Shock of ages

Shock of ages

An older, mellower Tom Green talks regret, stand-up and making conservative America retch

By Matthew Singer 06/21/2012

Of all the pranks Tom Green has pulled in his life, the greatest has to be the one he perpetrated on the entire world back in the late ’90s. He called it a career, but what other way is there to classify the meteoric rise of a scrawny kid from Canada who got famous by filming himself humping a dead moose, than as a giant practical joke? In 1999, after years of the comic raising hell on public access television in his native Ottawa, MTV picked up The Tom Green Show, a kamikaze variety program on which the host tormented his parents, unsuspecting strangers on the street and, with his nauseating physical stunts, the gag reflexes of the viewers at home. It became a huge hit. Then Green’s wildest dreams really started coming true. He was on the cover of Rolling Stone. He appeared on, and later guest-hosted, The Late Show with David Letterman. He married Drew Barrymore. He even had enough clout to convince a major Hollywood movie studio to give him money for a feature film, which he used — in yet another elaborate rib — to make the infamous Freddy Got Fingered. In the decade since the end of his show, traces of Green’s fearlessly confrontational brand of humor have shown up in the highly lucrative comedy of Jackass and Sacha Baron Cohen. But Green himself hasn’t faded away completely. He just went back to doing stand-up. At age 40, he isn’t slurping milk straight from a cow’s teat anymore, but he still enjoys shocking audiences. Only now, he does it with pure language — and, even more surprisingly, a social conscience.

VCReporter: Do you get the sense you’ve had some kind of impact on a certain generation?
Tom Green: Oh, yeah. I hear that every day. Everybody I meet who’s between the ages of 20 and 45 tells me that.

How did you even wind up on MTV?
I made a point to make sure they knew about my show. I sent them tapes and wrote them letters and told them what I was doing, and eventually they picked up the show. I don’t know if I could’ve imagined it taking off as quickly and as big as it did. One second I’m on MTV, then two weeks later I’m on Letterman and I’m on Oprah with my parents and on the cover of Rolling Stone and all this kind of crazy stuff. It was surprising but exciting. We knew we were doing a show that was really different, and we were aware that what we were doing was special and unlike anything on TV. It was definitely the dream to go on Letterman and The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live, so when all that happened, it was really awesome.

Looking back, is there anything you did on your show that you regret?
Not really. It was all in the spirit of the time. We were young and trying to be outrageous. I think it all has to be looked at in that context. We didn’t do anything where anyone got hurt, and I don’t think we were overly mean-spirited to anyone, so I don’t have any regrets in that sense.

Was there anything you refused to do?
There was stuff I refused to do every day. That was the process of writing. We’d go through and come up with different ideas, and some things I’d want to do and some things I’d say, “Absolutely not.” I can’t remember specifically what they might have been, but we had a line we felt was not worth crossing. I never wanted anybody to get hurt or anything like that.

It must have really upset you, then, when those false rumors circulated about you going to a bar mitzvah dressed in a Hitler costume.
That was a thing I was most surprised with when I started being talked about in the media. The amount of inaccurate information that gets printed in newspapers and talked about on television and in magazines is just incredible. You start to realize people are just trying to sell papers and make money on magazines, and you learn that you can’t believe everything you read. I was definitely surprised by that, but it’s part of the business, you know?

Do you take some credit for the explosion of pranksterism in pop-culture over the last decade?
I let people say whatever they say. I don’t go around talking about it too much, I just really focus on doing what I do. People seem to know my show was the first one on American television, so I’m always happy when people acknowledge that. I’m a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen and Jackass and all those guys. I think they’re hilarious.

What are your feelings about Freddy Got Fingered now?
That’s the thing people bring up with me more than anything I’ve ever done. It has the most longevity, more than the show. People just love it.

Were you purposefully trying to antagonize critics?
We were trying to make conservative, boring people upset. We were trying to give mainstream-thinking, middle-of-the-road America, who is used to having the same old crap shoved down their throat every day, something they’d never seen before, and shock them and freak them out.

What is a Tom Green stand-up show like?
I’ve made a point to talk about things that are important to real people around the world, who are going through real issues in their lives. The economy is bad right now, people are uncertain about the future, and a lot of the reason for this is because of a messed-up political system and a screwed-up media. So I wanted to make a show that confronts all those things, and also talk about things that are straight-up funny and ridiculous.

It sounds like you’ve grown out of doing shock humor.
The thing is, it’s always gone in cycles with me. I’ve always changed direction every year or so, really. What happened was, when the show came on MTV, I’d been doing the show for seven years, and it aired all at once. People were focusing on the gross-out stuff, but it wasn’t something I did for an extended period of time. It was something I was doing until I got bored of it. That isn’t to say my stand-up show doesn’t have any shocking or crazy moments. It’s just that I’m painting pictures with words and making people think about things, and shocking them that way.

Tom Green will appear at the Canyon on Friday, June 22. For tickets and general information, visit www.canyonclub.net.

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