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David Cross last did the standup circuit in 2010, but his status as one of America’s top comics remains intact. He’s in the midst of a 50-date tour and has been selling many of those dates out; he’s certain to draw a full house at each of his three shows at the Wilbur Theatre, two evening gigs on Sunday March 27 and one Tuesday March 29.
These will be people who have paid good money to see the Atlanta-born, Boston-reared, Emerson College-dropout take the stage and make funny for 75 minutes.
And he’s pretty certain a few people will walk out.
“I talk about that on stage,” says Cross, on the phone a day after a recent Durham, North Carolina, gig. “And the only reason I talk about it is because every single show I’ve had walkouts. Not a lot, but maybe three or four people will walk out.”
“They expect Tobias, basically,” says Cross. “It’s just a bit ignorant. I’ve been doing standup for 30 years; there’s eight-plus hours of standup that are available [online] to check out and see.”
Ah, yes. Tobias. An iconic character. Cross played Tobias Fünke, a stunningly un-self-aware and sexually confused former psychoanalyst-turned-aspiring (but always failing) actor on “Arrested Development.” He did so from 2003 to 2006 on Fox and then reprised the role in 2013 on Netflix.
Aside from his “Arrested” role, Cross, 51, has had considerable success in television — as a writer, creator and actor — from the recently concluded absurdist sitcom “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” on IFC to “Mr. Show” (1995 to 1998), rebooted last year as “W/ Bob and David” on Netflix, to the indie film “Hits.”
So neither Tobias nor any of Cross’s other characters will roam the Wilbur stage. The Cross you’ll get will likely aim comedic blasts at hipster culture, religion and a few topics that may have you cringing.
“David is brilliant, I love him,” says his friend, former Boston-based comic Barry Crimmins, who’d just seen Cross’s show and dined with him. “It was great fun watching him enthrall the crowd. He starts off with really funny, smart stuff — establishes the fact that they came to see a funny guy and they have. Slowly but surely the substance leaks in and dominates. [As a comic] you train the audience with the rhythm. He doesn’t just hit you with the same cadence all the time. Comedy is like pitching and David’s got a lot of arm angles and he mixes up the pitches. We’re extraordinarily kindred spirits. People think we’re gruff, but once you get close you find out how soft we are.”
Jim Sullivan: I first saw you around 1990 at Catch a Rising Star in Harvard Square with your sketch troupe, Cross Comedy. What did working around Boston do (or not do) for you? Do you consider it a launching pad?
David Cross: Well, I suppose. If nothing else it’s certainly the people I met along the way, plenty of whom I’m still friends with. [Being part of] that scene which is now kind of generally called “alternative comedy.” I had a great time starting off [in that]; I wouldn’t say it was a launching pad. It didn’t rocket me to the top. It took another decade, but it was where I cut my teeth.
You left Boston when?
Oh, I would think 1992 is when I moved to LA.
This tour is called “Making America Great Again!” I first thought it was an obvious play on Donald Trump’s slogan, but I saw in a recent interview that you said you came up with this before Trump.
No, that was a sarcastic remark.
I thought it might be. So, does Trump factor into your set?
Just barely. I’ve never been a political comic, per se. I talk about current events certainly, but this show follows the pattern of my other shows. About a third of it is silly-corny-goofy jokes, a third of it is political/religious and a third of it is anecdotal stories, things I observe or a situation I was in. It’s certainly not an hour of political comedy by any means. I would hate that. I never want to see that. I think it’s a pretty well-constructed set. That’s the most work, putting it together but I think I got it.
So, the reasoning behind the tour’s name is?
It’s not an entertaining or enlightening answer. I really was kicking some things around and I knew I needed to come up with a name for the tour. I was taking my time and didn’t like anything I came up with. So it was either too funny-silly or it was pretentious, and the guy who does the booking called me and said “I need something right now!” So within an hour I told him “Let’s call it ‘Making America Great Again!’” That’s it. There’s no great story behind it.
I know for a lot of comics who have success on TV or in the movies, when they return to standup they’ll talk about getting back to their roots, the connection that comes from live performance. Is that where you’re coming from here?
Not really, [but] it certainly factors into what’s special about it. The actual impetus for doing it now was a convergence of two things: one, the project I was going to be working on got postponed; and, two, at the same time I found out I had to have major shoulder surgery. I had no use of my arm for a month and a half. The process of physical therapy was several months long and that meant not only could I not work but when I had to do physical therapy I had to be in the same place, I couldn’t travel, so I did that three days a week. I had a lot of time to put stuff together.
You kept a notebook?
To the consternation of my wife, there were just scraps of paper all over the place, notes from various sets I had done. I had done enough sets — non-profit shows benefits and things like that — so I cobbled them together and constructed what I thought would be a good, hour set.
There’s certainly anger and hostility in your act. Where do you think it comes from? I suppose the answer could be as simple as “living in America…”
Yes, it’s from the James Brown song. (laughs) I think I’ve actually mellowed over the years. I was certainly an angry man. I grew up very poor and I had a s---ty, a--hole dad. And I grew up in the South and there was a lot of cultural ignorance. That’s probably where it comes from. Compared to comics like Jim Gaffigan or John Mulaney — and they’re great comics — yeah, I’m probably angry. But I don’t think I’m an angry comic.
A cliché question, maybe, but is there a sense of catharsis when you’re doing your act? Does it help you cope in the rest of your life?
Uh, maybe that’s a question for a therapist to answer, but maybe. Yes. I don’t know. I don’t notice any discernible difference between my day-to-day now, while I’m on tour, and what it was like two or three years ago when I wasn’t doing standup.
Some TV stuff — “Todd Margaret” is a hoot and makes me cringe-laugh. Your third season just ended. Might it return?
No! Never say never, I guess, but I don’t see how. It came full circle so it’s better to leave well enough alone.
I have no idea. I know they were starting to write it, but nobody contacted me. Everybody’s so involved with their own s---.
“W/ Bob and David?”
Oh, absolutely. Bob [Odenkirk] is on “Better Call Saul” and that’s a very specific schedule that he works around. But we’re both very excited about doing some more and we will.
In a previous interview, you said that you never expect your comedy to change anyone’s views, that it’s basically humor, entertainment.
I guess I should say I don’t expect it to change an adult’s mind, but maybe if you are 15 or 16 years old, that’s where you start changing your mind based on a joke. I don’t think there are too many set-in-their-ways 40-year-olds who hear a joke and go “Oh!” Maybe that’ll happen, but I don’t expect it to and that was the way the [interviewer’s initial] question was phrased. I don’t expect it to change anyone’s mind, but if it does happen…
I’m thinking of someone like late-period George Carlin, whose angry, but logical comedy certainly had that potential. Or, maybe I agreed with him in general before I’d see his set, but his specifics would clarify, amplify or solidify what I’d thought.
Oh, absolutely. All those things. That’s different from changing someone’s mind. But absolutely it can clarify, solidify those ideas so it sheds a different light that starts you on a path of what you were thinking. When I get to the South, Southwest and parts of the Midwest, where it’s not as progressive culturally, I’m filling up these big theaters in smaller places and the people are so f------ happy you made the effort to come to them. They know that they are not alone, even though they’re clearly in the minority, and they go “Yes, there’s somebody saying the things I wanted to say!”
Jim Sullivan is a former Boston Globe arts and music staff writer who pens the arts-events website jimsullivanink.com and contributes to various publications, TV and radio outlets. He hosts the monthly music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk” on Xfinity On Demand. Find him on Twitter at @jimsullivanink.
Cross was on WBUR's On Point as well. Listen here: