David Cross On 'Increasingly Poor Decisions' And Characters He Can't Stand
Even longtime fans of David Cross may not have seen his latest show, "The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret," a limited-run British-American comedy that can be difficult to find. In the United States, the show began its second-season stint Friday on the Independent Film Channel (also known for "Portlandia," another cult comedy series).
Compared to the kudos Cross got as Tobias Funke on "Arrested Development," or as one-half of the brilliantly surreal "Mr. Show With Bob And David," critical response to his latest project has been lukewarm. The Los Angeles Times called Margaret, an office temp hoodwinked into moving to England to sell an impossibly large inventory of an energy drink, "exhausting company," while The New York Times described him as "yucky."
But Margaret is also the most distilled expression of Cross' talents to date. Where Funke's weird adventures were tangential to the Bluth family's, and the sketch structure of "Mr. Show" wasn't meant to fully realize characters, in "Todd Margaret" the title character's flaws, analyzed anew each half hour, fuel all of the show's working parts.
Co-written by Cross and British comedian Shaun Pye, each episode begins at the end, with Margaret being judged by various powers on high for the "increasingly poor decisions" that got him there. The recounting of those moves make up the remainder of the episode, and nearly always deal with Margaret lying foolishly to impress Alice (Sharon Horgan), a cafe-owner he loves very one-sidedly.
If that recipe made for "a dish that has been sitting on the table well past the point of cooling," as Ginia Bellafante put it last year, this season starts out with scents in the air: instead of attempting to explain himself to wigged members of the British high court, Margaret starts out each episode as a hostage and point of fascination for a shipful of North Korean soldiers. Meanwhile, the mysterious mastermind who orchestrated Margaret's original transfer is revealed to be his English assistant Dave (played by Blake Harrison of "The Inbetweeners").
The Huffington Post sat down with Cross before last week's premiere to talk about the show's new (and final) season. Read on for why Cross cast Jon Hamm as Dave's butler, why he feels British, and who he'd hate hanging out with more: Todd or Tobias.
Is the plot for season two sketched out?
It's over, it's done. And I mean, I knew that going into season one. I didn't pitch it that way to IFC, but they bought a pilot that I knew was going to be two seasons.
Did you knew where each specific episode would end up?
No, but before I did anything, I knew what the beginning and the end was, which, without giving too much away, negates there being the possibility for any other episodes. The middle parts took a lot of fleshing out.
What inspired you to cast Jon Hamm?
The long, boring version is that in between season one and season two, Channel 4 in the U.K. pulled their funding for the show. IFC was good enough, thank God, to come in and step up and match, so that we could have the same budget we had, and one of the things they asked me to do was put in a celebrity cameo. I know lots of celebrities, and it would help them to market the show.
Your immediate initial thought, I mean the very first knee-jerk thought, is like, "What? Fuck you." And then after thinking about it for five seconds, I was like, 'Okay, that makes sense.' I mean, they didn’t have to do that, put more money in it. They own part of it, so I shouldn't make it, like, this altruistic thing, but--
So then we were trying to come up with a cameo idea that fit and I know Jon from around the comedy scene. He's a big comedy fan -- an underrated comic performer, not anymore, but. He could not have been more pleasant or agreeable. We were like, "We can shoot you for four days, fly you out to London, you know, bring your girlfriend, stay for a week." He loves London and he had a blast. He was great. Great.
Both "Arrested Development" and now "Todd Margaret" demand you turn buffoons into protagonists. As an actor, how do you go about making a fool likable?
I was actually surprised at the amount of people who found Todd to be highly unlikable. I didn't expect that. I didn't intend that. I don't think it matters so much. I've never been one of those people who subscribe to this notion that's fairly prevalent that it's wrong as a writer or a director, whether it's a playwright, prose or TV, movies or whatever, to not like your characters.
Do you not like Todd?
I would never ever hang out with him for more than five minutes.
Would you hang out with Tobias?
God, no. That guy's worse to me as a human being because he's just absolutely fraudulent. Todd Margaret, he means well, he's just frustrating. Like, if that's your friend, you'd go, "Why didn't you just tell her? What's wrong with you? You're making things worse." But Tobias is fraudulent and pompous and pseudo-intellectual and a hypocrite.
I mean, I wouldn't hang out with either one of them for more than five minutes. That'd be weird, too, because they look exactly -- I mean, fucking spot-on exactly -- like me. It's really strange. That's why I have this beard and glasses.
One thing I've noticed is they tend to smile a lot, both characters.
Really? That's interesting.
They're both just so sure they're correct. I'm wondering actually if Todd will ever change. Will he ever learn?
If there was a season three -- there won't be, but if there was -- I can imagine that he would learn, but not ever fully. I imagine him slipping back. Even if he had a wife and kids, I don't think he'd ever fully learn.
What's the difference between making a show in the U.S. versus the U.K.? Is IFC's request for a cameo representative of the way we operate?
I suppose. I don't think it's all that bad, though. IFC didn't demand it, they requested it. And I don't blame 'em at all. I would do the same thing if I was in their position. The most immediate and obvious answer is, you get very little interference in the U.K., zero. I mean, a drop in the bucket compared to any experience I've had in the States. There's less people involved. They trust the writer and creative team to do what they were hired to do.
It was the same thing on "Mr. Show," HBO not being really indicative of how a network works. They don't have sponsors or ad revenue to worry about, so with Channel 4 and HBO, there were barely any notes. If they had notes, you'd argue your case and they'd go, "Okay. This is why we hired you. We don't write. This isn't what we do. We market."
Your father is British -- from Leeds, in fact, where you base much of this season. Do you feel connected to the U.K.?
Very much so. The first time I ever went abroad was right after the North Ridge earthquake in L.A. I was in New York, writing for "The Jon Stewart Show," and I got an offer to do "Comedy On The Road," a terrible, awful show, but I was like, "Fuck it! A free trip to London." It was the first time I was abroad. All my relatives on my dad's side -- he was the youngest of five -- all my aunts and uncles, my grandparents on his side, were all here, all off the boat from Leeds.
When I first went to London, it was like a very slow wave of understanding. Like, "Oh, that's why I've always preferred overcast rainy weather." It doesn’t depress me. I like Seattle! And when I was a kid, I would have fish and chips. I loved it -- it was my birthday dinner. I always used to go to Arthur Treacher Fish and Chips. And I'm a big, big beer drinker. There are certain things that I was like, "Oh, no wonder, I get it."
Are you targeting the show toward the rest of Europe at all?
That was one of the very few rules, to make it interesting and funny and resonate with British audiences as well as American audiences. There are certain things that Americans just won't get, and there are certain things Brits won't get, until they do a little research. So we'd check with each other, the writers. But I grew up watching "[Monty] Python," and I didn't get all of it, but I still laughed. I never have done anything like, 'How can I get the most people to like this?' If I did that, then I'd be working on "The Middle" or "Mike & Molly" or something.
Can you tell us about the "Arrested Development" miniseries? There'll be an episode for each character, right, on what he or she's been doing all this time?
That's the plan, yeah.
So what's been going on with Tobias?
I don’t know. I don’t think they've written it yet. I know what the idea for the movie is. I can't give that away, but it's fucking brilliant.
You can't say anything more about it?
It's going to be 18 hours long. In the middle of the movie, they're going to air "Shoah," the documentary, as well as "Rent." Why, I don't know, but they wanted to make an 18-hour film.
Watch a clip from the season 2 premiere of "Todd Margaret," in which Todd sings a song: