Conceptual, cerebral and occasionally controversial, the comedy of David Cross is a genuine commodity in these days of the early 21st century.
Cross is best known for his TV work – HBO’s “Mr. Show” and the hall-of-fame sitcom “Arrested Development” — but he’s also a veteran stand-up comedian with a reputation for razor-sharp topical runs and vicious political riffs.
The real thrill with Cross, however, is his apparently hardwired ability to combine trenchant observational humor with inspired flights of dark American surrealism. Check out his last Netflix special “Making America Great Again!” for a taste. He’s got a segment on U.S. gun policy that’s so dark it goes straight past funny into some new kind of skull-cracking Swiftian ferocity.
He’s been in the news this summer because of an awkward exchange in The New York Times that detailed the “Arrested Development” cast’s discussion of star Jeffrey Tambor’s on-set behavior toward co-star Jessica Walter. In the interview, Walter revealed that Tambor, who was fired from the TV show “Transparent” for allegations of sexual misconduct, also had verbally harassed her.
Cross got caught up in the aftermath this spring and later apologized for how he reacted in the moment, according to IndieWire.
Meanwhile, Cross is back to his day job as a touring comic and will bring his stand-up show “Oh Come On” to the Carolina Theatre in Durham Aug. 7. Calling in from his tour bus between stops, Cross spoke to the N&O about Monty Python, perpetual outrage and the very real power of comedy catharsis.
Q: Were you into comedy as a little kid?
A: Oh, very much so, yeah. I didn’t have older brothers or sisters but my dad was really responsible for that; he got me into Abbott and Costello when I was a really little kid. I was never one for, you know, Westerns or cop shows or anything like that. I always gravitated toward the comedy stuff.
As I got older, it was Monty Python and I listened to Dr. Demento on the radio. I can’t remember when I first started getting my own comedy records, but I remember I had Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Steve Martin. And all the Python stuff, of course. Every other record I would buy was a comedy record.
Q: The new show is going to keep you on the road through the summer, doing five or six nights a week, sometimes a couple shows a night. Have you developed any strategies over the years to stay healthy and sane on tour?
A: Yeah, oh my God, health-wise it’s so difficult. I mean, I’ve been doing this for three weeks now maybe and I’ve already gained a couple pounds. Your health goes out the window – anybody who tours will tell you. You can try your best to get a you know, a smoothie or a salad here or there. But mostly it’s just, you get hungry, you eat. You don’t get exercise. It’s mostly sitting on a bus. I’m sitting on a bus right now.
Q: So many of the comics coming through town these days have talked about how, right now in America, everyone is either afraid or angry, or toggling between the two. Do you think of your comedy as a kind of activism?
A: Well, first of all, I agree with you in regard to the fear and rage. But I don’t consciously see what I do as activism. I suppose if you were to kind of analyze what’s happening, it’s like, “Hey, there’s a guy on a stage, talking to people who are generally predisposed to his philosophy, and they’re listening to him speak through the microphone.”
There’s something about having someone onstage articulating thoughts, and putting things into words that maybe you can’t articulate otherwise. And maybe that spurs the audience to do something. I suppose that’s activist. But I don’t approach it that way; it’s not my reason for doing this. I feel the same sense of anger and outrage and fear, and my reaction to that is to go onstage and scream about it.
But I also feel it’s important to make sure people know, this is not an hour of railing on Trump. That’s roughly a third of the set. It’s the same recipe I’ve been using forever. About a third of the set is dumb jokes – jokey joke jokes. Roughly a third is just anecdotal, storytelling. And a third is political or topical.
But yeah, when I do get to the political stuff, there’s no question as to where I stand.
Q: Your last special was just before the election, when Trump was just a candidate and not a president. Does it feel different now, the energy in the rooms?
A: Yeah, way more than the last special, I feel there is a real sense of catharsis for the audience. That wasn’t there last time. It’s cathartic for people to listen to me talk about stuff the way I do, I think. It serves a purpose, that goes beyond comedy.
But that’s not my intent, I would never go up intending to do that. That’s a little presumptuous, I think, or pretentious. But that’s the feeling I’m getting. There’s some catharsis going on.
And, you know, it’s a much different experience to be in a theater and watch this person do this live in front of you, as opposed to endless reading about everything, whether it’s the newspaper or your Kindle or your phone. I mean, I read everything too, and I avail myself of as much information as I can, from all sources. But it’s not the same feeling as watching a performance. There’s a sense of community, and there’s the idea of having that one unique experience, that one show on that one night.
Q: As you travel around, do you feel differences in the crowds regionally? Like is a Boston show different than a Bay Area show, or a show in the South? Or is it all basically your fans no matter what?
A: They’re mostly my fans, at this point. The regional differences, that applied more when I was just starting out. But there is a difference, definitely, in some of the more progressive places, which I don’t care for. There are aspects in a place like San Francisco, or super progressive places, where they’re just not listening.
Q: You mean in terms of political correctness?
A: It’s just that they’re not listening to the idea. I’ll hit a buzzword that pisses them off, and they tune out. They’re not listening to the context, the idea. That kind of thing has been there for a while, but now it’s really weird. There’s this feeling of, like, strength in numbers. There’s a righteousness and a stridency.
And really, some of these folks are just humorless, and they don’t know that they’re humorless. They just suck the joy out of the room.
I don’t mean to say that this is a really common thing. But it happens every once in a while in the super lefty, progressive areas. It’s just an element that is out there as well.
Q: Anything else you’d like to highlight about the new show?
A: Well, I can tell you that I’m having a great time. I really like this set and it’s fun to do and people seem to be digging it. I’m looking forward to getting to the South. That’s where I’m from and where my family still lives. I have plenty of friends in North Carolina, and it’s always great.
Who: David Cross
When: Aug. 7, 8 p.m.
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Tickets: $34 and up
Info: carolinatheatre.org or 919-560-3030