The stories of rock 'n' roll groupies are often more interesting than rock 'n' roll itself. They're the dim-witted opportunists who are willing to dump self-esteem for small tastes of celebrity. And in doing so, they generate some really bitchin' stories.
Most bands won't allow a camera backstage-even if it's operated by their own employees-simply because the risk of recording a compromising situation is just too high. Even when the cameras have gone backstage, rockers are often just as dim-witted as their groupies, willing to take as much advantage of the fringe benefits as possible.
That's what makes Let America Laugh pretty damn interesting. Last year, to support his new comedy album, Shut Up You Fucking Baby!, David Cross toured across the country with rock band Ultrababyfat. As an early scene tells us, he's asked a filmmaker friend to "follow me around with that goddamn camera of yours.... I think [my record label is] willing to get you five dollars, and then I'll match that five dollars."
What ensues could be considered revenge for the Atlanta-raised, New York-resident comic. Looking at Cross-almost completely bald, his face bunched like a pug and a permanent postural slouch-you can tell he was lunch money bait at recess.
Now he's a wise sage of the tube (Mr. Show) and silver screen (Men in Black, Cable Guy), and an acerbic, sarcastic sketch comic who spares no one-including groupies, fans, club owners, journalists and, especially, his at-times disinterested audiences.
Through the entire U.S. tour-including a well-documented stop in San Diego-David Cross is basically a highly intelligent, sarcastic asshole-with-a-smile who exposes the rock crowd for their stupidity.
Early on, for instance, Cross explains to a radio journalist that "I use a lot more props now. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Carrot Top. But I'm kind of an alternative, thinking man's Carrot Top."
Bullshit. And Cross is loving it.
When the journalist asks whether he has non-comedic influences, "like Mark Twain," Cross enthusiastically lies, "I wouldn't call him an influence as much as an inspiration." He then goes onto rattle off a list of other influences, including "Charles Lindbergh, the Lindbergh baby, Leo Frank and Mama Cass."
In Nashville, the first stop on the tour, Cross arrives at the club to find "Mr. Show" on the marquee instead of David Cross, false advertising at its best. He asks the owner, T.C., to change it. The owner replies that he's got a million things to do and to get up there and change his damn name in a rainstorm is the last of his priorities.
Cross is flabbergasted, as he would be a bit later when T.C. refuses to remove dining tables from the club because it would hurt his food sales. Cross then vilifies the owner during his performance with an imitation:
"You guys were jerks and ate at home and saved 40 bucks-that's how we make money here," Cross says. "It's not the hundreds of people here that are going to drink... it's the crazy fries, it's the wacky burger." Cross then goes on to blame the collapse of the entire U.S. economy on the lack of club food sales.
After the show, T.C. says, "I want to go home and I want you out of my club." Cross milks it, claiming he can't fit all his stuff into his backpack, until the club owner eventually just shuts off the lights.
In his act, Cross obviously relies a lot on improv, much like he did with Mr. Show. He'll start with a sketch premise, and then veer off into tangents until he eventually comes back to his topic. One of Cross' biggest tangents-and biggest pet peeves-is audience members who won't shut the fuck up.
After one audience member yells out during his bit, Cross imagines aloud what the guy was thinking: "You know what I should do? Fuck up the show for everyone. I should do that!
"Let me also explain," Cross continues, "that a lot of these questions that I ask, they're rhetorical. So, OK, no more yelling."
When the offending audience member yells back with, "Why not?!" Cross attacks: "Whaddyou mean why not? Are you fucking retarded?!"
The best part, however, and of interest to San Diego, is the encounter with local writer Gordon Downs. This is also where I come into the story: while still the editor of SLAMM magazine, I assigned Downs the feature on Cross.
In the scene, Downs enters the comedian's dressing room and says that I gave him the go-ahead for the feature. Only thing is, Downs has been drinking. Of himself, he says, "I write under the name Gordon Downs, but my real name is Senator Drinks-A-Lot," snapping and giving the double guns to the camera. The embarrassment ensues from there.
With beer in hand, Downs' interview is a disaster from start to finish. He doesn't ask questions of Cross, but more chit-chats, often incoherently. At one point, Cross looks to the camera as if to say, "Do you believe this guy?"
Later, Downs says that at a recent Sonic Youth show, he met the band's archival photographer, Jane Stockdale. Giving another double-gun snap to the camera, plus an air kiss, Downs suggests that she was pretty damn hot. Meanwhile, the subtitle at the bottom of the screen reads: "Jane Stockdale would like to confirm that Gordon Downs badgered her from the crowd at a rock concert and has since e-mailed her repeatedly."
Downs had written Cross' cell phone number on a small piece of paper (which he presumably got from Cross' tour manager), and when Downs is leaving, Cross steals it back ("He doesn't have that anymore.... I saw that and just sort of took it").
After the show, Downs somehow makes it into the dressing room with Cross again, along with a few other groupies. Cross, obviously fascinated as to why these people are in his dressing room, asks where a good bar is.
Downs replies: "I forgot, my friend has a beach house right on the beach."
Pregnant, three-second pause...
"I'm not going to your friend's beach house," Cross sarcastically says with a smile, having cut down yet another person involved in his ever-increasing circle of industry.
We've all been "Senator Drinks-a-Lot." But Downs just happened to assume this role when the camera was on and the release of the DVD was international. He is now somewhat infamous, one of the unlucky cast that Cross humiliates along his U.S. tour.
Let America Laugh was meant to document the freaks that surround the rock 'n' roll industry-exposed like a comic of Cross' talent can. And Cross succeeds, even if the asshole makes us San Diegans look like Darwinian dropouts.