“I’ll be straight with you,” says comedian Tom Green. “It’ not easy to sell tickets in Vegas. I’m up against Céline Dion and Britney Spears.” For those fans of Green who remember the lanky and antic Canadian from his moose-humping MTV heyday, the idea that he’s now playing five shows a week at Bally’s Back Room is a bit hard to grok. But for most of the last decade, Green, 46, has been assiduously working on developing his stand-up act, and, as he sees it, there’s no better place to do that than Sin City. “The world has changed,” Green says. “There are people who come to the shows who might not even have seen The Tom Green Show. I can just get up there onstage now and present myself as a slightly aging curmudgeon — I love it.”
A few shows into his residency, which runs at least until February, Green spoke from his Vegas condo about his bizarre career path, his Celebrity Apprentice experience with President Trump, and the secret truth behind his movie Freddy Got Fingered.
Would your career have played out differently in the social-media era? So much of what you did on The Tom Green Show —and even the pranks you were doing before you were on MTV —had the feel of viral videos.
I think about that a lot. When I was a television broadcasting student in 1993 up in Ottawa, Canada, and my friends and I started making a show, I consciously set out to apply comedy to technology. I started tomgreen.com back in 1994 and we weren’t able to put video on there yet but we were aware that that was coming. If I were starting today I’d probably be one of these kids on YouTube who are running around doing my thing.
You think people are copying your ideas?
I do sometimes find it interesting when I look at a lot of the pranks that are out there and I see kids doing the exact things that I did in the ’90s. Like, I would go out on the street on crutches and fall down and people would help me. Or I would paint my parent’s house plaid; I’ve seen that replicated. I’ve seen specifics like people putting animals in their parents’ house — exactly the same thing I did. Or waking your parents up in the middle of the night with loud music, you know? Lots of stuff that I was doing.
How do you know those pranks are the result of someone copying you and not just the natural kinds of ideas that occur to young men looking to pull pranks?
It’s hard to say for sure. It really is. When I was younger, I was emulating David Letterman. David Letterman would yell out of his office window with a megaphone and the next thing I’m doing is standing on the roof of a parking garage with a megaphone. But I’ve got YouTubers coming up to me all the time and telling me they grew up watching my show, which is super cool. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s just that it would be a lot harder for me to stand out in this day and age. When I painted my parent’s house plaid, nobody had ever painted their parent’s house plaid and filmed it before.
Is the fact that it’s harder to stand out with pranks why you’ve spent the last few years focusing on stand-up?
Yeah, that’s kind of why I stopped with pranks. You can replicate pranks, but you can’t really replicate someone’s stand-up, the craft of it.
The image of you eating cow pies is seared into my brain.
That’s why we’re talking on the phone now and not in-person, yeah? That’s a very obscure reference you just made, because that video never aired on MTV. That would’ve been a public-access one.
I’ll never forget it. You said the cowshit was a mineral called “cowshite” and bit off a chunk.
That was the product of many, many hours on the road in Saskatchewan with a video camera trying to find something to film. I grew up going to my cottage with my dad and fishing for pike and bass and putting worms on hooks, so I was able to identify — with no scientific correctness — that a dry cow patty wouldn’t be terrible to take a bite out of. The risk versus reward assessment was pretty high. I would get a bigger laugh than I would get sick, and I didn’t get sick.
It all worked out. Where do you fit in the comedy world these days? The whole idea of the confessional comedian, which is so in vogue, is so far away from the style of comedy that made you famous.
I’m always trying to push myself further and further into more personal, introspective places. I’m trying to stay away from partisan commentary. There is so much comedy now that is all about Donald Trump. Whether you watch The Daily Show or John Oliver or Kimmel — every single talk show is talking about him. When you’re actually working comedy clubs in red states and blue states — the goal is to make people laugh and have a great time, not to preach. But I did do a rap video about Donald Trump for Funny or Die, and I guess you could call it controversial. That was during the election, before my old boss became the president. Once he was elected, I pulled back the throttle on direct criticism. I mean, I joke around onstage. I say, “You know, you travel around the country and comedians will tell ya, ‘You don’t wanna divide your audience. You don’t wanna actually say what you really think or you’ll lose half the audience.’” And then I’ll say, “Frankly, I’m Canadian. And the end of the day, this is your fuckin’ problem. Things keep going the way they’re going, I’m going back to Canada. We’re building a wall.” So in the process of saying I’m not going to make a political statement, I actually make a very dramatic political statement.
Since you just mentioned him: You worked with President Trump on Celebrity Apprentice. Was there enough interaction to get a sense of him as a person?
I do feel like I got a sense of Donald Trump as a person. No news flash here: he’s exactly what you would think he would be like. It’s not like we chatted for hours, but I’d see him every day. I’ll say this, which I say onstage, too: It demystifies the presidency when you actually know the president. And from the time that I spent with the president, I came away with the conclusion that perhaps he may not have the best judgment. After all, he fired me because I went out drinking with Dennis Rodman on the night I was supposed to be “project manager.”
Well, that was just poor professionalism on your part.
The truth of the matter is that the president is an uptight guy. President Trump fired me because —
A project manager can’t just go out boozing!
But now I think to myself, What were you supposed to do? When you’re in New York and Dennis Rodman asks you to go get a drink, you go get a drink. So being fired for that leads me to think, Maybe the president is not a fun guy. But I’ll tell you a funny little thing that nobody knows: I wrote a letter to Donald Trump the day that I got fired. We were staying in Trump Tower, so I wrote the note on the Trump Tower stationery in the hotel room. To paraphrase, it said, “Mr. Trump, I understand that going out drinking with Dennis Rodman last night may not have been the most businesslike decision, but I did this not because I was trying to be disrespectful but because I thought it would be funny for television. Being the only comedian on the show, I wanted to do something that would be funny and make the show entertaining.”
What happened then?
The next day I got a call from the producers and they said that President Trump was very happy with the letter and they brought me back on the show, which is unheard of. I have the distinction of being the earliest person who ever got fired on The Celebrity Apprentice to then get brought back for the last two episodes. So I will say this: I liked him. I did have many conversations with him in the hallway and I do understand why he fired me for going out drinking with Dennis Rodman on the night I was the project manager.
You left him no choice.
I openly acknowledge that. But when I would hang out with President Trump in the hallway and talk with him he was always very nice. He wasn’t a jerk or anything. So I don’t want to be one of these people that goes around slamming the president of the United States all day because, ultimately, I do want the country to succeed. I want all of us to be safe and secure and healthy. There are a lot of things the president does that I don’t agree with, but I am trying to focus on other subjects in my stand-up. We’re probably spending too much time talking about him. I don’t want to give a misleading idea to people that I’m fixated on the president. It’s not a big part of my act.
Is there anything you learned about the business during your initial burst of fame that you still draw on today?
If I knew what I know now back then, I’d probably be working at Dairy Queen — no offense to people who work at Dairy Queen. But I do know that a certain amount of naïveté goes a long way, especially when you’re a comedian.
Naïveté about what?
You need a lack of inhibition to do what you have to do to get noticed. If I was doing The Tom Green Show now, I might not be willing to do some of the things I did back then. Sometimes I’ll joke and say, “Jeez, if I knew YouTube was gonna come along, I never would’ve humped that moose. I didn’t think people were gonna be able to see that again.” But I also am glad that video is on YouTube, because it quashes any rumors that I was not fully clothed when I did it. I did not actually have sex with a moose. I also want to say something that’s maybe on a more positive note.
If I passionately care about anything in life, it’s comedy. I love comedy. I love doing stand-up. I love making people laugh. I love entertaining people. I’ve had ups and downs in this business, but the thing I’m most proud of is my ability to keep going. And I keep going because I love it. I don’t sit there and think, Oh jeez, I was once hosting Saturday Night Live and now I’m playing a club. I love playing the clubs. I’m having more fun now than ever.
You’ve sort of been talking about fame’s effect on the work, but how did fame change you as a person?
I think about that a lot, hopefully to a healthy degree. I wish I knew the answer. No, I actually do know the answer. Listen, I’ve had a fairly unique experience. Not everybody in show business has had so many dramatic things happen to them. I don’t think people necessarily even remember that I had cancer right in the middle of my show being on MTV. I was still trying to process the new reality of fame and money and changing relationships when I suddenly had to deal with a very real physical trauma. I had massive surgery on my lymph nodes. I don’t talk about it a lot but it took me probably close to ten years to fully recover from that surgery. I had a lot of pain. I had hormonal readjustment because of the testicular cancer I had, and those hormones played on my moods for a few years. It took me a while to get to the place where I am today, which is very, very happy and very, very comfortable with who I am and what I’m doing. But it was a lot to deal with at the time. It’s definitely been an interesting life. I often sit and think to myself, I can’t believe that happened.
What was your most recent I can’t believe that happened memory?
I can’t believe that I got to host The David Letterman Show. I mean — I just— I can’t believe I got to do that.
And you got to make Freddy Got Fingered. I have the distinction of having seen that movie in the theater.
Actually, a lot more people saw that movie in the theaters than is reported. Dramatically more.
Why would it have been reported differently?
It made $14 million at the box office, okay? Which basically means that it actually made its budget money back. But there was also a pretty scientific understanding that all of my fans were buying tickets to Crocodile Dundee and then sneaking into my movie because it was R-rated. You literally couldn’t get a seat in a theater where my movie was playing that opening weekend. All over Los Angeles the theaters were packed. A lot of things about the way people write about that Freddy Got Fingered are unfair.
I’m sorry, I was teasing.
The movie cost $14 million to produce and it made $14 million in its opening weekend and it made over $25 million on DVD and video. So it was a totally profitable movie even when you include the ten million dollars in promotion that the studio put into it. That’s a wildly financial success story for a comedy movie. And people say, “The movie bombed.” It didn’t actually, you know?
I didn’t mean to offend. I was just joking around.
No, I know. It’s just so often that I’ll do an interview and people say, “Oh yeah, Tom Green, the guy who made the worst movie ever made!” Meanwhile, I can’t go to an English-speaking city in the world without people shouting at me, “Daddy, would you like some sausage?” Doesn’t matter what city I am in in the world, people will be shouting out lines from the movie at me.
What evidence is there for this Crocodile Dundee theory?
Well, everybody tells me that. I remember everyone at the studio was talking about it back then: that Crocodile Dundee dramatically over-performed. But listen, I don’t want to get into a diss war with Paul Hogan. I don’t want to start a great Australian-Canadian diss war. I’m happy to give him credit where credit is due. But even if you look at the numbers that were reported, Freddy Got Fingered is not the failure that people like to say it is.
What’s a joke you tell in your current stand-up set that you’re especially proud of?
There’s one joke where I say, “Remember when you were a kid, and you could tell who the other kids were who were the children of alcoholics? Based on who carried their marbles to school in the purple velvet Crown Royal bag.” It gets a killer laugh. It’s a clever joke and, I think, different than what other comics are doing. I’m also proud of my honesty. I talk about cancer onstage. I say, “Sometimes I think about my battle with cancer and I think, You know what? I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Actually no, I’d trade it for my right testicle. I wouldn’t mind getting that back.” So it’s very honest, but I also enjoy the wordplay. I’m really proud of everything I’m doing — 300 shows a year. I’m working so hard, and having a blast in the process.