There are simply too many things to ask David Cross. Where can we get a Fooderator? Why Alvin and the Chipmunks? Can we just shout "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT MOVIE!" at him until it happens? Why doesn't he like donuts? Alas, we had but 15 minutes with him, but he gave us crucial insight into his current TV series on The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. Cross plays the titular character who is a bumbling, compulsive liar who must sell as much Thunder Muscle energy drink as possible. The second season, which begins January 6th on IFC, features Mad Men's Jon Hamm, hilarious chemistry between Spike Jonze and Will Arnett, and the scariest ghost in England.
Hello? Check. Mic check. Check. Two. Two. Yes.
Is this your 30th interview today? It is my...sixth. I just had lunch so you got me relatively fresh. But I may have some spanakopita still in my teeth. [Garbles speech] So the sound you hear is me trying to get it out of my teeth.
They don't have toothpicks there at the PR office? They do but they're really, really...they're all made of platinum and teak wood so I just feel bad.
They're not on your rider? No, but I'm using Elijah Wood's toothpicks...
Fair enough. So the show is called The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret but a lot of what happens to your character is a result of what Blake Harrison's character Dave does. He seems to be some kind of oligarch who enjoys fucking with Todd's life. An oligarch? Come on. I'm not sure you're using that word correctly.
Isn't he an oligarch? He has a manservant and travels by jet around the world and seems to own lots of companies, makes a lot of big-time decisions. Yeah but that doesn't necessarily make him an oligarch.
He's a powerful man, though. He's a powerful man but that's merely hinted at at the end of season one and yes, it becomes apparent that he—don't give it away! It becomes apparent that he's quite moneyed and in a position of power.
Sort of a puppet master, if you will. Yes! I like it.
Also, the guy who plays your dad in the second season. How did you guys find him? How did we find the actor?
Yeah. Why him? I couldn't find his info. Well Google "Russ Tamblyn."
Is he any relation to your fiancée? Yes. He's her son by a previous marriage.
Riiight No that's her dad. But seriously, are you in front of a computer?
No, I'm not actually. We don't have a computer in our conference room. We're on a budget here. Do you have a pad and paper?
I do. Write Google. Write "www.google.com" on the piece of paper. Now push that piece of paper.
I don't need the "http" and the slashes? No, not anymore. It goes straight to it. I tell you what. Skip Google. Go to IMDB. For that you do need the http, double colon, backslash, backslash, "www.imdb.com." Go to Russ Tamblyn and those pages that you have will fill up with literally hundreds of roles. Including...he played Riff in West Side Story. You heard me. Riff in West Side Story. He was nominated for an Oscar.
I'm getting a 404 Error. Well that's the area code for Atlanta, so I don't know what you're doing. He was in Twin Peaks, he was in Drive. He's in the latest Quentin Tarantino film.
The original Drive? The one with James Spader when he...oh that's Crash, sorry. Anyway. He's my fiancee's...let's say girlfriend...
Soon to be father-in-law, right? Soon to be father-in-law, yeah.
There's also this running gag with the self-affirmation CDs, the kind that come with Viagra when you order it. What?
Right? The self-affirmation CDs that tell the listener to say macho things? Yeah but where does the Viagra thing come in?
Well I guess I'm referring to an episode in the second season where you're at the hotel counter and the woman behind the counter says, "Where'd you get this?" And you said, "Oh, well you order Viagra once and they send you all these CDs." Oh yes. Oh man, now that you mention it I hope that doesn't...that was just something Todd was saying. We were trying to create a little bit of space so he thinks that they're a direct correlation, but they're not.
Right. He's just making an excuse, right? Exactly.
Well it makes sense, and sort of speaks to this Maxim Magazine-endorsed, masculine behavior that you've been making fun of for a really long time. In Mr. Show or a movie like Run Ronnie Run. Would you say that's a common theme in your comedy or is that sort of stuff just funny? If it is a common theme it isn't a conscious one. Maybe it is and that speaks to some deep-seeded issues I have. Maybe. But it's not a conscious one, really. But that stuff is funny to me.
Did Jon Hamm have to do an impersonation of a 70s computer to get the gig? [Ed: Hamm is forced to summon his crack electronic-impersonating skills in the second season] Yes. We actually ran him through a bunch of different computers because we didn't know which computer model we wanted to use. We ended up with an IBM computer from 1977 that wasn't sold in the States, actually. We had him go through about 30 different computer sounds and we put him on tape and then we flew him out to London to do the audition. But we still weren't there, we still put him on tape and then sent him back. We actually just refueled the plane and then sent him back on it. Then we reviewed the tape and ran it through some scanners and they went before the Nobel Commission.
Those guys—who were good enough to take time out of deciding who was going to get the Nobel Peace Prize—they looked at all the tapes. Then we flew Jon to Oslo and, again, just had him do the impressions. We didn't even have him deplane at that point, we just had him put them on tape and they messengered the tape over to the Oslo Prize Committee and then they decided on that computer, which as I said, is the IBM from '77.
I was kind of bummed he didn't get to do the 90s dial-up modem, frankly. DVD extras.
Beautiful. Do you have a particular axe to grind against molecular gastronomy? You get in some good shots at the restaurant in the show, "Molecule." No, not really, but it is very easy and fun to make fun of. That was the only kind of thing we put in the script or the story that was not originally in there. That was based on the actress we got—Sharon Horgan—where Alice was originally written as much more of an ingenue without a whole lot of personality other than the spirited, bubbly, affable woman. Once we hired Sharon—who brings so much more to the part and immediately she looks a little more savvy and intelligent—we came up with something for her to do on the side. Something that would make it fun for the actress to play.
So have you been to wd~50 or any of those restaurants? I haven't been to wd~50 but there's one in L.A. called...there's a famous one. Providence, maybe? Patton Oswalt took me there and we sat...they have a glassed-in table in the kitchen, this special table for special people. Patton took me there and it was a lot of that stuff. Flash frozen balloon, de-ionized this and that. And it was great! It was really good. But I haven't experienced a lot of that. I read about them, I've see them on Top Chef. My sister lives in Atlanta where Richard Blais is and he's the guy who did all that stuff on Top Chef. She's always telling me about going to his place and the crazy stuff he comes up with.
So at the beginning of each episode there's Todd Margaret in front of this Doomsday button with what appear to be North Korean guards or whatever. It's a Doomsday scenario. Presumably everything leads up to that moment. How much of these episodes are mapped out in advance and how much gets developed as you're writing them? Oh, everything. I knew the beginning and the end and little bits of pieces of the middle before I wrote a word. Because of the British model of television I was able to write every episode before we even started shooting anything. So all of that—the beginning and most of the middle and the end—was known to me before. I just wrote the story out—the beats, basically—because I had to pitch it that way. It's not open-ended. It's not like an American show.
Do you think it's easier to work within that system? Or is it more of a challenge to come up with this entire concept before you begin to flesh it out? It's both. It's easier in a physical sense of writing an episode for a show where there's always a reset button and it doesn't matter what happened to the character in prior episodes. There's no real calendar you're looking at—outside of something where an actress gets pregnant—you can do whatever you want. So I would say that's easier because you have no parameters. But to tell a story that has a beginning middle and end...if you're going to do that then it's easier to do it this British way. Six episodes. Write everything before we even pick up a camera. Shoot everything before we go into editing. There's a specific story you have to tell so you have to make sure you have all the information from the writing and then if you miss something—and we did both seasons, we missed something—in the writing process.
And by we I mean the writers and the producers—both in the UK and the States—you just miss some logic point like, "Oh shit it's Sunday! There's no way he's going to be able to mail that letter or get money, or...that guy took his clothes!" Because everything takes place the next day. So then we get on set, we go "Oh shit, we have to do this! We have to put a robe there! Get props! Get that Canadian outfitters bag and put it in the corner of the room! That will explain why in episode ten..." you know. In that way it's much easier because you don't miss anything. You have opportunities to correct your logic mistakes.
So basically everything that Will Arnett's character blurts out, all of those lines are in the script? No, no. Some of it is "Bwa!" You know, there are entire scripts that are written and there are some things that we have to have an actor say—even if it doesn't make sense or it's not very funny or it feels a little unwieldy—simply because it's logic/story information that will pay off in a future episode that we need to plant. But every single main actor was hired with an eye towards their ability to improvise—every single person—and everyone is encouraged to improvise.
Between Will and Spike, that was probably the most heavily improvised, as well as Pam's character, [played by] Sarah Pascoe, who is amazing at improv. Super quick. Again, everyone was encouraged. We'll make sure we get what we need on script. Also, I have a mild form of Tourettes in the fact that I cannot stop improvising. I was just doing this arc on Modern Family. I'll come in and just riff stuff and they'll be like, "Okay I like that but I don't think the network is going to let us do it so let's go back to the original blah blah blah." And I'll say okay and I'll do it for two takes and then I can't help it. It's like something takes over my body and I just start spitting out shit.
Do they keep any of it? Sometimes. I haven't seen any of the Modern Family episodes so I don't know. Certainly in Todd Margaret we did, if it makes sense. The toughest part of any aspect—from creating, to writing, to breaking down the stories, to performing, to shooting, to anything—the toughest part is taking these episodes and getting them down to 19 and a half minutes, which after the "Previously On" is all you get on IFC because they have commercials. On a DVD hopefully I can extend them a little but. So a lot of gold is lost because it's a dense story and we have to tell that story.
I've read in a previous interview that you read the blog EV Grieve. What sort of NIMBY, gentrification issue going on in the East Village get your blood boiling? Or does it all get your blood boiling? All of it, really. I have very strong feelings about what's going on in the East Village. I'm moving at the end of next week, I'm moving to Brooklyn. I've been fed up with what's going on for about five years. There are so many examples but let me just sum up. On Houston—I think between Second Avenue and Bowery, or maybe it's Allen and Chrystie—there's a big, huge 7-11 with big, beautiful 7-11 signs. [Ed: We think he's referring to the one on Bowery.] There's an IHOP on 14th Street, Subway sandwiches all over the place. The thing is, I left Atlanta a long time ago and I'm spending way too much money to live in Atlanta again, you know? I mean it really is...it's just...
Homogenized. It's mildly heartbreaking. It's just becoming more and more like a mall. I might as well be in St. Louis. It's very, very quickly, rapidly losing a lot of its character.
And Brooklyn's less of a mall? Yeah much less. Phenomenally less. Much, much, much, much, much, much, much less.
Well good luck to you in Brooklyn. I'm not quite sick of Manhattan yet. We'll see. A few more years. Where in Manhattan are you?
I'm on the Lower East Side around Ridge Street. Oh well it's making its way down there.
Yeah, it's pretty much there already. I've been in the East Village for ten and a half years now and for five years I've been like, "Enough is enough."