Tom Green has been rapped about by Eminem, fired by Donald Trump and married briefly to Drew Barrymore. He made an influential and outrageous MTV series (The Tom Green Show), as well as one of the most reviled films of all time (Freddy Got Fingered). He also documented his experience of testicular cancer in a TV special that didn’t blanch at the sight of the surgeon’s scalpel. And it is not merely a figure of speech to say that he has guts – millions of viewers have seen them, unpacked on the operating table during surgery to inspect his lymph nodes.
Sitting in a London bar, the 45-year-old, 6ft 2in Canadian comic is more contemplative than the manic, bug-eyed goofball who made his name in the 1990s. Back then, he blurred the line between pranks and performance art, prowling the streets with baguettes strapped to his head, addressing passing businessmen as “Mummy” or gyrating against roadkill. It was the roadkill stunt that earned him a namecheck from Eminem, who complained in The Real Slim Shady: “Sometimes I want to get on TV and just let loose, but can’t / But it’s cool for Tom Green to hump a dead moose.”
Green sips his beer. “People thought I was completely nuts,” he says in his soft, rumbling voice. Part of the confusion, he suspects, can be blamed on the decision to carry over his hysterical persona into talkshow appearances. Playing Tom Green quickly became an exhausting full-time job. “I’d go on The Tonight Show and scream into the camera. I felt the pressure to make myself seem unhinged. I want people to know that I’m not just this crazy person flailing around. A lot of thought goes into what I do.”
It is for this reason that he bristles when I ask how it felt to be at the forefront of the 90s wave of gross-out comedy. “It bothers me when people say ‘shock comic’ or ‘gross-out’ because that was only one type of comedy I did. There was prank comedy. Man-on-the-street-reaction comedy. Visually surreal comedy. But you do something shocking and that becomes your label.” That dead moose, it seems, cast an awfully long shadow.
Just as the goatee and floppy fringe of his 20s have been replaced by short hair and a black beard splotched with grey, so the pranks and skits have given way to more mature pursuits. He presents an online talk show, Tom Green’s House Tonight, from his living room, and has made an enthusiastic return to his standup roots. “I’m surprising myself on stage every night,” he says.
The material in his current European tour, he says, is the strongest of his career. He is still railing against technology and social media – one of his most inspired recent routines finds him crouched on a stool, limbs retracting into his body, as he imagines the human form reduced to “two muscular, elongated, rapidly flapping text-messaging thumbs”.
The new show, he adds, is also his most personal. Subjects include his battle with cancer and the reality of being 45 and not having children. Inevitably, the current US president, who fired him from The Apprentice, crops up. “I talk about how it demystifies the presidency when you’ve sat there and had him scream in your face. ‘Wow, that guy’s the president? I really should’ve gone up for all of those jobs in my life that I never felt qualified for.’”
Green savaged Trump in a rap parody last year but the challenge, he says, is to keep the mood inclusive, irrespective of political affiliation. “If it’s negative and hostile for half the audience, then not only is that half not laughing, they’re not even listening.” We happen to be meeting on the day that a picture emerged of the US comic Kathy Griffin holding a bloodied Trump mask in a mocked-up decapitation pose. Jim Carrey and Alec Baldwin sprang to her defence, but Green sounds a cautionary note. “She made a mistake. As comedians, we all get into that mode of thinking of the worst thing imaginable – but you usually have the ability to pull back before releasing it to the world.”
It may seem a bit rich to hear restraint preached by the man who, in Freddy Got Fingered, bites a baby’s umbilical cord before using it to spin the infant around his head, showering the maternity ward with blood. Then again, there is an underlying tenderness to Green’s humour. It’s important to remember that he hands the baby lovingly to its mother and that Freddy Got Fingered is the story of a man who just wants his daddy to love him, even if it means spraying him with elephant semen. (Green, whose father was a captain in the Canadian army, calls the movie “semi-autobiographical”.)
The comic enjoyed his first burst of fame at the age of 19 in his native Ottawa as part of the rap group Organised Rhyme, where he went by the name MC Bones. When the band was dropped by their label, he lived in his parents’ basement devising and shooting increasingly ambitious comedy videos that went out on a Canadian public access station. Some were simple vox pops; others, such as the prank in which he arranged for his father’s car to be spray-painted with an explicit lesbian sex scene, transforming it into the Slutmobile, demanded complex levels of planning.
Much of the humour arose from the conflict between these provocations and the essentially reasonable nature of the Canadian national character, as personified by his long-suffering parents, who became one of the subjects of his comedy (he once woke them up, on camera, at 3am to demand that they watch a Bon Jovi video with him) but never the butt.
MTV snapped up hundreds of these prank videos and gave Green his own show. Within weeks, he was fielding calls from Oprah Winfrey, Pepsi and his hero David Letterman. Drew Barrymore asked him to appear with her in Charlie’s Angels and the pair started dating, generating a media storm that endured throughout their two-year relationship, which included five months of marriage.
What with the couple’s divorce at the end of 2001, the notoriety of Green’s MTV show, the Eminem song, the cancer diagnosis and the furore over Freddy Got Fingered, it felt as if every pop culture news item in the early 2000s revolved around him. “It’s true. A couple of those things would have been enough, but every day there was a story about me. And when something is in everyone’s face, they want to attack it.”
When I ask if there is anything he feels is now overlooked about his comedy, his thoughts return to those heady early days. “When the show went out on MTV in 1999, we were inventing something and trying to smash TV conventions. I feel I get credit for that on the street but not in the mainstream. There are billion-dollar franchises that have literally reshot and recreated my material.”
I mention Jackass, which was devised by members of his team while he was on hiatus recovering from cancer, and Sacha Baron Cohen. “All sorts of stuff, yeah,” he nods. “I was the first one who put all that together, this guerrilla-sketch-comedy-skateboarder-lifestyle-reality thing, which is essentially what YouTube is today. It can be a little frustrating not to get credit for that.”
Still, there’s a sense he may finally be getting his due. Eric Andre, who has a groundbreaking show on Adult Swim, has acknowledged Green’s influence. One website recently called him “the original troll”. Even Freddy Gets Fingered is being appreciated at last for its punk surrealism.
For Green, standup is his future. “When I’m 65 and still performing every week, I’d like people to say, ‘You know, when that guy was a kid, he made these weird, crazy videos?’ And they’ll have to go look for them – rather than it being the first thing they know about me.”