Freak Like Me: The Misunderstood Brilliance of Tom Green

Tom Green's brand of comedy allows viewers to embrace their own inner freaks.

I think people generally hate Freddy Got Fingered — the 2001 film starring, written, and directed by Tom Green — because it makes them uncomfortable. Not in the winking, “we’re all in this together” way. The discomfort this film produces is unstable. It doesn’t fall into familiar archetypes. It’s warped, tilted, noxious.

This isn’t the way manufactured discomfort usually works in film and television. While there are plenty of models across genres, comedy often alternates between two: that caused by a character’s obliviousness, and that caused by a character’s brazen disregard for social norms. The first model is represented by a show like The Office, in which well-meaning goofballs do embarrassing things because they don’t know any better. The second model is embodied by Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which cynical sociopaths act in cruel and selfish ways because they don’t care about anyone but themselves.

Tom Green doesn’t subscribe to either of these models. What he does in Freddy Got Fingered and The Tom Green Show (which aired on various Canadian cable stations and later MTV in the ’90s and early aughts) is certainly designed to make some viewers squirm, but it exists apart from traditional social interaction. Green doesn’t represent a personality type, but rather the deepest recesses of an id come to life.

In one sketch from The Tom Green Show, titled “Jokers Wild”, Green takes the stage at a comedy club, ostensibly to perform a set of stand-up material. He begins by adjusting the microphone, placing his hands in his pockets, tucking his chin into his neck, and emitting a single, continuous glottal sound for six seconds. He then varies the sound’s pitch, rhythm, and timbre. It’s the sort of thing a six-year-old does to pass the time five hours into a family road trip.

He eventually quiets and takes the microphone from its stand, at which point the audience applauds, believing this to be an absurd prelude to a traditional performance. They are wrong. Green leans forward and makes what sounds like a series of dry heaves. He later intersperses them with cries for a “Joshua”, although no further context is provided. All the while, his facial muscles are tensed with a severity that usually presages a popped blood vessel. This sort of thing continues for the next minute or so, until Green is dragged from the stage by security, screaming in faux agony.

This is the essence of Green’s aesthetic: grotesque, inexplicable, anti-social. It makes you uncomfortable because his form of address resembles psychosis more than any variant of traditional social interaction. This is a staple of absurdist comedy, and it’s the reason why much of it is tucked away on niche channels like Adult Swim at two in the morning.

What happens, though, when you give an absurdist comic $15,000,000 to make a feature film and distribute that film through a major film studio?

Apparently, a lot of people get angry and confused, including film critics, the kinds of people who pride themselves on championing progressive art. Not so with Freddy Got Fingered, a profoundly radical comedy that received five Razzie awards (which are given to the “worst” films of each year) and was immediately dismissed for its supposed stupidity. (Never mind that the ridiculous and useless distinction between “smart” and “dumb” comedy is more a way for the critic to assert his intelligence — i.e., if a film is “smart”; and the critic likes it, he must also be smart — than a useful rubric for evaluation.)

The almost uniformly negative responses to the film seemed to fall into three rough categories: those who understood but rejected its surrealist impulses, those who were frightened by it but didn’t want to admit it (“Do not bring children to this movie unless you want them to have nightmares for weeks,”‘s Robert Horton insisted, to dissuade the legion of parents taking their children to R-rated films) and those who believed it to be evidence of the decline of mass culture.

The first two camps have entirely valid reactions: Green’s methods ensure a certain segment of the audience will be repulsed. But the third is strange and inaccurate and, in the years since the film’s release, has become the dominant prism through which the film is remembered.

When a critic like Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers decries that it “feels manufactured to be suitable for mass consumption”, I wonder what “mass” he refers to, and if his evaluation isn’t merely a symptom of the tired tradition of each generation bashing those that follow. Because Freddy Got Fingered is as insurgent and dangerous as any New Hollywood classic from the ’70s. The difference is that, while the cutting edge of ’60s and ’70s cinema was often motivated by the urge toward political or social revolution, Freddy Got Fingered arrived in a postmodern age that uses self-awareness to deconstruct tradition.

Now, being “dangerous” and “postmodern” doesn’t necessarily make a film good. There are plenty of examples (*cough*I Heart Huckabees *cough*) of the modern, progressive impulse gone awry. Freddy Got Fingered has something else. It achieves the rare feat of being, at once, entirely relatable and entirely foreign. By mixing the bizarre shapelessness of the interior experience with an outward reality that suppresses our most inexplicable impulses, the film validates these impulses. How much you connect with the film depends, in part, on how much you’re willing to acknowledge the little voice inside you that asks you to consider what would happen if, say, you cut open a deer carcass and crawled inside.

Of course, these thoughts are rarely acted upon, but they’re there, and we are taught that they’re unacceptable. By visualizing his most delirious and deranged thoughts, Green promotes a new kind of self-acceptance, one built upon the parts of ourselves we don’t always understand.

There’s another layer to all this that obscures his message of self-acceptance, and it’s probably the very thing that made people so angry upon the film’s release. Across his work, Green questions and experiments with modes of comedic address, returning to its essence to consider what happens in the transfer of comedic material from performer to audience.

This questioning comes across most clearly in Green’s acting, which can be prickly and abrasive, but which also demonstrates an advanced knowledge of how the comedian relates to his audience. In essence, the comedian must make himself vulnerable, offering insights or performative flourishes that seek one end: laughter. Either the comedian makes his audience laugh or he doesn’t. There are no consolation prizes, no A’s for effort. It’s a ruthless ecosystem, and one way to soften its edges is to relate to your audience, to twist standard modes of address to create a common ground upon which you can build. The audience, at least, will understand your intentions. When Louis C.K. slouches or pauses to chuckle at one of his jokes, you understand that he’s trying to be accessible. When Michael Richards sputters into Jerry’s apartment, you understand that he’s playing the role of the lovable eccentric.

Tom Green is different. He avoids standard archetypes, creating static between him and his audience. He’s quick to move into hysterics, shouting and wailing for no apparent reason. Yet he’s too controlled to be a mere bumbling idiot. From his madness, patterns emerge.

It usually goes something like this: Green’s character comes across a promising comedic set piece, has a half-formed impulse to disturb it, and immediately acts upon that impulse. Early in Freddy Got Fingered, soon after receiving a car and heading to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a cartoonist, Green’s character, Gord, drives past a horse and four farmers. Immediately, he shrieks, pulls his car to the side of the road, and pleasures the horse while shouting “Look at me daddy! I’m a farmer!” Soon thereafter, minutes into his first day working the assembly line at a cheese sandwich factory, he steps onto the conveyor belt and implores his co-workers to look at him because he’s a “sexy boy”. He proceeds to grab a sausage, hold it between his legs, and shout “ding dong, ding dong”, as he whips the sausage from side to side.

There’s a coherent philosophy at work here, but it isn’t one that promotes a conventional understanding between him and his audience. This is difficult for many to grasp, but for those willing to indulge Green, you’ll find someone willing to follow that little voice urging him to break reality into a million little pieces and put them back together sideways and upside down.

Freddy Got Fingered is ugly, twisted, and profane. It’s also, strangely, an optimistic film that says it’s alright to have ugly, twisted, and profane thoughts. We’re all freaks, Green (hysterically) shouts. He’s just the first to admit it.

Mark’s been writing about pop culture for the past six years for a variety of venues (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington University in St. Louis’ student paper, Patch, and a personal blog on WordPress). He recently graduated with a degree in Film and Media Studies, and while he often writes about music and film, he’s also written about television, sports, and celebrity culture.

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