Almost fittingly, comedian Tom Green has enjoyed one of the weirdest and most absurd career arcs in contemporary show business. In the past 25-plus years, his creative résumé is as unpredictable as it is impressive. Since the early '90s, he's hosted several groundbreaking talk shows, most famously MTV's The Tom Green Show, starred in big-budget comedies, with Freddy Got Fingered he created one of the most-universally panned '90s Hollywood films, has had a parallel career as a hip hop artist, hosted Saturday Night Live, guest-hosted Late Night with David Letterman, and in '09 heard "You're fired!" from Trump when the Canadian-born comedian was a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice.
All of the above is just a fraction of Green's variable activities; as expected, considering he's the same guy who once humped a dead moose, "hot air ballooned" clear, plastic Dixie cups filled with cockroaches over his TV audience, had a porn tableaux titled "Slut Mobile" airbrushed on his parents' car. In 2000, after surviving testicular cancer while in his late 20s, he toured colleges to bring awareness of the disease to younger people, and founded the medical research group, "Tom Green's Nuts Cancer Fund."
In recent years, Green's returned to his original love: standup comedy, which he's been doing since the age of 15, when he was hitting open mic nights at the Canadian comedy club chain, Yuk Yuk's.
This week, Green returns to The Comedy Zone for a three-night run of shows. Folio Weekly spoke to him mere moments as he flew back to his home in Los Angeles from a show in Las Vegas.
True to form, the same guy who gave us 1999's "Lonely Swedish (The Bum Bum Song)" also offered insightful views on the pervasive influence of-and collective obsession with-social media and how standup draws us all together.
Folio Weekly: I want to get my one Trump question out of the way and move on: On your segment of Comedy Central's This is Not Happening from earlier this year, you gave some combat experience in being fired by Trump. Did any of the contestants even like Trump?
Tom Green: Well, he was the guy who decided whether or not you stayed on the show. So everyone was kind of "glad handing" each other. That's the whole "Hollywood way," right? Truth be told, he's not really hanging out with you all day. He comes into the boardroom and basically what you see in the boardroom is the biggest interaction you have with Trump.
Recently you've spoken about how grateful you are that your career started prior to things like social media; since there wasn't this intense and kind of unvetted competition then. Considering how much social media has changed everything, including comedy, do you think it's somehow diminished the experience for new comedians-or just changed it?
I think the reason why I'm doing standup, and am so focused on doing standup, is because that's the one thing that hasn't been diminished by social media. You go to a live show and that's a human experience where you're in a "live" room and seeing a performance and it's not muddied by technology and all of that stuff. But you know, film, television ... has it been diminished? I think it has. Back when I was growing up, you had like 13 TV channels and only three movie channels. So the amount of stuff you had to watch was limited to like five or six TV shows so it was a lot more exciting and anytime you went to a movie, it was a big deal. When I started my show on public access, there wasn't YouTube and thousands of pranks you could watch. So when my show was on MTV, it was totally out of the box and surreal and crazy because no one had ever seen a show like that. Of course now, when you do something on YouTube, there's going to be something that's similar. And we've seen so many different kinds of media, and so many different types of things, and we're watching so much media on our phones that I think it's a little harder to catch someone's attention with just a video TV show. But, that being said, live comedy is almost even better because of it, because people are looking for something that's more of a "real" experience now. You get that when you go to a live show. You get something that you don't get from television and social media.
Surely. Like if The Man with the Golden Gun was on TV in the late '70s on Friday night, that following Monday at school it was a given that every kid had watched that movie. There was inclusive experience with that; and now people suggest 15 different Netflix series to you. Do you think that kind of focused, shared experience at a comedy club also gives an antidote from now being pressured to constantly know everything happening on Earth?>
Yeah, but it might be two separate things, too. I think there might be a sort of common experience. As opposed to going into school and everyone talking about The Man with the Golden Gun, now everyone's talking about the thing that rose to their Facebook or Twitter feed. There are things that go viral and we still kind of bring a common experience in society. I just think that as a person who's trying to be creative in film or television, it's harder to break through now because there's just so much stuff. Whereas for me personally, I just know that I'm getting a lot more enjoyment as a performer being onstage in front of my fans, having big laughs together, more than I am posting a video on Instagram and then reading the comments afterward; I just don't get that sort of direct feedback. I use social media basically as a way to promote my shows so I can have that shared experience.
Now with things like videos and memes, normal people have a chance to show how humorous they really are. Some of them are brilliant or at least you'll get a laugh out of them. But then no one gives a shit because his or her joke is obliterated in nine seconds by the next post clogging the feed. Do you think people on social media are developing a discernment for good comedy or is it just a case of sudden comedic celebrity on social media that's almost arbitrary?
That's a good question. I do think the best stuff rises to the top. Look at that video "This is America" by Childish Gambino that came out last week that everyone was talking about. That's a pretty great video that spoke to people and it talked about real issues that are happening in America that are maybe not being talked about in such graphic terms and it used a really strong, dark, sardonic sense of humor. And he did something that was original and different. So I think this stuff that we see rises to the top for a reason.
You know, for the longest time, with comedy I'd say, "Well, nothing is sacred." Now at 46, I surely think many things are sacred to people in many walks of life and maybe in some ways they're "off limits." I mean, it's probably hard to write a real zinger about a child being brutally murdered. Going back to your earliest work, even though your work was edgy, I don't think you had a patently cruel, sadistic motivation. Do you have your own-for lack of a better word-"morality" about where you're willing to go onstage with your material?
Ultimately, I'm trying in my standup to point out things that I think are ironic or hypocritical or wrong with the world and find a way to laugh at them; but also maybe find a way for people to think about things differently. And I'm certainly, most of the time, trying to target power and authority and speak truth to that and try to speak up for the less fortunate and regular people, you know? That's always been the case even on The Tom Green Show, where a lot of times I'd have a security guard yelling at me because I was doing something ridiculous; but if you really analyzed it you could say, "OK, Tom's being sort of an asshole to that security guard," but the underlying theme was me doing something that was kind of silly and innocuous and I was getting an authority figure wound up unnecessarily. The security guard situation was really a metaphor for me when I was a teen and going skateboarding and getting kicked out of places by security guards who were overreacting. It's, like, "Look I could be committing crimes or doing something horrible but instead I'm playing around with my board with wheels." But that was far too antisocial for a security guard so I felt the need to mock that and point out the sort of absurdity, and even unfairness, of that. I've never really been one to poke fun at people who are less fortunate or what have you. Sometimes in standup, you'll say something that is brutally incorrect that may sound like you're poking fun at somebody less fortunate but you're really doing it to be ironic and perhaps get sort of a shocked reaction from people and make them think of the world in a way that's different. But I don't really do that kind of shock comedy anymore. I have a few lines in my standup that are maybe, like, "Whoa! You shouldn't have said that," or "Too soon!" But for the most part, I try to talk about things that are speaking truth to power and questioning the way the world works today. Social media is one of the things I question: Why are we so obsessed with this? Is this a conspiracy or some type of corporate plan that's taking advantage of us-even brainwashing and manipulating us? I don't think a lot of people are really questioning that, but we're all walking around like robots, glued to our phones all day, and it's scary. I talk about how if you're under 30, you've never experienced true freedom, because so much of your life has been walking around with that phone; always in contact, always being able to be reached, and anyone can check in-or check on-you at anytime. You feel kind of trapped.
You know, when I told my friends I was interviewing you, to a person they would respond with [famous Freddy Got Fingered catchphrase], "Daddy, would you like some sausage?" Since that film was like your personal Citizen Kane, are you comfortable with that line being your de facto "Rosebud"?
I think it's become this sort of vindicating thing for me because when the movie came out, here I was this kid from Canada who'd been in America for a year and a half, had this hit TV show, and was then writing and directing my own movie. And the response was, "Who is this guy who thinks he can direct a movie?" Back then, it was a lot harder to get that opportunity to direct and I think I got a lot of pushback, and I think it was unfairly criticized. It was being critiqued as if I was trying to make a normal movie, which was completely unfair. You don't judge it as a normal movie when it was never a normal movie. We were trying to destroy the conventions of the way traditional Hollywood comedies are made and succeeded, so it should have been celebrated for that. But there was a sort of backlash going on, so now it's fairly vindicating that I can't go to any English-speaking city anywhere in the world where someone doesn't come up to me and say, "Daddy, would you like some sausage?" So 20 years later, this thing that was supposed to not be a good movie has somehow resonated with people all over the entire planet.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the porn tableaux Tom Green had airbrushed on his parents' car.