Tom Green Makes Himself at Home
The once-hot comic does a happily inane online yakfest from his living room. Still missing: advertisers.
By Chris Gaither
Times Staff Writer
September 24, 2006
Brooke Shields has been a talk show guest dozens of times during her three decades in Hollywood, including on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and "The Late Show With David Letterman."
But not until this summer, when the actress appeared on "Tom Green Live," had she cursed like a sailor on the air, gone without full makeup and sung with Siberian huskies while waiting for the host's Internet connection to come back up.
"It's kind of cool being on the cutting edge," Shields said.
Remember Green, the Canadian comedian who simulated sex with a dead moose on his groundbreaking MTV show, lost a testicle to cancer and was married — briefly — to movie star Drew Barrymore?
If he'd slipped your mind, you're not alone. High-profile work has been hard for Green to come by recently. So he decided to shine the spotlight on himself by creating his own call-in talk show — broadcasting on the Web, from his Hollywood Hills living room.
Monday through Thursday, just before 8 p.m., the 35-year-old goofball slips into Letterman mode. He puts on a jacket and tie, fires up high-powered Web cameras and coaxes entertainers of varying levels of celebrity to make conversation, perform and field viewers' calls for about an hour.
With "Tom Green Live," the comedian is breaking just about every rule in television. In the process, he may end up rewriting a few, becoming a sort of online Mike Douglas for the YouTube generation.
"At first I thought it would be really good practice for a talk show," Green said. "Then I realized, it is a talk show."
Roughly 25,000 people a night tune in to maniatv.com or tomgreen.com to watch, according to executives at ManiaTV Network, the Internet broadcaster that backs Green and built the half-million-dollar studio in his home.
The live broadcast is beset with technical problems. Green's tantrums directed at the show's 26-year-old producer, Robert Kurtz, have become a running gag. Viewers e-mail Green photos of themselves wearing T-shirts that say "ROBERT!!!!"
And he's not making money from the site. There are no commercial breaks because the show has no advertisers.
Even so, Green is trying to fashion himself the president and star of his own next-generation broadcast network. Although most of his viewers tune in through ManiaTV, Green is enlisting friends such as red-carpet interviewer Melissa Rivers and comedian Neil Hamburger to host their own live shows, which he plans to broadcast on tomgreen.com.
For now, he's content to live off the proceeds of past TV and film projects. But Green, manager Howard Lapides and his William Morris Agency representatives are looking for sponsors for "Tom Green Live," putting him in a strange situation. The wacky guy who used to squabble with MTV Networks executives over how far he could push his comedy is now taking pains not to alienate potential advertisers.
"I'm also the executive now who's worried that if the host goes too far over the edge or says something too crazy, we may never be able to get Budweiser to sign on," he said deadpan.
Although Green became famous for pranks and gross-out humor that paved the way for MTV's "Jackass" and "Punk'd," his comedic roots lie in the late-night talk-show format.
Growing up in Ottawa in the 1980s, Green organized talent shows during school assemblies and hosted them in the mode of his idol, Letterman.
In 1994, while studying TV broadcasting in community college, he landed a one-hour weekly show on his local public-access cable channel, Rogers Community 22. Green sat at a desk and interviewed people he and his friends found in the phonebook or plucked off the street. He mixed in recorded stunts: jumping off a high dive into a swimming pool in full hockey gear, interviewing pedestrians with pork chops taped to his face and waking his parents in the middle of the night with bagpipes blaring.
Comedy Network, a national cable channel in Canada, picked up "The Tom Green Show" after four years.
He parlayed the show's success into the big time. MTV bought it in 1999, repackaged many of his famous bits from Canada and turned Green into a pop-culture phenomenon. He went on to appear in movies such as "Road Trip" and "Charlie's Angels." The latter featured and was produced by his future wife, Barrymore.
But his fortunes turned shortly after he moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2000. Just as he met Barrymore, he learned he had testicular cancer. He stopped production of his show, except for a special episode chronicling his surgery and fight against the disease. In 2001, the house he shared with Barrymore burned down, and their marriage fell apart after only five months. The movie he wrote and directed, "Freddy Got Fingered," was widely panned as the worst film of the year.
MTV gave him another chance in 2003 with "The New Tom Green Show," a late-night talk fest. The show was generally praised but failed to find much of an audience. MTV canceled it after a few months.
The lull in his career gave him time to resume writing on his website. Web-savvy before the rest of the entertainment business, he began posting on tomgreen.com in the mid-'90s but stopped when his career soared. With more time on his hands, he began posting e-mail messages from fans and responding on his blog. That led to experiments posting audio and video clips.
"It was almost therapeutic for me, just having some kind of voice in the world," Green said.
Finally, he realized he didn't need to wait for TV networks to offer him a show. He would do it himself online.
ManiaTV decided to invest in the idea and struck a deal with Green in June. The Denver-based company would equip his house and the partners would each broadcast and archive the show on their websites and share whatever revenue eventually came in.
"Do whatever you want," ManiaTV Chief Executive Drew Massey recalled telling Green. "We know you're a creative genius. Have fun with it."
During shows, Green usually sits in front of the fireplace at a small wooden desk he kept from his MTV gig. An old-fashioned RCA microphone and a book by television pioneer Jack Paar, whose interviewing techniques Green has studied, cover the desk. A blond wig, aluminum foil and other props fill a box under the desk for use when the conversation slows.
"Tom Green Live" debuted on June 15. His first guests were the puppet Howdy Doody and Zack Wolk, a 24-year-old longtime fan of Green's work from Redondo Beach. When he's not dispatching shuttle vans at Los Angeles International Airport, Wolk works with Green as an unpaid intern, cajoling talent agents and publicists to book their clients on the Internet show.
"We've kind of built our own public access television station here, really, in my house," Green told the audience during the first episode. He signed off that night by walking onto his deck and, in a suit and tie, tumbling headlong into the pool.
"Tom Green Live" is scheduled to run from 8 to 9 p.m., but Green often lets it keep rolling. It's not like television, where another show occupies the next time slot.
It's also not like television in that sometimes there's no show at all. Viewers who try to tune in are often met with black screens or video but no sound. The phone system also gives Green loads of trouble. He deals with squealing feedback, complete crashes and calls so inaudible that he just hangs up. He and ManiaTV are trying to fix these problems, hoping they won't put off viewers and advertisers.
Frustrating as the technical problems are, Green said, they add something to the show. He rants about the latest glitch in every episode. One recent night, he had enough — he smashed the call-management computer, which costs several hundred dollars, on the floor and stomped on it. He now gives viewers his home number.
On the day before Shields' visit, the phones didn't work at all, and Wolk hadn't garnered a guest. So, as the host of a call-in talk show with no callers and no guests, Green improvised.
He launched into a riff about being besieged by e-mails from viewers who wanted him to be less serious on the show, more like the Tom Green of old.
"I'd love to do it, I really would," he said. "But, um, this is a serious show, I'm afraid. Time to grow up."
Then, clad in a black suit and tie, Green proceeded to wrap his head in aluminum foil, throw a pig mask on top of it and shake his noggin violently. He stumbled around the room, played an asinine tune on the guitar and moaned loudly, now sporting a wastebasket on his head.
"Sorry guys, the phones weren't working tonight," he said after 20 minutes of antics. "But we'll be back tomorrow, with the phones working."
The unpredictability of an appearance on "Tom Green Live" and its small audience relative to TV may explain why A-list guests have been scarce. Shields, with whom he shot a children's movie last year, is a notable exception.
But the guests are of a sort that might appeal to a Tom Green fan. He got Dr. Drew Pinsky, the internist who hosts the call-in radio show "Loveline," to sing opera. He led hip-hop group Jurassic 5 in a half-hour rap session, impressing them with his rhymes. Tommy Chong ended his appearance by lighting up some pot. Comedians Jamie Kennedy and Patton Oswalt, gushing with envy, said they wanted TV studios in their homes.
Spike Feresten, a veteran writer for "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons," was brushing his teeth one day this summer when Green popped into his head. "What the hell happened to him?" Feresten recalled thinking.
Through a Google search, he soon found Green's website and Internet talk show. Feresten, who is hosting his own late-night show on Fox this fall, booked Green to appear. In exchange, he agreed to visit "Tom Green Live."
On a recent Wednesday night, Feresten entered Green's bachelor pad to find Annie and Steve — the huskies — lapping water off the floor from a dishwasher. To get to the stage, he had to step over feces from Green's pet macaw, Rex Murphy. When he poured himself coffee in the "green room," which in this case is the breakfast nook off Green's kitchen, he discovered that the milk had expired 17 days earlier.
But he had a blast.
"It's the immediacy that's really appealing, the fact that there's no red tape, no network bureaucracy. You just do it and it goes out," he said. "I think he's on to something here."