Q+A: Comedian David Cross

David Cross (as Todd Margaret) and Will Arnett (as Brent Wilts) in a scene from The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. Photo by Colin Hutton/IFC.

While you could say that writer/comedian Davis Cross (whom you may also recognize as Tobias Funke from Arrested Development) got his start as a teenager doing stand-up comedy on stages in Atlanta, the comedian also has a few ties to Boston, where he attended Emerson College and formed his sketch comedy group, “Cross Comedy,” in the early 1990s.

Last year the cable network IFC re-aired his critically-acclaimed HBO series Mr. Show as part of the buildup to his newest project, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. Two weeks ago, as the second season of Todd Margaret began, I had a chance to sit down with Cross in New York as he explained the genesis of the show and its protagonist, Todd Margaret.

Cross plays Margaret, a bumbling and incompetent American who has been sent to the United Kingdom to market an energy drink of questionable quality called Thunder Muscle. Will Arnett (also of Arrested Development) plays Margaret’s boss, Brent Wilts, and is somehow even more incompetent than Margaret. The story of what becomes the pair’s criminal incompetence is told in a flash-forward and flash-back style that Cross said was influenced by his obsession with Lost and Battlestar Galactica while he was writing the story.

The second season of this almost surreal farce builds to a fever pitch over the next few weeks and it airs every Friday night on IFC at 10:30 p.m.

How did you approach creating the character Todd Margaret? Was this a guy you knew? Had you been working on someone like this for a while?
This is the only project I’ve ever done that I created. I approached [it] in a way very different from the way I normally approach things. The character came much much later, after the idea, and the idea came because there were a certain set of parameters I had to adhere to.

To give you the back-story, I was in London doing standup at the time, and I was approached by two women from RDF Media Productions, which I had never heard of. They asked me if I would be interested in creating a show that would put me together with a British writer and producer — a show for me to star in that takes place in London and the UK … that could potentially be sold and air in the States.

As I started fleshing this whole thing out, I came up with the character. There’s an aspect of this person that is based on a type of person, and I do have a friend like this, but we all have a friend like this — [the kind of] guy who mistakes female pretension of hospitality, civility, for sexual innuendo or sexual possibilities.

What about the idea of the American who is over in the UK and not aware of certain customs?
We were adamant that we would not make that the source of the humor. The comedy is secondary to the story, which is big in its scope for a comedy show. I’m hesitant in saying that this is “just a comedy show” — it’s a story that’s pretty funny at times, but when you consecutively play it out, it’s not War And Peace, but it’s an intricate story with all kinds of levels and details to it. The comedy is inserted [in those details].

I’ve found that no matter what phase of the story we’re in, flashing forward or back, there’s always something funny there.

As we got closer to shooting, the funny parts expanded, and when we were in the editing room, we made sure that there was funny stuff throughout. You know, it’s probably funnier in the second season because we did so much work in laying out the story in the first season. In episode six of season two, when we get to the trial, we will have earned our right to be sillier and goofier because we’ve spent 11 episodes traveling down this line and serving the story. So we just go nuts!

Has your work on projects like Mr. Show helped you in creating vignettes like you’ve created on this show?
Maybe? Certainly not consciously. But perhaps I have learned over time, and it’s become intuitive. I think what differentiated Mr. Show sketches from the sketches you saw on a lot of other shows is that they had a beginning, middle, and an end. Bob [Odenkirk] and I both didn’t like how SNL sketches would sometimes end only with the camera pulling back and people clapping, there wasn’t anything that really ended the sketch. So maybe that’s just an extension of the way I think but it’s not something that I did, “Hmmmm…. let me harken back to the days of Mr. Show, what would I do here?”

What happens after Todd Margaret? What else do you have coming down the pike?
I just shot a movie in L.A. that I haven’t seen yet, but I have high hopes for it. It’s called It’s a Disaster, it’s a kind of indie comedy/dark comedy that is very talky. It’s four couples in various stages of their relationships who are at a house having brunch when, unbeknownst to them, a bunch of dirty bombs are set off in the downtown area of LA near their house. The audience knows before they do that something terrible has happened and they end up stuck in this house knowing that they [the actors] are going to die … and it’s made into comedy. It’s not broad in any way at all. But the cast was fucking awesome — it was a thrill, it was a pleasure to do. It was also a role that I don’t get to do very much, which is a kind of straighter guy. That’ll be, I imagine, the next thing you can see of mine. I’ll probably be in some more Modern Family episodes. That’s a great set to be on.