Tom Green’s deadpan is so masterful it’s often impossible to tell whether the comedian is being honestly weird or weirdly honest. Like when he explains his appreciation for gridlock.
“I’m really enjoying Los Angeles,” the 28-year-old says of his recent move to the West Coast. “I feel much more settled now. I have more quiet time to myself ‘cause I get to drive to work every day--which is fun. Because I enjoy sitting in traffic for 45 minutes. In New York I lived a block from the office and I had to walk through [gaggles of fans] to work every morning. I basically had to run to work every day and it was scary and not comfortable. Now I drive to work, listen to music, relax and have quiet time for Tommy.”
The Canadian’s dry demeanor is one key factor behind the success of “The Tom Green Show,” which has ranked among the top three weekly series on MTV since it first aired on the cable channel in 1997, and now averages about 2 million viewers. The stunts Green and his production team orchestrate range from the casually silly (in one episode he lurks on a busy street doing color commentary on passersby with a megaphone) to the outrageously lurid (one gag featured Green tricking his grandmother into licking a vibrator after convincing her it was a kitchen implement).
Of course practical jokes are nothing new, and taping them is at least as old as “Candid Camera.” But Green sees a clear distinction between what he does and what that show’s mastermind Allen Funt did.
“Not to discredit ‘Candid Camera,’ ” Green says, “but ‘Candid Camera’ jokes are a lot easier to write. You can do pretty well anything when somebody doesn’t know they’re being taped and it’s funny because of the voyeuristic side of it. That’s not really what we do.”
What Green and company do is confront people (friends, family, strangers) with bizarre situations designed to provoke a reaction. The camera compounds the tension by adding self-consciousness to the confusion.
“The camera is definitely a character in the show,” he says. “We don’t consider it detracting from the jokes in any way. Also, we shoot on the small-format camera and try to do it with a very small team so we appear to be a smaller operation than we are. People . . . think I’m just a college punk barging into their store--goofing around with his video camera.”
Green can be quite serious about what he does, speculating about what makes certain situations funny and explaining the challenges of surprising people as he becomes a more recognizable personality.
But John Miller, MTV’s senior vice president of original series development, believes the appeal of “The Tom Green Show” lies less in comedic theory than the improvisational moments that spark it.
“When he talks about it, he thinks methodically,” Miller says. “But most of [the humor] relies on his ability to turn a reality situation into comedy. We have big plans whenever we go out to shoot one of these pieces, but there’s no script, no cast, and people don’t do what you thought they would do.”
Though it’s only in its third season, “The Tom Green Show” had a four-year history before MTV picked it up--two years on Ottawa public access cable, two on Canada’s Comedy Network.
But according to Derek Harvie, Green’s collaborator and friend of some 20 years, the roots go back even further. Harvie can recall countless childhood instances of Bart Simpson-like mischief and says that Green’s sense of humor hasn’t changed much. It’s just that after years of stand-up comedy, talk radio and do-it-yourself television he’s become craftier about expressing it.
“We’ve gotten really good at taking something we did or said that we think is funny and putting it on television,” Harvie says. “That’s basically the refining that’s been going on over the past five or six years.
“When we were in Canada, Tom and I were the only two writing the show. We’d be in a coffee shop every day with a newspaper going, ‘Oh look, a 65-year-old woman got arrested for taking her top off in public. Let’s go ask her if we can see the goods.’ Now it’s more professional. There’s five other writers so the whole responsibility isn’t on my shoulders anymore. Which is kind of nice.”
For Green that responsibility is simple.
“The longer I do the show the more I look at the library of the things we’ve done, and it’s getting a bit weird,” Green says. “There was a point where we’d done 20 shows and it was kind of neat, and now we’ve probably shot 200 shows and your life becomes captured on this friggin’ tape. Then you start to think, it would be good if people remembered some of the stuff. But we don’t really go for big social comment with the show.
“We’re not trying to change the world,” Green says. “We’re just trying to make people laugh.”
* “The Tom Green Show” can be seen tonight at 10 on MTV. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).