Exclusive: Tom Green on surviving cancer, Trump and reinventing in Las Vegas

Tom Green
A still from Saturday Night Live where Green introduces his parents

Canadian comedian and actor Tom Green is back in fine form in Las Vegas until February 2018. His stand-up residency at Bally’s sees him up against the Dions, Copperfields and Cirque du Soleils of the Strip.

But as revealed in our exclusive interview, fans of this pioneer of the ambush viral video and shock comedy can also look forward to big things from him on the smallscreen next year, details of which will be revealed at a later date.

Many will remember how Green was fired from Celebrity Apprentice by now President Donald Trump in 2009.  Diehard fans also know how his groundbreaking work has informed and influenced the comedy of many, including the MTV Jackass crew, Eric Andre, and Sasha Baron Cohen.

Even his eye-popping film Freddy Got Fingered was a money-making hit, despite all the lofty Roger Ebert-penned critique of its time.

Green uses the daunting challenges he has faced over his life as he shapes his stand-up with wry observations of modern life, in a way that is never mean-spirited nor mired in cheap shots.

Green has a lot to say, as we spoke with him about his second act…

Monsters and Critics: We’ve been hooked since your Canadian public access TV. You’ve been through so much. Can you talk about the importance of being strong and fighting back?

Tom Green: Well, certainly the cancer was a traumatic experience, for sure. It was certainly unexpected, too. When you were watching those bootleg tapes from Ontario, that’s the earliest iteration of The Tom Green Show.

It went through a couple of actual phases before it even was on MTV — the show initially got picked up by a Canadian network. It started in 1994, and you can even take it back a little earlier than that. I started doing music and things in Canada in the late 80s, early 90s, when I was in high school. I was in this rap group, and we ended up on Much Music, and we had a hit record up there.

By the time the show got on MTV I had been working at this for about 10 years, which nobody in America knew, but in Canada they did because I’d been on television since I was a kid. I was 28 when I first went on MTV.

When I did get the cancer diagnosis, it was definitely a major curveball because I had been working towards this goal of getting out of my parents’ basement and having a real job on television. I finally got it, a hit show on MTV, so it was really like the rug getting pulled out from under me, which was a drag and a scary experience. I was right in the middle of living my dream.

About six months after I had cancer I was hosting Saturday Night Live…I refused to let it slow me down, even as it was happening. We ended up filming a documentary about my cancer and putting it on MTV, it was a crazy time.

I make a joke in my show, I say, “Sometimes I think about my battle with cancer and I say to myself I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But then I think, no, I’d trade it for my right testicle. I wouldn’t mind getting that back.”

It’s funny because it’s true, you know? I really do think that I, strangely enough…not glad that it happened, but I don’t think that I would be the person that I am today. It definitely helped shape a lot of my attitude towards life, I think it does give you a perspective that you might not have if you hadn’t been through a sort of near-death experience like that at a young age.

[It] makes you value the importance of every day a little bit more, and not take things for granted, to try to be positive. I’m not sure how much detail you want me to answer this question in. There’s a lot of details, but if you’re talking specifically about traumatic experiences, the thing about that cancer experience was it was a far more complex sort of recovery than people sort of, are aware.

It was a very difficult time. Just physically, I had a lymph node dissection where they took out some lymph nodes. They had to cut my abdomen open, and it was a very invasive surgery, and was extremely painful, [with a] very long recovery time. Meaning, five years it took me to recover from that. A lot of pain and an emotional toll the five years I was recovering from that. Hormonal and all sort of crazy things happening.

That went down right on top of when I was in the center of the storm with my show, being on Saturday Night Live, hosting the Letterman Show, and doing my new show on MTV, and my films that I did.

I was in a very strange spot, but I grit my teeth and went through it, but really I sort of look back and I think, “Wow, man.” It wasn’t necessarily the best time for me to be doing all of that stuff. I had to do it, because I had the opportunity to do things, but it was a complicated time.

Now 17 years later, and I don’t have any of those health issues. I’m completely cancer free, I don’t have any of the pain from the surgery or any of those things bothering me from the after-effects of cancer. Life is really good right now. I’m here, I’m doing my show in Las Vegas, and I’m enjoying doing comedy and not having to deal with all of this extra physical stress.

When you go through something that sort of, painful, physically painful, you kind of get out of it and everything’s a hell of a lot easier. So, it’s pretty good to have come out of the other side of that. I’m having a blast in Las Vegas, yeah.

M&C: I get the feeling it…not that you weren’t kind, but it gave you a kinder perspective. You really kind of lucked out. In a way, it gave you a whole new window to kind of take your comedy on a new, interesting path.

Tom Green:  I don’t talk about this a lot because I’m still trying to figure out exactly how much I want to reveal to the world, because some of it’s embarrassing, and some it, there’s regret involved in all of this.

There are moments where I look back at that time in my life and think, “Geez.” I was really in a very physically painful place, right? And still being in a situation where I was confronted with meeting every single person in Hollywood, every everybody. It was a very intense ride, and sometimes I think, “Okay, wow.” I wasn’t necessarily always in the best mood, you know? I wasn’t even sure, necessarily, why.

I think it was because I was basically in a lot of pain, trying to hide that. I think to myself sometimes, “Oh man, I wish I hadn’t been in this mood when I was hosting SNL, for instance.” I was literally doubled over in pain and not saying anything about it. But then you come out the other side of it, and what it does is, you go, “Oh, okay. Well, now I’m not in pain, and now I am able to be nice to everybody, and not grumpy, and things like that,” you know?

“Geez, there’s no reason to be an a**hole, basically.” When you’re new and when something like that happens where all of a sudden you’re getting pulled in all directions, and you’re 28 years old, and everybody’s telling you how funny you are, you think you’re pretty funny, too.

You’re on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and then layer in the fact you’re kind of physically exhausted and emotionally tapped with all of this extra stuff…it kind of messes with your head a bit. I have a lot of gratitude that I’m still able to work in comedy and perform for all of these amazing fans all around the world. I just did a show in Israel for the first time.

M&C: Yeah, how did that go? 

Tom Green: It was awesome. I was there in June, and then I was in the United Kingdom, I went to every city in the UK. I was in Scotland, Ireland, England, plus Scandinavia, all through Amsterdam, Norway, Denmark, Sweden. Of course, a tour all throughout the US.

Israel was amazing, I’d never been there before. The audiences were incredible. It was surreal because I sometimes just say to myself every night, “Wow. I started this thing out with my friends where we made these silly videos…these crazy videos, you know?”

You put them on Canadian public access station and here we are, 25+ years later, and people in Tel Aviv are quoting every line, and know all these bits.

Even bits that never even aired on MTV, because they got distributed on DVD and went all around the world. What I’m trying to say is with the experience I had of going through all that stuff I was just talking about, now when you’re playing a comedy show in Israel for the first time and a bunch of excited Israeli fans are there who never got to see you live before, and everyone’s having a great time…just because you’re a little tired from being on the long flight, you got some jet lag, you don’t let that affect your mood.

You go out there and have an amazing show, and have a beer with everybody in the audience after, and have a great night. You celebrate life and enjoy the fact that we’re alive and telling jokes. It’s been awesome.

M&C: To your point, your comedy segments have legs. They’ve aged well. Jackass, and Ali G, and even to some extent, Eric Andre…I’m going to be kind here, were hugely influenced by you. I think people are smart enough to know that you really were the precursor, the original gangster of this kind of genre. Are you a fan of Eric Andre, and Sasha Baron Cohen’s Ali G? 

Tom Green: Yeah, I’ve met all of those guys. I consider Eric a friend of mine. We talk all the time. Every couple of months we talk, and whenever he’s writing a show he always calls me up and asks me if I want to throw some ideas around with him, and he’s openly told me that he’s a huge fan and influenced by my show.

I certainly appreciate it when people that are doing things that are similar to what I did back in the day when nobody else was doing it, I appreciate it when they say it to me. I will say — I don’t like to name anyone specifically, I’m not actually talking about Eric when I say this — but some of the people you mentioned have literally done, shot for shot, every single one of my bits. You know what I mean?

M&C: We all know you’re talking about Jackass.

Tom Green: Yeah, so it’s kind of like, even though I’m friends with those guys, and I am friends with them — I’ve done shows with Steve-O, and I like to be friendly with everybody — it’s gotten to the point where it is a little bit weird sometimes.

I see them painting their parents’ house, and waking up their parents in the middle of the night, and dressing up, and on crutches, and going out in the street and falling down, or dressing up as an old man in an electric wheelchair, turning it into a feature film. It does kind of make you go, “Geez, you know, I think that was my idea.”

You have to take a step away from feeling bad about it, and understand that, first of all, I think that a lot of those people are sometimes unaware that they’re doing that, because what happened at MTV…I got cancer, and I had to quit my show. The show was basically the number one show on MTV.

There’s a lot of little things that happened in the media that are interesting. People say the show got canceled. The show never got canceled. It’s not often that you have a show that’s like, the top show on the network, and the person quits because they get cancer. So, everyone just assumes that it got canceled. But it didn’t get canceled. I quit the show and took a year off to deal with that.

I went and made some movies. And MTV started Jackass and a lot of the guys from my crew were moved over there. I think what ends up happening is, MTV ends up having all of their writers, and all of their books of ideas that I’d written, and all of my videos get thrown into a big idea mill, right? Then they go out and they start filming. I think a lot of the times some of the guys filming the stuff didn’t even know where the idea came from.

I don’t really look at any of the individual guys personally and say, “Oh, you guys took my idea,” or whatever. I just look at it like the industry is interesting.

If something works, all of a sudden you see ten more of it.  When I saw David Letterman going up to his office and yelling out the window of his office with a megaphone, I thought, “Oh, that’s hilarious,” and I was a 13-year-old kid watching that. As soon as I got my hands on a video camera I was going up on the roof of a parking garage and yelling at people walking by on the street with a megaphone.

I think you replicate things that you love. Steve-O’s always told me he loved the show, he taped every episode of the show. I just appreciate it when they sort of at least acknowledge that. They’ve acknowledged it publicly, so has Eric Andre.

I don’t think everybody does know that, but people that are paying attention do know that. People like you, that remember the show from before, people that were big fans of mine back in the day know that. But it does surprise me how the average person on the street doesn’t actually know that. It’s interesting.

M&C: Are you tired of comedians talking about Trump? Because of your history on the Celebrity Apprentice?

Tom Green: Well, I’ve sort of taken an approach to this subject in my stand-up as a little bit different. I don’t know if you mind if I swear for effect, but I don’t talk about Trump until the end of my show, [which] is what I’ve been doing lately.

I’ll say, “Listen, I don’t want to talk about politics here tonight, 2017’s been a weird year, but at the end of the day, I’m Canadian, so this is your f***ing problem. Things keep going the way they’re going in this country I’ll just move back to Canada. We’re building a wall.”

You know, I think it’d be disingenuous for me to say nothing about the political situation because I know the president. He fired me on the Celebrity Apprentice. I know the president, the president knows me. Anyone who knows me should probably not be president.

Tom Green
A still from Celebrity Apprentice, with Dennis Rodman talking and Tom standing behind him

I have a fun approach to talking about the subject. Obviously, I’m speeding through the bit here, but I do end up having fun with the fact that I got fired by the President of the United States. My old boss. I think in a subtle way, it reminds everybody how absurd it is that the President of the United States is my old boss, who wasn’t even a real boss, from a TV show. I tell a lot of funny stories about that.

I wrote a letter to Trump the day after I got fired, for going out drinking with Dennis Rodman, saying, “Mr. Trump,” I wrote it on the Trump Tower stationery, where I was staying.  I’m paraphrasing. It was, “Mr. Trump, I know going out drinking with Dennis Rodman wasn’t, perhaps, the best business decision in the world, but you know, I’m a comedian and this is a TV show, and I want the show to be funny and successful, so I wanted to do something that would make the show funny. So, best wishes with the show, and maybe next time I’ll just stick to the business,” or something like that.

The next day I got a response from the producers of the show and they told me Trump appreciated the letter. Then a few weeks later, I was one of the people they brought back, but they never brought anybody back that got fired in the third episode. They always bring people back that get fired episode eight, and they’re big characters on the show. I sensed it was some sort of regret from Trump. I don’t know if it’s a badge of honor to have Donald Trump like you.

I think this is partially the problem with what’s happened in American politics right now, is [that] you take a guy like that who is so aggressive, and subconsciously what happens with all of society, and politics, and the Republican party, and the media, and everybody, they go, “Oh, I want the aggressive mean guy to like me.”

It’s sort of like the reverse psychology.  I’ve not really thought about this before, I’m just sort of thinking about it now. It’s like…to get sort of heavy here, but when you’re an abused person, you take the opposite approach of what anyone would ever expect. You want to make them like you, to make them stop abusing you, and so I think that’s what he has done.

He’s just so brutally mean, and such a bully that you get these people running around almost like they’re in fear. The media, “Oh, geez, I don’t want him to say anything mean about me on Twitter. I better write a nice article about the guy.”

This happened earlier on, before it was a done deal that he was going to be the Republican nominee. People weren’t as hard on him as they are now in the first six months, even though he was still saying, “Mexicans are rapists, and I suppose some of them are nice people.”

You would have thought there would have just been sort of a unanimous understanding that this is just unacceptable behavior for somebody who’s running for President of the United States, but there wasn’t, and I think it’s just because people were afraid of him saying something mean about them on Twitter like he did to Rosie O’Donnell.

So, they didn’t come down on him as hard as they could, and so that’s why I say, “Listen, you know what? I don’t really give a crap if he liked me, you know?”

I’m not a fan, obviously. I don’t talk about this in my stand-up show. When you’re on stage in Las Vegas, I’m doing a residency here, and you’ve got people from all over the country here, and it probably leans even more towards the Trump territory. When you’re in Las Vegas…[the audience is] middle America. A lot of my fans, right? It doesn’t serve anybody for me to get up on stage and talk the way I’m talking right now. Being honest.

I kind of make a point in a roundabout way, I say, “You know, comedians will say ‘when you’re telling stand-up today, don’t talk about politics because you’ll divide your audience and only half the people will laugh. Don’t say what you actually think.’ So, I don’t want to talk politics.”

I say that on stage, so I slip in a political comment, while I’m essentially saying that I’m not going to talk politics, I am talking politics. I do it at the very end of my show because I’ve found if I even do that mid-show, there’s a shift in energy in the audience. All of a sudden you have Trump supporters, maybe 30 per cent of the audience all of a sudden is laughing a little bit less.

I want everybody at my show to be laughing really hard. I don’t want 30 per cent of the audience to be laughing 50 per cent as hard as they would have been. I can feel that. The whole audience can feel that energy.

When you’re doing stand-up with a group of people, it’s about harnessing the energy and bringing it to the most outrageous place. That’s the fun of doing stand-up, for me, is getting a whole group of people thinking in sync with one another, and laughing. It becomes a snowball effect.

The harder they laugh, they’re not only just laughing because the jokes are funny, they’re laughing because they can’t believe they’ve ever laughed that hard, they’re laughing because everybody is laughing really hard and it just becomes a pretty exciting thing.

My show’s a high energy show,  I’m not coming out on stage and complaining about politics. So, it was an interesting experience having gotten to know the President of the United States.

I do feel a little bit sad that things have spiraled the way they have. It’s interesting, every comedian, that’s all they talk about now. Gone are the days of having Johnny Carson on TV, where everybody in America would tune into one show and love it, because now all the late-night talk shows are slamming half the country.

I don’t know if that’s necessarily good for comedy, but maybe it’s necessary just for the world right now, that people just say what they think, you know?

Tom Green is at Bally’s stage in Las Vegas, Nevada. Shows are Sunday at 8pm and midnight, and Monday through Wednesday at 10pm. Tickets are $39, $59 and $79, with a meet-and-greet package available for $99, plus applicable tax and fees.

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