Comedian Tom Green, MTV’s original court jester, is now a real stand-up guy

August 19, 2011

Ten years ago, Tom Green’s lightly bearded visage was about as ubiquitous as his sense of humor was bizarre.

During the early 2000s, the Canadian comic catapulted to stardom after his cable-access program, “The Tom Green Show,” moved to MTV. It was weird stuff. Green got his yuks with a distinctive blend of sketch comedy and surrealist candid-camera stunts. Among his best gags: painting a pornographic scene on the hood of his parents’ car. They were not amused.

But everybody else was.

Green hosted “Saturday Night Live” and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, and Eminem even rapped about him. Green married (and later divorced) Drew Barrymore, and he wrote and directed a feature film, “Freddy Got Fingered,” which Roger Ebert called a “vomitorium.” In a few short years, Green laid the groundwork for shows that the parents of tomorrow would hate — programs such as “Jackass” and “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”

Then not much happened.

Too weird to endure in the mainstream, Green’s film and television heyday wound down in 2004. Since then, he’s kept busy with lower-profile gigs — hosting a web-based talk show from his living room and periodically popping up in reality shows (“Celebrity Apprentice,” “Hell’s Kitchen”). But mostly, he’s been on the road performing a stand-up act. He begins a three-night stand at the Improv on Friday.

“I have so much more fun doing stand-up. I can’t even begin to explain,” says Green, speaking over the phone from Edinburgh, Scotland, where he’s performing at the city’s Fringe Festival.

For one thing, the lag time between the jokes and the laughs is a lot shorter. “It takes a long time to put a movie together. It can take years,” he explains. “Life was starting to feel very unfunny. I was sitting around in meetings all the time.” He’s not done with TV or film, he says; he’s just keeping busy while things are stuck in development limbo. “Now it’s like, I’m working on . . . getting a movie put together, but in the meantime, I’m focusing on being on stage.”

What, exactly, Green does on stage is another question. When it comes to describing his live act, Green becomes vague. “In my [TV] show, a lot of the heart of the comedy came from getting a reaction from people on the street,” he explains. “In my stand-up, I have an audience there. So, I have 500 people sitting in front of me. I’m using subject matter and ideas to get a reaction out of them and then responding to that.” Which means he could be emulating Lenny Bruce or Carl Sagan.

Luckily, there are YouTube clips that provide evidence of his stand-up act. In a bootleg recording of Green on stage in 2009, he’s visibly nervous and bitter. He warms up the crowd with jokes about his ex-wife. This from the guy who once gleefully sang “The Bum Bum Song.” Apparently, he had a lot of issues to work out.

“When I started doing stand-up again, a lot of it was coming from an angrier place, and I quickly learned that doesn’t spell a good time in a comedy club,” Green says. “I don’t want people to come to my show and see a guy who is ranting.” He’s improved his act since then. An official trailer for the “Tom Green World Stand Up Comedy Tour 2010” finds him alternately silly and solemn — smashing a guitar, leading call and response chants, pacing through some traditional angry-guy routines. The target of his ire has shifted from Drew Barrymore to Facebook. And boy, does he hate Facebook.

“It’s like they’re stealing a moment of your life and broadcasting it to the world and that’s never going to be erased forever,” he says, very earnestly describing his feelings about photo tagging. “At a certain point, everybody is going to get burned.”

Raw feelings about social media aside, Green will admit, the Web has been a big help. Again, luckily, there are YouTube clips. “All of my old videos and the things I did on MTV, my old public access show — it was sort of all made for the Web, even though they were made before the Internet was broadcasting video,” says Green. He’s right. Over the years, his best bits have been culled, bootlegged, and atomized into streaming videos. You can marvel at the brilliant “Daddy, would you like some sausage?” scene from “Freddy Got Fingered” — where Green plays keyboards with raw steaks tied to his ears to taunt his father (played by Rip Torn) — without having to bear the film’s more tedious moments.

“I’m getting so many people worldwide who are discovering this stuff for the first time or remembering it from the past and wanting me to come perform in their city or country or town,” he beams. “The opportunity was there, and frankly I decided, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ ”

Just, not the way he used to. Today, he’s aiming for a broader appeal. “I’ll have people come to the show that saw me on ‘The Apprentice’ and they’re big Donald Trump fans and they’ll be older and they’ll leave happy too,” he says.

When “Freddy Got Fingered” was released, Green took a beating from critics, who labeled it nonsensical and obscene — which it mostly was, though arguably in a good way. “I had always assumed that people were going to be able to say, ‘That’s obviously a joke, it’s obviously on purpose,’ ” says Green. “That didn’t happen across the board.” Green was loyal to his whacked-out funnybone — to a fault. The movie was a large-scale bomb that slowed down his career. It was also a blessing, in that it generated a loyal cult following of fans who will pay to see him alive and well on stage. Frequently, fans quote him lines from the film. “It’s been a vindicating experience to me,” says Green. “They don’t talk about my other movies.”

Tom Green performs Aug. 26-28 at the Improv, 1140 Connecticut Ave. NW. Shows at 8:30 and 10:30 pm. $25. www.dcimprov.com.

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