Why is it funny to see a grown man dress up in a team uniform and jump into a kids’ league soccer game until being chased away by parents and referees? Why is it compelling to watch the same guy torment his own parents by waking them up at 3 a.m. so they can watch his friends dance in their bedroom? Why is there humor in seeing him harangue a non-English speaking Russian cruise ship employee into accepting a sandwich consisting of a massive tuna between two slices of bread?
If you can answer those questions, you can explain the popularity of MTV’s The Tom Green Show. If you can’t, then you need to read this review. In my opinion, Tom Green, the host and star of The Tom Green Show, is an intuitively brilliant character who has carved out a unique space in the overlap between media reality and ordinary reality. Green finds entertainment in exploding the social and other protocols that dominate our daily lives (directives like, “Don’t play with dead animals” or “Don’t airbrush a lesbian sex scene onto your parents’ car”), while simultaneously exploring, appropriating, and squeezing the juice out of the proprieties of television itself (for instance, talk show hosts don’t usually crawl over their guests or wear suits made of green beans while talking to has-been celebrities like Tom Wopat).
Trying to explain exactly how Green does any of this to those who haven’t seen the show is difficult. In fact, trying to explain Green to those who have seen the show is difficult. But I’ll try. To begin with, Tom Green looks like anything but a celebrity. He is thin, wide-eyed, goateed, very much the average person rather than the beautiful or exotic figures we are used to seeing on movie and tv screens. He uses his prosaic physicality to put himself into a different space than others who inhabit the media. He takes on the persona of talk show host with so much self-consciousness that he manages both to be the host and simultaneously question the very notion of the host. He is thoroughly multi-layered, and where one viewer might see an idiot causing problems on the street, another can see a rustic intellectual sensing and artistically manipulating the most micro of media structures and procedures.
The show itself is also a multi-layered text. It is sort of a talk show, kind of a skit show, and almost a reality show. Green starts each show at his interviewer’s desk, accompanied by his vanilla sidekick, Glenn, who is so totally unnecessary that his non-participation becomes a joke in itself. Another sidekick, Phil, is even more irrelevant: he simply sits in the backdrop of the set (perched just outside a fake window), drinking coffee and laughing in an embarrassed “Why am I even here?” kind of way. Green introduces the show from his chair, seeming lucid and straightforward. But this quickly breaks down as he trips into a rambling monologue or some type of attack on Glenn (taping him to his chair, covering him in yellow paint). From there, Green introduces pre-taped “incidents” in which he goes to the street to create a type of slightly controlled havoc between himself and whoever happens to wander into his view. An episode may revolve around a single location, as when he went to a retirement home and took over as the bingo caller, screaming the numbers so loudly and so strangely that the elderly players all left the room. Or episodes may jump from location to location, as on a road trip when Green began pulling doll babies out of a cave and throwing them at passing motorists, or later stood around for two minutes, eating from a huge bowl of porridge in a segment titled “Two-Minute Porridge.”
All of which is funny as hell. To some people. It’s funny to those who enjoy seeing someone attack conventions and inject them with an acute absurdity rarely seen in daily life or on television. Green gets laughs by standing on the street yelling, “I oughta wring your neck!” to a street light or by rubbing his “bum” on people walking past. He gets laughs by following a woman into a bank while holding a dead bird and yelling, “You forgot your dead bird.” Green is almost Kafkaesque in his ability to find just the right outrageousness that will take people out of their ordinary lives and into a momentarily altered dimension. His stunts teem with tension because he doesn’t bring people into the studio, but goes into their world where they have weapons, dogs, and cops. In one segment, Green tries to undercut a pizza delivery guy by offering a cheaper pizza to the customer, but the customer, rather than taking the bait, hauls out a hammer and stalks Green off his property. It’s a real moment where real harm could happen, and it plays that way.
If it stopped there, The Tom Green Show would be just a bizarro Candid Camera. But it goes much further, and this is where it gets truly interesting from a theoretical perspective. Green’s intuitive sense of irony allows him to explore the television medium in ways that no one else even approaches. Green doesn’t perform for the camera. He performs for himself, and allows you to watch. Or he performs for his crew and sidekicks, and lets you watch. He never winks at the audience, he never breaks character, he never admits that what he’s doing is any different from what you always see on television. By refusing to abide by the modalities of the medium, Green makes the medium itself stand out. He is able to show us that there are other ways of “being” on television than what we have come to know. Imagine if one of your family members suddenly found a whole new way to be photographed in the yearly Christmas photo, something so unusual that you suddenly realize you have all been trained to pose with that same smile, even though you were never aware of being trained at all.
Green’s tweaking of the constraints of television is best seen when he invades other examples of his own genre, the talk show. Green takes other talk shows over with unexpected stunts that the hosts are forced to accept, even though you can clearly see it irks them to have someone else telling them what to do on their own shows. Green has appeared on Donnie and Marie and harangued them into letting him cut up their suit jackets so he can make pillows from the material. He went on Martin Short and proceeded to honk like a goose with a box on his head, forcing Steve Martin and Short to simply sit and watch as he sucked up every molecule of comic space on the set. Dennis Miller tried to have a conversation with Green to see “how much of this was an act,” and Green deterred it all by taking out a photo of a guy he hated and screaming into the camera. And in the ultimate act of rule-breaking, Green brought a dead raccoon he had found on the side of the road to a small cable show, causing complete pandemonium on the set and making the host actually vomit.
These events are fascinating to watch because Green refuses to play by the rules that all media characters have implicitly agreed to follow (like, “Don’t make each other look bad on camera”). He shows us that we have come to expect a controlled, edited, produced media where everything has limits and nearly everything is completely staged and rehearsed. Tom Green extracts our internalized media expectations and pushes at them until they become raw, overblown, and shocking. And because he is so gifted as a comedian, he also finds ways of keeping all of this funny. By maintaining enough humor to keep people watching, Green is able both to challenge the media even as he fulfills the media’s ultimate demand, which is to keep people tuned in. If there were any justice, Tom Green would trigger an evolution of the electronic media. We would see a horde of new characters who are aware of themselves and their medium to the point where they would be able to overcome what television tells them to be and in that moment find new ways for television to speak to us. It would be a major development, almost as if the novel suddenly took on new configurations.
But that isn’t likely. I see instead three possible futures for Green.
First, he will be co-opted by the corporations that rule the media. His popularity will allow him to be paid large sums of money to be in media products that he cannot control, and he will become as much a sham as what he now interrogates. We saw this happen with Letterman, who started out the uber-cynic, destined to the “anti-establishment inside the establishment” hero, and then so thoroughly caved when they gave him the keys to the kingdom.
Second, Green’s audience may wane. The people who find Green funny are mostly college students young enough to have absorbed the structures of television, and intelligent enough to enjoy seeing him break those rules (as well as enjoying seeing him break social conventions). This is a tenuous audience at best: they get bored easily, and if Green cannot continue to one-up himself they may quickly lose interest in him.
Third, Green may lose touch with his own comic sensibilities. Green’s form of humor takes the most subtle of comic touches. Comics who make a living out of breaking the artistic rules of the medium in which they perform are always on the verge of becoming so idiosyncratic that the audience can’t follow what they do (a la Dennis Miller when he starts quipping about Hollywood insiders instead of public celebrities, or Andy Kaufmann when he got lost in the role of the evil wrestler). Humor that investigates the meta is located in the nuances, and often you can only see the nuances if you stay in a space just outside the system itself. If Green slips just an iota into the inside, he will suddenly find himself unable to see what is truly funny to the “outside” audience, and what he is doing will become simply cruel, sophomoric, planned, safe, clumsy, or underwritten by the powers-that-be.
Take, for example, The Tom Green Cancer Special. Green created a documentary about his own testicular cancer, and it’s a stretch to say it’s funny as he films his own surgery (complete with graphic footage of his own intestines and his cancerous testicle cut into a biopsied mass). He tries to stay in the comic frame by constantly saying, “I’ll be here if I’m not dead,” but the show is more shocking and uncomfortable than funny. It only becomes funny in the last ten minutes when it is clear that he has survived the cancer and is on stage at the University of Florida, telling people about it. In other words, it only becomes funny when it manages to get away from the ultimate heaviness of lived reality—that is, death—and back to the lighter reality of the media, which offers a “play” death or a tense brush with death. While it is still vividly interesting to see Green exploiting his own possible death, it isn’t funny, and thus it isn’t the type of entertainment that got Green to where he is right now in the media.
No matter where The Tom Green Show goes from here, it is some of the most interesting tv currently on the air. Green forces television and social reality to confront each other in a strange face-to-face showdown over which is more familiar to us, and in that confrontation we start to see what may arise as these two worlds intermingle in new and unpredictable ways. In those moments we are not only entertained, but we are also instructed on the media structures themselves, and that is definitely something of value.