Tom Green: Entertainment Renaissance Man

A multifaceted performer.

The contemplative, serious side of Tom Green.

The contemplative, serious side of Tom Green.

Tom Green is driven toward comedic success. He always has been. Green never wanted to wait to be discovered; he’s always been in the comic vanguard compelling audiences to pay attention to him. At the tender age of 15 when most kids are self-conscious, worried about acne and getting a date, he was performing standup at Yuk Yuk’s comedy club in his hometown of Ottawa, Canada. He’ll be bringing his latest standup to Pittsburgh Improv for three nights beginning the Friday night after Thanksgiving.

Green also stayed on the education path at a young age, earning a broadcasting degree from nearby Algonquin College. At Algonquin he was a DJ on the college radio station and teamed up with another DJ to start a late night call-in show, on which they made fun of the callers and then would hang up on them in short order. The show generated some buzz on campus and in the city. It also presaged what was to come for Green: a career of venturing into numerous different media and genres.

Green then started a rap career with a group called Organized Rhyme, in which he performed under the stage name MC Bones. The group was successful and their song “Check the O.R.” won Canada MuchVibe TV channel’s Best Rap Video award in 1992. Since then Green has revisited the rap genre several times in his career and sometimes incorporates certain aspects into his standup shows or television appearances.

From Public-Access Cable to MTV to Highly Unauthorized Art

He worked hard and started his own TV program, “The Tom Green Show” on the public access channel of an Ottawa cable system from 1996-1998. It had a variety format with stunts, pranks, bands, and interviews. The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) aired “The Tom Green Show” as a pilot in 1996, and in 1997 The Comedy Network aired two seasons of new shows across Canada.

When MTV picked up the show in 1999, Green received maximum exposure and became a pop phenom. His signature items were the hilarious pranks that he recorded on video in real-life settings. Often visibly annoying to the people they were pulled upon, but done by Green in a deadpan and superficially respectful manner, they drove high cable ratings and made the show one of MTV’s top-rated offerings. In a recent phone interview (during which he was genuinely gracious), Green said, “People originally know me for the character I was performing earlier in my career, a character that was out of my mind.”

His pranks included having a Subway sandwich worker make one of the tallest sandwiches he’s ever made, announcing to everyone he sees in a big drugstore that he’s buying condoms, and turning his parents’ car into “The Slutmobile” with a graphic lesbian sex scene painted on the hood. Not shy about letting himself look silly, he once drank milk directly from a cow’s udder. And in one of his most elaborate pranks he made an abstract painting titled “Tiger Zebra” and hung it in the National Gallery of Canada. Staff members didn’t notice the unauthorized addition to their collection until several days later, when Green returned and defaced his art, much to the shock of a crowd of people in the gallery. Stunts like these just hadn’t been seen on TV screens very often until Green performed them. “The Tom Green Show” was a precursor to reality comedy shows like “Jackass” and “Punk’d” and ran until 2003.

The fun loving, shocking side of Tom Green.

The fun-loving, shocking side of Tom Green.

One major setback in Green’s life was being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001. Recovering from treatments and multiple surgeries, Green made the most of the experience. He featured it in his widely respected autobiography Hollywood Causes Cancer, produced a highly rated TV program, “The Cancer Special,” and started a foundation to help others, Tom Green’s Nuts Cancer Fund.

Green has worked as a writer, actor, director, and producer on several films. His cinema appearances include Road Trip, Charlie’s Angels, Freddie Got Fingered, Stealing Harvard, and Bob the Butler. He had a brief marriage to Drew Barrymore in 2001, even appearing with her on “Saturday Night Live.”

In August 2006 Green pulled a new kind of stunt on “American Idol,” riding a skateboard through a flaming hoop and catching on fire, although he actually used a stunt man for the dangerous part. He was even on the 2009 season of “Celebrity Apprentice,” but ultimately was fired. He had overslept a little when project manager due to being out late drinking with fellow contestant Dennis Rodman.

Talk Shows and Chocolaty-Tasting Beer

When prompted for his comedic influences, without hesitation he reels off the names of talk show hosts—Letterman, Carson, Leno, Conan, Jimmy Fallon—and he cites “Saturday Night Live” as a general influence. Green was one of only a few people ever to guest host “Late Show with David Letterman.” He has appeared on every major talk show, some shows numerous times.

Since 2006 he has hosted his own talk show, first as “Tom Green’s House Tonight,” started in his living room, and then “Tom Green Live.” In September AXS TV Network picked up the program. AXS TV is a music and entertainment network with an ownership group including Pittsburgh native and successful entrepreneur Mark Cuban, and entertainer and businessman Ryan Seacrest. The show has just been renewed for a second season by AXS; it airs live on Thursday nights and is rerun throughout the week.

Unlike other talk shows, his is a single guest format, with one guest on for the entire show. Staying out of the show’s limelight and letting his guests shine gives Green great pride. He stated “I’ve tried to create a near perfect environment on the show to build synergy with my guests and give them the space to do their thing.” This has enabled him to land top talent like Howie Mandel, Richard Belzer, Tony Hawk, and Andrew Dice Clay. He even takes live video internet calls from viewers during the show. It is one of the highest rated talk shows on the web and has a world-wide audience. Green also has his own Showtime cable channel special, which is available for viewing on Netflix, called what else, Tom Green Live.

And if he isn’t busy enough, he has his own beer brand. The Tom Green Beer, a milk stout, is brewed by Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, in Canada. I asked if his beer tasted funny and he joyfully replied “It’s delicious! We make it from lactose sugar and it has a nice chocolaty flavor.” They know what they’re doing. The Tom Green Beer was the winner of the Collaboration Nation competition at Session Craft Beer festival in Toronto this past June. It’s available all over Canada and will be distributed in the U.S. in 2014.

Standup and Pittsburgh

Green summed up his style as “spontaneous, surprising, and outrageous.” At his standup performances he derives energy from the people at the show and loves the connection with the audience. “My comedy is often multilayered with silly, physical stuff as a top layer on the material,” he said. “It keeps the audience engaged and laughing.”

Pittsburghers will have the chance to see Tom Green’s standup act in person during a three-night special event at the Pittsburgh Improv. “I’ve played the Pittsburgh Improv many times and the audiences are always great! Pittsburgh reminds me of my hometown with the cold weather and many hockey fans,” Green said. If you can’t make it to the Improv for Green’s shows you can watch classic and new comedy videos and episodes of “Tom Green Live” at tomgreen.com.

Having been at the cutting edge of both comedy and technology, Green says right now is a great time for independent talent like himself, because he can connect with an audience in many different ways: through his podcasts, studio, AXS TV show, and standup. “I don’t have to be locked down to only one point of contact with the audience,” he notes. When asked if there’s anything different he’d like to try, but hasn’t yet, Green said with contentment, “I enjoy what I’m doing now.”

Tom Green has remained relevant and popular throughout a career that has now spanned multiple media over a period of more than 20 years. In the rapidly changing pop culture landscape, where icons are created and destroyed in the blink of an eye, you could call him a true American success story.

Tom Green is at Pittsburgh Improv Fri.-Sun., Nov. 29-Dec. 1, with two shows nightly on Friday and Saturday. 166 E. Bridge St., The Waterfront, Homestead. For times and tickets, visit the Improv or call 412-462-5233. 

Photos courtesy of Tom Green and Ani Istanboulian.