Tom Green feels like some sort of weird dream.
Let us recap: A skinny, goateed Canadian with a mischievous bent hosts a public-access talk show that looks like it was filmed in his parents' garage. MTV buys The Tom Green Show, and it becomes a phenomenon, thanks to infamous stunts like the one where Green mounts a dead moose on the side of a highway. He stars in movies, hosts Saturday Night Live, marries Drew Barrymore and makes the cover of Rolling Stone. Eminem raps about him in The Real Slim Shady. Oh, and he is diagnosed with testicular cancer.
All of this happened between 1999 and 2001. Doesn't seem real, does it?
Since leaving MTV in 2003, Green has turned his focus to the Internet. For years, he has hosted Tom Green's House Tonight, a surprisingly normal talk show from his actual living room in Los Angeles. And he has rediscovered a passion for standup comedy, which he hadn't performed regularly since his teenage years in Ottawa.
As he comes to the Tampa Improv this weekend, Green, who turns 40 on July 30, took a few minutes to chat about cancer, anticomedy and why planking has always been funny. Here are excerpts.
How's your health these days? Do you still receive any treatment for your cancer?
No, I'm completely cured of that. It's been over 10 years now. Everything's good.
When you experience cancer in such a public way, people must come up to you all the time with their own cancer stories. I don't want to call it a burden, but that must be a weird thing.
It's funny. I talk about cancer at the end of my show — I talk about life and death, I talk about a lot of serious issues, and make jokes about them. And after the show, lots of people come up to me and will share stories about their loved ones who have diagnosed their own illness, sometimes because of my show. But because I did this outrageous show on MTV, I also get the opposite type of reaction, where I get people shouting from their cars, "Hey, how's your NUT, man?" I don't think people saw how much it affected me on a physical and emotional level. . . . If somebody had a public battle with breast cancer, nobody would ever come up to them and say, "How's your BOOB doing?" Obviously, that would be the most disgusting, outrageous thing that anybody could ever do. But people do it all the time to me. It can get upsetting.
On television and on your Web series, you seem to relish awkwardness and discomfort.
I definitely do that in my standup, too.
That seems like it'd be difficult to pull off in a mainstream comedy club like the Improv.
It's a balance. I'm not doing an anticomedy set, where I go up and tell a lot of jokes that aren't funny, and see how people react. I'll say things that are shocking or outrageous, and test the audience's willingness to go places with me, but I don't do that joke after joke after joke, and wear them down. But all the great standup comedians address controversial issues, taboos in our society, things that people aren't accustomed to hearing openly discussed in public. Discomfort is a release; it leads to laughter. If you do it the right way, it's an effective tool. You can't just get up there and talk about daffodils and rainbows and expect people to laugh outrageously.
Going back and watching some clips from your old show, I had completely forgotten about the time you hung one of your own paintings on the wall of a museum. When Banksy did that a few years later, did you think, "Hey, wait a minute . . . "?
Oh, yeah. There's been lots of things where I've said, "Hey, wait a minute . . . " But you can't sit and think about that. Because it's exciting when you see it. It's sort of a confirmation that it was a good idea in the first place. I'm sure Banksy probably never saw that (clip), and I've actually never seen the Banksy bit, to be honest with you. But everyone's told me about it.
Everybody's talking about planking now, where you lie down flat with your hands at your side. I was planking in 1989. I've got video of it. I'd go out in the street, lie down flat on my face with a hidden camera on the other side of the road, and wait for a crowd to form.
What was funny to you about that?
First of all, it was very visually funny. . . . You're lying straight on your face, with your nose right on the sidewalk; it's a very odd position that nobody would ever lie in. For the first 10 minutes, people walking by and doing nothing was interesting. Then one person would stop to ask if you were all right, and people, like the sheep that we are, would all stop. And then all of a sudden, people are asking to call an ambulance. And then as soon as the word "ambulance" would get mentioned, I would slowly stand up, walk through the crowd and wander away with this stunned look on my face. Nobody knew what was going on. It was before the era of people filming pranks all over the place. They thought I was dead. It was a lot of fun.