by Sean Keane
Tom Green took a Canadian public-access show and made it the highest-rated show on MTV, before continuing on a career of acting, directing, and music that took him to the cover of Rolling Stone and the guest host spot on Saturday Night Live. His film career includes “Road Trip,” “Stealing Harvard,” and “Freddy Got Fingered,” and his hosting acumen has taken him to his own MTV late-night talk show to guest-hosting The Late Show With David Letterman to his current gig, hosting “The Tom Green Show” on the web out of his own living room. Recently, Green embarked on an international stand-up tour, which has taken him through Australia, Canada, and from October 1-3, it takes him to Cobb’s Comedy Club in SF.
Thanks for talking with us. I interviewed Harland Williams a few weeks ago, because all Canadian interviews default to me.
TG: Harland is amazing. He’s a good friend of mine and one of my favorite stand-ups. I grew up watching him in Ottawa, Canada when he’d come through the Yuk Yuk’s club. Very inspiring.
Yuk-Yuk’s is the main chain of clubs in Ottawa?
TG: It’s nationwide in Canada. It would be kind of like the Improv in the U.S., where there’s a club in every city. I would do stand-up there on amateur nights when I was fifteen years old, and I started doing little opening spots when I was in high school. Harland was my favorite – him and Norm MacDonald.
Had you been doing much stand-up in the interim period between when you were a kid and the current tour?
TG: I’ve never really done a full-time tour like this, where I’m on the road playing comedy clubs and theaters. I’ve always written a lot of stand-up – I’ve done monologues on my show, hosted award shows, and worked with a lot of great stand-up comedians and comedy writers. I’ve never really said, “I’m going to go on the road full-time. I’m going to write a set.” So this is pretty new for me.
It’s going well. I’ve been on the road for about nine, ten months solid. I did sixteen shows in Australia, and I’ve done almost every major city in the U.S., and then Canada. So when people come to see the shows in San Francisco, people will at least see something that I’ve worked through and thought about. I’m traveling with my web guy, and we shoot videos everywhere we go for TomGreen.com. It’s been a really exciting year.
TG: I did a set there – great show, went really well on my part – but I did witness some of the violence at the Tila Tequila stage later. I thought it was going to be a really challenging show for me, because I’ve been mostly been performing in comedy venues for people who are used to watching stand-up. Whereas this is obviously a much more volatile environment.
Right. It’s out in the middle of nowhere. You have to take a prop plane to get there and a golf cart to get to the stage.
TG: It ended up going really well. I had a great show, the Juggalos were really into what I was doing. That’s the thing that’s fun and challenging about stand-up. It’s completely different every night, especially in extreme cases like that. I made a point to revise and adapt my style and my set for these Juggalos. You know, I researched them quite a bit. I did some rapping because I know they like rapping.
That sounds like it would be right up their alley.
TG: It’s just knowing the culture, their buzzwords, the things that they say and do. I came out and tried to appeal to them right off the top, and it ended up being a really fun night. Obviously, it was very different from what my show is going to be like in San Francisco.
Going back to stand-up now, I’m sure your material is entirely different, but what kind of a comic were you at age fifteen?
TG: You’re just a kid, so it’s hard to really do stand-up when you’re that young. I did OK, and they encouraged me to do feature sets, but you’re working at a disadvantage at age 15. You haven’t had sex yet! How are you supposed to talk to a bunch of drunk college students when you’re up there wearing your dad’s tie and you’re talking about cereal commercials and funny cartoons you’ve seen on TV? It was a completely different thing. I was totally unknown to the audience and I was very young.
Stand-up was something I was intimidated by for years afterward, just because I know how hard it is. As I’ve gotten to know people who are great comedy writers, I’ve made it a big part of my life to study the great comedians. I’ve been a huge fan of comedy my whole life, and I’ve interviewed so many stand-ups on my web show. One day I’d have Russell Peters, then Jeff Ross, then Nick Swardson. Guys like Dave Attell, Norm MacDonald, and Joe Rogan would come to my house for interviews. When I would do research and watch their clips on YouTube and such, I started realizing I had to get up on stage and go on tour.
Obviously, there’s a lot of things now that I couldn’t talk about when I was sixteen years old. I have some real-life things to talk about, like dealing with testicular cancer. I am more opinionated. I have stronger feelings about things going on in the world now. And I’m certainly more comfortable on stage than I ever was, after spending twenty years getting up in front of an audience. I’ve learned a lot about the work that’s involved in putting together a show. You have to focus, and it’s unrelenting. And I think that experience helped me hit the ground running. I started getting up in LA about a year and a half ago, jumping up at the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory, and at the Ice House in Pasadena, writing a lot and doing sets. I did that for about six months before I went out on the road.
At this point, you’ve done so much – not necessarily comedy club stuff – but so much of what you were doing on your old shows was effectively live performance, and there was a fair amount of improvisation. So it seems like the aspect of being comfortable with stand-up would happen that much faster.
TG: When I stopped doing stand-up, I started my own show on a public-access station. I basically spent the next ten years out on the street shooting bits, then editing them and playing them for a live audience every week. And I really got a good sense of what people liked and what made them laugh. Being in front of the audiences, both at that public access station and on MTV, I had a lot of time to identify what my sense of humor is, and figure out what people like to see, and work on my timing.
It’s an ongoing process of writing the show. Every week I add more material, and I’m constantly trying things out, revising and changing the show. I’m planning on staying on the road for the next few years, to be honest with you. I’m going to be on the road non-stop, filming for the web and doing stand-up. I’m hoping that once I’ve gone around the circle once, by the time I make it back to a place, I’ll have a whole new hour of material.
Do you have plans to release a DVD?
TG: I’m shooting all my shows now, multi-camera, for the web. I’m also hoping to do a more mainstream DVD comedy special of my set, and probably shoot that in the new year. I’m really hoping to get the word out that I am doing stand-up, because I think when people hear I’m coming to town to do a show, they don’t properly visualize what I’m doing. It’s probably the most conventional thing I’ve ever done. I’m still talking about ridiculous things – sometimes shocking – and goofy stuff. It’s not a middle-of-the-road show, but it’s me and a microphone, no props.
No dead animals on the stage.
TG: No stunts. It’s structured, with bits that I think are concise and important to people. It’s about how our world is changing and everything’s getting homogenized, and meanwhile we’re all addicted to technology. I find that stuff really interesting. In some ways, I’m really enjoying the freedom of being unedited and uncensored by any television executive. You can be critical of the media or TV shows and not worry about what a network is going to say.
I guess that’s also a benefit of doing the web show – you don’t have to answer to anyone.
TG: Exactly. I do the show out of my living room, and it’s so much fun. But you don’t get that instant feedback of being in front of an audience. The thing that’s great about doing my web show – and also what’s strange about it – is that the show is my own invention. There’s not really anyone else doing a show like this out of a house. And because of that, it’s sometimes hard for people to wrap their heads around what I’m doing. We have millions of people downloading the show, so it’s successful in that respect, but there’s something about getting up in a club or a theater, and for an hour and a half, doing a very traditional form of comedy.
I think it’s the most exciting and challenging form of comedy I’ve ever done. There’s no hiding behind gimmicks. There’s no teleprompter. There’s no team of writers there. You don’t get any second takes. It’s very very fun and I’m enjoying it a lot.
You do the web show out of your real house. How much work goes into converting your home into a workable TV studio?
TG: It’s been pretty intensive. You can obviously do a simpler version of what I’m doing, but over the four years we’ve done the show, we’ve constantly added on to the studio, rebuilding and redesigning things. It’s literally taking up half my house at this point. The wiring goes through the ceiling and into another room where we’ve made an edit bay. The living room is full of cameras and tables with all the switching equipment. Initially, I just thought it would be fun to do a live broadcast out of that room. My living room is really the perfect shape for a show. It’s funny, it’s actually much better as a TV studio than it was as a living room.
But it’s still my living room. When I have friends over and I’m not doing the show, I can turn on the studio lights and we can sit around the set, having a chat.
So it’s not a surreal experience to live in a TV studio?
TG: Well, it’s only one end of the house. I walk in there every day, and – it’s fun to me to have my own little TV studio. It’s such a big part of my life. It almost feels like having a really cool piece of art on the wall. I can walk in, bring the lights up, and sit there having a cup of coffee. I get a lot of humor out of it. But I have other parts of the house that I don’t broadcast from.
At the end of the day, yeah, it is surreal. I have people coming up to the house all the time to do the show. There are two guys who work for the channel working the house all the time. It does change your sense of privacy. Often I feel more like I’m living in a television studio than I feel like there’s a television studio in my house. It’s really taken over the place.
As far as I can tell, this is the first of its kind – such a regular web-based programming that has a big audience and has been sustained for a few years. What’s the key to making this a financially-viable endeavor?
TG: It’s a long process, creating a successful web show. A lot of people have done them for a while, and then quit. On the internet, you really have to pay your dues. There’s a huge audience out there that wants to watch programming, but they’re wary of anything that seems too commercialized, or that it’s trying to sucker them in. It takes a while to gain the trust of the audience. So I think the biggest trick is to not quit, first of all.
If you start a web show, and you do it for six months without making money at it or getting many viewers, you have a couple of options. One option is to quit, which a lot of people do. The other is to analyze what you’re doing, and see if you can change your show to get more people watching. People get discouraged doing web shows, because you’re essentially a needle in a haystack on the internet. You’re trying to attract people without large corporate promotions, or a huge advertising budget, or even a network.
But over time, if you keep doing it, and you find an audience, there are ways to get money. We have a monthly subscription service, which gives you access to hundreds of hours of programming not available to the public. I’ve also had sponsors. The other thing is, you can syndicate your content. I’ve done all these things over four years. It’s still not a really lucrative thing, but it pays for itself. I’ve got this great studio in my house, and I haven’t spent any of my personal money on it – I’ve always done deals with web companies. I feel good about the future, especially as ratings are going up and I’m on the road promoting the show. I really believe it’s gonna be about making great shows, making deals with advertisers directly, and subverting the whole studio-network system.
-CONTINUE TO PART TWO-