Utterly Clueless, Ahead of the Curve

Today, Tom Green’s profile in the world of pop culture is so marginal it’s easy to forget how prominent he once was. But in 1999, after MTV imported his eponymous show from Canada, the hyperactive slacker hit America like a virus. “He’s become famous faster than anyone I’ve ever been associated with,” exclaimed Brian Graden, head of MTV programming, in April 1999. That was a mere two months after Green’s show debuted on the network, and all the hallmarks of A-list stardom soon followed. Green guest-hosted Saturday Night Live. He made the cover of Rolling Stone. He landed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own movie. He married a major Hollywood star. And then the big fade commenced.

But it didn’t happen because we tired of Tom Green’s shtick. To the contrary, our appetite for the sort of antics he displayed on his show—sucking face with a butchered lamb’s head, asking the prime minister of Canada to sign his balls, playing pranks on his long-suffering parents—has only increased.

So when Green stopped production on his show at the height of its popularity—first to deal with testicular cancer, then to pursue a movie career—countless others stepped in to meet the demand for transgressive cathode mayhem. For the last six years, NBC has made squid guts and liquid sewage a key part of its prime-time lineup with Fear Factor. When Jackass: Number 2, the big-screen prankfest starring Johnny Knoxville and his wondrously shatterproof troupe of masochists, catapulted into theaters in late September, it grossed $29 million its opening weekend. Jackass spin-offs Wildboyz and Viva La Bam are MTV2 staples. And then, of course, there’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It’s the only show on TV that features as much real-life wanton destruction as Green’s once did—and the only one with a host, Ty Pennington, who can scream as loudly, moronically, and incessantly as Green once did. (Where Pennington makes use of a megaphone to achieve his effects, Green mostly worked acoustic.)

Ultimately, Green’s influence is felt most deeply on the Internet, on sites like YouTube and Google Video, where thousands of his aesthetic heirs upload clips of themselves spazzing out in their bedrooms, taunting security guards, and engaging in various other Greenian theatrics.

Green himself is part of the Internet fray now, too. Last summer, with support from a company called ManiaTV, he started broadcasting a live call-in talk show from his living room four nights a week. So far, technical difficulties are more common than not, and his worldwide audience is only around twenty-five thousand people, a fraction of the millions who once watched him on MTV. Compared to his previous level of stardom, this may seem like a fairly mediocre prize. Still, Green commutes from his bedroom to his living room, no longer has to worry about network censors, and, if he feels like going on for an extra half hour any given night, he can. So maybe the Internet’s not such a bad place to be—in fact, it’s actually where Green was headed all along.

Back in 1993, when only Al Gore and a few other techno-prophets knew what the Internet was, a twenty-two-year-old community college student in Ottawa, Ontario, was busy inventing its future—on a Canadian public-access channel. On his weekly, hour-long show, Tom Green did whatever it took to create a few visceral, visually arresting moments in no-budget, handheld fashion. He descended on city streets and shopping malls, saying things that people just don’t say in public, rubbing his “bum” against strangers, and otherwise invading their space with fearless abandon. He tortured his parents, painting their house plaid while they were away on vacation and dumping a severed horse head in their bed in the middle of the night as they slept. He harassed his best friend, Glenn Humplik, an amiable human punching bag whose unfortunate surname apparently gave him a tolerance for constant abuse. Slouchy and slack-jawed, swinging from catatonia to mania in the blink of a haunted, heavy-lidded eye, Green looked like a guy who’d end up stalking a beautiful blonde movie star, not marrying one.

Somehow, this haphazard approach to TV worked incredibly well, perhaps in part because Green’s shtick wasn’t exactly revolutionary. In fact, his show was modeled very closely on the traditional late-night talk-show model. He interviewed guests on a studio set and ended with a musical performance by a local band. He and his crew performed short comic sketches, and he did man-on-the-street bits, too—just like one of his major influences, David Letterman. The affable, endlessly accommodating Humplik served as Green’s Ed McMahon-like sidekick.

But while the Tom Green Show shared the same DNA as Letterman et al, it also bore a strong resemblance to COPS. There were long stretches of noisy, repetitive tedium, with Green screaming nonsense at strangers on the street, followed by bursts of inspired lunacy: a surprisingly clever ad lib on Green’s part, or a moment of inspired rage from a benign-looking soul whom Green had pushed too far.

But compared to other lo-fi, vérité shows, like the Real World and even the amateur submissions of America’s Funniest Home Videos, the Tom Green Show seemed shoddily made. Segments often had no discernible rhythms or structures, and overall, the show’s aggressive artlessness didn’t play as faux-authentic contrivance—the work of self-conscious, shaky-cam auteurs—it just looked bad and cheap and incompetent. Where, one wondered, was the craft? Where was the desire to hone a comic premise until it reached its full potential, to perpetrate some ingenious, Candid Camera-style prank? Green just turned on his video camera and started throwing shit at the wall. If it stuck, great. If it slid, even better.

For all its lazy, sloppy, and grating qualities, the Tom Green Show was also quite compelling. It didn’t matter if Green was donning scuba gear to dive for change in shopping mall fountains, or trying to convince his sweet, clueless grandmother that a box of neon-colored vibrators was actually a collection of kitchen gadgets, or simply smashing a platter of fresh meat with a baseball bat. More often than not, whatever he was doing was the most arresting thing happening on TV at any given moment, and restless channel surfers stopped and paid attention. Here was a show that adhered to none of the conventions that lent all TV programming, good and bad, a certain sameness. For a few months, at least, the Tom Green Show pulled off that rarest of TV tricks: It looked like nothing else on the tube. That’s why, after just a few episodes, it became a local cult favorite, then a hit on national Canadian cable, and ultimately, an MTV classic.

So it was that, as the twentieth century ran down, Green had figured out where twenty-first-century entertainment was headed. Before Jackass, before Fear Factor and YouTube, Green proved that punch lines weren’t necessary. That plots weren’t necessary. Even the themes that unified similarly plotless clip shows, like World’s Wildest Police Chase Videos, weren’t necessary.

Green’s efforts echoed the innovations of late-80s gonzo pornographers like John Stagliano and Ed Powers, who realized that their viewers weren’t particularly interested in storylines, dialogue, costumes, character development, or any of the other Hollywood conventions that the adult-film industry had traditionally aped. What drew viewers was raw, unrehearsed spectacle—unexpected moments—so that’s what Stagliano and Powers gave them.

Demonstrating that what worked for porn videos worked even better on mainstream TV—where the competition for viewer attention was (and is) relentless—Green liberated his audiences from having to follow complicated storylines, or watch from start to finish, or even watch all that closely. No matter when you tuned in to his show, there was always some kind of confrontation or disturbing imagery, or at the very least, a skinny, disheveled slacker who appeared to be in the midst of a psychotic breakdown. After just six episodes on MTV, the Tom Green Show had established itself as the network’s highest-rated series.

The show’s success marked the ascendancy of the amateur, bringing a punk-rock, DIY spirit to corporate television. Once Green became a certified network hit, the medium that had once been the most exclusive was suddenly accessible. Inspired provocateurs were no longer consigned to the ghetto of public access. A fifteen-year-old delinquent in the middle of nowhere could actually compete against Hollywood production companies—he just needed a handheld video camera, some wacky ideas, and the nerve to pull them off.

Green’s time at the top didn’t last long. Like many other purveyors of ambush TV, who rely on unsuspecting individuals to pull off their tricks, he found that his new notoriety made guerrilla street theater difficult. The objects of his attention began responding to him not as a random lunatic, but as Tom Green, MTV icon. His bout with cancer and an unsuccessful foray into movies further sidetracked his career. His first run on MTV ended in mid-2000, and a 2003 resurrection of the show, in a somewhat different format, lasted only a few months before being canceled due to low ratings.

Even so, Green’s initial success had a permanent impact on viewers, other rogue auteurs, and industry executives. It was suddenly clear that there was a lucrative market for all kinds of raw, surreal, caught-on-tape spectacles, no matter how slapdash or tasteless. For years, critics had accused TV executives of pandering to the lowest common denominator, but Green’s success proved that those execs were actually tight-assed gatekeepers. Even the scuzzy laughs and cheap thrills of Fox staples like Married with Children and World’s Wildest Police Chase Videos looked like Masterpiece Theatre compared to Jackass, Girls Gone Wild, Bumfights, and all the other DIY fare that followed in the wake of the Tom Green Show.

While it’s been more than a decade since Green first went on public-access cable, the style of programming he helped pioneer is still in its infancy. As the Internet evolves, it will become only more prominent; nothing else delivers the same bang for the buck. In the same way that traditional print-media operations, with their large staffs, cumbersome production processes, and expensive payrolls, are trying to find success while competing against bloggers, who can amass sizable audiences at virtually no cost, traditional TV producers will also face the democratizing wrath of the Internet.

When prime-time audiences ultimately splinter into pieces too small to underwrite the likes of Lost or even the Amazing Race, producers will turn to the kinds of shows that can aggregate eyeballs on a budget. In Nielsen terms, the twenty-five thousand nightly viewers at TomGreen.com is nothing; but what other regular producer of independent programming for the web—one that doesn’t involve naked women—can claim such numbers? Just a few years ago, few people believed that independent amateurs like DailyKos.com and Instapundit.com could crash the insular world of the news media elite in any significant way, but now, major players like Time and the New York Times have adopted the tools, techniques, and attitudes that such bloggers pioneered. Once again, Tom Green finds himself ahead of the curve.