Thursday, April 21, 2005

Not Easy Bein' Green

Just read Tom Green's tell-all showbiz autobio, "Hollywood Causes Cancer," but before I get to that, you must click here, scroll down to "12 oz. coffee cup," play it and enjoy.

That should put you in the Green frame of mind.

Tom Green has always made me laugh. Sometimes uncontrollably. I don't think I've ever seen a comic so in touch with the rawest of ids. At his best (and esp in his early work on Ottawa's public access Rogers 22), Green played three-chord comedy, a punk aesthetic guaranteed to force a reaction. As much as I love Andy Kaufman, Green stripped down and accelerated the style of confrontational performance art that Kaufman made infamous. Even when he played Bad Guy Wrestler, strutting about, beating his chest, shouting sexist remarks, Kaufman was much more mannered than Green. He clearly was performing a role. Green simply was. A single frayed throbbing nerve shot into rigid society.

There was an early show of his that used to be online (can't find it now), a Christmas special of sorts, where Green begins in the standard fashion, drinking egg nog and singing carols. But about ten minutes in, he starts to unravel. His mind shoots all over the place as he douses himself with water and pancake mix, then slowly dismantles the set. Soon he becomes psychotic, screaming at a specific guy he thinks is watching him. Negotiating. Pleading. Mocking. Accusing. Green's emotions fly everywhere at once, and it's clear he's having some kind of nervous breakdown. Holiday stress? Green never says. But you can't stop watching. You have to see where this is going.

Not sure what MTV was thinking when it grabbed Green from Canadian TV and stuffed him down its corporate gullet. Green makes some guesses in his book, but ultimately he confesses that whatever the reason, it was The Break and he was gonna take full advantage of it. 'Course, once he arrives in New York and starts production, the reality of MTV's intentions knocks him on his ass. Green and his colleagues are told to shut up, follow orders, read the Tele-Prompter and to not improvise. AT ALL. They have big plans for Green, but first they must "improve" his show for a wider audience.

Green writes honestly about his anger and frustration with MTV, which, early on, wouldn't let him do what he does. Reading this section, I recalled my own brief MTV experience. I'd done some freelance writing for MTV, dopey tags for their commercials and what-not, most of which was never used. Then another writer I knew told me about a new comedy game show the net was producing, and that I should contribute to it. So I went to the show's offices, hung with the writers and producers, traded one-liners and concepts, when somebody suddenly said to me, "Hey! You should be the host!" The other writers nodded in agreement, and soon I was in a small studio taping a screen test. I stood at a podium reading the horrible script in front of me. I asked if I could re-write some of it. "Sure, sure. Whatever man." I crossed out much of the material in a very theatrical fashion, as if I was trying to kill the script (which I was). I jotted down some raw ideas and began improvising in front of all these MTV people. Everything clicked. The writers were extremely supportive and said I was their pick to host. They couldn't wait to show the tape to the bigwigs.

Then a couple of days later, I was informed that the game show was trashed in favor of "The Big Serious Show," starring Yahoo Serious, who was then coming off "Young Einstein". Yahoo's show lasted, I believe, one week. And my chance to be an MTV celeb never returned.

Maybe for the best, if Green's experience there is any indication. MTV gave him his first real glimpse into the eyes of the Beast, and he quickly understood what was required if he desired comedy fame. Green says that all he wanted was to produce & perform comedy for a living. He didn't expect, or perhaps played down, what that meant in real terms. You can call this naive, but unless you've been in that spot with all those hip showbiz pigs slapping your back, promising everything, you cannot truly know the Temptation. As I read about his struggles, I understood exactly what must have gone through his mind. But unlike me (who fled to the lush pastures of political writing and speaking), he forged ahead and eventually broke through to produce some excellent pieces for his MTV show.

For me, Green's masterwork to date is undoubtedly "Freddy Got Fingered." I can't remember the last time I laughed that hard in public. "Freddy" is the most extreme and absurd screen comedy I've seen. And according to Green, that was his intention. He didn't want to make a mainstream film aimed at his MTV audience. He wanted to push as far as he could, to rip apart the "gross out" genre altogether. He succeeded, so well in fact that most reviewers didn't know what hit them. (Only A.O. Scott of the NYTimes really got it.) But Green's fidelity to his vision cost him at the box office, and he hasn't really recovered -- yet.

"Hollywood Causes Cancer" explores not only the "Freddy" debacle, but also Green's marriage to Drew Barrymore (which took him deep into Hollywood's bowels) and his bout with testicular cancer. It's a Small Town Boy Gets Famous Fast And Then Is Chewed Up And Spat Out By The Entertainment Machine story. Not for everyone. I enjoyed it, and in a way am glad that I didn't write it. But then, Green's only in his early 30s. I suspect and hope there's more to come.