David Cross on Resurrecting ‘Todd Margaret’ After an Apocalyptic Ending
Writers frequently talk about how one of the most difficult parts of writing a scene is finding a way to end it, but for David Cross and his writing team, they solved that problem in season two of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret by having Todd Margaret unleash atomic Armageddon upon the world. Recently they faced a more unique problem: how to start season three after blowing up the world. If you want to know how it was done, Cross has given some basic hints in most of his interviews, but in the end it seems like you’ll just have to watch the show.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Cross over the phone about how the new season took form, looking back on his directorial debut of Hits one year out, and (a question I’ve always wondered) why he waited until he was 38 to begin releasing albums and specials.
When you ended season two of The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, you ended it with the ultimate “button” — you blew up the world. How do you approach restarting the series from there?
That’s a great question and one that I did not have the answer to; I honestly could not conceive of a way to do it. It was years later that they came back and asked me to do a third season and I still had no idea. Then I said that we could give them the courtesy of, you know, emailing the other writers and the team if they had any ideas. They said “What about a prequel or what about an apocalyptic wasteland and there are zombies?” and I was like “No, no, no.” So I reached out to the other writers and about an hour later, one of the writers, Mark Chappell, wrote me back with a “so crazy, it just might work” idea, and it was pretty brilliant. Really, the only way I can see coming back and re-approaching this idea of a story that was completely over. I mean, it was always meant to be over after two series, it was never intended to go beyond that, but I thought he came up with a cool idea, and I think we did a really good job writing it, and getting it out there.
In one interview from 2013 you were talking about how the idea of the show was going well and you liked it, and you mentioned that you could see yourself going on for a third and fourth series. Were you not originally planning to end it that way?
It was not necessarily with the world blowing up, but I always knew when I wrote the pilot that the end would be finding out that Dave was manipulating him, and he was this awful, petty, punitive, vindictive, rich privileged asshole; that he was ruining this guy’s life. The idea of blowing up the world came a little bit later, but obviously approaching a second series, we did that, and that’s how it started. I don’t know when I thought it could go a third or fourth series; I suppose you could bring out the point from when he goes… Yeah I don’t know what I was talking about. Now that you say that, I can’t imagine, because it starts, he’s in the dock, and he goes 14 days earlier, and you watch that happen. I’m calling myself a liar.
For season three, will the viewers need to have seen seasons one and two? I feel like you’ve really narrowed in on your audience this time around.
No, it is definitely for… you’ll still kind of enjoy it, but you won’t get 65% of the references at all. If you watch it with somebody who has watched the first two seasons, they’ll be sitting there laughing and going like “Oh yeah, oh I get it, that’s cool.” And you’ll have no idea why.
It was freeing really, in a way. It was liberating to write for such a niche audience and not have to worry about any of that stuff. We’re not trying to be cute or clever, or get new fans; it’s just there for the people who watched it and liked it.
So is season three going to be along the same lines then? A gradual increase in cringiness?
It’s definitely a different vibe and feeling, and there’s a shift and a change, but it’s a different kind of humor. Initially there’s way more of a puzzle to put together, more of a mystery to what’s really going on. There are clues, as it were, that in the first two series, we didn’t have to worry about.
You’re about a year out of releasing Hits, and now looking back is there anything that you wish you’d have done differently?
Yes. I wish that I had, and this goes back to actually introducing it in Sundance… My gut was telling me to do this when I brought it up at the big distributor agent meeting prior to the screening, but I wasn’t really much part of the conversation. I brought this idea up, and everybody said no, and I deferred that, but I wanted to say something then, and also at press time, that it wasn’t that funny. It’s not meant to be funny. I think the initial perception that people have, and I know this for a fact, I’ve read some of the reviews, was “Oh, this movie wasn’t that funny.” It was never meant to be, I think people saw my name attached to it and the subject matter, and thought it was going to be gut-busting. It was never meant to be that. So that’s my one regret: that I wish I would have positioned the movie a little bit more, and tempered people’s expectations. They thought it was going to be more of a sketch, and that kind of humor.
It was definitely meant to be taken more seriously as a critique of our obsession with watching people debase themselves for money and fame.
Yes, it’s become entertainment for us and we will gladly nudge it along. Amanda Bynes was an example of people… There’s a minor cottage industry on Twitter and so forth where they practically make you comment about this person who is clearly having mental issues. It wasn’t funny. I don’t find that funny. One of these days one of those people are going to kill themselves and then of course it will be “really funny.”
What I also think is interesting though is that the characters you usually portray are also people who are sort of falling apart. Like Todd Margaret collapsing in England, granted he’s a pathological liar and has a variety of other issues. Would you say that you have a specific interest in types of unstable characters?
Not really, I haven’t really thought about it like that. There is something to the fact that there is a fraudulence to Todd Margaret and bias, it’s clearly a hypocrite who purports to be about being yourself, kind of, but is clearly closeted, unnecessarily so. I don’t know, but I’ve never really thought about it or approached it that way.
So I saw that you announced your Make America Great Again tour on The Daily Show; what topics are you planning to hit in your new material?
Well, it’s kind of all over the place. There’re some stupid jokes and then there is anecdotal stuff and observational stories, and then there’s… Not that I consciously approached it with like, “I need 25% of this and 32% of this and 16% of that.” But there’s definitely some stuff about current events and you know, political stuff… Not as much as I usually do, just as I’ve kind of exhausted the topic. And some religious stuff too, again not nearly as much as I used to.
Right. And I always thought it was interesting that your first album, Shut Up You Fucking Baby!, came out when you were 38, but you had been doing standup since long before that. Was that a conscious thing or was it just that you’d never thought about releasing an album before that?
Yeah, I’d never thought of it. I’d done a small tour with a band, and I was on the way to the last gig in Savannah, Georgia, and I got a call and they asked if I would want to consider putting out a comedy album. I was like, holy shit. I was just finishing up a tour, let me get another 30 days, I’ll happily do it. I had all the material at that point, you know, out there.
Season three of Todd Margaret airs on IFC on January 7th at 10:00pm, followed by the last three episodes a week later on the January 14th.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.