BE: (To Horgan and Harrison) I just wanted to say that I’m sorry that I didn’t come prepared with questions for you guys. I didn’t know you were going to be here!
BH: No, no, no…
SH: We’re just keeping David company.
BE: I was curious, though, if you’d been fans of his work before working with him…or if you’d even been familiar with him.
DC: Should I leave? I should probably leave.
SH: (Laughs) No, it was great. I mean, I was a fan beforehand, but I hadn’t sort of known as much about him as I did by the time we ended up doing the series. By then, I’d seen his standup and everything, so I was a bigger fan by that point. But I thought it was really good fun. It was much more fun than the pilot. Also, you kind of forget that when someone’s doing the whole thing…they’ve written it, they’re producing it, they’ve got their eye on every single thing…you’re kind of wondering why they’re not being as happy-go-lucky, like a regular actor would be. But when you’ve got your mind on eighteen things at one time… (Trails off) But even apart from that, with that aside, it was really good fun.
DC: And Sharon basically did the same thing I did with “Todd Margaret” with her show, “Pulling.” It was similar, anyway.
SH: Yeah, it was exactly the same. Like, the pilot I just did was the least fun thing I’ve done for ages, and I was so disappointed, because it was different in style, so there were a million more things to think about than I’d normally have to. I found that it just didn’t even feel like I was in the scenes, because I was looking at every single other thing, wondering, “Why is that extra standing there? He’s not supposed to stand there at that time,” and, “Why is that table empty? There should be something on it.” Just stupid stuff.
DC: Yeah. You can’t turn it off. I mean, I did the best I could to enjoy in-the-moment stuff…
SH: I think we did, in the end, have a laugh.
DC: We did.
SH: Actually, pilots are much more stressful, because all you want to do is get a series.
DC: And, also, people don’t know what their character is. They don’t know where it’s going. I didn’t even exactly know where it was going.
BH: I knew David from more, like, “Kung Fu Panda” and “Scary Movie 2” and stuff like that.
DC: Blake is 12 years old, by the way.
BH: (Laughs) But, like, since I found out I was potentially going to be working with David, I watched a lot of “Arrested Development,” and I just fell in love with the series. It’s so brilliant. And working with David was great because of, like, the whole improv side of thing. David is absolutely fantastic, probably one of the best. Well, arguably. You know, excluding Russia and Germany. (Laughs) But he’s one of the best improv guys around, so knowing that you’re going to be doing that form…I mean, it’s a scripted show, but David does encourage everyone to throw in their little bits and improv here and there when they can. And that’s incredibly kind, to work with somebody like that. As a younger actor…or any actor, really…you can only learn from working with people who are the best in their field of work. And David is that. So it’s a great kind of joy to work with somebody like that.
DC: And I cut my fee down quite a bit. Normally, it’s $180 a session. I cut it down for Blake.
SH: Very reasonable.
BH: Yeah, very good. I did pay most of the money I had in the bank to do this show, but I feel like it’s paid off. The lessons have been great. And it’s been very, very fun. I didn’t get an A, though. I got a C-plus. Possibly a B-minus.
DC: I’ve never given an A out. Nor will I ever.