In David Cross’s youth, he was a swimming champion.

As a young man, he abandoned the Mark Spitz path and instead focused his energy on pushing the limits of what comedy could be.

In his middle age… well, baldness aside, he’s still pretty much a young man.

This past spring, Cross barnstormed our great nation’s rock clubs, delivering his biting routine to the masses.

“I prefer to do it [in music venues],” Cross explained over the phone from his Manhattan digs. “First of all, I set the ticket price. Second of all, I can do as much time as I want. Third of all, I have rock bands opening for me instead of some hacky comics. The atmosphere has more energy and it’s more exciting. Kids can go; it can be all ages. It’s just a better evening.” As Cross enumerated the benefits of performing in rock clubs, he revealed himself to be a rare breed of performer: a cutting-edge comedian with a conscience.

Sub Pop Records has culled the golden comedy nuggets from two shows on Cross’s spring tour and released them as a double live comedy album titled Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! The label – original home of Nirvana and Soundgarden – is advertising Shut Up as their “first intentional comedy release.” But this is hardly his first flirtation with the underground.

Emerging from the Boston comedy scene of the early 1990s, Cross and his alternative comedy cohorts’ brand of comedy shook up the piano-key necktie-wearing old guard. He spent the late 1990s performing on HBO’s sketch comedy program “Mr. Show with Bob and David”-a cult hit considered by some to rank among the funniest shows ever to air. As co-star and co-creator, Cross’s sketches were sprinkled with anger and occasional topicality-much like his stand-up performances.

On Shut Up, Cross traverses a broad range of topics, and nothing is too sensitive for him to address. He discusses religion (“The Bible is the funniest book I have ever read”), September 11th (“Or as I refer to it: the week football stopped”), and President Bush (“Quite possibly the worst president we’ve ever had”). Cross shrugs off praise for his willingness to violate taboos.

“I’m just onstage talking through a public address system,” he said. “That’s what would make most people tentative about talking about this stuff. People talk about this stuff everyday, whether it’s in bars, with a friend of a friend, or at dinner, or whatever. I’m just doing it onstage.”

Cross ditched Hollywood a couple of years ago, and was in Manhattan on September 11th. His experiences in New York on that day, and the days following, provide a wealth of material on Shut Up. Though many comedians deemed September 11th a hands-off topic for stand-up comedy, Cross scoffed at such sensitivity.

“That’s just silly,” he said. “They’re just being pussies. I don’t think twice about any of that stuff. I don’t see why you would. I don’t really have a career to worry about. I’m not on a sitcom, I’m not trying to get on a sitcom, I don’t have a movie career, so I don’t give a shit. My only responsibility is to be true to myself, and then to being a stand-up comic.”

Cross’s frank discussions of politics and religion are the highlights of Shut Up. He provides a refreshing view on typically dry left-wing agendas.

“I guess part of it is you are hoping to enlighten the audience,” he said, “but I’m mostly preaching to the converted. What I’m talking about is logic filtered through anger. I’m not trying to be responsible to the idea of being a political satirist, or something like that. I don’t care about that. That just happens to be the loudest, shiniest part of the 2-hours-plus on the CD. Actually, less than half of it is religious or political.”

Cross noted that the “unique times” we are living in have shaped his act, but that not all of his material is topical.

“I have plenty of jokes that have nothing to do with anything – that are my equivalent of airplane food humor. I’m more worried now than I’ve ever been, and I’m more conscious of it, but I’m still gonna do goofy shit about some girl I was fucking. You know, stuff without a lot of weight to it.”

Be he heavy or fluffy, Cross is consistently two things: gutsy and drunk. He’ll pause between tirades during a show to swill a beer.

“I drink before, during and after [a performance],” he said. “I get pretty drunk.”

So perhaps in his middle age, David Cross will be a bitter, burnt-out alcoholic. Or maybe not. Either way, he’ll have done more for comedy than Mark Spitz ever did, and that mantle is well worth the price of a hairline.