In another time, David Cross was a total oddity. For the mid-1980s, the comic seemed a voice too strange and controversial to configure for mass consumption, and he slinked his way through a maze of sometimes angry, sometimes amused, nearly always-confused audiences during his early stand-up career because of it. He was a long shot back then, when the world seemed smaller and made its way into people’s lives slowly, carefully, filtered and familiar.
But Cross managed to build a career in a different world, where his strangeness could be shared and celebrated by others willing to slip past the censors and follow along. Now he’s in the middle of his first stand-up comedy tour in six years, taking the stage at the Gaillard Center on Thursday for his Charleston debut. That might rattle another performer to bits, but for Cross, he has only one concern: “Where should I eat? I can always ask Aziz, but what do y’all think? Where?!”
Born in Atlanta, Cross and his family moved frequently throughout his early childhood, passing through Florida, New York and Connecticut before settling into Roswell, Ga., with his mother and two sisters. The family struggled financially, and they bounced from motels to the homes of friends and relatives when the money trickled in more slowly than usual.
Cross excelled in school, and he eventually earned a spot in a nearby arts high school to start his sophomore year. That “probably saved my life,” Cross says of the time. “There were a lot of gay kids there and about a half white and half black student population. Nobody gave a (expletive). I suppose that’s one of the reasons I prefer living in NYC. You are welcome to be whomever and whatever you want to be and it doesn’t feel like your living in some sort of anomaly. That’s just how everyone is around here.”
Within hours of his high school graduation, Cross moved to New York, where he worked a number of odd jobs to support himself before attending Boston’s Emerson College for a semester. He formed a sketch comedy group in Boston, but spent much of the late 1980s and early 1990s performing stand-up on the club circuit around New York City and Los Angeles, appearing in small film and television roles and writing for the short-lived, but critically acclaimed “The Ben Stiller Show,” for which he won an Emmy.
Collaborating with actor, writer and comedian Bob Odenkirk, Cross co-created and starred in the hit HBO sketch comedy show “Mr. Show With Bob and David” in 1995. The back-to-back successes helped propel Cross onto Hollywood’s radar, and he began appearing on numerous sitcoms throughout the remainder of the ’90s before landing a breakout role on the hugely popular Fox series, “Arrested Development,” as Dr. Tobias Funke.
Since then, Cross has written two books, released three stand-up albums and a tour documentary, helped fund a then-fledgling Kickstarter and recently released his directorial debut, “Hits,” on the file-sharing protocol, BitTorrent, with an optional price to download the film, making it the first feature film to use such a model. We caught up with Cross ahead of his Charleston stop.
Q: You’ve been good at finding ways to balance the challenges of staying creative and outlandish while still covering the bills at home. It seems like you keep one step ahead of the “gatekeepers,” in terms of reaching your audience. What’s been the best way for you to deliver your ideas to an audience relatively unfiltered?
A: Well, the easiest by far is stand-up. That’s just me and a microphone. No studios giving notes on story or edit suggestions or casting ideas or ways to market an idea to optimize viewership in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic. Just me and my bits.
Q: What about periods when you feel drained creatively but feel pressured to keep producing? What helps you find inspiration again during those moments?
A: Oh, absolutely. The thing that keeps me going is knowing how temporary this all is. Not in a mortal sense, but how you can go six months or longer without any work on the horizon. Opportunities are fleeting and liquid. Take every opportunity you get. You’ll find your inspiration from necessity. But I don’t really jump into any endeavors, at least ones that I am creating, with only half an idea. It’s usually pretty fully formed once I sit down to write it and shoot it.
Q: This is your first stand-up tour in nearly six years, but you’ve said before that you did a few hour-long, drop-in sets to test this set. Did you still do drop-ins just for fun during those years you were off the stand-up touring circuit?
A: Oh, yeah, fairly consistently. The hour-long sets are literally the very last part of getting the set together. I have to have all the material set first. Those are mostly to experiment with what works and to play around with the sequencing.
Q: You’ll be hitting a lot of cities you haven’t played before with this tour. How do you feel when presenting your act in new cities and regions?
A: I love it! It’s my favorite aspect of going on tour. To see new places, meet new folks and come to them as opposed to them having to get in a car and drive three-, four-, five-plus (hours). Those folks are usually so appreciative of that. It’s a fun time.
Q: Your wife, Amber Tamblyn, will also be in town the same day to present her new poetry collection, “Dark Sparkler,” at Blue Bicycle Books. Would you like to say anything about her work and being on the road together?
A: I’m not that into poetry as a general form. I have difficulty with metaphor and allegory enough in prose let alone poetry, but I really, really like this last book. I watched her write it and saw how much it affected her and what she put into it. And that’s not even speaking to watching her perform it, which is a totally new level in which to enjoy it.
Being on the road is tough, sometimes very tough, on any relationship, but she figured out a way so that the two of us could be together on this one. Pretty smart of her.
Q: Anything else you’d like to mention?
A: Looking very much forward to the show. I’ve been to Charleston a couple of times and it’s always been fun ... and I always gain six pounds as well.
What: Cross’s “Making America Great Again” tour
When: Doors open at 6:30 p.m. show starts at 7:30 Thursday
Where: Gaillard Center, 95 Calhoun St., downtown Charleston
Tickets: $37.80-$54. Tickets are available at www.GaillardCenter.com, 843-242-3099 or at the Gaillard box office.
More info: 843-724-5212
What: Cross’s wife, actress and author Amber Tamblyn, will read from her new book, “Dark Sparkler.” Tamblyn describes the book as a collection of poems that began as an “initially casual interest in the lives and disappointments” of actresses before her time. The collection reflects on the careers and personal lives of such actresses as Brittany Murphy, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield, all paired with original artwork by David Lynch, Adrian Tomine, Marilyn Manson and Marcel Dzama.
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St.
More info: bluebicyclebooks.com/news/