Talking to Tom Green About His Absurdist Legacy, ‘Freddy Got Fingered’, and Andy Kaufman
For most of his career, Tom Green’s product could be summed up in one word: asinine. He was selling pure obnoxiousness, and satisfying that voice in our heads as we go through highscool, college and cubicle which asks — what would it be like if I never stopped acting like a nine-year-old?
Bizarely, though — and perhaps troublingly — Tom Green is not an idiot.
This notion is difficult to swallow, because what made Tom Green’s shtick funny was that, in concept, it was never more than shades away from being completely and genuinely pointless. In a pitch meeting, nothing he ever did would have been funny on paper. It was always so theoretically stupid that its comedy was transcendental by result of it’s actual existence. The pranks were never (with certain exceptions) quite severe enough to offer any real schadenfreude appeal. The absurdity was (with certain exceptions) never quite whimsical enough to offer the psychedelic flavor of the Brits. The real hilarity (if you found him funny) was in the scientific phenomenon of watching an immature, pathologically weird Canadian being absolutely himself. (And then watching other people be forced to deal with him.) In many ways, he was true punk-rock comedy, and the skateboarding and homemade theme songs all reflected that aesthetic.
But I had a long talk with Green, which suggested — almost to my disappointment, initially — that though this be madness yet there is method in it. Does he lose points for not actually being a profound numbskull? Or does he get extra points for proving that intelligent human beings are also allowed to act like a perpetual jackass, as long as they commit?
How does it feel looking back and realizing that you invented of a fairly popular sub-genre of reality TV that we might call jackass comedy?
I have people bring that up with me nowadays, they talk about shows and movies that came out after mine, and I just think it’s awesome, you know? I basically went into broadcasting when I was in college because I knew that there was nothing like what I had in my mind on TV at the time. I grew up skateboarding and watching David Letterman and Monty Python, and I had this idea to create a mixture of the sort of spontaneity and guerilla style that I would see in skateboarding videos, mixed with the comedy style of guys like Letterman and SCTV. So we just did it, and we did that show for many years in Canada before it got picked up by MTV, so we really had a lot of time to put together our own style of television.
I was pretty excited when it went on MTV in 1999 and 2000. I’d been doing this just as a volunteer for years, and trying to figure out a way to make something out of it. And to have it take off the way it did was just sort of incredible. If I had waited and done it later, it wouldn’t have had the impact that it had, right? I think it was all about being at the right place and timing it right. I’ve always tried to do things a little bit before they were being done by the mainstream. I challenge myself to do that in stand-up also, to talk about things that I’m not hearing anybody talk about onstage and in the media. That’s sort of always been my hook for standing out, to be doing something a little bit ahead of the curve. It doesn’t always work.
Like my web-show — as successful as it was — was probably about 5 years too early. I don’t think the advertising industry and the broadcast industry were quite ready for it yet. Frankly, right now would be the perfect time to be doing that show I was doing five years ago, but to be honest with you, I just got tired of doing it in my living room. My house was getting all trashed and I started touring [stand-up] and having so much fun on the road. But I’m gonna be starting the web show back up a little too.
It seems that you have a fascination with the chicken sandwich which has permeated your career to a certain extent…
You know I’ve always really enjoyed sounds and alliteration and funny words and funny melodies. And that’s always been something I’ve incorporated into my show one way or another, whether it was the Bum-Bum song, or the theme song, or “Daddy Would You Like Some Sausage.” I think that comes from the fact that I’ve always enjoyed making music, that’s always been something that I layer on top of everything else. There’s a lot of layers to my show, whether it was on MTV, or this stand-up show that I’m doing now. I try to talk about some serious things, and be critical of some social issues and the media. And when things get a little too serious, I bring in some chicken sandwich for everybody!
So, for example, “Japan Four!” and “Shashy” [from Freddy Got Fingered]…
I’ve always enjoyed to do things that have such a strange level of absurdity that it can confuse the audience. Shashy and Japan Four was something we wrote into FGF as an internal joke almost for ourselves, because growing up, if I was walking down the street and someone was walking on the sidewalk, I would just point at the ground directly in front of their feet and say, “Shashy?” And people would just look down, and sometimes they’d almost trip. I got real good at timing it that I could make people almost trip just by pointing at nothing on the ground. It was fun to confuse people, it was able to stop traffic sometimes, because people would walk by and end up staring at nothing on the ground, wondering why I was pointing at it. It’s a little bit at the root of that geurilla, on-the-street, kind of street-theatre pranks we would do which had as much to do with the reaction shots as much as it was about the prank. The reaction was really the punchline.
Moving through the post-modern era, what role does absurdity have going forward?
I think as modern and as advanced as we think we are, we’re still living in a very controlled corporate culture. There’s two political parties, all the networks are owned by the same multi-national corporations — which are financing everything. All the restaurants are these big chains, everything is very homogenized across the board. You can think that you’re getting a lot of diversity and opinions, but really it’s all funneled through these same networks; you get everybody’s standard take on how the world works if you’re not really digging around on the internet and paying attention. You’re watching the same football games and listening to the same music getting pumped out by the record labels, and it’s unfortunate to me. You’re shopping at Walmart, and drinking coffee at Starbucks. You’re stuck on your Facebook page or texting on the iPhone, and life can be very robotic if you’re not paying attention. And a lot of people AREN’T paying attention, I feel like 90 percent of people aren’t thinking, “Should I really be on Facebook all day? Is texting corrupting the way I speak to other people? Were things potentially better before all this technology?” And now, people don’t remember what the world was like before Facebook.
I got into technology very early on, I started my website in 1996. I clearly remember what it was like before Facebook and before cellphones. They didn’t have any of that when I was in high school. It’s exciting for me to make jokes about things that didn’t exist ten years ago because I’m not repeating the same topics covered by the great comedians of the past — they weren’t able to analyze whether married people should be on Facebook or whether it’s strange to have pornography pumping into all of our homes. I think it’s a really ripe time for comedy right now, because as much as we think we have all this freedom of choice because of the internet, it’s really only the smart and forward thinking people who are paying attention enough to use the web to get what they want out of it. Everybody else is being led along like a herd, and hopefully I’ll be able to shock some people out of their comfort zone when they come to my stand-up shows.
There’s a scene in FGF where Rip Torn is yelling at you and Harland Williams for building a skateboard ramp in the middle of the night. After the neighbors come out to chat for a few moments, Rip interrupts everybody by screaming like a banshee. Was this improvised at all, or did the script actual call for this howl?
It was pretty much all written, the only part that was improvised was when I started licking the broken bone on Harland’s leg. That was just a result of me seeing the prop and wanting to lick it. But the scene is sort of indicative of the central theme of the movie, which is a father having a complete flabbergasted, generational inability to understand what was important about skateboarding, what was important about his son wanting to do something creative. We’re dealing with a generation gap, and at the time it was a real metaphor for what I ended up doing with my life. My father was in the army, it was about “go join the Army, go out and be a man, have a work ethic,” and not necessarily understanding the electronic age. Gordie wanted to be an animator, which is a very new-world dream. And I wanted to make funny videos and put them on television. Riding a skateboard is very similar to that, it’s a very creative thing. And now we’re all of the sudden living in this world where people in their 20’s and 30’s haven’t quit riding their skateboards, and it just appears to my father, and that father in the movie, like a complete lack of responsibility. A complete lack of taking life seriously and getting a job. And that’s not really the case, you know? We live in a world where you have to be creative and you have to think out of the box to find employment. It’s not the same world that it was fifty, a hundred years ago. Look at you, you’re a writer, that’s a creative decision, to think about the world and write about the world, vs going down and working at the factory, right? So that scream was just expressing a complete frustration.
And plus, it felt funny for him to scream at the end of it all.
The funny thing about Freddy Got Fingered is that it has a huge following right now, it’s probably one of the most popular things I’ve done. At the time it came out, the media, the critical pack-journalists of mainstream media sorta jumped on and criticized the movie, but now I can’t go anywhere around the world without people knowing every line of it. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me how that works, but it’s indication that people will find things that are different. And people really responded to the story. That really is the theme of the movie, there is a serious point to the movie underneath all the insanity and craziness.
At the time, maybe FGF was a very large dose of what you were offering. People were more accustomed to smaller and generally less intense doses?
It was shocking for people at the time, people had never seen anything like it. There was no Borat before, where people are sticking their balls in each other’s face. And the timing of it all, I had just gone though a very serious cancer surgery, I was all over entertainment tonight, the tabloids were jumping all over me because of my personal life, and I think I was thrust way way farther into the public eye than made sense for someone making a movie that outrageous. Maybe it was just time for people to take me down a notch. It’s unfortunate that things had to happen that way, but I think it made me a lot stronger as a performer because I haven’t really had things handed to me on a silver platter over the past ten years, which is probably what would have happened if things had gone slightly differently. Because of the popularity of the show I probably would have just made movie after movie after movie, and I would have become complacent because it would have been too easy. But now I’ve had to sort of force myself to be creative and do what I’ve been doing from a more raw, underground place, which is where I’ve always thrived anyway. As opposed to just being handed another mainstream movie or mainstream gig and just trying to make it funny, it becomes impossible because you just start to become what you’re trying to rebel against. Frankly, there’s just too much money involved in these big movies.
So, in the long run, it’s been great for me because I’m doing stand-up now, and I’m completely independent of the mainstream Hollywood system, and working outside of that system, while still having all the benefits of a big international fanbase, things have been really successful for me. I’ve had a great career while doing what I wanted to do in the first place anyway. I didn’t really get corrupted by it.
How would you compare your body of work up to this point to, say, Andy Kaufman?
I really love Andy Kaufman’s stuff. I didn’t know a whole lot about him until my stuff was on MTV, and Man On The Moon came out. I had cancer, and strangely, when his movie about him having cancer came out, everybody started talking to me about him, so I went back and gobbled up everything he ever did. I do see certain similarities to him and I certainly enjoy what he did because I can see that he pushes his character and performances to such a strange place that I think it turned off a lot of the people around him. They documented that he sort of turned off coworkers on movies and TV shows, because he was just so anti-establishment. I have similar kinds of feelings, where I don’t want to walk down the middle because it’s easy.
The simple answer is that his comedy was very much about confusing people, polarizing his audience. You either got it or you didn’t. That was something I did a lot more earlier in my career when I was on MTV. Unfortunately he died young, but if he had lived, he would have probably learned to broaden himself. It’s fun to be making fun of half of the people, and have the other half laughing along with you at the first half that don’t get it. This is something that sometimes younger comedians aspire to do. Like, “Hey, I’m so smart and crazy, let’s do something that only me and my friends and a handful of people will get, and we’re gonna confuse everybody else and laugh at them in the process.” But at a certain point, it becomes kind of a defeatist thing because when you’re younger, you’re afraid a little bit of the truly daunting challenge of making EVERYBODY laugh. It’s finding that place where EVERYBODY gets it. The point is to make everybody have a great time. The thing about stand-up is that you have the audience right there. And they laugh or they don’t, so you’re able to make adjustments every night in order to get everyone laughing hysterically, and that’s what I love about stand-up. It’s been a great experience.
Ryan P. Carey, D.D.S. writes about comedy and other staples of the pre-apocalypse on his blog, The Inappropriate Thesaurus, where he struggles desperately to escape “Generation Meh.”