PLAYBOY: So you’re actually the opposite of a never-nude.
CROSS: I love nudity. It’s just such an easy, cheap laugh. And it’s fun to do. I have no qualms whatsoever about taking my clothes off for no reason.
PLAYBOY: You grew up poor in Georgia, sometimes sleeping in cheap motels or on friends’ couches. Do you still have those survival skills?
CROSS: One of the skills I learned early on was how to get cheap food. You learned which bars and restaurants were having happy hour specials, and where you could get a baked potato on Thursday nights for half price. I was a kid for most of the really poor times, from seven to about 15, so it’s not like I was being asked to do all that much, except at a minimum just understand what my mom was going through. She found herself suddenly abandoned with no real skills and three hungry kids who were going, “Why do we have no money? What happened to Dad? What’s going on?” You just have to mature a little bit faster.
PLAYBOY: You were voted most humorous at your high school. What kind of class clown were you?
CROSS: I was very much a playing-to-the-back-of-the-room guy. I still am, I suppose. Also, it was the South in the 1970s and early 1980s, so just saying the word transvestite could get you into trouble—which in sixth grade, it did.
PLAYBOY: When you first moved to Los Angeles, in the early 1990s, you lived in a frat house on the UCLA campus. Was it a nonstop party or a nightmare of drunken douchebaggery?
CROSS: It was both. It was a nonstop party for them and a nightmare of drunken douchebaggery for me. The rent was something like $210 a month. It was a low-rent frat house. They were not very well respected in the frat hierarchy. And they all gave themselves these really stupid names, like Doctor, the Frenchman, Dutch and Smoky. It’d be like, “Hey, nice to meet you. I’m Animal!”
PLAYBOY: Did Animal name himself after the Muppet Show drummer?
CROSS: He might have. I don’t know. But he wasn’t a drummer. He did, however, throw furniture off the roof because he was drunk and pouty. He was a big guy in that John Matuszak way. It was as if everybody who lived in the frat had just watched Animal House. There’s no other explanation for why a 21-year-old college student would be smoking a pipe.
PLAYBOY: You have strong opinions about music. You once criticized popular bands like Staind and Creed, claiming you would rather “hear the death rattle of my only child” than listen to their albums. Were you being hyperbolic?
CROSS: Of course it’s hyperbole! I mean, if I had a number of kids? That’d be different. But my only child, no. With Creed and a lot of those bands, it wasn’t so much the music as the posturing. The music is insipid, cloying, empty and pretentious, but it’s the posturing that really annoyed me. I guess I just hold music and musicians to a higher standard.
PLAYBOY: You played Allen Ginsberg in the movie I’m Not There. Were you cast just because you’re a bald, bearded Jewish guy with glasses?
CROSS: There’s that, sure. But Ginsberg and I also both happen to be dues-paying members of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. That’s where the similarity between us started. I tried to do my homework on him. I studied his videos and familiarized myself with his poems. But really, my performance was almost entirely based on the man/boy-loving part of him. I even picked up a copy of the NAMBLA newsletter from the magazine store over on St. Mark’s Place.
PLAYBOY: You infamously appeared in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie and its sequels. Given your reputation for subversive humor, were you ever tempted to tell any of the chipmunks to go fuck themselves?
CROSS: [Laughs] What good would that have done? It just would’ve ruined the take and I’d have to stay on the set even later. All I wanted was to get the fuck out of there as soon as possible. They encouraged me to improvise and come up with funnier lines if I wanted. But my entire strategy on those movies was to come in on time, shoot as much as I could as quickly as I could and then get the hell out of there and buy a summer home with the check.
PLAYBOY: Your stand-up has gotten more confessional in recent years. Your last comedy album, 2010’s Bigger and Blackerer, features stories about your chronic depression and struggles with drugs. Is that a product of age?
CROSS: It wasn’t something I consciously chose to do. I guess it’s a combination of maturity and just never being uncomfortable talking about the embarrassing aspects of myself. I suppose without thinking about it I steered toward confessional stuff because it’s unique.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been an outspoken atheist. As you grow older and closer to death, have you started to soften on religion?
CROSS: Of course not. Every day brings a fresh, exciting new example of religion’s and/or religious people’s hypocrisy and utter inability to reconcile with science and the basic, simple tenets for the betterment of all mankind. It’s a delightful patchwork of man-made precepts designed to dress up the chaos, injustice and disorder of life with ideas that supposedly make miserable, unfortunate people feel better and assuage the guilt of the better-off. I have no need for either of those things.