Si Hawkins Circuit Training

Circuit Training 106: The Trials of Tom Green

Tom Green

Surely the only Circuit Training guest to have once been fired by the President of the United States, Tom Green really does seem remarkably well adjusted. The less-gawky-than-he-was Canadian has negotiated a life and career that the word 'rollercoaster' just doesn't adequately capture. Imagine a rollercoaster with rapidly interstellar highs but also life-threatening lows.

If you aren't familiar with the anarchic actor, presenter and - his modern passion - stand-up comedian's career, it may sound oddly similar to the Wayne's World movies: a guy with musical aspirations (rap in this case) launches his own public access TV venture (the brilliant Tom Green Show), gets picked up by a big-bucks channel (MTV), and seals the aspirational deal by hooking up with a glamorous superstar (Drew Barrymore, rather than Heather Locklear).

Then came the lows, as he fought serious illness, survived a headline-grabbing fire at the Green/Barrymore residence, got a critical panning for his big-screen labour of love, Freddie Got Fingered (Green collected his Razzie award in person), and never really got the credit for practically inventing the type of irreverent stunt-based show that Jackass and now Impractical Jokers ran with. He should be running a studio, really.

Still, Green is in fine spirits right now, having returned to his pre-fame passion, stand-up, and with his first UK tour just kicking off. Well, in fine spirits apart from the Trump business.

Welcome back to the UK, Tom. I caught your stand-up comeback in Edinburgh in 2011, which I recall being really fun but also very honest. How does your current show work?

I'm talking about such a wide variety of different subjects, focussing a little more on my personal world the last year or so: I'm getting older but I still don't have any kids. I'm a bit of a technology geek, so I like to make fun of our addiction to technology. And I don't know if you heard, there's a new President of the United States, Donald Trump, the guy from the Celebrity Apprentice.

I did hear something about that. If you weren't Canadian, you'd be as likely a president as he is.

Probably as likely, but it actually happened. I was on the Celebrity Apprentice, and the President of the United States fired me, because I went out drinking with Dennis Rodman, when I was the project manager.

Tom Green on Celebrity Apprentice USA

If it wasn't for all the dire apocalyptic consequences of a Donald Trump presidency, I would be really happy about this injection of great new comedy material for my act. But it is a bit of a scary thing.

A lot of my comedy involves interaction with the crowd, getting a reaction from them and responding. I had so much fun in Edinburgh, I was really only just getting started as a stand-up again, but I've been touring pretty much non-stop since them, and the show's really evolved.

You did stand-up as a teenager?

Yep, I was really into it for about five years, but I got to this point where I started experimenting with broadcasting, video cameras, college radio - I just got so caught up in creating The Tom Green Show on public access TV that I stopped doing stand-up. But it was always in my comedy blood, my DNA, and I think I injected a lot of the rhythm of stand-up comedy into my early TV shows.

In Edinburgh you were performing inside a cow...

The Udderbelly! A big upside-down cow - very fitting for me, because I've worked with cows a lot.

That's true [he once famously sucked milk direct from an udder] - was it quite scary for you, standing alone on stage, when you'd usually had co-hosts and video stuff to bounce off?

Yeah, but you need to feel a certain amount of healthy anxiety before you do anything in showbusiness. Otherwise you're just phoning it in. And so whenever I feel any sort of nervousness I go 'OK, I should be doing this because that's making me nervous.' That means I'm going to put time and energy and thought into it to make sure that I don't screw it up.

You get to a certain point where you learn enough of the tricks of how to do stand-up comedy, and then that's combined with material that just works. And you get a little bit less nervous now. That's why I have to keep writing and trying new ideas because you want to have that feeling 'Geez what if it doesn't work tonight?' - that nervous energy pushes you forward and makes you funny really.

And travelling keeps it interesting?

I've never done a full tour of the UK [and Ireland]. There is a little bit of a 'what if' - what if they don't understand what I'm talking about in Limerick? What if I get to Dublin and they just can't understand my Canadian accent? But you know I've done enough international touring now to know that that just doesn't happen.

When I first started doing stand-up again, the first few months of doing it I was a little bit more nervous because I was new and getting my sea legs back on. But now, I'm just having a blast.

Tom Green

I was pleasantly surprised by your Edinburgh show. You never know if someone with such a big profile will actually have the chops. Like celebrity DJs - they don't get booked because they're great DJs.

It's not really a fair comparison with a DJ because we all know what they do, right? They go up there and they play a tape and they stand there and they shake their hand.

And you know, when you're doing stand-up you really, really have to do something. I understand what you're saying though, you have people that have been on television shows, they'll book themselves around the world. It's not a real comparison with what I do though, because I wrote my television show, I wasn't an actor. I invented my show and The Tom Green Show was basically a new kind of comedy really.

I remember it being pretty thrilling, sitting there waiting to see what you did next.

My desire was always to push the envelope and try to create - and I'll try to say this without sounding like an asshole - but I am trying to do something new, still, I'm always trying to do something different. I'm not trying to go out and just do stand-up the way everyone else does stand-up.

I think a lot of the creativity that I put into The Tom Green Show, that I put into making Freddy Got Fingered, which is completely out of the box and strange, I put into my stand-up too. So yes, it's not like I'm just sort of on the road going around selling tickets to fans of my old thing. This is what I do now and I'm not even pursuing films anymore, I don't go audition for films.

Occasionally one of them falls in my lap - I'm in a movie that's coming out next year, the sequel to Iron Sky.

The Nazis on the moon movie! That's marvellous.

Yeah, so I do things when they come to me, but really, when I get up in the morning I'm focused on my stand-up comedy, my touring and my writing.

Stand-up, you can do anything. I remember you talking about surviving testicular cancer in that Edinburgh show, so you can explore serious issues too.

I feel it's very cathartic, because you know, things are in flux politically around the world. When you have somebody like me who actually has anxiety about that, just the state of the world and the fact that horrible things happen.

Like you mentioned, I'm a cancer survivor - you can get cancer and die. That's not a very fun thing to think about, it stresses me out every day. I'm completely paranoid about it. It doesn't make me happy in the least to know that we can die instantly.

It's very cathartic to get up on stage and talk about subjects that are scary and make them funny. If we can all laugh in the face of death and laugh at things that are sad and unfortunate and absurd about the world, I think it just makes life easier for everybody - especially me when I'm on stage having a laugh with everyone every night.

The Tom Green Show. Tom Green

Jackass began a few months after your show had to go on hiatus, with a similar 'anything goes' ethos - I'm not sure you get enough credit for paving the way.

Honestly, a day doesn't go by where somebody doesn't come up to me and tell me that I started all that, so on the streets, I get the credit.

It gets written about that a lot of those shows came after me, but you know, I'm touring the world doing stand-up comedy, selling out shows to my fans, and I've made a very, very good living. I own a home in Los Angeles, I've done well, so I feel like I've got the credit for it.

The thing that I did differently than a lot of the shows that you mentioned was that I was always performing a bit of a character as well, a naive wide-eyed sort of silly character. And I would go out on the streets and perform it in a way where people weren't sure if I was maybe misunderstanding the situation.

It was a very likable character, not mean spirited. I never wanted it to be mean spirited, because I think if you did something too mean, to me it became less funny. So I think that was a big difference.

It let you get away with some outrageous stuff. I always remembered you painting your parents' car hood.

The Slutmobile!

And I've just watched the one where you put your painting up in a proper gallery, and they just left it there.

Yeah, I did that in 1996. people come up now and say 'Hey, Banksy did your idea' because I guess he did it in Exit through the Gift Shop. I'm putting a lot of my old material up on my website, so you can go on there and see a lot of the old bits and some new stuff too.

That character always seemed naïve, but you then became a film star, had the glamorous wife, amazing life - did you ever turn into a dick?

It's a funny question! I like when I get asked questions I've never been asked before, by the way - good job. I appreciate it.

I think it's a very hard thing to deal with, sudden fame. I'd been doing my show for a long time in Canada but when it went on TV it got very big very fast. I was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, I was hosting Saturday Night Live, it was all happening very, very quickly for me.

And you don't really necessarily know how you're supposed to act. And at the same time, I'd just had cancer too, so I had a lot of physical stuff happen to my body that was very exhausting and could put me in a bit of a grumpy mood at times for a while there.

I was young when I was first on MTV and I look back and I think 'you know, the year that the show took off for the first few years, I think maybe I would have acted a little bit differently.' I sometimes want to write a book for people, 'how to behave if you become instantly internationally famous,' and what not to do.

Tom Green

That would probably sell well, given that everyone seems to be trying to get famous these days.

I think a mistake a lot of people make - young people - is that you have a lot of confidence but internally and deep down you kind of know that you don't really know what you're doing.

And I think as a protection mechanism a lot of people - people that are dicks, basically, as you put it - I think the reason they're being dicks is because they don't want to get caught. They don't want people to realise that they actually don't know what the hell they're doing, and that maybe they don't deserve everything that they've gotten. So they act like an asshole. And people think 'OK this guy really knows what he's doing. He's an asshole!'

The assholes do seem to be winning at the moment.

Now that I've been in this business a lot longer, there's nothing I really take more pride in than my decision to be nice to people, all the time. I think that's what I love about doing stand-up, more than anything else, is after my show I come out and I talk to the crowd and everybody has so much positive energy.

I'm completely humbled to be able to come to a city in the United Kingdom. Last night I performed for the first time in Amsterdam, I just performed in Israel, we were just in Tel Aviv, Israel last week. I've never been there before and have a sold-out show, people who are knowing my old shows and quoting my old work. It makes me feel very good.

That immediate feedback must be nice. Having invented genres, you're now doing the most traditional thing possible, talking to a live audience.

I think live and personal real interaction is a commodity that is in short supply these days. We're all on our phones all day and tweeting and looking at funny video clips, and at a certain point these YouTube videos and Instagram videos, they basically start to look exactly the same.

Nothing's really shocking anymore, it's all the same. But when you're in a room with someone and they're on stage you're experiencing life with them, you're breathing the same air and you're shaking hands with them after the show. That's a real true connection, and that's something that's exciting.

Do you still rap?

I have a recording studio in Los Angeles where I do make music and I may put out a comedy record next year. It's something that I do for a hobby. I did do a song about Donald Trump for Funny Or Die last year before he became the president. It's pretty controversial, especially now.

When I made the song it was during the campaign, it was an anti-Trump song and I was trying to do my part to let my feelings be known. And apparently it didn't work.

Does it ever really work? Is there a way for comedians to say stuff and make a difference?

I think there is. It might not be the difference that moves the needle as far as changing who the President of the United States is, but I think it does collectively move the needle, as everybody is speaking out.

The thing that comedy and celebrity and media needs to maybe be most ashamed of right now is that there wasn't really enough partisan commentary on the election, from people who are in the comedy world. There were a few things, but even Saturday Night Live, I think they normalised Donald Trump as a candidate so much that they actually made him win the election.

Nobody came out and said 'you know this guy is saying things that are racist.' They didn't say that on Saturday Night Live. And I love Saturday Night Live, I've hosted Saturday Night Live, I'm not bagging on Saturday Night Live. I'm saying that everybody seems to make this decision these days: 'oh well we don't want to offend one side more than the other because then we're going to lose our ratings and our fans.'

Even the news does that now. When you're watching CNN leading up to the election and they're talking about Donald Trump, they're not holding his feet to the fire and were not outraged enough by the absurd and horrific things that he was saying.

Tom Green

Even when he's outright lying?

There was no outrage here because they didn't want to look like they were siding with Hillary, or with the left. So in their desperation to appear non-biased we end up actually being slightly dishonest. If you've got somebody that's completely nuts on one side, and you don't say that he's nuts because you don't want to look like you're for the other side, well then you're also being intellectually and journalistically dishonest.

The news media now is so desperate for ratings that they can't really do what they used to do, which was be sort of a moral and ethical voice of reason and authority in our society. We're kind of like a rudderless society now, right? So comedy is a place where people have to do that.


I don't get up on stage and bag on Donald Trump for a full hour, by the way, because I want people to have fun at my show. And I'll be doing shows in Phoenix, Arizona, I'll be doing shows in Raleigh, North Carolina in a few months, places that voted for Donald Trump.

There are people that voted for Donald Trump in all of my shows in America. I don't want them to sit there and be pissed off because I'm spending an hour calling them all stupid or something like that. Even if I believe it, I'm not going to do that on stage.

That would probably be pretty dangerous.

But at the end of my show I do talk a little bit about it. What I try to do when it comes to possibly changing anybody's mind, possibly: I try to be just funny as hell for the whole hour and make everybody have a really great time. And then I subconsciously slip in my opinions, some jokes from my side, from my understanding of it, the way I believe it, and I try to make people laugh at the absurdity of it all.

And I think if you're laughing at something and you're thinking of things maybe from a different perspective you might walk out of my show looking at the world differently than you did when you walked in. And that to me is an accomplishment.

It does feel like people listen to celebrities more than journalists and politicians now. But the quasi-fascists are louder.

Negative energy travels faster through the internet. People always look at the shiny object, whether it's the outrageous statement or the racist statement.

I hope we're not living in this sort of new world. I feel like this is the way it is in the United States - I mean it's not like this in Canada, but I know with Brexit here, I worry that it may be. I've got to educate myself a little bit more about the political situation here right now before I get on stage.

I know enough about it to know that... I sometimes worry that the left wing of our society is so kind of shrugging their shoulders, 'is it all just pointless?' Maybe we don't believe in government enough anymore. Maybe we're not even going out and voting enough. If everybody in the United States voted, Hillary Clinton would be the president.

Published: Friday 2nd June 2017

Share this page