This sounds obnoxious,” says David Cross, wincing, “but the show’s doing very well. It’s been very well received.” The comedian and actor known to many as Arrested Development’s preposterous Tobias Fünke has a look of wiry confidence as he speaks down the camera at me. The show he’s talking about, Worst Daddy in the World, is his latest stand-up tour, and the reason he’s coming to the UK. “I’ll get standing ovations and people are very happy with it – except for the people that walk out,” he adds, dryly. “They’re not happy.”
Speaking from his home office, Cross is flanked by two posters: one for the 1990s American sketch show Mr Show with Bob and David, the other for the cult 2010s sitcom The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. On camera, the 59-year-old is often cast as timid, put-upon characters – a consequence, perhaps, of his uniquely nasal speaking voice. Emanating from some of his characters, this tone takes on a clerkish quality (there’s a reason he was cast as the “white voice” in Boots Riley’s 2018 race satire Sorry to Bother You). But off camera, and onstage, Cross would never be mistaken for a buzzkill. This is, after all, the man who admitted to taking cocaine in the same room as the president, during the 2009 White House Correspondents’ dinner. Today, he’s boasting an unruly white-grey beard; a tattoo sleeve peeks out from beneath the arms of his shirt.
In his new stand-up show, Cross talks about “being a new dad, and being an old, new dad”. (The daughter he shares with his wife, the actor Amber Tamblyn, is six.) “I’m not suggesting this is a one-man show or anything close to that,” he remarks. “It’s still stand-up. There’s a bunch of dumb corny s***.” Those who have seen Cross before will know what to expect: anecdotes, topical material, and “dumb” jokes, in roughly equal measure. And all of it slouching irreverently against the walls of good taste (“there’s stuff about the catholic church… my favourite thing to talk about”). He’s a father now, sure – but he’s not letting that soften his edges. “My daughter is spoiled,” he says. “And I resent her for being rich. You know, I don’t like rich people, and she’s a f***ing rich kid, and… f*** her!” He smiles puckishly.
If there’s a scintilla of truth to Cross’s winking hyperbole, it likely stems from his own upbringing – a period of his life that fatherhood has brought him to reassess. Cross was born in Roswell, Georgia (to Barry, an emigrant from Leeds, and Susi, an American Jew), and was the eldest of three children; when he was 10, his father ran off, leaving the family “in a mountain of debt”. “My mom didn’t have any real skills,” he explains. “It was a struggle for quite a while.” After having a child of his own, Cross says he now has an “instant deeper, much greater appreciation for what my mom had to do. She had three kids, and no money. Zero. I only have one kid, and we’re comfortable, and we have all kinds of help with relatives, friends, neighbours… stuff that my mom never had.”
Cross wouldn’t be the first person to channel a difficult upbringing into art. When he reached adulthood, he started performing live comedy, cutting his teeth on the irony and invention of the country’s burgeoning 1990s alt-comedy scene. A job writing for (and occasionally appearing in) The Ben Stiller Show in 1992 introduced him to the world of TV and won him an Emmy; in 1995, he created Mr Show alongside fellow comic and future Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk.
To people in the UK, it can be difficult to articulate the importance of Mr Show. The series was never a commercial hit stateside – partly because it aired on the premium network HBO, and because of its quirky, cynical sensibility – but those who loved it did so ardently. In Britain, it never even aired. (For a small flavour of its hilarity, I recommend checking out “The Story of Everest” or “The Audition”.) Over the course of three years and 30 episodes, Mr Show tore up the fabric of American sketch comedy. Its influence can be vividly felt in many of the most noteworthy US sketch shows since: the wickedly satirical Key & Peele on Comedy Central; the frenzied, surreal Tim and Eric on Adult Swim (in which Cross thrice appeared); the dyspeptically odd I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson on Netflix.
TV prominence coincided with Cross’s stand-up career taking off; filmed specials such The Pride Is Back (1999) and Shut Up You F***ing Baby! (2002) cemented his place as a major force on the comedy circuit. He also accrued an eclectic list of film roles, including Ghost World, Men in Black, Waiting for Guffman and Scary Movie 2.
In 2003, Cross signed onto Arrested Development, as the moustachioed would-be thespian Tobias. The role was originally intended to be a fleeting one, but it fast became clear that Cross’s buffoonish “never-nude” ex-doctor was a standout. Arrested Development was cancelled after three seasons by US network Fox. Now, thanks to its groundbreaking humour – which relied on dense, rapid-fire jokes and layered, left-field callbacks – it is embraced as a high point of the medium. In 2013, Netflix revived the series in what was at the time a statement of ambition for its original programming. A jarring, non-chronological fourth season proved divisive, however, and its fifth and final season was roundly disappointing.
Cross and Odenkirk weren’t the only Mr Show alumni to make it big: the list also includes Paul F Tompkins, Jack Black, and Sarah Silverman. But it didn’t work out so well for everyone. I bring up the matter of Jay Johnston, a Mr Show regular who shared credits with Cross several times over the years, including in 10 episodes of Arrested Development. In June 2023, Johnston was arrested and charged in connection with the 6 January attack on the US Capitol. “I was surprised as we all were,” Cross says, recalling the moment photographs of his former co-star at the riot began circulating online. “We were immediately texting each other, calling each other and going, ‘Holy f***! Is that Jay?’ What the f***?’
“The thing that was so odd was that Jay was never politically minded,” he continues. “He never watched the news, never cared about it. But he became friendly with Gavin McInnes [founder of far-right militant organisation Proud Boys]. We were all friends at one point. But he fell in line with that. I think he was very ripe to fall for that mindset… there’s a lot of the white male grievance s***. ‘I’m the victim’. There’s always a group like that, in every era. And there’s always the undercurrent, the suggestion of violence.” Cross adds that he hasn’t spoken to Johnston since they filmed W/ Bob & David, the 2015 Netflix successor to Mr Show. (Funny but lacking the cutting-edge freshness of its predecessor, W/ Bob & David lasted for just one five-episode season.)
Cross sighs – perhaps at the mention of Netflix. On the subject of the streaming service, Cross seems to have mixed feelings. Last year, Arrested Development fans were sideswiped by news that seasons four and five were being removed from Netflix entirely (an excision that was ultimately delayed until 2026). “I’m happy that we got a chance to reunite and do those shows”, he muses, with a sense of weary pragmatism, “but it’s a business. Netflix paid for it and they can do whatever the f*** they want with it.” I’m starting to see why Cross has done so much work for HBO: F-bombs pepper his speech like chimes from a pinball machine.
There may, of course, be other reasons for Cross’s resigned reaction here. In recent years, some of the shine of Arrested Development has been taken off by later sexual misconduct allegations made against one of its stars, Jeffrey Tambor. An infamous roundtable interview in 2018 with The New York Times saw the late Jessica Walter reduced to tears when discussing an incident in which Tambor mistreated her on set; her male co-stars in attendance were accused of gaslighting her and rallying around Tambor. Cross apologised “unequivocally” shortly after. Asked about Arrested Development by The Guardian this month, he simply responded: “I don’t know if there’s anything to say that hasn’t been said.”
Arrested Development wouldn’t be the first time Netflix has canned something he’s made, either. Cross brings the chat round to a “made-up controversy” surrounding a W/ Bob & David sketch called “Know Your Rights”. In the skit, he plays a man who films himself driving up to a police officer in an effort to document his experience of brutality. After repeatedly failing to antagonise the officer (played by Keegan-Michael Key), Cross’s character eventually drives up wearing Blackface, at which point another officer steps in to brutalise him. In 2020, Netflix removed the scene from its catalogue – and the rest of the episode along with it. “It was in no way offensive to a thinking person,” Cross insists. “But they just took the whole show, and threw it away, and now you can’t watch it.”
Does he think the climate might change for comedy such as this? “It might be wishful thinking, but I do think the pendulum will swing back,” he replies. “In the case of the Bob & David sketch, it’s obvious to anybody who watches it – in context, [my character] comes off looking like a fool. I think eventually that’ll see the light of day again.”
“Free speech” is a topic about which Cross has spoken extensively, in interviews and occasionally on stage. But he’s keen to delineate a difference between his stance and the position of that modern phenomenon, the “free speech warrior”. “We’re so divided now,” he says. “[You can find] an audience, if you want to dress up like a Nazi and talk about how great fascists are, ‘doing a character’. You’re not gonna be selling out arenas. But you’ll make a healthy amount of money.”
Cross keeps going. “I mean, look, that’s what Elon Musk taking over Twitter was. Like, ‘hey, I’m bringing back all the fascists; there’s a platform for them.’ And ‘this is about free speech’, or however you want to couch it. But a lot of these right-wing conservative guys, they’re just grifters anyway. Their whole thing is about making money.” He takes a breath. “This isn’t really answering your question.”
It’s not just Musk on Cross’s hit list. Opinionated and just a little pugnacious, the comic unloads his thoughts on a number of high-profile figures, including Donald Trump (“a clown… a caricature… a sort of evil oafish psychopath”) and controversial podcaster Joe Rogan. Cross met Rogan while guest-starring on the talent-crammed sitcom NewsRadio – one of a plethora of acclaimed series he’s guested on. (Among the others: Community; Rick and Morty; Archer; Maron; King of the Hill; What We Do in the Shadows.)
“Immediately I thought he was very bright, very inquisitive,” he says, of the Joe Rogan Experience host. “He’s someone who the precept is, ‘I wanna know the truth. Let’s be suspicious of this. Question the source.’ But now he is the source, and sometimes wildly ignorant and ill-informed, and having discussions with uninformed people. People believe things because ‘Joe Rogan said it’ – there’s a deep irony there.”
It’s nearly time to go, but not before one more rant. This time, it’s the actors’ and writers’ strikes that have ground Hollywood to a halt. (Cross is able to speak today in his role as a stand-up.) “It’s really all or nothing,” he says, contrasting the strikes with the previous WGA strikes of 2007-2008. “The issues are so much more career-threatening and existential for writers, actors, and everybody.