on’t feel bad for Tom Green. Sure, less than a decade ago, he was on top of the world. He had a hugely successful show on MTV, The Tom Green Show, where he tormented friends and strangers and did foul things to animals both living and dead. He had a novelty song called “Lonely Swedish (The Bum Bum Song)” that, despite lyrics which sounded as if they’d been improvised by a five-year-old boy—”I gotta get the poo off my bum!”—became a monster hit on MTV’s Total Request Live. He was featured on magazine covers, hosted Saturday Night Live, directed and starred in a movie called Freddy Got Fingered that had stodgy old critics screaming for his head, and married Drew Barrymore for a dizzying five months. Even his testicular cancer became a ratings hit. But then, seemingly overnight and for no apparent reason, Green disappeared. As fast as he’d become the MTV generation’s shock laureate, he was gone. These days, it’s hard not to imagine him sitting alone in some sad bungalow in Studio City, watching a sunset and softly humming, “Didn’t we almost have it aaaaaaall.”
But just because you’ve stopped hearing about Green doesn’t mean he’s retired from show business. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of his career’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Over the past five or so years, he’s kept a low but busy profile, appearing on reality shows like Celebrity Apprentice and Hell’s Kitchen, releasing a rap album (no, seriously), and doing semi-regular comedy bits on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Since 2006, he’s hosted a talk show on the Internet called Tom Green’s House Tonight, which is similar to his former MTV gig, except that it’s filmed in his living room, and doesn’t have all that distracting media hype.
I called Green as he was embarking on his first-ever World Standup Comedy Tour, which brings him to Nashville this weekend and includes upcoming dates in Chicago, Phoenix, and New York. His spunky enthusiasm hasn’t disappeared—”I’m in Atlanta right now,” he told me, “and I’m ready to rock!”—but he can also be strangely quiet and introspective, which seems a bit strange coming from a guy who once crawled inside a deer carcass for yuks.
Eric Spitznagel: Is this tour essentially Tom Green’s greatest hits? Will you be dry-humping a dead moose on stage?
Tom Green: It’s probably a more traditional standup comedy show than you would expect from me. I’ll definitely be doing some old bits, but it’s not some sort of gross-out gag fest. I’ve done that already. Believe it or not, I have a very traditional streak in me.
When Sisqó goes on tour, he’s contractually and morally obligated to sing “The Thong Song.” Don’t you think people are clamoring to find out what you’ve been putting your bum on these days?
Oh sure, yeah. I have a guitar with me onstage, and if somebody yells out for that song, I’ll definitely grab it and maybe play a few bars. You know, it’s funny, I started writing this show about six months ago in LA. I was practicing at clubs, just experimenting with different types of jokes. And when I was at the Ice House in Pasadena, which is a great club, somebody in the audience yelled out “Daddy would you like some sausage?”
From Freddy Got Fingered?
Yeah. And everybody in the place started cheering wildly. Like they knew exactly what the line was from. And I’m like, “Wait a minute, I thought this movie was supposed to have bombed?” I didn’t realize it until recently, but it’s developed a real cult following. I mean, I knew there were people who liked it, I just didn’t realize the extent. I think people, real people, the public, the people who are my fans, they’re able to identify that Freddy Got Fingered was supposed to be a crazy movie.
Unlike those cultural elite snobs. They just didn’t get it.
It doesn’t really matter if Roger Ebert says it’s not good. It’s a movie that’s supposed to piss off Roger Ebert. It’s supposed to piss off your average cinema critic.
In Ebert’s review of Freddy Got Fingered, he wrote, “The day may come when Freddy Got Fingered is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism.” Almost a decade later, has that day finally come?
I don’t know. But there was one time I was doing a standup show and somebody in the audience shouted, “Do the Backwards Man,” which was a little moment from the movie when I have my suit on backwards and I’m singing, “Backwards Man, Backwards Man, I can walk backwards as fast as you can.” So I did the song and everybody started to cheer. And it was really sort of fun, because I realized that people do respond to the movie. You know what I mean? They get it. They get that the point of the movie was that it was supposed to be smashing the cookie-cutter comedy movie into a million pieces.
It was ahead of its time. It’s like Citizen Kane but with more elephant masturbation.
It was about doing the most outrageous thing possible in every scene. I actually want to re-release it as a director’s cut.
O.K., whoa, hold on, all kidding aside. You’re not serious, are you?
I am. This was the first time I’d ever directed a movie. And when you do that, a studio brings in focus groups and they make changes to it. They’re like, “You’ve got to shorten it, make it exactly 89 minutes long.” So it ends up being not exactly what you intended. I called the studio and said, “I’ve been out there doing standup, and literally hundreds of kids are coming out with their DVD copies of the movie, screaming out their favorite lines. I want to do a director’s cut.” They did some research and it turns out the thing has done extremely well on DVD. They didn’t even seem to know. It’s actually made a profit, which is more than can be said for most movies that come out of Hollywood.
You’ve got a Web talk show that you broadcast live from your living room. How are you different from the guy uploading videos of his cat playing a synthesizer on YouTube?
Technically, there are a lot of differences. I’ve built a really elaborate studio, for one thing. It’s a multi-camera studio, and there’s lighting, and we have sponsors, so I’m actually making money doing it. I’m also getting guests that are just as good as anything they get on the network talk shows. We’ve had everyone from Val Kilmer to Jimmy Kimmel to Ed McMahon to Perez Hilton, Bob Saget, Andy Dick, Andrew Dice Clay…
Yeah, but a cat playing keyboards! How do you compete with that kinda genius?
We do a professional show, with real content. And it’s interactive. People can phone in on Skype video and talk to these celebrities. You can go to YouTube and see some of the clips. I had Xzibit on my show, the rapper from Pimp My Ride. He was a guest, and I told him, “Hey, I’m going to rap for you.” I had a D.J. there, who’s a member of the Dust Brothers and a big producer. So we dropped this beat and I rapped for him. And the audience took this clip and put it on YouTube, and now it’s got like two million views on YouTube.
That’s pretty exciting. You could be bigger than the guy who did “Chocolate Rain”.
I think Web-TV is percolating just under the surface, and pretty soon people will start to realize that it’s going to be much, much bigger than anybody thought. Especially for comedy. Before the Internet, comedians had to rely on getting an appearance on the Tonight Show to market themselves. But now they’re able to do it through MySpace, Facebook, their Web sites, Twitter, all this stuff. I feel very comfortable on the web. I tend to do things that are a little off the wall anyway, so when I get stuck in too structured of a corporate environment, it takes some of the fun out of it.
But you wouldn’t turn down MTV if they offered you another show, right?
Oh yeah, no, of course not. There’s actually a pretty good chance I’ll be doing a show this year. Not with MTV specifically, but with one of their sister networks. I can’t say any more about it, because we’re still in negotiations.
Does it involve anybody named Snooki or The Situation?
(Laughs.) Yes, exactly. I’m going to be a permanent guest star of the Jersey Shore. No, it’s not like I didn’t want to work in mainstream television again because the Internet is so great. I just think that it doesn’t have to be the only outlet for doing comedy. If you want to creatively express yourself with comedy, television might not necessarily be the best place to do it anymore. Everything on TV is so formulaic now.
Now? As opposed to when? The freewheelin’ 90s?
I guess it always has been. But it just seems like to get anything on the air anymore, it has to become homogenized. That’s why everything on TV is exactly the same.
Do you have any interest in being a mega-celebrity again? Or do you prefer a more modest career?
Well, I mean… (Long pause.) You go in stages. The thing you start to realize about this business is that it’s a long career. You have your ups and downs. I know what it’s like to have a No. 1 record in Canada, and feel like I’m on top of the world, and then get canceled and go back to school and it’s ten years before you have something that pops again. I went through a lot of personal issues, y’know? I had some major health problems. I had cancer basically in the thick of things, right when things were starting to go well for me. That was a traumatic experience. People probably don’t realize it, but getting cancer can be really traumatic.
I’m pretty sure that’s the one thing about cancer that everybody realizes.
(Laughs.) Maybe, O.K. But after that happened to me, I had to take a step back. It got so public and there was a certain amount of overexposure that I couldn’t deal with.
I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of sympathy on that front. You hosted a show called the Tom Green Cancer Special, so you can’t really complain about overexposure.
Having cancer was a very scary, shocking experience for me. But I could find the comedy in it. And I talk about it a lot in my standup. Believe it or not, testicular cancer is great for standup comedy material.
I do believe it.
My point is, everything’s fine. I’m doing great. I’m able to do what I want to do, independently and with a sort of rawness to it that I never had before. When you get sucked into the machine, all of a sudden you’re getting dragged around by the nose and told what movie you’ve gotta do, what TV shows you gotta do, and it can be unfulfilling.
I guess getting out of mainstream was the best thing for you. The alternative sounds like an Orwellian nightmare.
My Web show may seem modest if you’ve never heard of it, but it’s actually getting really good ratings. It’s got like 2.7 million views for our last episode. It’s won a Webby award, and it’s won a TV Guide award for the best talk show on the Internet. I’m getting paid really well and I have millions of viewers and no one can cancel me, unlike every other talk show host on the air.
You need to talk to Conan.
(Laughs.) Maybe I do.
You were a regular on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, but you never appeared when Conan O’Brien was the host. Are you the reason he failed?
I don’t really want to weigh in on that. I like Conan a lot. He’s a very funny, great talk show host. And Jay Leno is a friend of mine. He was very nice to me when I was on the show, always very encouraging. I like them both very much.
I’m not asking you to take sides. I’m just curious if you think you could’ve saved Conan’s Tonight Show?
Obviously, whatever my opinion is of what happened doesn’t make a difference. (Laughs.) I’ll just say that I wouldn’t mind taking over for Jay in another ten years. I think I’d do a great job.
You think Jay is going to stick around for ten more years? By that time, all of us who hate him will be old enough to start thinking he’s funny.
My whole life, since I was a kid and first started watching David Letterman, my dream was to host a talk show like the Tonight Show. But what happened with Conan and Jay, that’s why I decided to focus on building my own brand that’s outside corporate television. Because you don’t have to worry about that sort of thing if you’re independent. The Tonight Show costs a million dollars a week to produce. I only have one employee, so if I had a million dollars for the entire year, I could produce shows and make a really hefty profit from it. But you sacrifice the money to have more control over what you do.
It seems like you’re trying to steer away from the confrontational comedy that made you famous during the late 90s. Is that because you don’t think it’s funny anymore, or have you realized that being an asshole just isn’t as cute as you get older?
I like to stay ahead of the curve in terms of people’s expectations. That’s always been my philosophy in comedy. In 1995, when I was barging into my parents’ bedroom with a high-8 video camera, nobody had ever seen anything like it before. It looked different, it felt different, it felt raw. It was like, “Something’s wrong here!” Now that I’m hosting my own show on the Internet, people tune in expecting me to be pouring strawberry jam all over myself. But instead, I invite these really crazy, interesting, and hilarious people on the show and I let them pour strawberry jam all over themselves. I prefer to be the straight man.
I don’t know how much of your career is calculated. But I do know that if Andy Kaufman was still alive, and he was 60-something years-old and still challenging women to wrestle, it wouldn’t be as funny anymore. It’d just be kinda sad and creepy.
I can’t control what people think about me, or write about me. More often than not, if somebody in the media is going to write about something I’ve done, they’re going to write about the time I jacked off an elephant.
That surprises you?
It’s not like they’re going to write about the nice scene in Freddy Got Fingered with my brother in the kitchen. I did a movie with Brooke Shields a few years ago called Bob the Butler, and it plays all the time on the Disney Channel. It’s a kids’ movie and a family movie and it’s actually kinda a sweet film.
And you don’t jerk off a single animal in it?
I don’t. There’s not a gross-out gag in the entire movie. But nobody writes about that.
You know us goddamn journalists. We loooove bestiality.
People tend to label things because sometimes it’s easier to label things. But I’m proud of what I’ve done.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com