The opening sequence of Michael Blieden’s 2005 documentary The Comedians of Comedy features Patton Oswalt backstage at Athens, Georgia’s 40 Watt Club, slurringly assessing his set and his career in general. When the interviewer raises the possibility of a “punk rock or indie rock” comedy tour, Oswalt answers by listing his and David Cross’s shortcomings. He says they’re too ugly to lead any rock-club comedy tour revolution and insists, “I’m setting up the next guy. That’s my purpose.”
The Comedians of Comedy follows the ensuing tour, which showcases Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, and Zach Galifianakis—stars of “alternative” comedy, whose acts translate very well to the rock club setting across the United States. Though Cross is not one of the headliners of the tour, his career and material are closely associated with these individuals, their projects throughout the years, and especially the acerbic approach of Oswalt. In the years since The Comedians of Comedy, many of these comedians and their peers have gone well beyond breaking through to the rock club crowds to become bona fide mainstream stars. Thanks to several high-profile film and television appearances, Oswalt (Ratatouille), Cross (Alvin and the Chipmunks), and Galifianakis (The Hangover) have been particularly successful in finding wide exposure, even if their strange sensibilities have not always remained intact. Galifianakis is possibly the exception, as he seems able to work a genuinely absurd angle into even the most formulaic of scripts.
Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls of becoming the new faces of mainstream comedy is enduring the backlash of fans that want to keep these funny people to themselves. This scenario is the expected result of setting up any art form as an alternative. Although one would think the comedians at the center of the issue would support one another rather than be poisoned by the strange notion that their alternative status should keep them poor and ideologically pure, there are many accounts of internecine feuds between talented writers, directors and actors who share a comedy background. One telling example is the furor over Cross’s appearance in Tim Hill’s 2007 Alvin and the Chipmunks. His detailed response to critics (including Oswalt)—in the form of a numbered list of “mitigating factors” that justify his appearance in the film—is worth reading because it exposes the strange parameters of succeeding as a comedian. This response creates an interesting contrast with the tirade Cross unleashed only a few months earlier against Dan Whitney/Larry the Cable Guy amidst reciprocated accusations of misunderstanding and a public dispute over the comparative pandering and political incorrectness of their acts. These two public statements by Cross reveal the wearying contradictions that accompany begrudging someone else’s success.
On Cross’s new album Bigger and Blackerer, all of this baggage appears to have had a stultifying effect on the comedian. Whereas his earlier recordings were, regardless of their total lack of tastefulness, defined by a sharp and energetic cynicism, Bigger and Blackerer plays like the disappearing, distorting echoes of older material. It has always been somewhat difficult to reconcile the bilious content of Cross’s standup albums with his truly inspired (and certainly more multifaceted) work on Mr. Show with Bob and David and Arrested Development, and despite his repeated attempts to knowingly set up and address the paradoxical contexts for his material, the present contradictions are alarming. Yes, much of Larry the Cable Guy’s humor involves lowest-common-denominator jokes about race, gender, etc., but Cross’s “Black Stuff” is somehow more insulting, as it tries to wrap an inherently (and historically) racist phrase in an ironic observation about a self-serving display of racial tolerance, yet uses only the racist bit to seal the joke. His goal is (ostensibly) to exploit the hypocrisies of what often passes for self-conscious tolerance, but the actual effect of the bit is to make the listener question why Cross appears to find the “N word” so funny. After all, Dan Whitney would be rightly excoriated for using it in his act. Certainly Cross’s liberal crusader persona isn’t enough to justify mining comedy from such a pointed slur. As is his tendency, Cross attempts to both counter criticism and extend the bit with another joke that begins, “Just so people don’t think I’m racist because you don’t get my jokes…”, but then the punch line that follows specifically demeans black women.
However much it fails to amuse, the race material is at least a brief quip. The same cannot be said for the overlong observations about politics. “Where We Are Now Back in Sept. ‘09” has the potential to find humor in the too-common overheated rhetoric that prevents substantial conversation and debate about political issues. Cross does raise an interesting question about the role of Christian compassion within the health care reform debate, but the majority of the bit repeats already exaggerated representations and observations that are overly familiar to the culture at large. The voice he lazily uses for his impression of Tea Party protesters is a stereotypical southern accent. One of the conclusions he reaches about the health care reform debate concerns these protesters, to whom he says, “I don’t want you to have health care. I want you to die. I want less of you and more of me.” Even when delivered through his trademark mischievous high-pitched voice, the joke fails because it could confirm the worst suspicions of the very people Cross sees as being his opponents. He does his side of the debate no favors by seeming to support both elitism and health care rationing, despite nesting them in his own tired sense of irony. By linking his material so strongly to one side of a political issue, Cross undermines the comedic context of his jokes and becomes just another loud voice in the mass speechifying he says he wants to denounce.
The most puzzling choice on the album is to include lifeless bits about religion that are destined to lose the audience. During, and after, “Silly Religious Crazies” and “REALLY Silly Religious Crazies I Mean, Double, Triple Crazy!!” Cross acknowledges the failure of the material to connect with the audience. While he employs a more or less equal-opportunity approach in his takedown of various religions, he again makes the most well-worn observations about the religious concepts he chooses to discuss. For Cross, Catholicism is exorcisms and demons, Mormonism is magic glasses, and Heaven defies physics. The comedian is particularly vituperative on the subject of Orthodox Jews, reducing them to miserable caricatures. This is disappointing for a number of reasons, and there is something sad about the fact that Cross has arrived at this kind of fusty, backwards material so late in his career. He has now fulfilled the cliché that he once mockingly referenced on an earlier album track reflexively called “When It Comes to Jews, Behavior One Might Perceive as Obnoxious and Annoying I Present as ‘Quirky’ but It’s Okay to Joke About It Because I, Myself, Am Jewish!”
Much more worthwhile and successful than the aggressively unfunny political and religious observations are Cross’s jokes about mundane cultural objects. From eco-friendly plastic wrap (“If You Care”) to the bizarre slogans used for counseling services (“…Or Worse”) to his sideways appreciation of television docudramas (“That One Show About Drugs and Stuff”), Cross unearths absurdities that have probably not been considered by the audience, who in turn respond much more actively. These jokes are not perfect, clouded as they are by his peculiar tendency to take shots at Jewish figures (Anne Frank, a stereotypical rabbi) and the occasional, probably coincidental similarity to jokes that have already appeared elsewhere (most noticeably the Nyquil and battery jokes from The Sarah Silverman Program). However, Cross is a more effective comedian when he writes and performs in this manner rather than the cable-news style that dominates so much of his solo work.
After decades in the business, Cross might be losing some of his focus, and on this album he addresses the toll of hard-partying years. Bigger and Blackerer is far from his A-game, and the contrast it forms with his best work is especially evident when one considers his many moments of genius on Mr. Show with Bob and David and Arrested Development. Perhaps those are still his most lasting works because he functions best as part of an ensemble. On his own, and more than ever on Bigger and Blackerer, Cross is a sad clown gone bitter—the alternative to comedy.