THE FAIL ISSUE
The week of June 14, 2015
tom_green

The forgotten legacy of Tom Green, the original troll

By Dylan Love

Somewhere in Canada, the “mustard inspector” lets himself into a convenience store. He’s dressed in a white lab coat with protective latex gloves, and he appears to take quality assurance a little too seriously. He peppers the store owners with one question after another: if they’ve heard of any mustard-related illnesses or deaths lately, if anyone has gotten mustard in their eye.

Within seconds he’s slathering himself in the classic hotdog condiment, filling his mouth with it to the point that he’s blowing mustard bubbles. Then he’s shouting at the top of his lungs—repeatedly. No one in the store knows how to respond because no one has ever experienced such a profoundly odd encounter before.

If you grew up in Ontario, Canada, in the 1990s, this segment—originally aired on a local cable access show—was likely your first introduction to Tom Green. The stunt comedian is the overlooked forefather to today’s prank culture on YouTube and the suburban shorts popular on Vine. He’s the original troll entertainer, and while his time in the national spotlight has long since passed, Green continues to find new ways to baffle and amuse—against all odds and almost entirely on his own.

The Tom Green Show kicked off in September 1994, back when television signals traveled through the air rather than the inside densely wound cable, before shock and awe were available on every Web page. Armed with little more than a handheld camcorder, Green was a walking catastrophe, attracting attention everywhere he went. He pretended to be a comically wounded cyclist after a crash, acted as a movie usher and sprayed himself with a fire extinguisher before a movie played in a theater, placed large condoms over his arms, and started a lawnmower engine in a drug store.

With Green, it seemed there were no boundaries, and that he was prepared for the expected punch in the face that never came. Suffice to say, his jarring brand of comedy—weirdly surreal, droll but forcefully engaging—was polarizing from the get-go.

Tom Green is the overlooked forefather to today’s prank culture on YouTube.

“Rogers Cable had a viewer response line where people could call and leave a message on a cassette tape at the front of station,” Green recalled recently, speaking from the road in Los Angeles. “Every morning a secretary would transcribe the voicemails, print them out, and post them at the front of the studio where everyone could go read answering machine messages about the shows. My show was pushing boundaries and was outrageous at the time. The feedback was half love, half hate.

“In order to make an impact, you have to do something that gets a reaction, and this set the stage for my love-hate relationship with social media today.”

The Tom Green Show made it to MTV in 1999, catapulting Green to mainstream attention. It was far from conventionally popular, but there was a cultural awareness of who Green was—that ridiculous do-anything guy on television. He had something of a cult following, but reception was mixed at best: TV Guide called his show one of the worst in television history.

Chances are you still remember the first time you saw one of his skits. They could worm into your psyche that way. One of Green’s personal favorites was Undercutter’s Pizza, in which he follows a pizza delivery guy to his destination and attempts to steal customers by selling a lower-priced pizza.

Like a viral hoax that lives on well past its prime in chain emails, Green’s time at the top was brief but impactful. The Tom Green Show went off the air in 2000, after his diagnosis with testicular cancer, but his show paved the way for the shocking antics of MTV’s Jackass. And his legacy can be clearly traced to today’s viral pranksters. Indeed, Undercutter’s Pizza is exactly the type of video one can imagine being filmed by plucky kids with iPhones in their own suburb today, and punking the pizza guy definitely appears to be a modern YouTube trope all its own.

“In order to make an impact, you have to do something that gets a reaction, and this set the stage for my love-hate relationship with social media today.”

After a successful course of cancer treatment, Green kicked off a film career with his bizarre appearance in 2000’s Road Trip. He married and divorced Drew Barrymore, wrote an autobiography, and had a short-lived comeback on MTV. In 2005, went on a hip-hop tour across Canada (before The Tom Green Show, he was a founding member of successful Canadian rap act Organized Rhyme). A more mature Green could commonly be found guest-hosting various late-night shows or appearing for segments, but he slowly slipped off the national radar.

Green did what most would under such circumstances: He went home and got back to his DIY roots. From 2006 to 2011, he hosted Tom Green’s House Tonight, his own surreal spin on a late-night talk show, out of his own living room. It broadcast at TomGreen.com, complete with a live studio audience.

“My living room is the only studio of its kind. It’s not about a podcast. It’s about Web-o-Vision. Not television,” Green said. “We weren’t using the best cameras on purpose. I wanted it to be raw, to look gritty. That’s part of it. It’s not The Tonight Show. Anything can happen.”

And all kinds of things happened. There were plenty of guests, such as Andrew Dice Clay, Crispin Glover, Val Kilmer, and Brooke Shields, and Green proved himself a compelling longform interviewer. (His interview with Fred Durst shows a barely recognizable side to the Limp Bizkit frontman). But on those nights without guests, there was no telling what to expect.

On one such unbooked show, Green didn’t speak a word and instead played a bleating saxophone for an hour straight. Watching the show now, it’s a clear precursor to what we’re seeing with livestreaming apps like Periscope—the filming of the mundane for the masses. It’s obvious Green’s in his element, and why shouldn’t he be? It was his own house, after all.

Like a viral hoax that lives on well past its prime in chain emails, Green’s time at the top was brief but impactful.

Time and again, Green has proven to be an early adopter, and he’s clearly a quick study when it comes to finding new ways of building an audience. Before his public access show, he made his own beats and rapped with help from keyboards and drum machines, programmed MIDI, and learned to use sequencers. This was the cutting edge in the 1980s, and he’s continued to push boundaries. Right now that means building an Internet television network for maximum creative freedom.

“I dove into cameras full steam ahead and learned how to do video stuff,” Green recalled. “Now we’re taking livestreaming independent television and doing a full-on network with some traditional elements to do a talk show completely unencumbered by corporate interference or bosses. We’re going to do really weird TV on the cusp of a new generation of people watching on cellphones and smart TVs.”

In 1990s Ontario, Green recorded strangers and family members reacting to his odd behavior and edited that footage into a show. Now he’s squaring off even more directly with his audience, using smartphone apps like Periscope that allow him to broadcast live to viewers with no intermediaries.

“I did something last week that cracked me up that was impossible to do three months ago,” he said. “I went on Periscope while I was walking down the street in Lexington, Kentucky, and went into Urban Outfitters. I said, ‘Hey everybody, I’m at the Urban Outfitters on Main and Broadway. Why don’t you guys look up the phone number and call me, and let’s see if they let me take a phone call?’ The phone was immediately ringing off the hook and the cashier says, ‘Tom, phone call.’ It was a 20-minute live show with the phone ringing nonstop.”

It bears mentioning that nearly every stunt Tom pulled in his off-the-wall 20s is available via his YouTube page. The clips are very well-viewed; play counts ranging from the tens to hundreds of thousands, no doubt being watched old fans eager for a nostalgic laugh as well as a new generation of comedy consumers looking to see how the comedian got his start. For Green, it’s clear how it all comes full circle.

“My outrageousness is floating on a bed of subtext and social commentary.”

“All that really does is point people to what I’m doing now,” said Green, who estimates that “50 to 70 percent” of his standup fans on his more recent tours are there due to his “silly past.”

“My outrageousness is floating on a bed of subtext and social commentary. People absorb that after spending an hour with me. I use Twitter, but 20 minutes of my standup set is devoted to how Facebook is changing the way we interact with people. I didn’t have a cellphone until I was 28 years old. I remember what it was like when you could go outside and people didn’t know where you were. It was wonderful.”

That numbness that comes from being over-connected, from being able to have the world at your fingertips, Green feels is drawing fans back to his more visceral, only-in-this-moment comedy.

“People are beginning to crave real experience. Standup is a live performance, I’m a real person, and it’s an exciting time for that as well.”

Indeed, this the best time there’s ever been for Tom Green’s comedy. We had to catch up to him, and all it takes is a glance as his archives to drive the point home.

“If you’re the first, you’re the best, because you’re the only one doing it,” he said. “Pioneers leave with arrows in their back. Do you want to be a settler?”

Illustration by Max Fleishman