David Cross: Increasingly Great Decisions

TV Features David Cross
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There are plenty of reasons to admire The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, the IFC sitcom co-created and co-written by David Cross, who also stars as its titular character. Margaret is a go-nowhere dolt working in the U.S. who is inexplicably promoted to run a London sales team promoting an energy drink called Thunder Muscle. Through a series of—you guessed it—increasingly poor decisions, that the viewer only learns about over time as they occur, he slowly gets into deeper and deeper trouble, while the worst decision seems to have been made by whoever promoted him to London in the first place. Each episode begins with a courtroom scene which presumably exists at a time in the future where Margaret is getting his comeuppance, the judge reading off a ridiculous list of charges that, even after a few episodes’ worth of watching Margaret bumble around, lie and generally mess everything up (albeit, usually with pretty good intentions), are still pretty insane. Unique premise. That’s a good reason, the first reason, and the most obvious reason from the series’ very first moments.

Second is the comedy itself. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that when someone with a comedic pedigree such as Cross’ gets together in a room to create situations with a guy like Shaun Pye (Extras, Monkey Dust), the result is hilarious. But hilarity like that is far from guaranteed, which speaks volumes to the pair’s chemistry. Because The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret isn’t just funny, it’s funny in a special way that not many shows can pull off. Shows like Arrested Development and the British Office hit this rarified air, a comedic standing that’s smart without taking itself too seriously, and just bonkers enough to know where to stop before it goes too over-the-top. Todd Margaret isn’t afraid to drop a rape joke a la Arrested’s analrapist gag (which, of course, was employed via Cross’ character, Tobias Fünke) or to have its lead character explain that “poo” plus “wank” equals “pank” (readers are encouraged to fill in the context on that one) or to refer to a certain dish as “the Hitler of soups.” But rather than rely on straight-up punchlines, the show manages to maintain a level-headed humor throughout, ably going off the rails at one moment, only to bring it back to a quintessentially British cringe the next.

Meanwhile, Todd Margaret is more than happy to take the piss out of particularly overwrought and ridiculous humans you interact with every day. From pretentious indie-movie nerds to foodies to Scientologists, no one is safe, but then again, no one is exactly targeted either. That is, except molecular gastronomists.

“The only thing that was kind of manufactured, with an eye toward ‘This is something we can make fun of,’ was the molecular gastronomy thing,” Cross says. “We had to come up with something for Sharon [Horgan], the actress that plays Alice, because that was the only role that really changed from writing the pilot and writing the story out to the script. Alice was initially written as not as strong or smart or savvy as Sharon immediately looked like. We knew we needed to come up with something to give her character some depth and something for her to do and something for her to believe in, and we came up with a bunch of different ideas for her to play and have fun with, and we chose molecular gastronomy for exactly [that reason]: It would be funny to make fun of that. But it’s not a commentary where we’re like, ‘This is bullshit.’ It’s just something that’s easy and fun to make fun of.”

The Irish-by-way-of-London Horgan, who has acted in myriad British projects and has won an award for her sketch-comedy writing, illustrates another reason Todd Margaret is worthy of admiration: its cast and contributors. Relatively unknown (to U.S. audiences, at least) actors like Horgan and Blake Harrison—the 26-year-old who steals many a scene and becomes increasingly important to the show as it progresses—quickly make it obvious that these were not just random auditions who are having their big break on the IFC comedy. Moreover, Cross cast Will Arnett as Margaret’s London boss, who, like many characters in the series, ends up being more interesting than his surface reveals at the outset. Johnny Marr writes the show’s lovely theme song, and scores both seasons to boot. Elsewhere, Spike Jonze plays Todd’s original boss in America in such a convincing way that you might not realize it’s him if you don’t know beforehand, and a couple recurring secondary characters are rewarding in subtler ways, depending on your knowledge of the James Bond franchise and a cue sport called snooker. Speaking of rewarding based on previous knowledge, Mad Men fans will be pleased to know that known comedy nerd Jon Hamm takes on a rather fantastic role in season two.

“IFC said—and it’s totally their place—‘Listen, we’re putting in this extra money for you to do this show; it would help us to market and promote the show if you wrote something, or a cameo, for one of your big-time celebrity friends,’” Cross says. “So that’s what we did. We had a very specific idea for Jon, and he couldn’t have been cooler or more accessible, and he was great. So, it was literally maybe two email exchanges back and forth, and he had seen the show and was a fan of it, and he was like, ‘Yeah, whatever you want. I’m in. Tell me when to come.’”

The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret is a finite show. As opposed to everything else Cross has worked on as a writer in the past, where he comes up with something he wants to work on and pitches it to people who might make the idea become reality, Todd Margaret’s genesis happened in the opposite way. After walking off the stage of a London stand-up gig in 2007, he was approached by two women from a British production company who wanted to pair him with Pye and see what the two could do together. The first season earned a respectable critical assessment and made enough money to warrant a second season, and that’s where Todd Margaret will end. It was written with a specific beginning, a series of events and then a specific ending. This is the kind of show one might expect to get canceled after a couple seasons, its humor going over the heads of too many to justify its ratings. Instead, this show is going to end after two seasons, following appreciative responses from critics and fans alike. That’s pretty refreshing, really.

“Going off of the British model of how they do TV and having that luxury, this is not an open-ended sitcom,” Cross explains. “It is a story first and then a comedy later. There has to be a funny version of that kind of serialized show, which there aren’t many of, or any that I can think of. But the idea of telling this story, and that’s it, when the story’s over, the story’s over. It’s not like an American episode when you’re like ‘I wonder what episode 52 is going to be like, when Janet gets her head stuck in the door.’ It’s not like that.”

Although it sounds like he was working outside of his comfort zone, he was actually hemmed in by several factors that he had no control over. Organized chaos, as it were. “It was the only time I’ve ever really done anything this way, which was when these guys approached me with the possibility of doing a show in the U.K. with U.K. writers for me to be in to air on the U.K. and potentially, hopefully selling it to the States and getting a co-production in the States,” Cross says. “That automatically and immediately set up a bunch of rules that I would have to follow. One is, obviously that it would take place in London, I can’t do a convincing British accent, so I would have to play an American, so what would that show be? I came up with a show, and ultimately this show, that fit those parameters.”

“Initially we did the pilot for Channel 4 in the U.K. before it had any American co-production or funding or anything like that,” he continues. “We shot the pilot and you can see, maybe you can’t see it now, but trust me, once you see the 12 episodes, you’ll see that there’s stuff in the very beginning—in the pilot, the first episode—that pays off in episode 12. So, we had to have the whole story, I always knew before I wrote a word what the beginning, and some of the middle and what the end would be. I always knew what the end was.”

Thankfully, no one seems to know where Cross’ artistic end will come, least of all the 47-year-old funnyman. Quite the contrary, in fact: It feels like Cross’ time has come. Much like Louis C.K., another comedian who has paid more than his share of dues, Cross might finally be reaping the benefits of a life of hard work. He’s done brilliant work on shows such as Mr. Show and Arrested Development, under-heralded work on any number of less-known ventures (Freak Show, Paid Programming, David’s Situation), made brief appearances and plenty of great shows due to his legendary stature (Modern Family, Tim & Eric, Archer, etc.) and paid his bills with movies like the Kung Fu Panda franchise or the much-gossiped-about Alvin and the Chipmunks threequel, all while underscoring this with perhaps his one true love: a 30-year career in stand up comedy that will go down as one of the best when he finally hangs up the microphone. Like C.K. piling up rave reviews for Louie, which he also created and writes, Cross earning praise and a second season for The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret feels less like a grand, deserved moment as a brilliant entertainer finally hitting the perfect combination of comedy and audience. Naturally, he’s going to go out on top, right? Put a finite end on an excellent career just like he put a finite end on an excellent series? Of course not.

“Another idea that I have is just for me to write and produce and direct and not be in front of the camera, which I’m kind of looking forward to doing,” Cross recently told The A.V. Club. “As much as I love doing everything on Todd Margaret, it would be easier to just sort of write and direct and not have to act or have my focus taken away. So I’d like to do that. I’m writing it with Bob [Odenkirk] in mind, for the lead.”

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross working together again? Now that sounds like a great decision.