Tom Green Talks With Harland Williams About Stealing His First Joke, Living Dreams, and the Line He Won’t Cross

Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello and Photos by Getty Images

Tom Green’s career trajectory is an unusual one. After starting stand-up in Ottawa at age 15, Green quickly transitioned to making silly, button-pushing prank videos for Canadian TV. Once MTV picked up The Tom Green Show in 1999, Green’s bizarre and aggressive stunts — e.g. dropping a dismembered cow’s head onto his parents’ bed at 3 a.m., ostensibly because they loved The Godfather — made him a famous, controversial name, and an artistic progenitor to like-minded projects like Jackass and The Eric Andre Show. Green has since hosted talk shows on TV and the web, made a documentary about surviving testicular cancer, landed in tabloids for his brief marriage to Drew Barrymore, and created the flop turned cult-favorite film Freddy Got Fingered.

Green then returned to stand-up in 2010, with his physical and frenetic act, on display in 2012 Showtime special Tom Green Live!, keeping him busy touring around the country. This spring, Green hosted the third season of Comedy Dynamics’ stand-up showcase Coming to the Stage, with the season finale premiering on Hulu today. Vulture asked his old friend and collaborator Harland Williams to play the interviewer. Williams asked questions about life and comedy, while occasionally affecting the tone of an avuncular, network anchorman.

I’m talking on the phone today with one of my oldest buddies in comedy and in real-life — I think he just pulled over into the back alley behind a Denny’s — Tom Green! How are you, Tom?
Good, very good. Smothered and covered at Denny’s. 

Let’s start at the beginning: When a guy like you is born into this world, at what moment does that lightbulb go off and you think, comedy!?
The moment for me, thinking I might actually want to do comedy professionally, was when I did public speaking at school. I found out I was good at getting up in front of class. In the fifth grade, I did a speech on comedy. In the fourth grade, the subject was rocks: igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary rocks. 

Which isn’t really that funny. Was that kind of the catalyst for you jumping to comedy the next year?
I just wanted to lighten it up a little bit. 

Yeah, rocks are very heavy, I find. They can be very heavy.
Yeah, boring. Really boring. 

I find sometimes that if you talk about rocks too long, some people in the crowd actually start to throw rocks.
That happened to me in the fourth grade. 

So the first time you ever got stoned, it was in the fourth grade.
Yeah, but I don’t like to say that on the record. So, fifth grade, I did a speech on how comedy works. Slapstick is this, sarcasm is this. I won for my grade, and then I had to stand up in front of the whole school in the gymnasium to deliver my speech. 

Did you pee your pants?
I remember being extremely nervous. After the speech, the three teachers who were judges would ask a question. It was the first time I got a huge laugh in front of an audience. I had been reading joke books getting ready for the speech — 101 Jokes joke books. 

Newfie [name for people from Newfoundland] jokes.
How many Newfies does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Five. One to hold the lightbulb and four to turn the ladder. That sort of thing. So the teacher stands up and says, “You said in your speech that you can use comedy to get out of difficult situations. Can you give us an example of this?” The teacher tried to screw me with a trick question. This joke popped into my head from the joke book, so I said, “Well, recently I used comedy to get out of a tough situation. I brought my report card home and gave it to my father. I said, 'Dad, my marks are underwater.' And he said, 'What do you mean?' And I said, 'They’re below C level.'” 

[Laughs] Awesome.
A massive laugh. The whole school. I don’t think anybody had ever seen somebody their age onstage tell a joke before. I just remember this really great feeling of accomplishment and pride. All the kids were coming up to me and saying, “How did you come up with that?” I didn’t tell them I read it out of a joke book. 

You didn’t tell them it was plagiarism?
My first joke was stolen! No, I think they knew. I went on to compete at the regional finals, and the same judge was there. 

That judge had it out for me. She asked me another tricky kind of question. She asked, “Who is your favorite comedian, and why?” I watched Johnny Carson at home, but for some reason Ed McMahon just popped into my head. “Why is Ed McMahon your favorite comedian?” And I said, “Because he’s funny.” I lost the regional finals. But that was my first sort of Hollywood experience: They build you up and then they rip it right out of your frickin’ hands. 

It seems like you should have done the five Newfies and the ladder joke right there.
I know. Do you remember your first moment? 

I kinda do. I was going to boarding school. I was 11 or 12 years old, and they did a play, Casey at the Bat. In class, one of my teachers heard me singing a song from a Libby’s commercial. It went, “Together, together, we can’t be beat / Lots of tomatoes and lots of cheese.” So he said, “After the play, why don’t you stuff your red pajamas full of pillows and pretend that you’re a giant tomato and run across the stage and sing that song?” 

There was a guy in our school from Bermuda called Yuri Lightborne. I had dubbed him Yuri Lightbulb, and I used to walk around the school yelling, “Bulb!” as loud as I could, and people would laugh. So after the play, I ran across the stage, sang the jingle “Together, together, we can’t be beat / Lots of tomatoes and lots of cheese,” and at the end, I went, “Bulb!” The whole room blew up laughing. It’s funny, my lightbulb moment actually involved the word bulb.
You had a warped sense of humor, too. 

Now, Tom, you’re a comedian pioneer. You introduced the world to a new style of edgy comedy that people have imitated and ripped off. So what is the line Tom Green won’t cross, when it comes to comedy?
Well, when we did pranks out on the street on our show, we didn’t want them to be too mean. We certainly didn’t want anybody to ever get hurt. 

Emotionally or physically?
Definitely physically. I always felt it was important that, if someone was getting angry at me on camera, their anger had to be unjustified. If it was an overreaction to something minor, it was funny, because you were showing their uptightness. I hadn’t really done anything wrong, they were just annoyed that I was in their space. 

You were a master at that, at pushing those buttons. You could light someone up just by walking funny or pushing a shopping cart crooked or walking through a fountain.
Yeah, that was a line we tried to walk. If I had punched somebody in the face, threw water or paint or something at them, then I’m just being an asshole. Also, it was important to do it to people in positions of power, which at the time was security guards and things like that. I take that into my stand-up, in the sense that I don’t make fun of people who are less fortunate. I’d rather make fun of Donald Trump or another powerful person or idea, or the system. I don’t want to make fun of somebody because of the way they look, where they’re from, or their religion. 

Tom Green, ladies and gentlemen. He has a kind, compassionate side that you might not have known about. Let’s move on. What makes Tom Green mad about comedy?
When you’re touring all the time and you never see your home. Your girlfriend leaves you because she never sees you anymore. 

That could make you mad.
You come back, she’s with another man having sex. You were in Cleveland all year and you come back and she’s having sense with multiple men. That’s something that bothers me about comedy. 

That could make any man mad, whether he’s doing comedy or driving a forklift. Well, what’s the thing that makes you happy about comedy?
Sometimes it’s nice when you go out on the road and you come back and your girlfriend’s left you. You have complete freedom at that point. You can go home with whoever you want. 

I would also say that I love interacting with people. People come to my shows for different reasons — the stand-up, Freddy Got Fingered, or my TV show — and I get to meet fans from all around the world. I also love the rush of being onstage. In some ways, I may be happier onstage than I am at any other time.

Interesting. Explain.
Well, when I am onstage, I am in control most of the time. That adrenaline and endorphin rush is like a drug. It’s like sex. It’s like jumping out of an airplane. It’s a rush. I crave that. 

Adrenaline makes you happy, wow. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re here with Tom Green and we’ve got just two questions left. Tom, the comedy and show-business world — are you in it for the money, the fame, or the art?
I would say the art and the love of it. I did this stuff for 15 years before I really ever made a dime. It’s nice to be able to make money doing something you love, but I would say this: If I never made any money doing it, I would still be doing it. I love to make music, and I’ve never made money off of music but I keep making it. It’s definitely for the creative expression. 

Good to hear, Tom. That’s the sign of a true, creative mind. Just one more question here, Tom, and we’ll let you get back inside of Denny’s and finish your omelette. Tom, what have you always wanted to do comedically but haven’t done yet?
It certainly. It certainly. A lot of comedians … 

Sounds like I might have stumped you on this one, Tom.
I don’t like to project things that sound too grandiose. It would be a dream to perform at Radio City Music Hall. 

That’s not grandiose, that’s a world-renowned theater, a beautiful spot to do a show.
That would be incredible. Speaking for myself, I’ve already lived the dream, to a certain extent. I never really thought I would get to do half of the things I’ve been able to do in comedy when I was a kid. Never, in my wildest imagination, did I dream I would be able to guest host the David Letterman show. He was my idol growing up. 

You have done a ton.
Sometimes, the dream for me is just to be able to keep doing it. Just having the ability to keep doing it, having crowds coming out to see you. I would still love to be able to be doing comedy when I’m 75 years old. I don’t know if I would want to be doing it until the bitter end, but I think it would be hilarious to jump onstage as an old man. 

I don’t know, Tom, it wouldn’t surprise me if right at the bitter end, when Tom Green is 96 years old, he does a joke from his hospital bed and right after the punch line, takes his last breath and leaves us laughing.
I love it. 

You know what my ultimate comedy dream is, Tom? My ultimate comedy dream is you, up on a ladder, four of my friends twirling the ladder around and you screwing in a light bulb.
[Laughs.] Thank you, Harland. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.