David Cross: I was watching that show, what’s it called… there’s a guy on stage, and everybody believes he has contact with the dead and spirits?
Audience member: Crossing Over!
David Cross: Oh no, it was church.
There’s stand-up comedy, and then there’s David Cross. He is the James Ellroy of comedians, the alternative to the throng of manufactured, carbon copy John Grishams.
Ever since I heard his first live album for Sub Pop, 2002’s Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!, I’ve found myself using it as the litmus test for all other contemporary comedy routines. Comics that may have otherwise received my adoration suddenly paled in comparison, as either hopelessly unoriginal or simply not as daring as Cross’s blistering double disc manifesto. Thank the good people at Sub Pop for following their first venture into the live comedy album with It’s Not Funny, released this month.
Not that Cross just came out of nowhere. In the 1990s, he was one of the creators and stars of the woefully short-lived HBO series Mr. Show with Bob and David (with, among many others, Bob Odenkirk), arguably the funniest and most relevant of any sketch comedy program in the history of television.
Now at 40, Cross is seeing his seminal show receive some overdue recognition through DVD releases. But it’s his stand-up performances that showcase his undiluted talent; on stage, he emits a relaxed magnetism, darts of fierce social commentary shrouded in subversive material delivered as a stream-of-consciousness, verbal steamroller of sorts, as downright hilarious as it is thought provoking. Like Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce before him, his acerbic style does not fit the accepted mainstream comedian format. In a conversational manner, Cross riffs and rants, much of it seemingly in the moment and off the cuff.
No one deserving is spared by Cross’s flame-thrower in It’s Not Funny; he’s the enemy of hypocrisy and a voice for all who lament the absence of truth in the world. Cross casts a sweeping net over the course of the 70+ minute set, recorded live in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. He has an endless amount of ire for Republicans (“they’ve got some awesome racists”), left-wing conspiracy theorists (“it’s called coincidence, you hippy freak”), and even electric scissors (“some guy in a shed right now is trying to invent a battery-operated battery installer”).
The thorniest of barbs are reserved for the Bush administration and their spreading of perpetual fear in post-9/11 America. On the war on terrorism: “If the terrorists hated freedom, then the Netherlands would be fuckin’ dust.” On Bush’s proposal to put a man on the moon: “Let’s put a man in an apartment, how about that?” On his “$4300 World War III prevention pack”: It “consists of a zinc lozenge, a nickel, and a wish. The zinc lozenge is for your throat, cause a nuclear bomb will fuck up your throat; the nickel, in post-apocalyptic times, is gonna be worth like a million bucks; and a wish is a wish. Oh, and there’s a jet ski, that’s what made it $4300. The jet-ski industry contributed to Bush’s election.”
Cross oozes genuine sarcasm; often he makes his point by pushing his satire over the top, thereby provoking the audience into thought. One notable moment involves Cross’s discussion of Texas lawmakers attempting to outlaw sodomy while simultaneously repealing the law against bestiality. After graphically lampooning Senator Rick Santorum’s public comparison of sodomy with incest (“Let’s ask the girl who was raped by her father… [affecting female voice] ‘It was gross, it was like two guys making out!’”), Cross waxes ridiculous on making a trip to the dog pound if such a scenario was legalized in the state. It’s a moment that is so effective in its ability to disturb, amuse, and (hopefully) enlighten its audience with shock power.
With so many cookie cutter comics honing their homogenized acts, chasing that not-so-elusive guffaw, it’s good to know we’ll always have David Cross to stand and deliver substance over cheap laughs. Comedy is still viewed by many as an escape from reality; I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I really just want to laugh and forget about everything else.” It’s perfectly fine to feel that way from time to time, but a comedian like Cross is vital because he reminds us that it’s not OK to escape from everything else all of the time.
This isn’t the part of the essay where the critic says something flattering and generic like, “We need more comics like David Cross!” But, as I think he would agree, we’d be better off if more people listened to what Cross has to say. His performances don’t merely entertain; they aim to inform an audience about social and political issues that should be (but often aren’t) important to everyone.
“Are we a nation of six-year-olds?” Cross asks in It’s Not Funny. “Answer: yes.” Wake up from your joke-induced slumber, folks. After all, a plethora of dumb jokes can’t make this fucked up world fade into the background forever.