Once upon a time, one of the brightest stars in the comedy firmament was Tom Green, a Canadian kid who had risen from a public-access TV show to a regular slot on MTV. “The Tom Green Show” arrived on the national scene in 1999, tying together various threads of Generation X culture: skateboarding, wearing baggy clothes, having a goatee, treating grown-ups like idiots, acting like a slacker, and pranking people. “Beavis & Butt-Head,” an earlier MTV sensation, had done some of these things, but they were cartoon boys harassing cartoon grown-ups. Green, however, struck teenage me as the distillation of the comedic impulses of our youth movement. Between him and the similarly outrageous, catchphrase-generating South Park, I wondered, what was left to be said?
Almost twenty years have passed, and Tom Green’s shtick has been swallowed whole in a pop culture vortex that left behind the real Tom Green, who is only 45 yet looks considerably older. He’s on the outside looking in, doing subpar stand-up and hosting a TV show from his house that has been trolled by 4chan forum dwellers. By some standards, he’s still wildly successful, self-sufficient and early-retired after a decade of hustling and a bout with ball cancer. By others, he’s no different than many of the Gen-Xers and millennials who watched him: a person marooned among the grown-ups, now technically an adult himself, left to wonder if he missed happiness by a couple minutes at some appointed location. The proto-troll is past his prime, part of a youth movement grown old, and admits to being confused by the pop culture morass, full of increasingly voluble jerks and other pushy insta-fame seekers, that he helped create.
During my preteen years, I didn’t watch much TV. Before “The Tom Green Show,” I subsisted on a diet of David Letterman and “Mr. Show,” with an occasional “Beavis & Butt-Head” or “South Park” episode to break the monotony. Like many Gen X’ers, I thought TV sucked. In fact, everything I encountered could be characterized as either “sucking” or “being lame.” That was my aesthetic; everyone was stupid but me. Comedians like David Cross and David Letterman had fanned these flames, but Green was willing to go further. I had spent most of my life repeating annoying-sounding words and half-assing my work in order to piss off adults, but Green was outright mean to them. His comedy, which consisted of pranks such as sucking cow udders and slurping on noodles for minutes at a stretch, was played straight: he acted like an asshole and reacted angrily when challenged or interrupted.
Green’s fame expanded geometrically. First he was a guy on a show who had lesbian sex scenes painted on his parents’ car in order to get their goat; a year later, he was engaged to Drew Barrymore, then one of Hollywood’s top box office draws. He also battled testicular cancer, produced a surprisingly earnest special about this battle, produced an unsurprisingly culturally offensive “Subway Monkey Hour” special set in Japan, had his show taken off the air, and made a handful of terrible movies that some people think fall into the “so bad they’re good” sweet spot (I happen to think his magnum opus, Freddy Got Fingered, is actually so bad that it’s bad). But it wasn’t long before other, wilder television personalities one-upped him in the discomfort department. The three-man team behind MTV’s subsequent hit “Jackass”—which debuted six months after Green’s show went off the air—were willing to endure the groin shots and other genuine, heavy-duty physical discomforts typically absent from Green’s discomfort-inducing comedy. While Green has confessed he “felt the pressure to make myself seem unhinged,” Bam Margera, Steve-O, and company were naturals. “When somebody’s clutching their balls, howling in pain, their biological status has dropped a few pegs, and that relaxes us,” Steve-O told Men’s Health. Green took his stunts pretty far, mocking people until they shouted curses at him, but he wasn’t willing to win laughs by rolling around on the ground, enduring stings from Peruvian jellyfish.
The apex of Green’s career, the brief moment when I studied him in the same rapt manner I once reserved only for Letterman, came with the release of the single “Lonely Swedish (The Bum Bum Song).” Green had worked as a rapper and DJ in Canada, to varying levels of success, prior to landing his MTV gig, and, in many ways, this tune represented the fulfillment of his aesthetic. It was relentlessly stupid yet burrowed deep into the listener’s subconscious, an earworm that, like Green himself, possessed an unexpected amount of commercial appeal. In the video, Green cavorted in a superhero suit with an attached false buttocks, rubbing the ersatz arsehole on various objects while rapping a description of these activities. “My bum is on the cheese/My bum is on the cheese/If I get lucky, I’ll get a disease!” goes one especially merry verse (Green began his cancer special by playing a clip from the song and then admitting to viewers, “Well…I got lucky”).
Arriving at a time when popular music was every bit as tunefully cornball as today but without the offsetting benefit of providing hot topics for think pieces, “Lonely Swedish” became a smash hit. Green distributed a free mp3 of the song, and his dedicated viewers went to the phones, spamming MTV’s “Total Request Live” to ensure that bland, innocuous veejay Carson Daly was forced to introduce it. As a result, the song spent five days among the most requested hit videos of an era dominated by bubblegum boy bands and the long, wide shadow of mega-producer Lou Pearlman. According to Green’s autobiography Hollywood Causes Cancer, the network pressured him to retire the song to preserve the illusion that “Total Request Live” was, in fact, a live show. Episodes for an upcoming week had been filmed on location and no one had accounted for the shocking popularity of “Lonely Swedish”; the video was killed and thus another illusion in an era full of them was maintained.
“Lonely Swedish” was proof positive that Green was a cheesy act, more Pauly Shore than David Letterman. Everything on MTV was cheesy, even its attempts at rebellion; why wouldn’t Green be, at heart, some kind of opportunist? When Eminem ripped Green and his song in the single “The Real Slim Shady,” the ruse became clear:
Sometimes I wanna get on TV and just let loose
But can’t, but it’s cool for Tom Green to hump a dead moose
“My bum is on your lips
My bum is on your lips”
And if I’m lucky you might just give it a little kiss
Eminem was right on the money: Green was every bit as safe as he was controversial (in the video for the song, he wears the same superhero costume and fake butt as Green, hammering home the empty inanity of the funnyman’s antics). And Green, to his credit, seemed to accept this reality. As he gradually faded from mainstream view, he cashed paychecks by appearing in lame teen comedies such as Stealing Harvard and Road Trip and attempting to relaunch increasingly less edgy versions of his show, productions more akin to Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” (for which he would record vignettes during the late 2000s) than Andy Kaufman-style subversion. And like seemingly every fallen star from the late 1990s, he wound up on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” Green’s run on that show’s second season came to an end after a dismal performance as the project manager of a wedding dress sales team (his trademark on-the-street trolling tactics failed to attract walk-in customers). Green later claimed that Trump was angry at him because he had showed up late to work after spending the night carousing with teammate and fellow last-century provocateur Dennis Rodman.
Green’s bid for talk show glory culminated in the basement of his 1,600 square-foot Los Angeles home, where he has filmed “Tom Green’s House Tonight” since 2006 (the show is the centerpiece of tomgreen.com, a site that has passed through nearly as many iterations as its star and formerly featured a $5.99 subscription paywall, which granted you access to various exclusive videos and the show’s archives). Green was among the first notable internet-exclusive celebrities, but that didn’t endear him to the denizens of the 4chan community, who began “raiding” his show in 2006, prank-calling him, ordering food deliveries to his house, and eventually causing him to lose his temper on the air and threaten legal action. That note, posted to his blog and since deleted (but archived and accessible via the Wayback Machine), had Green warning his 4chan aggressors in the style of a clueless grown-up: “We have already been in touch with the Cyber crimes division of the FBI and we have a computer forensics expert now on the case…[and] we are now able to obtain anybodies IP address even on supposed websites where you think those IP addresses are blocked.”
Tom Green, a transitional figure in the history of trolling, was now officially on the side of the old, the out-of-touch, the weak of heart (someone who responds to the trolls, “feeding them,” displays the vulnerability upon which they will capitalize). He’d matured and just wanted to be left alone to wear his suit and interview his guests, and his own counter-trolling efforts, which involved rapidly hanging up on callers, proved ill-suited to dealing with his anonymous opponents. But it seems that Green has come to terms with this: today he is a low-level celebrity, doing his show and a conventional punchline-driven stand-up routine, and it is what it is.
Unlike his spiritual prankster successors—“Jackass”’s unhinged, self-destructive Steve-O and “Million Dollar Extreme”’s vicious, unrepentant Sam Hyde, Tom Green was never all-in when it came to treating people like a jerk. It was an act, one that he was clearly never quite comfortable with. “If YouTube had existed in 1999, I wouldn’t have had a show,” he told the hosts of an Australian morning show. “And if YouTube had existed in 1999, I wouldn’t have wanted to do the show, because I couldn’t imagine clips from it following me a decade later.” When explaining his own celebrity, such as it was, he told them “you might remember me from Eminem’s rap lyrics,” after which he quoted the rapper’s verses about “Lonely Swedish.”
There’s an undercurrent of melancholy to Tom Green’s persona, I suppose, but since he didn’t live his shtick, it could be absorbed by the popular culture while leaving the real Green intact and largely unfazed. The best currently airing show in the grand high tradition of acting like a clueless asshole, Nathan for You, will start its third season in September, but it’s hard to imagine Green watching socially awkward host Nathan Fielder as he offers terrible, sometimes hurtful advice to clueless businesspeople. He might have been a troll, but that kind of thing was never really Green’s style.
Image: JD Lasica via Flickr