Let us explore, briefly, the unique personality traits shared between David Cross and Tony Kushner.
In Robert Brustein’s excellent 1993 New Republic article “Angles in America”, playwright Tony Kushner—who skyrocketed to fame with his epic, two-part “gay fantasia” about homosexuality in the States, Angels in America—is portrayed as one who does not take too kindly to criticism. In fact, Kushner comes off as pompous, self-centered, and overly sensitive to any sort of critique against his chosen craft, going as far as to write multi-page tirades to the critics who simply didn’t “get” his masterpiece (which Brustein has described as what may very well be “the most highly publicized play in American history”), frequently using a surprising amount of venom to tear down those who even think to hold an opinion counter to his.
It’s a bit surprising, then, to discover this trait is also held by David Cross, a daring stand-up comedian and brilliant character actor whose work has included the sketch-comedy milestone Mr. Show and the greatest American sitcom of the past decade, Arrested Development. In a chapter of his book I Drink for a Reason entitled “A Little Bit about Me, ‘Cause It’s My Book”, Cross tells the tale of how a blogger named Emily tore apart a set of his for being filled with blatant Bigotry towards Mormonism (specifically in regards to Mitt Romney’s then-active Presidential campaign), explaining how South Park had walked the satirical line better and how disappointed she was with Cross in general. Cross, then, reprints his long response, which picks apart Emily’s review piece by piece, undoubtedly correcting some of the context in which his jokes appeared (that Emily failed to mention), but still coming off as a very nitpicky and self-serving kind of gesture (you can read the whole piece here).
Yet, even with all of this in mind, at least Cross is bold enough to republish that entire exchange himself in his own book.
In truth, this chapter, as surprisingly straight-faced as it is, shows the largest problem with Cross’ first venture into the realm of publishing: for a man with such incredible observational powers, Cross isn’t self-deprecating enough to be entirely relatable. By frequently taking the supposed moral high-ground on several issues, he frequently comes off as self-righteous and introverted, a tactic that works majestically for some routines, but can be fairly alienating to an audience in the long run of things.
Anyone who’s heard Cross’ required-listening two-disc epic stand-up masterstroke Shut Up You Fucking Baby! knows just how bold Cross can be when he’s on. Released just over a year after the events of 9/11—when the American populace was still in a fragile emotional state following terrorist attacks—Cross was the first (and, at the time, the only) comedian to go right for the heart of the rah-rah jingoism that was still dominant in the media, ripping it and the Bush administration apart without any sort of mercy whatsoever, tackling controversial topics head-on as other stand-ups simply danced around them. The shock factor that came out of that routine—a factor that has yet to be personally duplicated by Cross—only gave more fuel to his jokes, resulting in a routine that was alarming in its frankness but gut-busting in its impact.
The Cross of that era is not the same Cross of I Drink for a Reason. When you boil it down, I Drink is nothing more than a collection of essays, lists, and personal anecdotes, not too dissimilar from Jerry Seinfeld’s 1993 tome Seinlanguage (but with far, far more snark). At times, I Drink feels like it was hastily written, with certain pieces barely rising above blog-level syntax with Cross’ frequent use of ending sentences with multiple exclamation marks!!! Some pieces meander a bit, some of his pot shots (James Frey, Pitchfork.com, Fox News) are way too easy, and some of his satirical anecdotes (like the time he was staying at a Michigan hotel where a scrapbooking convention was being held) give off that holier-than-thou attitude that paints Cross as one who takes joy from marginalizing those not as educated/world-weary as himself.
Fortunately, there are still several passages that show Cross as engaged and as entertaining as ever. He punctuates his book at various times with tales of just how amazing he’ll be at those various high-society parties for book authors (taking down everyone—including himself—with relish), reprints a comically playful series of e-mail exchanges about setting up a time to be interviewed by Dave Eggers (those e-mails of which actually became the published piece), and at one point dismantles our national holidays piece-by-piece with a smart edge that’s as funny as it is painfully true.
Yet Cross is—and always has been—at his best when he’s mixing the political with the personal, giving an everyman view of controversial issues that don’t really need to be made issues to begin with. The very first chapter of I Drink is about a bumper sticker that Cross saw that read, simply, “Don’t Abandon Your Baby”. As Cross sums it up:
What kind of person needs to be told, or “reminded,” that they shouldn’t abandon their child? People who sit around all day, daydreaming and fantasizing about a future they’ll never have because they sit around all day, daydreaming and fantasizing about a future they’ll never have? What does it say about our selfish, stupid, and cruel society? I guess that we can be monstrously selfish, stupid, and cruel. The Iraq war (or rather the war we started in Iraq; there really wasn’t much of a fight until we set up colonization school) is a good example. It’s an amazingly disappointing realization to know just how thoughtless and insensitive to other human beings we can so simply and predictably be programmed to be. Tossing a thing you don’t want or no longer desire to the curb is not really that bad if it’s biodegradable, which a baby is, I guess; but come on now—let’s apply some standards.
Cross is the very definition of what an envelope-pushing comedian should be, and, yes, he occasionally oversteps his bounds—but what quality bold-faced comedian doesn’t? What’s unfortunate is that Cross’ thoughtful, considered standup routines do not prepare you for the wildly uneven, remarkably slapdash effort that is I Drink for a Reason, a hit-or-miss collection of jokes from someone we expect far, far better from.