There are few entertainers so polarizing as Tom Green, at least among those who know of him. Most consider him a base comedian, reviled as the progenitor of the reality TV comedy concept as embodied by Bam Margara and his friends in Jackass , Viva Le Bam, and other spinoffs released by MTV. It is true that Green had a part to play in unleashing these hellish bastard children of television into the world, but further analysis suggests that MTV had the concept down from the beginning and merely sought Green as a marketable spokesman for that type of comedy.
Tom Green himself, unleashed, is an artist.
It is true that Tom Green did work for MTV and held down a show for a brief and unmemorable season, and for many viewers this was all they saw, and all they wanted to see, of Tom Green. Many sketches featured a bewildered Green walking the streets being abused and apparently abusing random strangers. It seems that it was the cruelty and malice of puerile pranks that MTV sought to expand on, and their later exploitation of Bam Margara pretty much backs this up. However, examination of Tom Green’s other works shows that the MTV series is a watered down product lacking much of the sublimity of Green’s earlier work, and infused with aggression not characteristic of Green himself.
Tom Green’s renaissance period occurred somewhere around 1998 when he hosted two seasons of The Tom Green Show for The Comedy Network in Canada. These shows were unavailable to most of the United States but have thankfully been released on DVD in Tom Green: Inside and Outside the Box. It is this series that we examine to make our case for Tom Green as artist.
This series was the most raw series for Green, and the one where he had the greatest mix of creative control and budget. In the DVD “liner notes” he mentions that the show was basically the effort of six people and was entirely edited by himself on an old analogue tape editing system. With such freedom, what resulted from Green’s creativity? Let us examine one sketch as an example.
In “6 Hours” Tom Green wears a lab coat and sits on a bench late at night in some unnamed Canadian metropolis. A large shoddily made sign beside him reads “THIS SCIENTIST HAS BEEN URINATING FOR 6 HOURS”, and two large jugs are at his feet, one filled with a dark juice and another filled with a pale liquid. Green holds a tube to the juice jug in his hand, occasionally bringing it to his mouth. Another tube runs from his crotch into the jug of… well… urine.
In the “sketch”, filmed entirely in black and white, an irate stranger not in on the “joke” raves about a future war between Canada and a separated Quebec. “You don’t care about it, you think it’s just a joke,” shouts the man. Tom responds with “and you don’t seem to care that I’ve been urinating here for six hours and that I have a catheter in my groin!” The two men argue at cross purposes for a few minutes while a crowd gathers. Eventually the man storms off in disgust and the crowd disperses, confused and vaguely horrified.
So what the hell is that?
As an aside let’s take a short stroll through the concepts of Absurdism and Surrealism. Both are often linked to comedy; for instance Monty Python’s particular brand of humour is often described as surrealist. But what exactly is Absurdism? Wikipedia defines it as follow:
Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of man to find meaning in the universe will ultimately fail because no such meaning exists (at least in relation to man).
Following that, there is a discussion of the “point” of existence:
The most common definition of “point” is that something (an object, or simply living one’s life) must have a higher purpose to justify it. However, for that higher purpose to have “a point”, then it, too, must have an even higher purpose. These “chains of justification” never come to an end; therefore, nothing can be considered to have ultimate purpose.
Humans historically attempt to find meaning in the universe, according to Absurdism. Yet, the world is irrational and does not conform to the standards or wishes of mankind and so this search is inevitably in vain.
Wikipedia then goes into a very depressing discussion of Albert Camus’ philosophy, so let’s veer off that course and take a look now at Wikipedia’s description of Surrealism:
Surrealism is a cultural, artistic, and intellectual movement oriented toward the liberation of the mind by emphasizing the critical and imaginative faculties of the “unconscious mind” and the attainment of a state different from, “more than”, and ultimately truer than everyday reality: the “sur-real”, i.e. more than real.
Tom Green’s art is based on absurdist and surrealist concepts.
In analyzing the above described skit, let us begin by asking what exactly is the point of Tom’s action. By using the word “SCIENTIST” in his sign, Tom attempts to suggest that there exists some purpose or point to his exercise of urinating in a jug. In reality, of course, there is no such higher purpose. It has no point. Tom argues with a man who is deadly serious in his concerns over a militaristic separatist Quebec, but in the context of the skit, the argument is useless. The raving of the man become merely another bizarre element of this very strange scenario, and the man’s dedication in making his point heard makes him so emotional that we question whether his dead-serious argument has any credence whatsoever. And finally there is the crowd of startled onlookers. The crowd seems horrified and perturbed by the sight of Green arguing with the raving man, and yet we as viewers at home laugh (or at least I do). Once again we must ask what the point of the entire skit is. Is it to shock us, like the crowd? Is it to entertain us to make us laugh at the crowd? Do we laugh at the raving man or at Tom? Is there even a point at all, or is Tom perhaps playing a joke on us, making us watch such a strange event unfold?
As well as lacking a “point”, Green has created a skit that is ultimately surrealist. He challenges our perceptions of reality, and the perceptions of the crowds that see him, by creating such an insane scenario. The shock and disbelief of those who encounter Green causes them to reexamine many of their assumptions about how people interact. You can almost see the gears grinding in their heads as they attempt to deal as best they can with the utterly irrational Green.
Much of Green’s work in this series uses the theme of meaning and “point”. It is the few more outrageous pranks cruelly played on his parents that are most often mentioned by casual viewers (“did you see the one where he painted a lesbian sex scene on his dad’s car?”) but that is because these are the easiest to classify: there is a tormentor and a victim, and thus the point is all too evident and most viewers dislike Green as a tormentor. But these literal prank sketches are few and far between. The vast majority of Green’s oeuvre consists of absurdist pieces that are hard to explain. Most people seem to forget that Monty Python is also very hard to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it: (“okay, so there’s this martial arts instructor who demands that his students attack him with fresh fruit, okay?”)
Some might argue that Green’s work consists mostly of pranks, and yet pranksterism figures highly in certain forms of performance art. Is Green’s act as a scientist any more bizzare than Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s acclaimed feminist work Lesbian Parks and Services, in which the artists patrol national parks claiming to be Lesbian Rangers from the Lesbian National Parks and Services department? Others may argue that Green’s work is too cruel and disgusting to be understood as art, but Green’s urinating into a jug is yet quite a ways away from Israel Moro’s performance piece involving putting vials of his own semen in a refrigerator and putting the fridge on public display.
You don’t have to like Tom Green or his works, but they are forms of art. Tom’s work explores vast territories of untouched comedic material that have been skipped over by Jackass and its ilk. Tom is different and Tom is worth watching.