You might know David Cross as the sketch comedy hero from HBO's cult-'90s revue Mr. Show with Bob and David. Or maybe you know him as Dr. Tobias Fünke from the beloved (and soon-to-return) Arrested Development. (You probably don't know him as Ian from the Alvin and the Chipmunks trilogy.) But in our conversation with Cross about tonight's second season premiere of his British-American sitcom The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret (10:30 p.m. on IFC, right after Portlandia), we learned that Cross has a former occupation that's not listed on his IMDb page: Blackwater assassin. Cross was kidding of course, and it's his dark sense of humor that makes Todd Margaret -- which he created and co-writes -- one of the most compelling comedies on TV. Shot in the UK, Todd Margaret follows the misadventures of an American energy-drink salesman abroad, who finds himself in a succession of horrifying situations. Cross talked with PAPERMAG about the new season of the show (which co-stars Will Arnett and Jon Hamm), as well as his baseball card, what he learned from his days as a sketch comedian and being contract killer in Iraq.
So I interviewed you seven years ago for my college newspaper, and I started that interview with a moronic question. I want to ask it again, and see if you'll give the same answer seven years later.
If you had your own baseball card, what would the interesting fact about yourself be on the back of the card beneath your stats?
That's a good question! I don't think that's moronic at all.
Well, I'll tell you what. Not to sound pretentious, but I do have a baseball card. I'm not joking. Topps has a line, I think it's called "American Heritage," I believe that's the line, and they have different people from various walks of life and various occupations. And I guess it came out last year, but there's a Topps "American Heritage" card of me, and it's me and my dog sitting on a bench outside their building.
Yes! They didn't consult me on it, really, as far as what it says on the back, but it says, "Crowning achievement was winning an Emmy." And I would not have said that's my crowning achievement. My crowning achievement to me is that I saved literally hundreds of lives in Iraq. I worked for Blackwater. Well, it's not Blackwater anymore, it's XE. And now it's not XE anymore it's...[pauses] Anyway, I worked for them, and I was saving literally hundreds of lives, and I was saving lives until they were like, "That's not what we're paying you for! We're paying you to kill innocent civilians!" And that was a complete fuck-up. And we all went back and looked at the papers, and there was definitely some confusion. But there's no one person to blame, you know?
That's a lot to fit on the back of a baseball card.
Well, there'd be an asterisk and you could go read all of this online.
Do you know how you answered that "baseball card fact" question seven years ago?
You said, "In his youth, David Cross was a swimming champion."
Oh! That's true! That's one of those things I like to pull out as a little interesting fact. But I was. I was quite good. I'm sure I told you then, but I went to invitationals and junior AAU and stuff like that. Competed statewide. There was a brief period where I was very good.
It's a fun fact. But let's start talking about Todd Margaret. When you hatched the idea for the show, was the product Todd sells always going to be an energy drink?
Yes. When we started it I knew going into it that it wasn't going to be open-ended -- I knew it would have a beginning, middle and end. I knew it would take place in 14 days. So there's a finite construct to it. And I knew about half of what was going to happen already when I first started to write it. And that was one of the things, that it was going to be a shitty energy drink. I was just looking for something that was ubiquitous in both American culture and English culture. And part of the challenge was to make something that resonated for American audiences and British audiences. That's why there are a handful of jokes that the Brits aren't going to get -- not too many -- and there's a handful of things that Americans won't get. But I co-wrote it with an English writer, and this second season with an additional writer, Mark Chapman. Both are really brilliant guys. And there was a fairly consistent, "What do you guys call this?" or "Do you guys have this thing?" or "Would you get this reference?" And they'd answer yes or no, suggest a joke. And I'd say, "I have no idea what you're talking about." And if I don't know what you're talking about, then people in Kansas aren't gonna know what you're talking about. That's not a slam against people from Kansas. Well, it kind of is. No, it definitely is. Well, everywhere outside of Lawrence.
Well, Lawrence is a hip city. Now in the second season, there's a hilarious scene that takes place at a rugby match in a packed stadium. What was your experience like in front of thousands of rugby hooligans? Assuming that was real...
It was Hollywood magic! Or I should say, London magic. When is this interview going to run?
The day of the season premiere.
Well, I'll have to tell you that story off the record.
[Cross proceeds to tell a ridiculous five-minute story.]
So doing a shoot like that at the rugby match, the writer side of me loves it, because it's so much fun to see something huge that you've created, but the producer side of me hates it, because it can be a logistical nightmare.
Let's talk about the producer vs. the writer aspects of your involvement on Todd Margaret, specifically with the casting of Jon Hamm. You took an actor who is currently the ultimate alpha male on television, and you cast him in a role as a butler for a British stooge...
Yes and no. When IFC approached us about -- I don't need to bore you with too much back detail -- they wanted a cameo. At their behest, we wrote a cameo for a celebrity. I know Jon. He's tremendously talented, and a great sport, and the most compliant, affable guy you could ever ask for. He's totally game for it, he's a comedy aficionado. He was a fan of the first season. Before we wrote it, we approached him. I said, "Hey, we've got this opportunity. We can bring you to London. I think it's fairly safe to say we can shoot you out in about three days. You'd be in London for about six days, if that's cool. Bring Jennifer [Westphal]." And he was totally game for it. Then we wrote that cameo with him in mind, specifically.
Something that's really funny to me about the show, in terms of American vs. British culture, is that Todd and Brent [Will Arnett's character], the Americans, are just pure liars, whereas I feel the British characters are not-
Oh, that's not true at all! Well, Alice isn't a liar. But as it turns out, Dave's the biggest liar of them all.
No, he just plays along with Todd and Brent's lies.
Yes, that's true. You're right.
So I found it interesting that Todd and Brent's lies aren't malicious: They lie to cover up their shortcomings and to cover up character flaws, and there's something inherently American about that.
Yeah, they lie to get ahead. They're offered this opportunity, so they stupidly, ignorantly lie to maintain this façade so they can reap the financial benefits of it. Whereas, you're right, the British characters don't lie.
It was just a funny pattern I saw emerge.
No, you're right. That wasn't conscious decision at all. You're right, though.
You mentioned earlier that you've thought out the entire series. So you know exactly where this is headed?
Oh, yeah. When I wrote the very first word, when I pulled Final Draft up on the computer, I already knew what the end was. And the end of this season is the end. The story has been told and there will be no more. It's the British model of television. You do six episodes. Then you do another six episodes. It's not open-ended. I pitched it as a whole. I like doing it this way.
Most people became familiar with you and your work on Mr. Show. What lessons in your experience as a sketch comedian did you apply to the creative process on Todd Margaret?
Well, that's an interesting question. I'm not sure. I guess the first thing I'd have to do is answer what I learned as a sketch comic. I guess it'd be the economy of telling a story in four minutes. And going back to Mr. Show, and even before that when I had a sketch group in Boston, a lot of my sketches would tell a story, or would be about a character, and there's a build, a mini-arc to what's happening. One of the things as a young comedy aficionado teen, going into my 20s and 30s, I was always irritated by sketches that just ended. A lot of SNL sketches, if there's a title to the sketch, you know exactly what's going to happen. They do the same thing for five minutes, over and over again, and then it just ends. And that always frustrated me, and I didn't care for it. It seemed very lazy. So I suppose the answer is that it's the economy of telling a story quickly, which really gets applied in the writing and editing of Todd Margaret, as opposed to the performance. I suppose that's an answer.