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David Cross Tackles the Past and Present with 'I'm from The Future'

Forced to cancel a US tour, comedy legend David Cross made the best of a bad situation by recording his new special, 'I'm From the Future'.

It might be nearing two years to when the COVID-19 global pandemic took hold, but it goes without saying that we’re still feeling the effects. But what do you do when a large-scale event like this ruins your plans? Well, if you’re a comic legend like David Cross, you do whatever it takes to ensure your material isn’t wasted.

When 2020 first kicked off, one could’ve assumed that things were ticking along nicely for Cross. Just months earlier, he’s released his latest stand-up special by way of the well-received Oh, Come On, and by the time the new decade had rolled around, opportunities likely seemed endless. But as we know, this wide-eyed optimism that wasn’t destined to last long.

Surviving through the events of the pandemic like the rest of us (and even holding a Mr. Show reunion for charity), Cross emerged in 2021 to announce a US tour to kick off in November. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t quite ready for such an undertaking, and Cross was forced to cancel his North American trek – the first time he’d had to do such a thing.

But a simple cancellation wasn’t where he wanted to leave that material. Aware of the fact that the sort of gear he had up his sleeve wasn’t going to last until he could reschedule these dates, Cross quickly set his sights on speeding things up and recorded a special in New York City.

Though his usual plan would’ve been to record a special at a mid-way point of his tour, Cross instead found himself performing two nights at The Bell House in Brooklyn; ensuring that his material didn’t go to waste.

Now. this special is being released this weekend, with I’m From the Future (which sounds similar to a famous Mr. Show sketch) set to premiere on Cross website from 12pm AEDT on Sunday, February 13th, with tickets available now.

As one would expect from a David Cross undertaking, it’s a heavily unexpected affair, with Cross taking on ever-present topics such as COVID-19, anti-maskers, and more, yet also injecting his trademark humanism by way of topics that remain close to him on a personal scale.

To celebrate the release of the special, Cross spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about his time spent in lockdown, his return to the stage, and his upcoming project with longtime comedic partner Bob Odenkirk.

I think I should open with the standard question of late, which is, “How have you been going these last couple of years?” Have you and the family been dealing with newfound pandemic lifestyle? 

We’re in the states, so we’re kind of third world over here. But luckily, we’re in New York. So it’s been difficult, but we’re very lucky in many different ways. My wife and I talk about it a lot and we’re lucky that our daughter kind of was the exact right age just to not be born having to wear a mask and staying inside, but enough to like know, ‘This is what you do’.

And it probably – I’m guessing – will be a very good trait to have in the future when she’s older, as opposed to other people who were like, ‘Fuck you!”. Hopefully it translates down the road like, “Oh, I got to put a mask on”, or, “I’m supposed to put a mask on, so let’s put a mask on, just for a little while, and then we don’t have to put a mask on anymore”. 

But it was difficult. The hardest part was being in lockdown in Toronto for half a year, which we did not expect – when we went there we didn’t think that was going to happen. We had started out in New York, which was the epicentre here in the states for the pandemic. At its peak, hundreds and hundreds of people were dying every day. I don’t know if you saw that stuff with the freezer trucks because they were running out of space for bodies. It was awful and really scary and no vaccine around and people didn’t know what the fuck was going on.

But now, you know, things are much better. My daughter’s in school and everything. I live in a bubble of which I’m happy to live in, [laughs[ I pay extra to live in that bubble, and my daughter lives in that bubble. So we’re OK. We’re doing OK. 

I can only imagine how it’s been for you. I have a connection with the US since my wife is from a southern state in the US. You’re from Atlanta, so I guess you’d be aware of how folks down south have dealt with it compared to those up in New York and whatnot.

Yeah. We’ve gone and visited my family there and we went [to Atlanta]. We flew down over the summer, which, you know, we were a little apprehensive about, but I mean, things have cleared up. This was really before Delta started raging, but prior to that, when we went down to visit, we drove down, which is about roughly eight hours from New York to Atlanta. We packed food, we didn’t talk to anybody, and once you go kind of south of Virginia, it gets pretty hairy there – in the rural parts. Atlanta is OK, but anything outside of Atlanta is like really taking your life in your own hands.

We just drove straight to where my sister, sister in law, and mom had rented this lake house at this lake that we go to. And we just drove straight there. We didn’t go visit them. We just took the car 18 hours, packed food, had a port-a-potty thing for our daughter, too. If we had to pull over and crash at a friend’s in North Carolina, and just like we didn’t see anybody. We just bought supplies and went straight to the thing, and kind of went back the same way, it was pretty crazy. 

In a perfect world, we’d have thought the effects of COVID would’ve been done with, but it was in November that you were supposed to go on tour before cancelling it. Was the plan always to record a special at one of these shows? Right about somewhere in the middle where the material is nicely refined?

Yeah, it will be forever one of the great disappointments, not just because of what you said, which is what I would’ve done, but because it was this set in particular. Like to do this and the opening, particularly the opening of the special and the and the subsequent material… To not get to do that and some of the more rural places in Oklahoma, perhaps? I mean, how would that go down there? That would have been intense, you know? And it could have been a very interesting experience, and who knows how the material would have evolved.

I don’t even know about refining it, especially if there’s kind of a hostile environment, but it certainly would have evolved. And I would have done the same exact thing as you were pointing out. I always look at the midway point in the calendar, wherever it is. You know, if I’m doing 85 shows, “What’s show 41? OK, there; we’re going to tape the special there.” And then I would have done a CD at the very end because the material would have changed even more, and I didn’t get to do that.

And this special was actually the quickest thing I ever put together, ever. I mean, I cancelled the tour and then… I didn’t know any of the production people. They’re all great and everything. I’m quite happy with how it turned out, but I didn’t know the editor. But I scrambled, I put this thing together, called The Bell House in Brooklyn; “Can I get two nights?” Taped it, and then, you know, three months later, it’s going to air, so that’s cool.

As soon as you cancelled the tour, what was the immediate plan? Was it more like, “Let’s see if we can reschedule these dates”, or was it more like, “This material isn’t going to keep for a year – let’s record it as soon as possible”?

That was it exactly. It’s like, “Who knows when the fuck I’m going to get out there?” I knew that I was most likely going to be working on this new TV show that Bob Odenkirk and his brother – Bill – and I pitched and sold. And that’s going to keep me busy for a year, if not longer. But, who knows when I’ll be out on tour again? It could be a minimum of a year-and-a-half, if not two years.

So a lot of this stuff I knew I wasn’t going to do. I wasn’t going to do the stuff about my dog and I wasn’t going to do anti-mask stuff. So that’s why I scrambled to put it together, otherwise it would just be dead. 

That’s one thing I’ve always admired about your work is how much effort goes into it. You’ve got the early shows where you get feedback from fans, then there’s the emotional sequencing of it all, etc., and it’s the sort of thing the average fan wouldn’t really take into account. So it would also make sense as to why you wouldn’t want to waste the effort, the material, and momentum either. 

Yeah, and I think also because I was just about to go out [on tour]. The tour was supposed to start, I want to say, on November 4th or 5th, or something like that. I mean, it was right along there. And I waited until the last possible second to cancel it. My gut was telling me, and everybody involved was like, “Yeah, it’s not good”. And then when I cancelled it, I got so many messages from people going on, “Yeah, you did the right thing. I would have felt uncomfortable going there”.

So I know it was it was the right thing to do. But in part, it’s less about, “Oh, I did all this work”, but it’s that I was so ready to go. I wasn’t exhausted yet. I was excited, like, “Let’s go out!”. So part of that was like, “Oh, let’s tape it. Fuck it. Let’s go. Let’s do some more shows”. I mean, we taped in New York where it was relatively safe, but yeah, I would have loved to have shot this special in Oklahoma City. Who knows?

It’s also quite interesting to see how COVID affected comedy, too. It’s been quite weird, because on one hand, stand-up tours and that sort of thing are cancelled, as you’ve seen. But it also provides a sort of opportunity for folks to pivot to the digital medium, which you’ve sort of done by releasing the special online. Were you like at the start of the pandemic? What were you sort of thinking about whether you should pivot to an online medium?

No, well, I’m like an old guy who’s just like…. I found this out when I was locked down, but it’s like there’s nothing that can replace stand-up. I mean, I can replace writing in a writer’s room via Zoom and writing on a project, I can write by myself. I was able to do a couple of shows and it’s all very strict COVID rules and you can still – even though it’s different and there are restraints to it – you can still shoot a show.

You cannot replicate stand-up in any other way, except by being in front of an audience, and that’s it. So it wasn’t like, “I’ll pivot to digital”, I just don’t have that in me. If I did, I’d do it. I’m not opposed to it. It’s just not my thing. I do all these other things anyway, so the idea that I can just go out there to do stand-up is essential. 

I can only assume that after so long away being back on stage, it must have been such a cathartic experience to be back out there?

I almost started to cry the very first time I was back, which I will never forget. It was at The Sultan Room in Bushwick, and it was probably, maybe four days after I came back from Toronto after being locked down there. I was with my daughter, my wife stayed up there for another month to finish her work, and I left the fuckin’ second I could. And me and my daughter came back, and then I think it was probably, as I said, like three or four days later, I was on stage. 

And that’s where that bit that’s in the special, the thing where I say, “I dreamed about this moment”. That bit came from my saying that and I was starting to get emotional and I was getting a little self-conscious and embarrassed about it. So I started riffing this thing to pull out of it and to be silly again. But I was really starting to say, like, “I’m not going to sit here and cry”, you know? But yeah, it was emotional.

Image of David Cross

David Cross in his new special, I’m From the Future. (Photo: Supplied)

Before watching the special, I was unsure of what to expect. I thought about asking that standard question that comedians would get, where it’s just, “I bet COVID has given you lots of material?” But in your last special, you sort of joked about how people would ask you that about Trump, and you noted how it was hard to joke about him. As such, I wondered if COVID would be the focus here. However, since it’s such a ubiquitous topic, it sort of feels important to ensure that’s the focus, isn’t it?

Yeah, I mean, that’s another thing. The audience is going to tell me like, “Less of that, more of that. Talk about this, don’t talk about that”. You know, not in so many words, but you just intuit it. You can sort of sense when people are shifting around and they’re just kind of over this subject matter. But then also I was trying to figure out a way to talk about that stuff when I do talk about it, that hasn’t been that way. Which is kind of what I’m always trying to do with whatever the thing is, whether it’s political or religious. Trying to find the angle that hasn’t really been isn’t well-trod.

I watched the special with my wife who has a very sort of hypercritical view of Americans from an international perspective. And when she saw some of things you discuss in the special that were just so accurate, it made her feel so uncomfortable. When you get that sort of response, do you consider that a bit of a win? To me, good comedy is sort of where it holds that mirror up to society and it really reflects on the situation. And if it makes the audience uncomfortable, you’ve done your job.

Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s kind of what you’re going for, too. And if I can make somebody uncomfortable, even better. 

There’s also a rather notable point in the special where you question if anti-maskers would wear a mask if it were blackface. It feels topical given the recent Morgan Wallen controversy, whose career has surged after saying the N-word. But it feels as though it sort of goes against the notion of ‘cancel culture’ that’s always being pushed, doesn’t it?

Right, well it’s the people who… And look, people on the left do the same thing where it’s like, “Hey, you did this thing, and now I anticipate you’re going to be the poster boy for cancel culture, so now I’m going to buy 10 of your albums to support you”. And they’re successful because they did get him back up into the kind of stratosphere of the top 10 selling albums and stuff like that.

But the same thing happens on the left, like with Maus. I don’t know if you followed that controversy. Maus was yanked out of curriculum in Tennessee and a bunch of people bought Maus, and it was literally the number one book last week. So the same thing happens on both sides. 

On the same line of thought though, you were caught up in a similar controversy a few years ago when Netflix pulled an entire episode of W/ Bob & David because of the “Know Your Rights” sketch, which featured blackface. Weirdly, that was similar to how you made a point, it made the viewer uncomfortable, but rather of provoking discussion, it was just swept under the rug completely.

Yeah, I mean, I wish it was swept under the rug because then we just go grab it from under the rug, but it was literally cut and burned. So, you know, it would have been nice if we knew where it was. But yeah, I mean, Netflix, it’s very upsetting and disturbing on some level, and it’s very anti-intellectual. And I mean, it’s not about cancel culture, they literally just took the entire episode off without any debate, without any discussion. Because they’re a business and we live in a capitalist society, and they don’t want to lose potential subscribers, and nobody gives a shit about Bob and David. So the easy thing to do is just cut the whole thing. 

It always struck me as an odd move to get rid of the entire episode instead of just the lone segment.

I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know the thinking. I think the thinking is it’s just the easiest thing to do. Nobody’s going to really create an uproar over Bob and David. And it’s easy to do. And it’s too bad. I mean, it’s cowardly and certainly intellectually cowardly. But look, they’re a business, and that’s where we are. There’s literally no difference between the end result in taking an episode of Bob and David off the air because of that thing and cancelling Maus. It’s the same thing, the same end result.

So Netflix has done…it’s like the book burning that’s going on, or the cancelling.You know, taking books out of the curriculum; “You can’t see this because of this thing. Somebody – a stranger who isn’t very bright – who is not interested in having a discussion got upset at something on page 13 of this book. So we’re just going to take the whole book from every kid ever”. 

One thing I found quite interesting was the sort of content being discussed in the special. I was listening to the Oh, Come On special recently, which was not even released three years ago, yet it feels like it was like a lifetime ago. It’s so weirdly dated now because so much has happened. But I guess that’s what you’d want from a special like this? In three years time, you’d want people to wonder what the hell COVID, transphobia, and mass shootings are.

I hope so. I hope it’s a blip. We’ll see, but who knows? It’ll be interesting to see my daughter’s generation, how it informs them. It’s like kids who grew up in New York right after 9/11. It’ll be interesting to see. 

It’s strange to see how any generation reacts and evolves from large-scale events like this. In theory, you’d think everyone would be a lot more socially aware. But as we’ve seen in places like America, it just doesn’t quite follow like that, does it? 

No, there’s a lot of dumb, reactionary people who are fed by their teachers, their preachers, their parents, their grandparents, and their soccer coach. This idea of like, “This is what it means to be American. It’s freedom, it’s an independent spirit…” And that’s what informed so many of these folks; it’s about freedom and my rights and it just completely negates and is devoid of any concern for other people. It’s the most selfish and blatantly –  it’s just obviously blatantly selfish. But that’s an American trait, I think. 

I do want to divert from the special for a moment, because it was announced this week that you and Bob Odenkirk were working on a new project together called Guru Nation. Is there much that you can sort of say on that matter? Or is it still in the preliminary stages? 

All I can really do is expand on the two sentence log-line that they put out. It’s not like they bought 10 episodes. We still have to write it and they still have to approve it. And I mean, we feel very confident that it will go. And it’s an idea that we’ve been very informally working on here and there. We have a lot of cool ideas.

It’s basically an eight episode limited series. It’ll have a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s all it will be. And we’re going to tell a story. And the story involves two cult leaders from two very different philosophies of cult. One more eastern, and the other one is more bullshitty, standard gobbledegook. The [first] one is much more eastern philosophy and guru-ish, and it’s really done through the eyes of two younger people who kind of get wrapped up in it. So it’ll be very, very funny, but it’s also going to be grounded. We’re going to do a really good job or try our best to do a really good job of making it feel real in a sense. And Jason Woliner, who’s really great, is going to direct it – he directed some stuff on Bob and David.

I think with this project in particular, we’re going to have so much material that getting it down to a half hour is going to be tough. Because we’ll improvise while we’re there, we’re going to hopefully have tight scripts and good stuff. But I’m sure there’s a shit ton of improv. It lends itself to that. And eventually, all these cults are going to descend on this small town, this overwhelmed small town of people who are not quite ready to deal with all this shit that’s happening. 

Working with Bob again, it’s obviously no Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis style of reunion, but it is big news in the world of comedy. I assume this would’ve been something you’d been wanting to work on for some time?

Yeah, We don’t hate each other [laughs]. Over the years, we’ve done things here and there where we have some free time and then we’ll just put some shit together. Not too long ago, Bob came out to New York for a weekend and we did three shows at The Bell House where I taped the special, and it was just loose, goofy shit. And then I went out to LA and we did three shows out in LA – I think it was at the Largo Theatre – and it was great. Whenever we can get together and do shit, we do.

With the special out now, what’s the plan for yourself? Obviously you’re working on the show with Bob, but are you refraining from touring again until you’ve got time to work on new material? 

I’m not going to be able to do a tour for, as I was saying, at least a year-and-a-half, if not longer, so that that ship has sailed, unfortunately. But it also sunk right when it was pulling out. So whatever. But I mean, what I work on and what I’m willing to do has changed a bit since my daughter was born, and I am more apt to just say no to something so I can hang out with her, especially while she’s in school.

But I also know that this thing with Bob and Bill and I is going to be… I mean, we’re talking about a year, you know? At least a year and. You know, looking forward to it, but I think at the end of it, who knows? Maybe I need to take a little bit of time off? Maybe I’m just going to jump right into whatever? I’m writing informally on another thing, and well, ‘who knows?’, I guess, is the answer. Who knows what will happen and what will take shape?

But I know that I will be jonesing to go out on the road, I know that’s going to be a thing at some point because I didn’t get to, and I love it. That’s one of my favourite things to do in the whole world is tour and do stand-up. It’s hard work, but I fucking love it. I love it. It’s corny, but it’s true when I say that I have the best fans in the world. They’re awesome and I just enjoy it. It’s a very fun thing to do. 

David Cross’ new special, I’m From the Future, premieres via his website at 12pm AEDT on Sunday, February 13th, with tickets available now.

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