Tom Green: don't call it a comeback
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To those who weren’t paying attention, it seemed that after Tom Green got testicular cancer and bid farewell to his hugely successful MTV series The Tom Green Show with a special documenting his surgery in 2000, he disappeared off the face of the earth. Hardly. After wringing every gleeful ounce of shock value from his TV show, the Canadian comedian unleashed 2001's Freddy Got Fingered, a polarizing gross-out movie about an aspiring cartoonist that was intentionally made to repel and confuse critics. After penning Hollywood Causes Cancer, a 2004 autobiography chronicling his rise from Canadian local-access to MTV, Green returned to his roots in 2006 by converting his Los Angeles home into an Internet broadcasting station for a more talk-show-oriented program. This year, Green decided to embark on his first stand-up world tour—something he says he always wanted to do even before gracing the Canadian airwaves. Green, who kicks off a three-night run at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy tonight, talked with The A.V. Club about his inability to be queasy, what Andrew Dice Clay thinks about his material, and what annoys him about interviews.
The A.V. Club: What’s your writing process?
TG: I start with what I think is funny. I tend to sit around with my friends a lot and rant and rave about things I think are ridiculous in the world, and I tend to make fun of myself a lot. I’ve had a lot of crazy things happen to me over the years that I’m always complaining about, or making self-deprecating comments about. I’ve also done a lot of writing over the years. It’s been a different kind of writing, but I’ve done stand-up too. I did stand-up when I was a teenager and I’m pretty familiar with the process of putting these things together.
I don’t really like to just sit down at a computer and write because that tends to be a little forced. Sometimes the funniest ideas just happen in the moment, when you’re talking to people, or you notice something. I used to always carry a notepad around with me when I was doing my show and I’d write everything down, but then I’d lose the notepad and then it would sort of be pointless. The cool thing now is in my cell phone I’ve got a great little digital word processor. Anytime anything comes up I jot it down, even if it’s just a loose idea or concept. I come up with five or 10 things a day. Especially when you’re on the road traveling around with another comedian who’s opening the show for me. We’re always sort of thinking of new ideas and writing.
And then I do sit down at a computer and actually type it up and try to craft it into more of a structured joke. Over a few months, all of a sudden I had a pretty decent amount of material. I’m also incorporating some music into the show. I also work off the audience a lot, so it tends to be certain things the audience likes to shout out to me to talk about a lot of times. A lot of people who come to the show are big fans of my old show on MTV, or of Road Trip, or Freddy Got Fingered. I’ve written a few little routines and bits about those movies and re-enact some scenes from Freddy Got Fingered, which is always interesting and fun. It’s still an evolving process but it’s cool. That’s basically what I’m doing. We’re really hitting an awesome rhythm right now and it’s exciting for me. I have a ton of energy for it. I’m excited to be there, I’m not telling a bunch of jokes that I’ve been telling for 15 years over and over. So the shows have been really very silly and fun and it’s been a good time.
AVC: You mentioned the audience shouting out things and working off that in your shows. Why has audience participation always appealed to you so much?
TG: One of my favorite quotes is from John Cleese, where he said, “It’s funny to watch somebody acting silly, but it’s even funnier to watch somebody watching someone act silly.” That was always true of my show. I’ll go out on the street and do some outrageous stunt, but the audience would really laugh when they’d cut to the reaction shot of the old lady with the confused look on her face going, “What the hell is this guy doing?” That’s true in stand-up too. If I’m doing something silly or talking about something ridiculous and then I’m directing it directly toward someone in the front row, or someone yells something out, I begin directly engaging with them. That’s sort of an anything-can-happen element to me that I really enjoy. It generally tends to be funnier to me because you know you’re not looking at somebody just reading a script.
AVC: In other interviews, you've mentioned as a teenager your stand-up had material about cereal. As you’ve gotten older, how has your stand-up changed? Or are you still doing jokes about Kix?
TG: I’ve been through a lot of crazy stuff in the last 10 years: Ridiculous experiences, moving to Los Angeles, working within the system of trying to do a crazy show, working in television, illness/getting sick, divorce. All this stuff that’s happened to me [are all] universal themes and also things that are very specific and things that I think a lot of people are interested in. I tend to find comedy in dark places. I also tend to find comedy in taking on the status quo—which has always been something I find important. Having done my show on public-access cable, and then done it on MTV, and then worked with major studios, I think I have a pretty good perspective on the media and how things work. Sometimes I like to talk about different things I find that are unjust or absurd about the world today, especially pop culture with television with celebrity culture with my personal life with my health with everything that I’ve gone through. I think I’ve got a lot of stuff that people can walk away from and find a bit humorous, hopefully.
AVC: What made you decide to pursue stand-up again right now? Did something happen, or are you just arbitrarily picking it up after all these years?
TG: Well, something kind of happened: I started doing this web TV show in my living room about three years ago, and it’s gone really well. The thing is, Internet broadcasting is kind of in its infancy, you know? Finding a business model for it by, for example, finding sponsors, and really marketing the show is still something that’s really independent. MySpace has a comedy department called MySpace Comedy, and they would be bringing up some guests for me: Nick Swardson, Russell Peters, and Owen Benjamin. Comedians that are heavily featured on MySpace. When they were up here, they asked me if I wanted to do one of their Secret Stand-Up shows in New York. It was six months before the New York Comedy Festival.
It was also perfect timing because I had been procrastinating for the past four or five years. Whenever I do something I tend to focus on it and spend all of my time and energy on it. I knew if I was going to jump up onstage and start doing stand-up—first of all, I knew I had something to prove. I don’t want to go up and bomb and be kind of half-assed. I want to go up and kill it. I was sort of putting it off because I knew the amount of work that was going to be involved. I have to write some really great stuff and think about what I want to do.
AVC: It’s lonely work, too, because it’s just you up there.
TG: Well, you’ve got the whole audience there with you. But you’re right, you’re on the road, you’re leaving home, and all that stuff. To really jump into it full force, I knew it was going to be a lot of work. When they asked me to do it, it was the perfect kind of thing, because I’m so passionate about my web television show and this channel that I’ve built in my house. I basically built a television studio in my living room and a television network in my house, and a light bulb went off: This is how I can get out there and spread the word about what I’m doing on the web, through stand-up. I just jumped into it right away, starting with the New York Comedy Festival. I also had a circle of comedians who were encouraging me. The people from MySpace, my friend John Schneider—who I met through Rob Schneider—came and did my show, and they all started encouraging me to do it. We all began going down to the comedy clubs together. Suddenly I had a circle of comedians I was hanging out with and everyone was kind of pushing each other to get up onstage and do this, and it became a lot of fun. From the second I jumped up for the first time at The Comedy Store and did five or six minutes, it was like this sort of real wave of relief, because not only did I do really well, but I realized the potential was there to do much, much more. That concern of getting up there and having people not like me was gone. It was quite the opposite. I got up onstage and everybody in the audience was really excited to see me onstage. That was always the big fear. Am I going to get up and everybody’s going to yell, “You suck!” or something? Instead it was the total opposite.
AVC: Did your circle of comedians include Andrew Dice Clay? Has he given you any tips or feedback on your material?
TG: I’ve been talking to him on the phone and he’s been really supportive. He’s in Vegas doing a show—he hasn’t actually come to see me live yet. But he’s always been very encouraging. When we did The Apprentice, he was telling me [Adopts Clay’s voice], “Hey Tommy, you gotta get out and do some stand-up.” I was saying, “Yeah, I know, I’m gonna do it.” And he was saying, “You gotta get out there and do it.” So he was always pushing me to do it, so when he heard I was doing it, he’s been calling me and checking in on how I’m doing. We were talking about possibly doing some shows together at some point, if we can figure out how to do that. He’s awesome and I can’t wait for him to see how I’m doing. He’s hilarious. The thing about him is he has a very similar philosophy that I do in a lot of ways, which is you don’t want to phone things in. He’s not somebody that walks down the middle road and plays by the rules 100 percent of the time.
AVC: Yes, he’s definitely doing his own thing.
TG: He’s doing his own thing and he knows what it is that he does, and he does it amazingly well. I think he’s great and we’ve actually become great friends over the last few years. We got to know each other when he came up and did my web-television show a couple of times.
AVC: You tweeted something about being annoyed at the press for bringing up old stuff, like your marriage to Drew Barrymore.
TG: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: What else would you prefer everyone just leave in the past?
TG: Honestly, that’s about it. I’m pretty much an open book. I talk about everything, but that’s just a difficult one for me to talk about: the divorce, the marriage, and stuff with the media. They’ll often ask very specific questions and it’s the one time I don’t feel very comfortable answering honestly. I don’t really feel like talking about somebody behind their back or whatever to the press. Ask me anything about myself and I’ll tell you a whole bunch of stuff. Ask me about Freddy Got Fingered, ask me about winning Razzies, and I’ll talk all day about it. I’ve got a ton of jokes about it. I even kid around a little bit about getting divorced and the public spectacle of it. I actually talk about it in my show a little bit. When you’re sideswiped on a radio show or interview with specific questions about my marriage it can be a little annoying, because it’s been eight years. We’re not in each other's lives in any capacity at all anymore. We don’t talk to each—it’s a long historical thing that’s long gone. I just feel a little embarrassed sometimes. What the hell would she be thinking if she’s reading some paper about me talking about her? It’s not really in my control though. It’s just something that happens with the media. They feel the need to sensationalize relationships and marriages and it’s just one of these things. But at the end of the day, the best way to talk about it is to talk about how I don’t like talking about it. That usually solves the problem.
AVC: You’ve been talking about Freddy Got Fingered in interviews also. You're releasing a director's cut.
TG: It’s been pretty amazing, the experience of going out on the road and going around the country and seeing how much enthusiasm and how many people really do love that movie. It’s really developed a big cult following. People have always come up to me on the street—there’s all these little buzzwords of things I’ve done over the years. People will come up to me and say, “Hey, my bum is on the Tom!” Or they’ll say, “Daddy, would you like some sausage?,” which is a line from Freddy Got Fingered. Or they’ll ask me to do Backwards Man, which is a scene in Freddy Got Fingered. It’s always happened a lot on the street, just people saying that to me. I started doing stand-up every once in a while for fun; in between jokes I’ll go, “Daddy, would you like some sausage?” And whenever I do that song or start singing that song the audience literally erupts into pandemonium. People all instantly know exactly what I’m doing, even when I’m jumping up and I’m doing a show where it’s unannounced and it’s not my fans. It just started to seem a little bit odd to me, and I actually called over to somebody at the movie studio a couple of months ago and said, “Hey, this is kind of going on here. I’ve been on the road and doing shows, and after the show everybody’s yelling out scenes from the movie. It just seems like this thing’s got a pretty big following, can you look into what‘s going on with that?”
There’s a whole bunch of other footage that wasn’t in the movie that got edited down for whatever reason when you’re putting out a wide release. You have to take some of the edges off—not that there were any edges taken off of it, but it was just shortened for time and things like that. And they actually went and looked into it, and it turns out that the thing’s actually sold, like, almost a million units, which is a massive number of DVDs. The movie is now well into the profit zone. People can review and say bad things about a movie all they want, but at the end of the day the movie is making money, and continues to make money. They were really excited about that; I’m really excited about that. As I continue to go around and do these shows, it’s just been a nice feeling because you work real hard at making a crazy movie—you try to make it as insane as you can possibly make it, and then the critics, of course, sit there and say, “Oh, this movie’s insane.” Then they write it up like it’s bad. I wasn’t trying to make The Jazz Singer. You know what I mean? I wasn’t trying to make The Bridge On The River Kwai here. When I wrapped the deer carcass around myself and crawled around on the ground for six minutes, groaning, it wasn’t supposed to be Golden Globe material, you know? So it’s a real vindication, honestly, to be able to go and perform my show and have people screaming from the rafters for me to do “Daddy, would you like some sausage?” There are things about the movie that I’d like to clean up, and there’s quite a few scenes that got taken out of the movie for time purposes. The movie was originally about an hour and 50 minutes, and it’s 85 minutes now.
AVC: That’s quite a lot of stuff.
TG: Yeah, there’s a lot of really crazy stuff. And actually when you lost stuff, the movie got a little bit disjointed. That was the film theorists’ critical problem with the movie, that it was disjointed.
AVC: Are there other pipe-dream projects you want to get around to someday, like how you’re doing with stand-up now?
TG: I’ve always got a whole bunch of things in the works. That’s sort of the nature of the business. Even when you’re doing something you love doing, you have to be plotting and scheming and writing and preparing for what you’re going to do when that’s finished. I have a TV show in development right now that we’re just kind of finishing the contracts and all that stuff, getting all that figured out. It’s sort of a music-related show. I used to be in a rap group when I was a teenager. I’ve been writing and recording some music here in L.A. with some really great producers who make some really great music with some of the bigger hip-hop artists that are out there, and I’ve had a lot of rappers on my show. So I’m looking at possibly doing a show revolving around me recording another rap album this year, which is going to be kind of fun, and I’m going to incorporate some of that music into my stand-up show as well, so it’s all sort of intertwined together.
AVC: Do you feel you helped pave the way for other man-on-the-street-based stunt shows like Ali G?
TG: Everybody gets inspired by different things. I grew up wanting to go up the street with a video camera because I liked watching David Letterman yell out of the ninth floor of Rockefeller Center with a megaphone at people on the street. I thought that was a riot. We all borrow and steal and copy from each other, and that’s the way I think people get inspired. I don’t have a clue if Ali G has even heard of me. I’ve never talked to him, never met him in my life. But I know the Jackass guys have been really cool. They’ve actually come out and said that they were fans of mine. Frankly, I had the No. 1 show on MTV and I had to quit because I got cancer, and the same people that ran my show went over and started Jackass. There’s a little bit more than a coincidence there, but that’s cool too.
AVC: Did you ever regret any of the stunts you did on your old show, or think maybe you went too far?
TG: No, not really. It’s kind of a loaded question, because when we were doing the show, we would get up every day and we would say, “How are we going to go too far today? What are we going to do that we will regret today?” And people will sometimes ask me, "Is there anything that you were embarrassed you did?" and that was literally part of the writing process. “Let’s think of something that would be really embarrassing.” I think that’s part of what made it fun for me to do the show—I have a very high threshold for embarrassment. I don’t get grossed out by putting some worms in my mouth or something. It’s kind of funny to me. I’m not somebody who’s queasy or anything. It was actually sort of fun to be able to use that lack of concern about these things and taking things far beyond the limit and filming people's reactions to it. I’m basically pretty proud of all of that stuff.
When Freddy Got Fingered came on TV the other day on HBO, it was on HBO last night actually, I was sitting there with a friend of mine who had never seen it. I was flipping around and we decided to watch it for about 20 minutes. I hadn’t seen it in a couple of years, and I was just laughing, like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we got away with all that stuff.” But that was always the goal, to see what we could get away with. How far can we push the limits? How far can we push the executives of these movie studios or of these television networks? What can we get away with here? That was the challenge. That’s why I’m really excited about what I’m doing right now with the website. It’s exciting to be able to do something completely independent without anybody challenging it, and it’s a big part of the reason why I’m enjoying doing the stand-up comedy, is I’m able to go out and interact with people one-on-one after the show. It’s very punk-rock.