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Standup comedy and the myth of cancel culture

David Cross on political humor, how standup has changed, and why complaints about cancellation are “bullshit.”

A man with a bushy gray beard wears a ball cap and plaid shirt while smiling for the camera.
David Cross at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

What do we want from comedians?

We want them to be funny. We want them to turn outrage into laughter. We want them to look at the absurdity of the world and reflect back on it in some kind of cathartic way. We also want them to “punch up,” to mock the powerful. And then sometimes we just want them to get us to stop thinking and laugh.

The role of comedy is always an open question, but it seems to pop up a lot these days. Comics like Michael Che and Dave Chappelle have been in the news, for different reasons, and it’s usually about free speech or “cancel culture.”

Most of these debates are boring and circular, but I am interested in how comics engage with the world, and what they decide to make fun of and why. So I reached out to David Cross for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. You probably know him from his TV work. He was the star and co-creator of HBO’s Mr. Show and he famously played Tobias Funke on the cult hit Arrested Development. But he’s also a long-time standup comedian and has a new special out, called I’m From the Future.

We talk about the evolution of his comedy, why he doesn’t think of himself as a political comedian, and what he thinks about “cancel culture” and the idea of “selling out.”

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Sean Illing

This is one of those moments where I feel like everyone’s pissed off about everything, and you definitely seem as pissed off as the rest of us in this special. Did you feel like you had an unusual amount of rage bottled up for this one?

David Cross

I’d say it was normal rage. It’s always there. The question is always what am I directing it toward? But everything is tempered now because I’m a dad and so I try to infuse some sort of optimism in all the anger and negativity and cynicism because I just have to for my kid’s sake.

But I don’t know if it’s rage, exactly. It’s mostly incredulousness. It’s just the frustration of looking at a world that makes no sense. And you’re twisting everything to make it make sense to you and it just doesn’t on so many levels. And that’s part of where the anger stems from, I guess. We could have a truly great society, but you guys keep fucking it up.

Sean Illing

My favorite bit in the show is where you’re pretending to stand in front of all these imaginary kids and you’re telling them all the ridiculous shit they’ll organize their political identities around when they’re older, all the inane stuff they’ll be pissed off about.

David Cross

Yeah, that’s where the title of the show comes from, I’m From the Future. That’s a good example of a bit where I had a very vague idea of doing something about people who scream at other people in a store for speaking Spanish. They overhear them speaking Spanish and they scream at them. I worked on that for months and I could not find the angle at all, and it just wasn’t working. It sounded preachy.

And then it occurred to me, “Oh, what if they were 5 or 6 years old and you showed them the person that they were going to become?” The kids would be like, “No, I don’t want to do that.” So that’s where that whole thing came from.

Sean Illing

It’s funny, when I started preparing for this interview, I thought about the distinction between a political comic and a comic who just talks about politics, and I said to myself, “Of course, Cross is a political comic!” Then I heard you say that you’re absolutely not a political comic, and naturally I felt like a jackass.

David Cross

Well, it’s not dumb. I’ll let you finish your thought, but I’ll just say that I can point to different comedians that are political comedians, and the bulk of their material, let’s say more than 75 percent of it, deals directly with politics or cultural wedge issues, which might feel like it’s political, and mine doesn’t.

I truly understand why sometimes it feels like more of the set is political, and my last few shows have been a little weightier and not as light and breezy as some of the others. I still have some really stupid dad puns, some bad jokes, and some silly impressions and absurdist stuff in there, but when you’re doing material about Trump or Obama or even going all the way back to Bush, it feels like it has more weight to it.

Sean Illing

I don’t want to dump on any other comics, but there are some who I’m not sure they’d have anything to talk about if they weren’t talking about politics, and I definitely don’t think of you that way. There are the late-night-style comics who use politics as fodder, but they’re not really saying anything — it’s all discardable blooper stuff. And then there are comics who obviously are funny and tell jokes but there’s a moral clarity behind it, and I’ve always thought of you in that way, even though there’s plenty of silliness in your material.

David Cross

I didn’t take it as an insult or anything, and I’m not bothered by the idea that I’m pigeonholed that way. It’s just one of those things where I feel like I have to clarify things because I definitely talk about politics and I definitely have a strong point of view. But I still don’t think of myself as a “political comedian.”

Sean Illing

Do you talk about politics because you feel like you have to?

David Cross

Not at all. I find that a little pretentious for my taste, the idea that I have a moral obligation to do this thing. And it also implies that I have some sort of galaxy brain that I have to share with people so that they’re enlightened. This is the kind of stuff I’d be saying over a few pints at a bar with friends. And when these shows develop, I start at small rooms, like 99-seat rooms in a basement in a club in Brooklyn. So they are my friends. They’re all right there in front of me. That’s where this stuff develops.

Sean Illing

I guess it’s the ideological comics that don’t really work for me. I think you can be a funny political comedian, but I’m not sure you can be a funny ideologue. I think you stop being funny when you stop telling the truth and it’s hard to tell the truth and serve an ideological audience at the same time.

David Cross

I think you’ve hit on something, whether intentional or not, and it has to do with the polarization and the capitalization and the exploitation of our audiences. And I think you see a lot more people doing that kind of thing. They’re speaking to a consumer base and they’re looking at it like that. It used to be, back in the late ’80s or the early ’90s, that there was a kind of stigma around the comics who were just doing standup so that they could get on a sitcom. That was a real thing. Other comics would recognize it immediately.

And now there are people who are trying to backdoor into standup via other avenues so you can get a podcast or something because that’s where the money is. It’s a 180 from where it used to be. People are getting into standup now for the money. So you get a lot of people with a foot in both worlds that are using standup specifically to build their base, to build their revenue-streaming possibilities.

Sean Illing

It really does feel like comedy has changed so much over the last 20 years, going back to the Bush era and up until today. You put out this amazing comedy album shortly after 9/11 and it was one of the first pieces of popular art in those early days that anticipated the horrors of that era, and it seems like things have just gotten steadily darker since.

David Cross

It’s both a continuation and a heightening of more of the same thing. But I look back, I haven’t listened to that album, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!, in quite a while. But that’s a younger guy. That’s a guy who didn’t know that things were going to remain awful and actually get worse and worse and worse. That was a guy in his 30s who has the world in front of him and who kind of knew what it was going to be like.

I had just moved to New York, maybe eight months prior to that, after being in LA for nine years, where every minute was spent like, “I got to get out of here.” And all the material that has developed subsequently is just a standup getting older and more outraged. But as I said earlier, I’ve got to filter things and be as optimistic as I can because of my daughter and her friends. I’m around kids a lot more now. I wasn’t around kids a lot, certainly not back then. And so it’s interesting because I’m just a different person now. I’m the same standup, but my experiences are different. My world is different.

Sean Illing

Have you noticed a shift in the audience over the years?

David Cross

Yeah, they’re older! They used to be in their 20s and 30s, now they’re in their 50s. What’s going on?

Sean Illing

I just turned 40, man, I think I’m one of the olds now. But seriously, do you feel like things have changed on the demand side in terms of where the lines are or what people will laugh at? There’s so much noise about “cancel culture” in comedy and I find most of it boring and I assume comics have always adapted with the times. Do you feel like the pace of adaptation is quicker now than maybe it was when you first started?

David Cross

I don’t think so. Nobody’s getting arrested.

Sean Illing

I don’t actually know of any comedians who’ve been “canceled.”

David Cross

No, they haven’t been. That’s bullshit. If we think about it in less histrionic terminology, there’s certainly a reality now where if you say something and if you don’t apologize and you double down and then you triple down, then you’re going to have a segment of your fan base react. And you’re going to have lots of people who didn’t care about you in the first place doing that whole performative outrage thing. They’re just showing their weight as consumers. It’s not that different from people saying, “We’re going to boycott this thing because they advertise on Tucker Carlson and I don’t like what he said.”

People have every right to do that. We live in a capitalist society, and that’s how it works. So people aren’t getting canceled. They’re either getting their tickets refunded or trying to shame people from going to see somebody’s live show. Who knows what kind of effect that’ll have? Probably not very much.

I don’t know anybody that’s not able to do standup anymore because they said something offensive. Obviously, there are people who have done some egregious things that have nothing to do with their comedy and lots of people have made their feelings known about that. But if you say something extremely homophobic or misogynist or racist or anti-Semitic that cannot be defended and people go, “Hey that person’s appearing on Apple TV or Netflix or whatever. Let’s boycott the sponsors,” then that’s their right. But nobody’s not able to do standup. Maybe you can’t sell out Madison Square Garden eight shows in a row, but you’re still going to get to do standup.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.