David Cross - "I Can't Get Beer in Me" (Bigger and Blackerer)
Bigger and Blackerer, David Cross’ first new stand-up album since 2004’s It’s Not Funny, is the best material he’s done in years. Less strident, way less bitter, and more personal, a lot of his act feels more intimate, at least as intimate as his persona will allow. While the layers of severe irony are still present, it doesn’t feel as defensive and off-putting as he’s previously proven, and therefore there is more of a rapport between Cross and the audience; the laughs are perhaps deeper and less superficial.
The turn to the more personal is reminiscent (slightly) of Paul F. Tompkins’ turn between 2007’s Impersonal and 2009’s Freak Wharf. Not all comedians go through this transformation, but certainly a number of those whose on-stage personas are close to their real-life demeanors do. This is to say, people like Zach Galifianakis or Stephen Wright have very specific characters they play on stage, and for comics like them, the turn to more personal material seems outside of the bounds of their on-stage personas. However, people like Cross and Tompkins have on-stage personas that are rather close to their real personalities. People naturally turn a bit contemplative as they get older, and for comedians whose comedic methodologies are detached — irony in Cross’ case — this becomes too distancing. They can’t be honest with the crowd because they’ve built up an act that purposely puts up barriers. Not every comedian wants this, but when one is up night after night trying to communicate one’s ideas to people, after a while, just provoking laughter from a crowd isn’t as fulfilling as making them laugh while communicating something genuine.
Obviously making your material funny is the paramount concern. One of the things that’s hampered Cross’ material in the past is his tendency toward grating political commentary where the comedy is but an afterthought. There’s something about the comedy scene that Cross came up in — Boston in the late 1980s — that produced a number of comics with particularly strident points of view. Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron (to an extent) and Cross all come to mind, and the fact that that generation pioneered a certain kind of stand-up — more loose, less-bit-oriented — was certainly a response to the club scene at the time, as well as out of reverence to Bill Hicks, who was both successful and completely spurned the bullshit of the stand-up boom. Those influenced by Hicks tend to rant with the — intended or not — effect of making a political point as opposed to ranting with the effect of making a humorous point. I appreciate Cross’ fervor and passion, but the fact of the matter is that in a stand-up act, jokes come first. You can be as poignant or soapboxy as you want, but if you’re not funny, then it shouldn’t be in the act. Obviously these topics are near and dear to Cross; going back to Mr. Show, politics are certainly a large part of who he is, so it makes sense for it to be a good part of his act. The problem is, a lot of it tends to be angry and bitter first and funny secondary, as if the humor gets lost in the point he wants to make.
The intimacy definitely elevates Cross’ act, but Blackerer still comes off rather sloppy when it comes to the craft. Think of a comic like John Mulaney. He’s great at a crafted joke; every word in its place; every pause perfectly timed out. Then there’s someone like Maron. He has jokes — he’s certainly not just bullshitting on stage — but he’s also a great extemporaneous , in-the-moment comic and is great at delivering the material in a way that feels off-the-cuff. Cross, it feels like, wants his act to sound extemporaneous and casual, but maybe gets too conversational. Things get left unsaid — and one of the things about stand-up is that it needs to be a bit blatant so that the audience doesn’t lose the thread. If the audience has to pause to fill in the blanks, they’re playing catch up the rest of the act, and that delay can kill the momentum. I think Cross has generated enough goodwill at this point that he can be a little sloppy, but on Blackerer, it feels maybe too sloppy. Even the amount of act-outs on the CD itself — something that will play infinitely better on the DVD — was sloppy. The listener can tell what’s happening on stage intellectually, but that visceral gut punch is missing because we can’t see the act-out. As a whole, Cross is certainly good at writing jokes, but too much of what he wants to say is left hidden.