Green, Tom (Profile)
IT'S ALMOST 11 a.m., and Tom Green - with dark rings under his eyes and severe bed head - shuffles through his cluttered garage. A few stacked cardboard boxes are evidence of Green's recent move into the adjoining swank, modernist bungalow high in the Hollywood Hills. Dressed in a dark blue hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans and new white sneakers, the 32-year-old Ottawa native folds his six-foot, three-inch frame into a metallic grey Porsche. As the garage door jumps to life, Green pops the German convertible into reverse and backs out into the southern California sunshine. Too many distractions at the house, he explains, where two publicity handlers worry about scheduling, a handyman futzes with the TiVo, a photographer and his assistant prepare for a shoot, and a painter readies the guesthouse for a fresh coat. Green, nursing a hangover, speeds off in search of peace and pancakes.
"This place looks quiet," Green says approvingly as we turn into the deserted parking lot of a nondescript restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. His initial enthusiasm quickly wilts. "A little too quiet," he grumbles before throwing the Porsche into a tight U-turn. Green settles on a spot a few blocks away where the waitresses wear kitschy 1950s-style uniforms. We sit way in the back, and Green orders the stack of pancakes he's been craving. Over the next hour, he drains four cups of coffee and girds himself for another media hatchet job.
When we met recently, Green was out of work, other comedians had stolen his thunder, and he'd been through a well-publicized divorce from Drew Barrymore that had left a bad taste. I confessed that I expected to find the prince of frat-boy, gross-out comedy down and probably out. Green snorted and said he wasn't surprised. "You're Canadian: you have to put a negative spin on everything when it comes to me." Green complains critics who write a lot of the unflattering stuff usually haven't taken the time to get to know him, and it shows in the impression people have of him. "Most people in Canada," says Green, "and maybe in general, think I'm an asshole."
The New Tom Green Show debuted on MTV last June, airing weeknights in the U.S. from midnight to 1 a.m. In format and set design, it paid tribute to old-school talk shows like Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in its early days. (The Comedy Network aired a weekly best-of version in Canada.) The show was a mix of celebrity interviews and off-the-wall stunts that included asking viewers to go on-line and decide where Glenn Humplik, Green's cherubic sidekick and old friend, should sleep that week (he spent one night in the back of a hearse, with a psychic in the passenger seat). Audience numbers in the U.S. were good to start, more than 800,000 viewers. "The freshest late-night show to come along in years," is how Adam Buckman of the New York Post described The New Tom Green Show after its premiere. "It's not far-fetched to conclude that Green is a force to be reckoned with, a creative talent and natural broadcaster in the tradition of the young David Letterman."
But by the time MTV cancelled three months later, the figures had sagged to 200,000 and change. Green believes the network could have done more to support the show. But he says ultimately it wasn't a good fit given the preponderance of MTV's 12- to 18-year-old viewers. "I realized I don't want to just do some of the crazy, shock, gross stuff that I did in the beginning of my career," he says. "I want to broaden myself."
By electrocuting his nipples and wrestling with alligators, Johnny Knoxville of MTV's Jackass fame has already filched some of Green's bread and butter - as have NBC Fear Factor contestants forced to eat giant grasshoppers. But that's fine with Green, who contends he's always been more than a shockmeister. "Most of my show has not been gross over the years," he argues. "It's been me going out in the street to interview people, going through people's houses, acting silly, getting into weird situations, or pulling practical jokes on my parents."
But what else does Green expect to be known as? His better publicized stunts include him sucking milk out of a cow's udder in downtown Toronto, smearing a microphone in feces and waving it under a person's nose, and chucking a severed cow's head into his parents' bed.
At least one Hollywood star and fellow-Canadian, however, agrees that Green has been given short shrift. Kiefer Sutherland, a Golden Globe Award-winner for his work on the hit Fox drama 24, is a fan. "He's one of those people who is unique and, I think, to a large degree ahead of his time," Sutherland told Maclean's. "His day has certainly come - it's not over - and I really applaud him because he does some of the ballsiest comedy I've ever seen."
Green makes a point of plugging his Canadian roots in appearances on U.S. television. And it really bugs him when Canadians give him a hard time for leaving the country to work. It was particularly tough in the late 1990s, after MTV picked up the comic's first program, The Tom Green Show. He'd visit Ottawa and get it in the neck for being a turncoat. "People would come up and say, 'Why d'ya go to the f--in' States, man? You can't do your f---in' show up here?' And I'm thinking, 'Well, shit, I was just a guest on the Tonight Show and talked about how great Ottawa is.' "
With Green at the height of his early success, in 1999 CBC commentator Rex Murphy gave voice to how a lot of people felt at the time - and still do. "Just as the mind was coming to rest on the idea that television couldn't get much lower, along came The Tom Green Show," said Murphy. "Why has television such an appetite, such hospitality to what seems so artless, and to many, disgusting?" Green's father, Richard, had a talk with his son over that one. "I told Tom that, in a way, you're being legitimized when Rex Murphy goes to the effort of doing a big rant about your show."
Both at the restaurant and later back at his house, Green points out his critical successes without prompting, as if to say, hey, there's more to me than just the cow udder/feces gags. He mentions his musical stint in the early 1990s as M.C. Bones with the rap-humour group Organized Rhyme, formed with two high school buddies. "Did you know we won the Canadian music video award in 1992 for our video Check the O.R., beating Maestro Fresh-Wes?" asks Green in mock indignation, though it's obvious he's proud of the accomplishment. "Oh yes we did, sir." He reminds me Organized Rhyme garnered a Juno nomination for best rap recording in 1993.
Then, having changed into a crisp Armani suit for this story's photo shoot, Green raises his voice so everyone in the house hears him and starts talking about the success of his cancer special in 2000. He had filmed the surgical removal of his cancerous right testicle and, in the process, raised awareness among millions of young men normally too embarrassed to talk about their scrotums. "Time magazine called it one of the 10 best shows of the year," Green boasts, straightening himself and affecting, for comedic purposes, the posture of someone cocksure. "Put that in your article and smoke it."
MICHAEL THOMAS Green was born in 1971 in Pembroke, Ont. Six weeks later, his parents - Richard and Mary Jane - moved the family to Charlottetown for two years. In 1973, Richard, a captain in the Canadian military, did a stint with a multinational force monitoring the ceasefire in Vietnam. Mary Jane worked in Health Canada's international affairs department and in communications for the federal government. (Both parents are now retired and live on a lake in Quebec northwest of Ottawa.) After P.E.I., the family moved to bases in Quebec and Ontario, before finally settling in the Ottawa suburb of Beacon Hill North by the time Tom had finished Grade 2. "He was energetic, very talkative from the get-go," recalls Mary Jane. "Mischievous." Over coffee in Tom's Ottawa condo, Mary Jane flips through a stack of old family pictures. "Here he is with his brother," she says, holding up a photo of Tom and his younger sibling hamming it up. "I'm sure he taught his brother how to stick his finger up his nose."
Skateboarding occupied a large chunk of Green's adolescence, and it remains a pastime (his sparsely decorated Ottawa condo lacks personal effects, but there's a skateboard in the hall closet). When he was a teen and his parents grounded him for, say, sneaking out at night to go skateboarding, he'd often find a way to win a reprieve. "He was a hard guy to nail down," his father remembers. "He could talk his way out of any situation." After high school, Green enrolled in broadcasting at local Algonquin College, but dropped out to make his Organized Rhyme record. Eventually he re-enrolled, and in 1994, while still at school, he launched The Tom Green Show on community cable with straight man Humplik. Phil Giroux, a skateboarding pal, was on the show, too, while another buddy, Derek Harvie, came on-board later. They caught fire.
By early 1998, the Comedy Network had picked up the show. From there, Green went to MTV in the States, before cancer forced him to quit in 2000. Losing his latest show hurt, but so what? "I never really have to worry about, you know, eating," he notes. "That's what I was worried about just a short time ago. I'm happy as anyone could be."
SO, IS TOM Green done? Seems unlikely. In January, he completed a handshake-and-autograph tour with U.S. soldiers in Iraq. He's just finished a book about his career, Hollywood Causes Cancer, due out in September, and he's writing a screenplay. Next month, he begins work on the movie Bob the Butler, in which he plays an American who travels to Britain to learn how to be a well-mannered servant. His forays onto the big screen have so far been pretty grim. Most critics panned Green's roles in 2000's Road Trip, 2001's Freddy Got Fingered and Stealing Harvard a year later. Freddy in particular hurt. Green co-wrote the screenplay with Harvie, directed it and, for the first time, assumed a lead film role. Hilarious in parts, it pushed the limits, shall we say. At one point Green's character swings a newborn baby (actually, just a doll) over his head by its umbilical cord, grabs the erect member of an aroused stallion on a farm, and dates a wheelchair-bound, sado-masochistic woman who insists he cane her immobile legs.
People walked out of theatres, but in his New York Times review of Freddy, critic A.O. Scott wrote: "I come not to bury Mr. Green but - guardedly and with a slightly guilty conscience - to praise him ... The movie's comic heart consists of a series of indescribably loopy, elaborately conceived happenings that are at once rigorous and chaotic, idiotic and brilliant." But Scott's was a voice in the wilderness. "I'm not going to candy-coat it," admits Green. "Sure, I was disappointed when Freddy Got Fingered got panned. The first time that happens, it's a little uncomfortable; then you realize it happens to everybody."
What is it that people don't get about Tom Green? "That it's a performance," says his mother. "And, I guess, that when the camera's not on, Tom is perfectly sane." His comedy, says Green, is not about absurd acts - the humour lies in how shocked people are by his act. He recalls his 1998 appearance on Open Mike, with talk-show host Mike Bullard. Green brought a putrid raccoon carcass with him, forcing the crew to stop taping so Bullard could vomit. "I wouldn't be surprised if most of the people who say they don't get me haven't seen too much of what I do," says Green. "They read I threw a raccoon at Mike Bullard and that I'm a dick. At the end of the day, throwing a dead raccoon at Mike Bullard was some f---ing interesting television."
AFTER SURVIVING cancer in 2000 (doctors have given him the all-clear), Green and then-girlfriend Drew Barrymore escaped a harrowing fire at her Beverly Hills mansion. "I was freebasing cocaine and things got out of control," Green deadpans. "That's why I got off the smack. When you burn your own house down, you gotta come to grips with the fact that you have a problem." Then, with a laugh, he adds: "No, it was an electrical fire." Green and Barrymore married the summer after, and divorced five months later. They no longer speak. "A lot of times Hollywood people bullshit everyone when they get a divorce and make it sound like they're still happy and everything's rosy," says Green. "It's a load of crap." The Spanish ranch-style house he bought with Barrymore was dark and gloomy. Green has moved on. His new house has lots of light and a spectacular 270-degree view of the San Fernando Valley. "I got tired of looking at pieces of furniture that we bought together," says Green, "and having those weird emotional feelings that make you feel not necessarily that funny."
Back at the restaurant, going on about my supposed editorial "agenda," Green makes the disingenuous offer to help me liven up my story. "Let's figure out how we can make this a down-and-out-in-Beverly-Hills piece," he jokes. Playing along, I offer to get him drunk. "I was drunk last night," he volunteers. "I was hanging out with a girlfriend of mine, drinking too many glasses of wine. But that was a good drunk." No word on who she was, but a rumour of a May-December liaison between Green and Farrah Fawcett surfaced last month in the National Enquirer. "The Farrah thing," says a Green spokeswoman, "is completely false."
No matter - any publicity during a career lull helps. Green's had a strong run, from doing a rinky-dink show for next to nothing in Ottawa to being well paid to make movies and TV shows. He's upbeat, predicting his talk show will be back on TV before the year's out. He remembers the dog days in Canada, with his parents repeatedly telling him to grow up and get a real job. Now he flies them down to Los Angeles whenever they like. He owns two homes. "That's pretty exciting stuff," he says, "for a dumb kid from Ottawa." And with more to come.
Maclean's March 15, 2004