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David Cross: Comedy Icon or Ski Bum?

October 26, 2009

Good news from the weekend: the Arrested Development movie just got a little more official. Bad news from the weekend: David Cross may show up for the filming covered in white powder instead of Blue Man Group paint.

It’s an age-old dilemma, really: should finding out one of your favorite artists may be a bit of a bastard diminish his/her standing in your eyes? Is it acceptable to think less of the artist, or are you being a judgmental prig, especially if the offense is relatively minor in the grand scheme?

I’ve been troubled with these thoughts since reading some of David Cross’s recent loose-lipped braggadocio about snorting cocaine 40 feet away from President Barack Obama at this summer’s White House Press Correspondents’ dinner.

At best, Cross behaved grossly irresponsibly, both when he took a toot at the DC event AND when he went public with the story. That’s one part of the downside to this incident, once you get past the initial “He did what!?” and the surprised laughter. Let’s say Cross gets painted in the mainstream (where he’s still largely unknown despite his giant stature among comedy enthusiasts) as the “creepy, pervy, depraved fiend” type because of all this. Will that diminish future projects that he’s involved in, such as the Arrested Development movie, or the viability of his closest comedy colleagues and friends? Could this even be twisted to become an indicator of something wrong with Barack Obama himself?

At this point, these seem to be questions worth asking. If for no other reason, the powers that be are usually looking for any reason to pull the plug on left-field projects (witness the Arrested Development TV series for a prime example), and certain political sectors will reach with their non-trigger hand for anything and everything to question the legitimacy of our current President. David Cross should NOT be providing, um, ammunition for such efforts.

On a more personally meaningful level, it’s troubling news for me because, frankly, I love David Cross and have for years seen him as a sort of comedic prophet. Except for Bill Hicks (R.I.P.), no comedian does better at expressing righteous, politically progressive indignation—and crucially, making it funny—than David Cross. And that’s just his stand-up. Of course, Cross and Bob Odenkirk were the stars and driving creative forces of Mr. Show, the most razor-sharp, bitingly satirical sketch comedy show in television history.

Not everything Cross has done, of course, has been a vehicle for political commentary. See “Chipmunks, Alvin and the” and “Movie, Scary” in the Comprehensive Entertation Index (yet to be published). Even the deservedly venerated Arrested Development mostly avoids serious social or political commentary, except for some nice lampooning of the corporate culture and power structures that could allow a family such as the Bluths to indulge their eccentric, irresponsible tendencies and behaviors.

But I’d be hard-pressed to imagine that any of his own work means more to David Cross and/or satisfies him more as an artist than his stand-up and satire. That’s where I can’t get past the “snorting cocaine and bragging about it” stuff, because in this case, his questionable personal behavior directly links to, and negatively affects, the impact of his art. I’m willing to hear arguments against the idea, but I fear that Cross’s latest antics have diminished his credibility as a social critic.

The biggest cause for consternation is the drug of choice, for powder cocaine is straight-up Wall Street, K Street, and Wilshire Boulevard. More than other illicit drugs, it represents a culture of materialism, acquisition, and exploitation. Cross does a bit on his album It’s Not Funny about a New York restaurant that serves a dessert covered in gold. He imagines the gold passing through layer upon globalized layer of worker exploitation, from the mining to the refining to the shipping, all to end up flaked and sprinkled as a tasteless, odorless, and unnoticed addition to a pharmaceutical executive’s dessert. As he says on the album, “If that [dessert] isn’t the ultimate ‘Fuck You!’ to poor people, I don’t know what is.”

The importance of critiquing crass, harmful consumption, and making that commentary funny, hasn’t gone away—it never will—but I’m not sure it will mean as much coming from David Cross in the future. His legitimacy as the messenger may have disappeared right up his nose, along with the cocaine best left to the very exploiters he once so powerfully denounced.

Maybe I’m painting this with brush strokes that are entirely too Manichaean, but doing cocaine in public and touting it with such thoughtlessness seems to me the domain of those people, the ones who laugh at others’ bad fortune as they consume the products, excrete the waste, and externalize the human and environmental costs of a socioeconomic system built on the backs of the powerless. I thought David Cross was better than them. Now I’m not so sure.

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8 Comments
  1. Matt Shorr permalink*
    October 26, 2009 4:48 pm

    Since reading this story, I’ve gotten the notion (from where, I don’t know) that this is a joke, that he never really did it, that it was just to see what type of reaction it would elicit from mainstream press, pundits, critics, etc. It will be interesting to see where it goes. I hope I don’t have to reconsider my opinion of one my comedy heroes.

  2. C.M. Tomlin permalink
    October 26, 2009 5:10 pm

    I agree, Alan, that it’s always such a small stab to the heart to see someone you adore behave badly. While it’s always been Cross’ schtick to be anti-establishment, he was also very anti-conservative and anti-right-wing. It’s disconcerting to see that, when he gets his comeuppance politically and is invited to presumably stand among his heroes, this is the thing he thinks to do. Then brag about it. It’s the equivalent of a sophomoric fart joke from a comic Ph.D. — and he’s smarter than that.

  3. C.M. Tomlin permalink
    October 26, 2009 5:16 pm

    Here’s the question, though. If it is false, what’s the gag?

  4. Jay St. Orts permalink
    October 26, 2009 5:19 pm

    This whole incident upsets me such that I believe I will *refuse* my wine its little silver ride at this evenings gala.

  5. The Fool permalink
    October 27, 2009 12:40 pm

    Mr. Cross would seem to be the comedian to play this joke on the silly silly scandal grabbing media. At least in my opinion.

    It seems along the same lines as the joke:
    “You whats hard? Hard is convincing my girlfriend to get her 3rd consecutive abortion.”

    Either way (Brilliant DC or Dbag DC) still a good article.

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