Freddy Got Fingered has aged like a fine wine—or like a rotting deer carcass, depending on your opinion of the notorious feature debut for Y2K’s most infamous comedian, Tom Green. Honestly, if you like Freddy Got Fingered, a rotting deer carcass might sound delectable.
The conversation surrounding Green’s film has evolved since its disastrous release. Today, most find themselves in two camps, believing Freddy Got Fingered to be either a surrealist masterpiece or a shrieking mess of blood and elephant semen. In his legendary pan, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.” Twenty years on, and thanks in part to a growing number of critically beloved comedies operating in its shadow, both days have arrived: There are those who consider it a surrealist milestone, and those who find it funny, too.
In 2001, Tom Green was every 12-year-old’s hero. Well, at least the hero of all the 12-year-olds at my grade school. He was a loud and obnoxious skateboarder who acted particularly unfeeling in the face of his own destruction. Green would paint sex scenes on the hood of his parents’ car and then act willfully ignorant and confused when they reacted negatively. His deadpan response to any offense would eventually build to his purest form of expression: screaming. So much screaming.
Two years out from the Jackass movie, it was still hard to imagine audiences coming out in droves to a feature-length version of Green’s reality-TV prank program, The Tom Green Show. So Green and his writing partner, Derek Harvie, wrote a film that was sure to get greenlit in 2001: a gross-out big-screen yukfest starring MTV’s biggest star. On paper, it looked like any number of comedies about an insipid man-child getting his first job and learning to grow up a little. Green plays Gord, a 28-year-old aspiring animator who moves to L.A. to make his dreams come true, only to return home to his violent, psychotic father (Rip Torn) after losing his job at the cheese-sandwich factory.
At the time, Hollywood comedies were going through a gross-out period. The Farrelly brothers had kicked it off a few years earlier with their surprise smash There’s Something About Mary, and Adam Sandler and American Pie carried that torch further. The stealth appeal of these movies was the way they mixed bodily fluids (yet ironically bloodless violence) and tasteless jokes with just enough heart to win over audiences. Freddy Got Fingered pretended to follow their lead, but it had no real interest in the feel-good part of the equation. This a movie, after all, that ends with a 10-year-old boy sucked into the propeller of a plane, dousing onlookers in blood as he cries, “I’m okay, daddy.”
Freddy Got Fingered might’ve been a little ahead of the curve for mainstream adult audiences in 2001. In the tradition of weird, antagonistic, how-did-this-get-made Hollywood movies like Clifford and Cabin Boy before it, Freddy Got Fingered attempted to squeeze an idiosyncratic, abrasive, and unpleasant comedic perspective into a pat Hollywood formula. Those types of movies rarely do well in theaters—maybe because the intended audience isn’t old enough to vote with their wallets. But on home video, they tend to thrive—partly because sleepover parties are perhaps a better venue for their provocations. As Tom Green said in a recent interview with Decider, “Freddy Got Fingered was an overwhelming success, and people don’t always realize that. They talk about the critics, and the box-office during the theatrical run, but the movie made almost $25 million on DVD in the first year alone. There were people who got it.” Some of those people make comedies themselves now.
It took a few years to see Freddy Got Fingered’s influence on movies, but Green’s show and the film quickly began ushering in a wave of live-action anti-comedy on television. Two years after Green’s second MTV series—a more traditional late-night talk show, The New Tom Green Show—failed to take off like the first one had, Comedy Central debuted Wonder Showzen, a surreal and uncompromisingly pitch-black parody of kids shows in the vein of PBS educational programming like Sesame Street that took Green’s approach to man-on-the-street interviews and gave it a harsh political bent. In one of the most famous clips from the show, a 6-year-old girl asks Wall Street traders “Who did you exploit today?”
There was a minor anti-comedy boom in the mid-2000s. Though it only lasted two seasons, Wonder Showzen became a cult hit on DVD and through late-night reruns. Meanwhile, Cartoon Network’s late-night bodega of surrealist animation and Japanese anime, Adult Swim, added Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to its roster. Awesome Show, which builds on Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s form-breaking work on Tom Goes To The Mayor, shares Green’s penchant for antagonism. Replacing setups and punchlines with blank stares and booming lip smacks, the show leads its viewers to laughs through frustration, repetition, and irritation. “Daddy Would You Like Some Sausage” would fit nicely on the show’s soundtrack. Tim and Eric would later get their own attempt at a Freddy Got Fingered-style comedy, 2012’s Tim And Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, an unhinged comedy (that borders on horror), produced by two of comedy’s biggest names, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell.
The increasingly weird tastes exhibited on television gave Step Brothers, a slightly more refined and palatable version of the Freddy Got Fingered premise, the runway to become a $100-million dollar blockbuster. McKay takes much of Green’s anarchic spirit and filters it through John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell, known comedic stars with a track record that places the audience squarely on their side. He also smoothes out the jagged edges, with Richard Jenkins offering a more relatable and less violent version of Rip Torn’s father character. The film works in a similar way as Freddy, though, taking a classic slacker comedy about grown men acting like children and filling it with dadaist tangents of improv and impulse.
In the years since, comedy has more fully embraced Freddy Got Fingered’s energy. This is especially true on the small screen, where the joke machines of Tim Robinson, Eric André, and Connor O’Malley hinge on the threat of full-throated tantrums.
Tim Robinson’s acclaimed sketch series I Think You Should Leave doubles down on the denialism that fuels much of Green’s comedy. Sketches like “Dan Flashes” feature men oozing with privilege, refusing to see the world for what it is, unleashing fury whenever their worldview is challenged. In Robinson’s sketches, teachers yell at students for asking vital questions about a traffic safety video; a focus group gangs up on a quiet participant, accusing him of loving his mother-in-law; and men aggressively stomp their feet until they are left alone. The comedy comes from these characters refusing to accept their social missteps, no matter how slight, even in the face of the most compelling evidence. Robinson’s characters live in a space outside of society, where they hear the rules and interpret them in antagonistic ways.
Green’s Gord, too, lives in a separate world from those around him. In every scene of Freddy, Green’s aggression throws the base reality into turmoil. It’s not hard to imagine a commercial for Coffin Flop appearing in Freddy Got Fingered because the world Green created is always on the verge of bizarre violence. Like a guy who can’t quit cursing on a haunted house tour, Green refuses to stop when he’s asked. He continually negs and negs until scenes devolve into chaos. When challenged, Gord screams, cries, and sticks a gun in his mouth, threatening to pull the trigger.
Like I Think You Should Leave, Freddy Got Fingered is a comedy of antagonism. When pushed far enough, Green’s provocations in the film usually bend towards physical, or at least aural, violence. He leans into the gore and viscera that most comedies ignore. Push it too far, and the comedy becomes horror. The other characters of Freddy Got Fingered believe they live in an ordinary world filled with lunch meetings and family dinners. Gord disrupts that belief. He puts everyone else in physical danger—his very presence is a harbinger of pain. Robinson similarly hammers home his POV by refusing to stop when asked, whether he’s putting on a Blues Brothers routine or staying planted in a parking spot because he can’t drive. It doesn’t matter. To these guys, stubbornness always wins the war of comedic attrition.
Adult Swim veteran Eric André also likes playing in that pool. He released his version of Freddy Got Fingered last April on Netflix with the hidden-camera buddy comedy Bad Trip. In both cases, the comedians elaborate on the implied and sanitized violence of other comedies—they are essentially Frank Grimes-ing their respective films.
In one of Bad Trip’s early scenes, Chris (Eric André), while working at a smoothie shop, stammers his way through a conversation with his high school crush before accidentally dropping his hand in a blender, splattering blood throughout the shop and onto its customers. Tilting awkward cringe-comic exchanges into slapstick violence is nothing new. But while There’s Something About Mary briefly flashes to Ben Stiller’s fly, director Kitao Sakurai’s many hidden cameras hold on André screaming in pain as his hand is blended to a bloody pulp. A scene later, André, with his hand bandaged in bloody rags, breaks into a musical number, “I Saw A Girl Today,” accompanied by a fleet of dancers. André’s blood-soaked mayhem serves the same purpose as Gord delivering a baby and swinging it by the umbilical cord: puncture the cliché beats of Hollywood comedies by ratcheting up the intensity, then return to the status quo like nothing ever happened.
In a culture teeming with people who refuse to face facts, it’s no surprise that the comedy of Freddy Got Fingered would resonate and mutate. The last decade of “post-truth culture” has helped these comedies thrive. Connor O’Malley’s on the street bits no longer have the weightlessness of Tom Green continuously pushing a microphone into someone’s face; they expose the screaming id of a generation of men who refuse to recognize their status, potential, and privilege.
This air of invincibility and the unwavering faith in “boys will be boys” is Green’s greatest contribution to modern comedy. Green knew he’d get away with his provocations because he’s a white middle-class twentysomething. It’s the same reason that teen skateboarders in the suburbs mouth off to cops when they get shooed from a skate spot. Green magnified that attitude, that complete indifference towards authority, and distilled it into something that could be mined for comedic effect. He’s less Steve Martin in The Jerk and more Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, terrorizing people with his worldview regardless of who pays for it. What the hell does Gord care? He’s not the one who’s hurt by his actions. And even if he was hurt, he’d probably be okay—just as Johnny Knoxville is always okay.
Today, the unearned confidence of masculinity is enhanced by InfoWars-branded Super Male Vitality supplements. Numerous comedians tap into the Trumpian world of awkward media sensibilities, body horror, and crypto grifts for discomforting anti-comedy that’s occasionally as profound as it is hilarious. O’Malley, Heidecker, André, and more are pointing out aspects of the modern American male that most media ignores, blowing out their worlds and weaknesses to unstable heights while reminding you that their parodies aren’t as exaggerated as they seem. In many cases, the “real” version is only a YouTube recommendation away.
Of course, pushing the status quo, revealing its underbelly, and forcing audiences to sit in the regressive unpleasantness of it all isn’t a new approach in comedy. Sometimes it just takes 20 years for others to recognize the inspiration (and profitability) buzzing around the rotting deer carcass.