Funny man David Cross has played a lot of memorable roles in his career, from various characters on Mr. Show, the ’90s cult sketch show he created with Bob Odenkirk, to Tobias Funke, the effeminate never-nude on the near-universally beloved Arrested Development. And while he’s currently starring in the third installment of the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise (unfortunately titled Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked), he’s more excited about the upcoming second season of his show The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, which begins this week on IFC.
Cross plays the titular character, an American sales rep who transfers across the pond to lead the sale of a energy drink called Thunder Muscle to unassuming British consumers. The very straightforward title does not disappoint: Todd Margaret, seemingly unaware of the intricacies of British culture (as well as the basic concept of selling a marketable product), finds himself mixed up in a variety of mishaps and shenanigans. Rounding out a hilarious ensemble cast are fellow Americans Will Arnett and Spike Jonze, with Jon Hamm joining in for the second season. We sat down with Cross to discuss the benefits of working on a British TV show (and managed to not ask about the upcoming Arrested Development movie).
Was it a different experience working on a British show?
I suppose the most obvious difference is that the British model of television is not eighteen episodes, but six. I wouldn’t be able to do that kind of show [in America] because of the linear, compactness of it. We got to write every episode before we shot it, then we got to shoot each episode before we edited it. In the states, you have a writers’ room, and they’re writing an episode while you’re shooting one, and while someone’s editing another one.
How about working with a British production team?
In the UK, at least in my experience with Channel 4, they completely leave you alone and they had a handful of notes for literally six episodes. And if you’d present your argument to them, they’d say, “Oh, OK, we get your point, that’s fine!” So you really get to do whatever you want. There’s no interference from anybody. And there’s no mention of, “Oh, I don’t think our sponsors are going to like that.” Craft services suck. There’d be tea — tons of tea… tons and tons of tea — maybe some coffee, some sweets, and this awful, dense, moist thing that everybody would love to eat that was horrific. And a tin of biscuits. I’m used to a huge spread they put out in the states just in case a guy from the network might drop by for a minute. There didn’t seem to be much of a situation in which the suits, to use the American terminology, would come over. It’s a fucking pleasure to work over there. I knew when I was doing it that I will always look back on those two years I spent in London, even though it was lonely sometimes, as a real privilege and I was very lucky to be asked to do it. And I love the show — at the risk of sounding pretentious, I don’t think there’s a comedy show like this in the states that tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story’s over, it’s done. It was never intended to be open ended — I pitched it that way, and I’m quite happy with it.
There seems to be a trend in the states, especially on cable, where there’s a shift toward the British model of shorter seasons.
It’s great! It totally makes sense. Again, if this was an open-ended show like Parks and Rec, The Office, or 30 Rock, it wouldn’t matter. Those shows work for that model, but if people are going to get more into the storytelling where there’s cause and effect for each character and there’s no reset button, it makes total sense.
In terms of your background in stand-up and sketch and writing that material, is it challenging to be writing on a show where you don’t have an audience to immediately respond to what you’re presenting them?
Not really. That’s the nature of doing this kind of show, I suppose. I always had the outlet of doing stand-up if I needed to satisfy that kind of thing. You do have an audience, because I co-wrote season one with Sean Pey and season two with Sean and Mark Chappell, and both are really funny, smart guys, so you have that built-in audience in the writers’ room. If you say something and they crack up, you know it works.
Was there any improvisation on the set? Did the rest of the cast collaborate?
Oh, fuck yeah! Every single actor was cast with an eye toward improvisation skill. It’s something I said to everybody: “I’m going to encourage this. We have to get everything that’s on the script because a lot of it is story. A lot of it is innocuous and you may not know why you have to reference a watch, but six episodes from now it will pay off and make sense.” A lot of stuff like Spike and Will did was improvised. It’s still within the context of the scripted stuff. Sara Pascoe, who plays Pam — you couldn’t ask for a better character to write, but I think we wrote about 65 percent of it. The rest is her brilliant riffing. There’s a scene where I come home and Pam’s in the bathtub shaving her…uh…vagina area, and I ask, “Is that my razor?” We ultimately didn’t use any of the stuff she riffed, just for time, but the DVD has a whole run of me asking and the things she made up.
What was the inspiration behind Todd Margaret?
This is the only thing I’ve ever worked on where the story came first and the character came second. That was necessitated by the restrictions put on what the show was going to be by the British production company and myself. We knew we didn’t want it to be another fish-out-of-water story, and you can’t do that anymore. It’s 2011, everybody knows what Britain is like. The way this whole thing came about is that I was in London doing stand-up and I was approached by RTF, the production company, about doing a show that would be co-written with a Brit and starring myself, to create the show for the UK that could then be sold to the states. The first thing we came up with was the story, using the British model, knowing we’d be doing six and then maybe another six. The character came from that story; it was kind of an ass-backward way of doing things than I was used to.
Todd Margaret follows the trend of single-camera comedies that exist without a studio audience or a laugh track. Why do you think American sitcoms have embraced that change?
I guess what you’re saying—the falseness of it—is too apparent at this point. Back when there were just three networks and there were single-camera shows like M*A*S*H that had a laugh-track, it didn’t feel as fraudulent. Now it really stands out, and people don’t like it because it seems fake.