Tom Green: Stand-Up Comedian, Part 2

September 30th, 2010 | San Francisco Comedy

by Sean Keane

TOM GREEN Live @ Cobb’s Comedy Club
Oct. 1st, 2nd, & 3rd
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- READ PART ONE-

I don’t know if this was a conscious choice, but when you were on The Tonight Show, your bits were more restrained. You took on more of a straight man role.

TG: I didn’t edit those pieces. I was just working for Jay as a correspondent. It wasn’t like the kind of thing I did on my old public access show or my MTV show. I think I learned a lot from working on The Tonight Show for a couple years. Literally, the first thought I had was that they weren’t as crazy as what I’d normally do. But then they’d show the studio audience and they’d be dying of laughter. They were very successful, and I think it opened my eyes to the idea that you can be broad sometimes. You don’t necessarily have to be polarizing and shocking, and you can still get a lot out of it.

I think that’s the difference between Jay Leno, and David Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel’s show. I think his genius comes from really understanding America, and not just appealing to the nutjob audience that I’ve always tried to reach out to.

Do you have specific role models as a host?

TG: Oh yeah. I decided as a kid that I wanted to be a talk show host when I saw David Letterman. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is so crazy. I want to sit at a desk, and go out in the streets and do crazy stunts with a megaphone, be annoying and outrageous.” Letterman was the first time I’d seen anything on television in that format pushing the boundaries of ridiculousness. When I saw the show at age thirteen, fourteen, it was kind of like the internet is today: you felt like you were watching something no one else knew about. So I love Letterman, but I’ve also gone back and become a huge fan of Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Tom Snyder. I like those single-guest format shows where the guest really gets a chance to speak. I’ve pretty much modeled my living room after the Tonight Show set.

It’s interesting that while you’re doing a very new, unique show, the conventions of it are very classic, in terms of the look and orientation of everything.

TG: I love all the old talk shows of the ’60s. It was an amazing time for television because everything was new. And while there are so many great talk shows today, it does seem to me that all the talk shows on the air are attempting to do their version of Johnny Carson. They have their own variations, but they have the desk, the band…

The monologue.

TG: Right. The audience, occasional wacky bits on the street. That’s fine, but I enjoy that my show has so many new things to it. We cut to audience members via Skype – it’s two-way television. Most shows you have a head writer, producers, someone writes the monologue for you, they pre-interview guests. My show doesn’t have pre-interviews; the guest doesn’t know what I’m going to ask them. Because the show is in my house, it’s a much more laid-back, relaxed setting. I don’t ask negative questions or try to portray people in a negative light, so it creates a different kind of energy. I really try to just encourage people to talk, by giving them the space and freedom to speak. We have the luxury of not having to cut to a commercial break and not really having any time restrictions. You don’t have the pressure to keep the interview moving so you can get all your big jokes and plugs in.

And you only have six minutes!

TG: It creates a very formulaic thing. You can turn on any of the big talk shows, and they’re all very similar. My show is very raw. I don’t have a writing staff. You’re tuning in, you’re seeing two people having a real conversation in the host’s actual house. Something is going on that is much different than what you see on TV.

How many people does it take to produce the show?

TG: We’ve done it with one person before. We have one person up at the house, we’ll invite a guest up, we’ll turn on the studio, and the director will set all the shots up, get behind the switcher, and start switching the cameras. I’ve designed the studio so it can all be run by one person. It’s totally different from television – it’s more like a pirate radio station. I can keep my costs low – I’ve got two full-time employees and that’s it.

Do you feel like your old show pioneered a lot of MTV programming that followed it? Things like Jackass and Punk’d are in roughly the same vein.

TG: Those shows started immediately after mine, with the same MTV executives I’d pitched my show to, who I’d sold my ideas to. There was initially some skepticism about my show, but once we put it on the air and it got a huge response, people realized there was a demand for this raw, guerilla comedy. I certainly think it influenced MTV’s decision to put Jackass and Punk’d on the air and to start moving in my direction. Those guys from Jackass have been really cool. They’ve all come on and done my web show.

I started doing this kind of stuff in 1994 – running around with a video camera filming stuff. I remember when I was pitching the show, before MTV, I would tell people, “This is a new kind of TV. You don’t need a big crew. It’s guerilla.” Television executives thought you couldn’t shoot a show with a video camera – it wouldn’t look professional. You had to use Betacams, and have a bunch of producers overseeing everything. Once you put shows together with the same old-school structure, they all end up looking the same. And I think that’s one thing that changed when my show went on MTV. All those bits in the first season were shot independently by me up in Canada. The process of writing was completely different – we gave the finished bit to the network, instead of proposing an idea and having them editorialize, cut it, and completely change it.

And you can’t really have production notes on something that’s done.

TG: They did try to change some of the edgier stuff, and edit material out. That was the main battle I had with MTV, as they’d try to cut the craziest stuff. It does feel cool to have people recognize that my show was one of the first shows like that. Doing a weekly show where you’re out in the street in that confrontational mode can be stressful. I’m more excited now to just be doing stand-up and not having to do that.

It’s frustrating for me to work for a television network sometimes. Because when you’ve been doing it for as long as I have, you want to be able to do what you want to do. And you never get to do what you want to do, on television.

You’re compromising all the time.

TG: And even if it does turn out funny, you still have to deal with this huge bureaucracy. I don’t necessarily know if I want to do that for the rest of my life. I will do more television again, but with the web, it’s all starting to blur together more. I’m more excited about doing things on my own site.

Considering that people often watch late-night shows online anyway, soon there won’t be a huge difference in how people consume content anyway.

TG: I don’t need to generate the kind of revenue that The Tonight Show does to make that profitable. I don’t have 150 employees. I’m getting 1-2 million viewers per episode, and I’m able to convert that into revenue. I don’t have that huge burden of trying to make a bazillion dollars off the show. I just want the show to pay for itself, be fun to do, and be creatively satisfying. With targeting, you can get a niche audience worldwide, and not have to live with this axe over your head. Whether they would admit it or not, every single person on television is scared shitless they’re about to get cancelled. Even the #1 talk show got cancelled – Jay Leno – then they put it back on. You can be passionate and love what you’re doing, but at any point, you’re a bad month away from complete cancellation.

The internet is a whole new possibility for people to do their own thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work right away, but at least you can try. That’s cool. Before the internet, if you wanted to do a television show, unless a network gave you a show, you just couldn’t do it. And that kind of sucks, right?

I’ve read that one of your goals is to someday release a director’s cut of “Freddy Got Fingered.” Is anything holding that back, like rights issues or clearances?

TG: Honestly, I just haven’t been able to make that happen yet – I haven’t aggressively pursued it. I would like to get a movie company to give me access to that footage someday, because I feel there is another movie in there I would like people to see. Any time you do something with a major studio, there’s focus groups and time constraints, and you end up editing the movie differently than you would have. I’m not sure people are aware of this, but the movie has been extremely successful.

Yeah, I was looking up the numbers, and it made back its production budget theatrically, and while I don’t know the DVD sales figures, if nothing else, there’s a lot of people I know who own that movie.

TG: The DVD sold nearly a million copies, which is amazing for a movie like that. It’s a profitable movie, but that’s not what’s exciting. What’s exciting is that people have fallen in love with the movie because it is so crazy. Every scene is taken to the craziest place possible, and that was the point. I think people really responded to it, as they can see it’s not a cookie-cutter comedy movie. I do some music in the show where I strum the guitar, and I start singing “Daddy would you like some sausage?” And no matter where I am, people go crazy for that, and start shouting out lines from the movie. It gets a bigger response than anything else I’ve ever done.

It’s interesting that you can put out a movie, and it gets all these negative reviews, and you feel bad about it for a couple of years. And then you find out that’s just a bunch of noise, and that the media doesn’t always get it right. Around the world, people have been going apeshit when I do X-Ray Cat or the Backwards Man. So I don’t care what a critic from a local paper says anymore, because this movie has found its audience.

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When I hear people talking about it, it’s more like they’re describing an art film than a conventional comedy. It’s like Gummo. The other interesting part to me is that the movie clearly did have studio interference, but what could those production notes have been like? Did you actually get executives saying, “Look, when you bite the umbilical cord, could we have a *smaller* spurt of blood?”

TG: When you direct a movie like that, you’ve got to put red herrings in there. When I handed in my initial cut of the movie both to the studio and to the MPAA, it was about an hour longer than it is now. I let every scene go on much longer. I let the blood spurt longer. I put in the most blood and stuff possible – more than I wanted – because I knew they’d come in and make me take it out.

Here’s the thing about making television and movies no one ever really tells you. It’s just a bunch of bureaucratic bullshit. You’re dealing with a bureaucracy of people. Everybody’s scared of getting fired, and worried about getting promoted, whether they’re at the MPAA or an executive at a studio. So they feel like they have to step in and do something. And when they see a scene where a baby gets swung around by the umbilical cord for what seems like ten minutes, they have to say something, because if not, they might lose their job. They’re all in their thirties and they’re all freaking out because it’s their first big job, and they’ve got a car payment, and their parents are so proud they’re working at MTV, so they get involved with this movie.

The other thing about Freddy Got Fingered is that every scene is so relentless, that if you edited it all out, there’d be no movie. So I think they realized at a certain point that they did have to put a movie out. There’s just no cutting around it.

You can’t make it tame without it becoming completely incoherent.

We have a thing on the DVD called the PG-13 version.

What’s it like?

It’s three minutes long.

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2 Responses to “Tom Green: Stand-Up Comedian, Part 2”

  1. Shane McCarthy Says:

    tom green came and went

  2. sleenard Says:

    tom is awesome!! go tom

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