When I talked to David Cross he was leaving a celebrity poker tournament. It was a benefit for Dave Eggers’ non-profit youth-writing center, 826 Valencia. Cross was heading to the subway, then home to walk the dog and meet up with Amber Tamblyn—actor, poet and fiancé—for their friend’s thirtieth birthday party.
I started with the question dominating the news cycle on that day: Who is the true conservative? Santorum or Gingrich?
“Who’s the true conservative?” He repeated back to me, “Oh—Santorum. Yeah, come on. He’s the great white hope.”
Cross’ “Open Letter to Larry the Cable Guy” was, for me, one of the more memorable cultural confrontations of the Bush era. “People think of me as a political comic,” he says. “But I never called myself that. I just had to talk about it because it was so much of my consciousness.”
As frequently happens in David Cross interviews, we wound up suddenly having a fairly serious conversation. David described the confusion of New York City on Sept. 11, getting a weird phone call from a friend and going over to watch whatever was happening at the World Trade Center from a rooftop. By the time he got there the second building had been hit. “I watched the second tower come down through a pair of binoculars,” he said. “I really wish I could get that image out of my head.”
After we talked inadvertently about politics for awhile, I tried to lighten things up with a question about the tattoo on his left arm—it’s kind of a prairie scene so, naturally, I wondered if he had any corn on there.
“Yes,” said Cross, “There is plenty of corn. It’s an angry, old-testament God spanking Hitler in heaven—he’s over his knee with his pants down—and Hitler’s crying and his tears from heaven are kind of creating the clouds and when you follow it down the clouds are over a farm, and it’s raining.” In his best happy-ending voice, he says “That’s where we get our bounty from.” Summarizing that “It’s my concept of how religion works.”
David is hilarious, but he also seems attracted to the murkiest waterways of our collective psyche. He talks openly of bouts with anxiety and clinical depression, conditions that are much more common among comedians than one might assume. Maybe it is these semi-frequent trips down the rabbit hole that uniquely position comedians for the kind of cultural cartography we count on them for. Via controversial projects like Wonder Showzen and Freak Show, Cross questions the accuracy of our internal maps and—even at the expense of broader popularity—accrues relevance by helping us figure out where, exactly, we stand.
David Cross and his collaborators separated themselves from the pack in the late ’90s when they started putting together animations for adult audiences. They lead viewers into the parts of the imagination most people try to avoid, and then somehow made them laugh. For his Iowa City show, three of his earliest and strongest collaborators will be performing with him in a one-of-a-kind showcase. In addition to Amber Tamblyn, Jon Benjamin, Jon Glaser and Mary Lynn Rajskub will all take part in the show.
I asked him if their performance might be an opportunity to do some sketch comedy again, perhaps revisit a few of the characters fans would remember from previous programs, like the breakout sketch-comedy hit Mr. Show.
“Oh, God, no,” He shuddered, “I’ve never done any of those ‘best of’ type things. I wish I could. You know? That’s awesome—bands get to release three albums of shit then they can tour for the rest of their lives. But comedians,” he said, “have to come up with new material every time.” He tells me the show will include a staged reading of an old “really funny, bad, terrible script,” and a slideshow, along with some other “audio-visual material,” he says, proudly noting that the show would be “multimedias.”
“Do you have plans for another stand-up release?” I asked, “will this show foreshadow what that might look like?”
“Nope. Not at all. This will be a one-off special for Iowa. I probably won’t do this stuff anywhere else.”
As a star of Arrested Development, Cross has at least one well-publicized acting project coming down the pipeline, but “the next projects I’m doing,” he said, “are all writing.”
When his first book came out (I Drink For a Reason, 2009), he told Time magazine that his experience writing it was “awful.” For the reflective Cross, it must have been the kind of pain that he enjoys. He couldn’t elaborate, but he mentioned having two books in negotiation right now, one of them “in conjunction with Bob Odenkirk,” his principle collaborator on Mr. Show. And, having just completed the two-season IFC opus The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, he mentioned that he was about to begin writing a pilot for a show he’d just pitched exclusively to the FX network.
When he arrived at home, he passed the interview off to Amber, who was busily preparing for the party. She had warned me earlier that she would likely be chopping vegetables throughout our conversation.
“What are you making?” I asked.
“Nothing. I didn’t make anything, I just got food at Fairway. But I look great, and that’s what’s important. I look really great.”
This, I don’t find difficult to believe at all. The poet and actor from Venice, CA, is simply cooler than you and me, for a million reasons, including the fact that her godfather is Neil Young and the book of poetry she is currently working on is being illustrated by Marilyn Manson.
Tamblyn got her start playing Emily Quartermaine on General Hospital. She did the role for six years, from age 12 to 18, and her experience growing up in “the industry” definitely informs the trajectory of her literary career. She tells me that her first book, Free Stallion (2005), came from “a more volatile voice.” It recorded her first notions about “the idea of feminism, and what I felt I was being subjected to as a teenager.”
She described editing her second major release, Bang Ditto (2009), as David was finishing his book at the same time. It quickly becomes apparent where the two—both combining humor with earnest reflection—are meeting each other creatively. “To me,” she said, “if you can make people laugh because you didn’t get a role in something, because you were three pounds too heavy—and that was a note you’d been given—that’s fucking hilarious. It doesn’t matter if you’re an actress; if you are a woman, you are going to relate to that no matter what job you have, no matter what world or industry you are in,” she said, adding that “Hollywood is full of hilarious, fantastic poetic fodder.”
Her current project deals with some of the darkest stories the industry has to tell. “The poems are persona pieces about child-star actors who were really famous when they were young, but by their twenties or thirties, they died as unknowns.” She said the book deals with “the epidemic of drug and body abuse that happens in the industry, especially with women, and never gets talked about.” The first poem in the series, was about Brittany Murphy. It’s called “About the Body,” and it can be found at poetryfoundation.org, along with a letter from Amber reflecting on Murphy.
Tamblyn credits the poet Rachel McKibbens for encouraging her to develop the idea, but says it wasn’t until a mutual friend invited her to Marilyn Manson’s house that she really had a clear vision for it. “I didn’t know a whole lot about him,” she told me, “but when I went to his house and saw his paintings, they blew me away.” She said Manson is “an honorary member of Dada.” Later, online, I find all kinds of philosophical writing linking Manson to the Dadaists, and a hard-bound collection of his paintings called Genealogies of Pain (2010), which he co-authored with David Lynch.
She described visiting Manson’s house, and the moment she forged this collaboration with her “emotional accomplice.”
“One portrait looked exactly like one of the women I had written about—Donna Plato—a potential/possible drug-overdose/suicide, one of the many cases where you actually don’t know if they just drugged themselves because of depression or if it was an accident. I asked (Manson) if he wanted to do this with me and he was like, in his words, ‘Fuck yeah, woman.’”
Tamblyn tours regularly as a spoken-word performer. On Saturday, Mar. 31, She will be performing with Derrick Brown (Write Bloody Publishing) and renowned slam-poet Beau Sia, perhaps the two biggest rock stars in contemporary performance poetry.
“(Derrick and I) did a couple of tours called Lazers of Sexcellance. They involved a lot of fun, drinking, interrupting our own poems to tell shitty anecdotes.” She explained that it is “not only about the poem and what’s on the page, but how do you turn the room into its own poem, itself?”
“What sort of shape does that take?” I asked her, “How do you involve the audience?”
“By asking how many of them tweet, then telling them to come up on stage and receive a spanking with their pants down. Or by making Derrick Brown stop in the middle of his poem and take off his shirt and rub his disgusting, hairy chest down with Lubriderm while we put R. Kelly on, and then go back into the poem.” She clarifies that she’s actually done that one before, and warns, “I’m not afraid to do it again.”
On Sunday, April 1, Tamblyn, Brown and Sia will collaborate with Mission Creek, Working Group Theatre and the Iowa Youth Writing Project to do workshops, culminating in a collaborative “Pro-am” performance that evening at the Englert. Tamblyn especially looks forward to Beau Sia’s workshops, saying “he has the most fascinating and brutally honest things to say about performance-poetry, slam-poetry, the training that falls under that and the misguidance that can happen with a lot of youth.”
It was becoming time to let everyone get on with their evenings, so I asked if there was anything else she wanted to mention.
“I’m really interested in making out with Dora,” Tamblyn said of Iowa City poet Dora Malech, founding director of the IYWP. “Please tell her I’m going to pour two shots: one for me, and the other shot is just going to be my mouth, which she has to drink.”
“Two shots . . .” I say aloud as I take notes.
“Put it in writing, sir.”
For Amber Tamblyn and David Cross, these seem like words to live by.