David Cross, the actor and comedian best known for HBO’s hilarious variety show Mr. Show With Bob and David and FOX’s brilliant-but-canceled Arrested Development, takes on a new TV project with the Oct. 4 Comedy Central premiere of Freak Show, an animated comedy he co-created with H. Jon Benjamin (Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist).
Cross says the idea for Freak Show originated as a way to get back home to New York in case Arrested Development met an untimely end (which it did last season). “After the first season of Arrested Development and being out in L.A. and being away from my life [in New York] and my girlfriend and all that stuff, I was thinking if, in the almost impossible, implausible scenario that Arrested Development would ever get canceled, that I would like to come up with a show that I could work on that would allow me to work in New York. So I then eventually stumbled upon animation and then had the idea for it and asked Jon if he wanted to work on it with me.”
After coming up with the characters, Cross and Benjamin made one of the funniest pitches Comedy Central execs had ever seen. “We went in a pantomime horse costume, where there’s two people in a horse — like an old vaudevillian thing — and sort of pitched it in the costume,” Cross says. “But between the actual show itself, I think — as you might imagine it when it hasn’t been drawn, plus two guys who are being silly and went to the trouble of renting a very expensive pantomime horse costume — I think made it kind of humorous.”
Freak Show follows the adventures of the Freak Squad, carnival sideshow freaks who moonlight as second-rate superheroes, doing jobs for the Pentagon that real superheroes won’t touch. Their missions include rolling back the mileage on the president’s Trans Am, going off to a war-torn country to read the meter on the U.S. embassy, and capturing a supply of the president’s favorite snack nuts that only grow on an island ruled by an evil dictator. Freak Squad agents — each with their own unique powers — are Siamese twins Tuck and Benny, the Bearded Clam (a, uh, female anthropomorphic mollusk with facial hair), the World’s Tallest Nebraskan, Primi the premature baby, and the Log Cabin Republican (a conservative whose politics don’t quite match his lifestyle).
Cross and Benjamin provide some of the voices, and they gathered some friends, including Cross’ former Arrested Development costar Will Arnett, actor/comedian Janeane Garofalo, and comedians Todd Barry and Jon Glaser, to provide others.
So just how hard is it to get a character called Bearded Clam on TV? “Yeah, well, that wasn’t easy,” Cross says. At least it was easier pitching Bearded Clam to Garofalo, who voices the character. “She was all over it. She’s an old, old friend,” Cross explains. “So we sort of had the idea first, ‘If we get this thing going, if we get this cartoon, do you want to do it?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And then we told her what it was and she kind of made fun of us for having such a sophomoric joke, but she could find the humor in it.”
With Freak Show, Cross succeeds at taking characters and material that might be sophomoric and adds little nuances to make it clever and funny. Primi is a puerile sort of character, until you realize that he inexplicably speaks with an Italian accent. “That was just another weird choice,” Cross says, explaining how Primi’s voice originated from Tinkle, the stage variety show he did with Benjamin and Barry. “One of the things I used to do in that was a character called Kangarooey, the New Jersey Kangaroo, who had an Italian accent. And we just decided that a kangaroo like Kangarooey wouldn’t really fit, so I think Jon came up with Primi, the character, and was like, ‘Oh, we’ll just do Primi with the voice of Kangarooey.’ So that was it.”