(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, September 26, 2002)
The comedy of Tom Green is just about impossible to defend. If somebody catches a rerun of his MTV series and sees Green dressed up like a cop, sucking milk out of a live cow’s udder in the middle of a supermarket filled with bemused onlookers, and that aforementioned somebody then declares that Green’s antics are absurd, sub-juvenile and disgusting, well, there’s no point in trying to convince them otherwise; after all, they’re right. Green’s comedy is all of those things—and sometimes worse. This is a man who once livened up an interview on a Canadian talk show by plopping a dead animal onto the desk of the show’s clearly horrified host, a man who has made actual vomiting a semiregular part of his art, a man who rubs his ass against the elderly for laughs. If intelligent Adam Sandler or Howard Stern fans (and to be sure, there are a few) have a hard time justifying their affection for these purveyors of dumb-ass, gross-out humor, well, they should try defending a guy whose idea of comedy includes rolling around on the ground for uncomfortably prolonged periods of time while making noises like a retarded gorilla getting a blowjob . . . usually while covered with something sticky.
But while you’ll probably never convince one of Green’s detractors that the guy is anything more than an annoyance at best and a sign of the apocalypse at worst, Green’s singularly odd talent remains worth defending. For despite their superficial resemblance to the spazzy noises and pratfalls of the Carrot Top school of comedy, Green’s antics (and here we’re talking about his TV show, not the stupid, stupid movies we’ll get to later) are something else altogether. At their best, a segment from The Tom Green Show is true performance art that blows away most of the stuff you’ll ever see in a gallery or on PBS. Hell, yeah, I’m serious.
Consider for a moment one infamous segment that aired on Green’s show: after months of harassing his parents with pranks that ranged from filling their home with wall-to-wall, noisy, poopy livestock to painting the entire house plaid, Green upped the ante by a factor of thousands when he had the word “SLUTMOBILE” spray-painted on his father’s car along with a mural depicting a scene of XXX-rated lesbian love. When his parents understandably went completely apeshit, Green “apologized” by surprising them with a statue on their front lawn depicting themselves in a position that made the lesbo porn look tame. Oh, and for good measure, the statue was a fountain. And yes, that means exactly what you probably think it means.
Now, putting aside the truly vicious cruelty of such an act (Green’s parents are somehow persuaded to forgive their boy again and again), there’s no denying that if Green had filmed all of this for the gallery crowd instead of for MTV, he would have been an art-world superstar overnight. Forget Karen Finley and her tired old yams; forget Annie Sprinkle and her speculum—Green would have been the shit. But instead he went the TV route, and now we read articles about his divorce from Drew Barrymore instead of articles about how some particularly gross stunt has gotten the Republicans in a twist about his NEA grant.
While Green could have easily parlayed his talents into art-world acclaim, he was a Gen-X, TV baby, and his heroes growing up were people like Andy Kaufman and David Letterman, men who created anarchistic, surreal, ironic and sometimes genuinely sadistic TV comedy. (It may be hard for our younger readers to believe, but time was when serious critics routinely used the words “Letterman” and “postmodern genius” in the same sentence.) Green set out to emulate such men and made a damn fine job of it for a time, heedlessly and artfully pissing people off and having a high time doing it.
But with success, Kaufman and Letterman both lost their way. Kaufman appeared in a slew of wretched movies (remember Heartbeeps?) but at least kept up his fascinatingly odd conceptual pranks right up to his untimely death from lung cancer, while Letterman gradually became the kind of glitzy, unchallenging talk-show host he’d once parodied. So far, Green’s trajectory has been more troubling than either of his heroes’, with his forays onto the big screen making Kaufman’s movies seem like deathless classics by comparison.
Simply put, while there is undeniable fascination in watching the horrified reactions of everyday people as they watch Green behave like an idiot in public, there’s no fascination of any kind in watching actors pretend to be everyday people horrified by Green acting out stuff from some dopey script. Green’s film career has thus far consisted of exactly such fare, with his own directorial debut Freddy Got Fingered serving as the nadir. With Stealing Harvard, Green seems to be settling (perhaps for the long haul) into the goofball sidekick roles that Harlan Williams has turned down.
As I write this, it’s too soon to tell how Stealing Harvard will fare at the box office. Green sorely needs a hit after the fiasco of Freddy Got Fingered, but I would wager that once word of mouth on this thing gets out, people will stay as far away from Stealing Harvard as possible. If they do make the film a hit, I fear Green’s fate is sealed, and for the rest of his life, he will be far less interesting than he could be.
But while the failure of Stealing Harvard could just bounce him out of entertainment for good, it could also be the best thing that ever happened to him; after all, without the deodorant and soda commercials to fall back on, without the gigs playing the thirtysomething hanger-on in mangy teen comedies, Green might just get back in touch with the freaky little demon in his belly that made him such a talent to treasure in the first place.
If I were Green’s parents, I’d start locking my doors now.