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Two Drink Minimum: ‘David Cross: Making America Great Again!’ (Netflix)

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Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.

In the lobby of Austin’s Paramount Theatre, a tablet housing David Cross’ face implores audience members to ask him a pre-show question. Seconds later, scattered pre-recorded responses quip back to the alternative comedy fans’ questions of facial hair maintenance or general well-being. As an illusory nod to The Wizard of Oz’s man behind the curtain, Cross’ smug detachment from his audience in this establishing scene sets the tone for his new standup special Making America Great Again!

The comedian, famous for his cult sketch series Mr. Show (with Bob Odenkirk and others) and his self-acknowledgedly career-defining role as Tobias on Arrested Development, appears on stage in flannel with a bushy beard and worn baseball cap, gray and non-committal, somewhere between an urban coffeeshop dweller and your truther uncle.

His style combines these two aesthetics as well, though he often seems to strain against the boundaries of standup’s form as he longs to turn his absurd scenarios into filmed comedy. Each joke, like an elaborately pantomimed reenactment of a hypothetical airline customer buying a suitcase inside the airport, is like a pitch for a sketch: long-winded, labyrinthine, full of a magician’s verbal stagecraft and loquacious misdirection.

Cross seems uncomfortable with observational comedy, using his experiences with vaping and tattoo parlors as examples of American unexceptionalism. The audience waits for punchlines, but the jokes have the escalation and repetition of Cross’ longer-form comedy without the cathartic tie-ins across a half-hour program, each merely a smug finger-wag at the stupidity across the nation that has evangelized Cross’ comedy to lean almost entirely on the political.

Proud of his inflammatory atheism (the kind of people that initially swear that they don’t care what others believe, then spend the next hour listing scientific inaccuracies in the Bible), Cross’ religious material may win him a few smirking nods from those who’ve recently swooned over Richard Dawkins, but it will tire anyone else. Gleefully antagonistic, the material segues his set from a comedy show to a bully pulpit of aggressive liberalism.

Similar to the audience polarization of other onenote comics (like Ricky Gervais), Cross’ locked, angry views overwhelm his substantial wit. He believes too strongly in his issues for the stage to be a productive platform (you become the antagonist, the bully, like the people you used to mock). Those that buy tickets will go in knowing that they already agree with everything Cross says or else they will leave disgruntled. He delights in making those unfamiliar with his platform walk out, which seems to defeat the purpose of telling jokes in the first place.

His ragged intellectual persona isn’t as sexy or dangerous as Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, nor as professional and empathetic as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. It’s built upon superiority. When Cross makes a pun (about jism, no less), he’s immediately certain that it may never leave the room. The crowd reaction (they love it), immediately followed by Cross’ recitation of Emma Lazarus’ Ellis Island sonnet “The New Colossus,” explains the comic’s defensiveness as a battle raging between the low and high culture within him.

When Cross turns his sights on the namesake of his tour, Donald Trump, he becomes a furious pastor, anthropomorphized from the liberal internet, beating his lectern against a post-PC, southern-accented, 25% of Americans whose xenophobic id is finally unleashed.

This isn’t to say I disagree with his assessment of Trump, but his rants come bereft of jokes, glossed over by his anger. Cross continues this approach when continuing his talking points to gun violence. It’s trenchant and informative if that’s what you’re there for, but from a stand-up perspective, there’s little form or humor. It’s more akin to someone who’s punched-up a Bernie Sanders stump speech and took it on the road after the candidate dropped out.

Like the game “Cards Against Humanity,” this special can be cathartic in its offensively righteous fury, but it loses cleverness quicker than players grow tired of using the “Helen Keller” card. Cross’ meandering, This American Life-style stories have an NPR clarity and highbrow literary beauty to them, but they are often overwhelmed by the desperate preaching of a man who’s positioned himself as the only sane one in the room.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.

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