Tom Green: Ottawa’s Prodigal Son Returns

Tom Green needs no introduction, especially in his hometown of Ottawa. It is here, afterall, where Tom spent his teens and early twenties creating The Tom Green Show, and wreaking havoc in the Byward Market with his man-on-the-street style pranks and gimmicks.

Today, the idea of pranking an unsuspecting public to film their reaction may seem overdone, but in the 90s it was comedic innovation at its finest. Any fan will tell you that Tom Green stands as the pioneer of the shock comedy genre that is rampant on Youtube and other social media platforms today.

While his ideas and skits have been replicated by countless comedians over the last 20 years, his explosion to fame has not. At 25, Tom was the modest creator of a non-paid, public-access television show on Rogers Cable out of Ottawa, a 1-hour variety show where he would interview guests in front of a live audience. A format, he has said, that was inspired by his love of David Letterman, SNL, and other interview talk shows of the time. By 27, his show was picked up by MTV, and Tom would go on to grace those very stages:
Letterman, SNL, and Oprah, among others. A couple of major movie deals later, and Tom had become a celebrity.

He never shook his Ottawa roots, of course. Some 20 years later, Tom has regularly returned to the Capital to visit his parents and brother. He’s spent the last year travelling the US in a decked-out, retro-fitted camper van, complete with a compact recording studio. Though he has journeyed alone (save for his dog and loyal companion Charley), Tom has continued to make content for his Youtube channel and podcast, while also sharing some of his photography, to take his fans along on his journey.

In late May, Tom drove from LA to Ottawa for the first time since the pandemic began. But this time, he’s here for a while. Tom isn’t just visiting, but hitting the streets of Ottawa again to interact and make content, in a full-circle way, right back to his beginnings.

It’s a fitting way to spend his summer, in the town where he got his start. Tom turns 50 in July, and though he’s made a career out of antics, Tom looks forward to working on film projects as more of a creator than a frontman. Reflection seems to be a constant these days for Tom, who has now had the chance to sit back and reflect on those fast-paced years in his 20s, a rollercoaster of fame, creativity, achievement, and pushing the limit.

We sat down with Tom to discuss the early years of the Tom Green Show in Ottawa, his recent work, and some of his best insights on life and laughter: both of which Tom has had no shortage of.

In May, you drove from Los Angeles all the way to Ottawa. Why did you decide to come home?

I’ve been travelling around and filming this year because I wanted to find something to do during this pandemic that would keep me occupied. That led to this. And after a while I wanted to see my family, I hadn’t seen them in a year. So I’m back and visiting them and I’ve got my camera set up and my van with me. I didn’t want to get on a plane, I’m not really ready to do that yet.

How does it feel to be filming on the streets of Ottawa again?

It feels great. During the whole of the pandemic I wasn’t really interacting with people. That’s why all of the videos you see have been just me and Charley out in the desert. Now that I’ve been vaccinated I feel a bit more free to go on the street and talk to people.

What I find interesting about being back in Ottawa and shooting on the streets right now, which I’m doing quite a bit, is how much it brings me back to those early days of launching my show… back when I was in college and doing the show on Rogers Cable. It reminds me of what was so special about filming on the streets of Ottawa, even compared to filming on the streets of other cities in Canada, and when we moved the show to New York, Los Angeles, and were traveling around America. There was something subtly different, something that I didn’t put my finger on right away.

I remember when the show got picked up by MTV in 1999 and I went down to New York City for the first time. I went out to Long Island and did this shoot called Under Cutter’s Pizza.

We’d probably been filming for about an hour and this guy chased me with a hammer. He wanted to kill me. It was certainly hilarious, but it also really showed a distinct difference in the way people were acting, and the way I would act… after that I was always worried about someone coming at me with a hammer.

We’ve always had all sorts of reactions. Even in Canada people have reacted in edgy ways. But for the most part, people here are just so happy to talk.

There’s a lot to be said about the tone of the early years of the Tom Green Show being shot on the streets of Ottawa. I think it has a lot to do with the people of the city. They are very friendly, engaging people that like to talk. It’s different than when you’re in America where people are a little more guarded. That’s just the nature of what it’s like in big American cities. People are a little more cautious about talking to somebody with a camera.

Because I grew up here, and I’m so comfortable on the streets of Ottawa, I also have a different energy and tone to my interviews. There’s a different kind of comedic energy that comes out of me and the people I’m talking to.

I’m just starting to realize that there’s a lot to be said for the art and creativity that’s come out of Ottawa. I think there’s a reason why there’s been some unique creativity that has come out of this city, and it’s because it’s always been a very supportive environment for people to experiment. It’s a less threatening environment, less daunting for artists and musicians to experiment with things and not feel like they’re being judged.

If you’re doing art, music, comedy or video, and you’re in a big city with a lot more people doing the same thing, it can be daunting and intimidating. It can demotivate you. If you’re in Ottawa, and you really want to explore your creativity and be an artist, I personally feel that you’re able to find more unique ways of innovating because you’re not surrounded by people doing the same type of thing everywhere you look.

When I’m in LA, I’m surrounded by other comedians, actors, videographers, and directors. It almost becomes a blur, just how many people are doing that kind of creative work. On the street, when you talk to people, they aren’t really as interested in talking to you. It changes the entire dynamic.

That’s why I’ve really enjoyed being back in town and exploring that and creating these videos that I’ve been putting up on my website, Youtube channel, and all of my social media. Being back in Canada has been great for that.

It’s not just something that I’m noticing alone. All around the world, people are watching and saying that the new videos that I’m shooting right now in my hometown are really bringing back some of the fun, raw, innovative energy of the early years of the Tom Green Show.

I think it surprises those viewers from around the world. They know of Canada, but not necessarily what it’s like to walk down the streets of a city like Ottawa.

I’m very proud of this city. I always have been. I always make a point of telling people I’m from Ottawa, every chance I get.

You mention your parents. Most fans knew your parents in your early work, usually being caught in one of your sketches and being very surprised or even disgruntled at your recent prank. But what were they really like in those early years? How would you describe their support?

They encouraged me to follow my passion in life. They were worried at times that it was maybe not going to work out, but there were little successes along the way, even when I was a teenager, doing stand-up at Yuk Yuk’s in Ottawa. Or my band, we had some success when I was a teenager. So I think they saw that it was something that I had potential in.

They had a good sense of humour, so even though they were annoyed when they were getting woken up in the middle of the night, they could kind of see the comedy in it the next day.

I think it was a combination of factors. Their humour matched the ideas I had. We never pushed it to the point where it was mean or hurtful. It was more confusing than it was mean. I think that’s why it worked. It was just the right things working off each other.

Do you find the city has changed over the years?

I can see every little change, but I don’t see any huge changes. Which is kind of what I like. When I make my new videos, there are some comments from viewers who say people aren’t responding the way they used to in the 90s. But it’s the same for me. I come back all the time.

You’ve been called the pioneer of the shock comedy genre, a form of comedy that is explosively popular today on Youtube. You truly were the first ‘YouTube’ star before YouTube existed. What are your thoughts on the explosion of that genre and those finding success with it on YouTube today?

I see a lot of young people doing what I did when I was their age. It’s exciting to see, because I’ve been through it myself. It was a different medium when I started, it was more about getting on television, there was no social media. It was and is all a product of changing technology.

In the 90s, video cameras were new and exciting, and now social media is new and exciting.

When you’re young, you have this desire to go out and do something creative. And in my case, silly. I find it cool when I see some of the things that are blowing up today. You mention my parents. There are multiple generations now, since I would wake up my parents on TV every night, who are doing just that. There’s a guy on TikTok now that’s doing it. It’s neat to see specific bits that I did be taken and replicated and redone. Like painting their parents’ car or house.

There was a period of time where actual television shows were doing it, and now it’s just everywhere. I like it. It’s been good for me, because people hear I was doing it in the 90s, and go back and revisit my stuff. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me, too.

I was very inspired by comedians and people who came before me, like David Letterman, Johnny Carson… I always wanted to try and use their inspiration to trigger ideas in my head. On The Tom Green Show, I was sitting behind a desk interviewing people, and going out on the streets doing weird stuff. That was all really because of my love of David Letterman.

So I think it’s normal for artists and for young people when they’re inspired by something to want to replicate it.

Tell us about Charley. What is the inspiration behind her name?

Charley is named after Travels With Charley in Search of America, by John Steinbeck. At the back of my van it says Rocinante, what John Steinbeck called his camper in the book. It was one of the first examples of somebody who who was living in their van and travelling around the desert. He wrote Travels With Charley, a book about travelling across America and meeting people, in the 60s. And that’s what I’ve been doing with my videos.

You recently started a podcast. What do you think of that as a platform for content delivery?

There are so many of them now. It’s like when I started doing my internet web show in the early 2000s from my living room in Los Angeles. There was nobody doing that kind of stuff independently. Shortly after that, the technology for podcasting came in.

I’ve got some mixed opinions about it. There are so many different ones. But for me, I always like to do whatever everyone’s not doing. It’s fun being creative and trying to always figure out what’s going to happen next, but sometimes by the time something’s ready to pop I’m bored of it already, and someone’s coming in and is ready to give it their all.

There’s something less exciting about it to me right now because all of my friends in Los Angeles have a podcast. They are talking to each other and interviewing each other… that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now instead. Filmmaking is a more unique skill I have.

And photography, too, right?

Yes, and that’s why I’ve really enjoyed going into the desert and getting all of these beautiful landscapes. I think it confuses some people in a good way, because it’s not the type of videos I usually do. They’re not really funny videos, they’re more just slice of life videos, travel vlogs.

But, I’ve wanted to take my fans who have been with me all of these years on this adventure.

Any memorable encounters out there in the middle of the desert?

I never felt totally in danger. When you’re in the United States and it’s nighttime, and you see somebody in a van camping, it’s probably more dangerous for you to try to break into the van. So I was pretty much ready for anything.

You’re turning fifty in July. How do you feel about hitting that milestone? What are some of the goals you have for this next decade in your life?

I feel really good about it. I’m glad to be turning fifty. For a lot of my life, I’ve been doing all of this silly stuff, which has been sort of a youthful endeavour. But there’s always been a more serious side to me, a more technical side. I feel like maybe I can embrace a little more of that now that I’m turning fifty. When you’re in your twenties, nobody really takes you seriously.

I plan on directing some more films, working on a couple of projects that we’ll probably be announcing this year for some movies I’ll be directing. We’ve got some big plans for the next ten years.

What is the biggest difference between you today, and the Tom Green who was just starting his career in his mid twenties?

When I was in my twenties, I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going to happen with my life. It was very scary to be worried about the future. Now that I’m turning fifty, it’s a lot less scary, because there is just so much less of my life left to ruin (laughs). So that’s a good thing. It’s something I want to explore in my stand-up comedy as well, which is another big thing that I continue to do.

When you’re young and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and if you’re going to be able to pay the bills… a lot of those worries are what drive you. You’re worried about getting to live your dream. And honestly, I’ve already gotten to. So I am able to relax now and take some time to enjoy the success. It’s a much more relaxing existence at this stage in my life, I get to focus on what I want to do.

Do you remember a specific moment in your early career when you realized that you had achieved your dreams? A moment when you realized that you had ‘made it’?

There’s a bunch of moments like that for sure. The first would’ve probably been when I got to be a guest on the David Letterman show. Some of the other ones were more financial. I had never had money before, and all of a sudden I was getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to do movies and things like that. I sort of realized, like, wow. I actually did find some success in this business.

It all happened so quickly. The show got picked up by MTV and then Letterman asked me to do his show, Oprah asked me on her show, I got to host Saturday Night Live… and then I got to do like ten movies in a row, some really big ones. By the time that was done, I was able to say ‘that worked out pretty well.’

Your first attempt at stand-up was at Yuk Yuk’s here in Ottawa when you were only 16. What do you remember from that show?

I always look at jokes as a sort of a synergy between the audience, the energy in the room, the material, and the performance. All of that stuff combined is what makes it funny to me. So saying particular jokes outside of that context can sometimes not translate well. I don’t even find that standup translates well on television. If you went and saw any comedian live, in a comedy club, you’re going to be laughing to the point where you can hardly breathe. But if you sat down and watched the same person tell those jokes from your couch, you might only watch for twenty minutes.

For my very first show at Yuk Yuks, I did well. The second show wasn’t so good. A lot of people will tell you that there’s this thing that happens when you do your very first show. You do well, because you have a sort of nervous energy. And the audience senses that excitement. And then you come back on your second show and you’re overconfident. So you have a different energy, but you don’t have the material to back it up because you’re so new. So that’s when you bomb, on your second show.

Back in the day, when I was a teenager, there was probably a fair amount of experimentation. But over time, you start to learn how not to bomb. You start to understand that a lot of it has to do with confidence. But you also can’t look overconfident, even if you are. It’s an interesting dance you have to do in your head. And you also have to have some jokes, too.

How was catching up with Drew Barrymore on her show?

It was fun to catch up. I hadn’t talked to her in over fifteen years. There were obviously hard feelings at one point, that’s why we got a divorce. But that fades after a while and you kind of sit and think about all of the fun things that happened and the good memories are the ones that percolate to the surface.

It was fun for her fans and for mine as well. Because I think there were a lot of question marks in the air. It was interesting to be on her show and to see her for the first time after 15 years on camera.
We weren’t actually in the same room. She was in New York and I was in LA. I don’t think many people know that.

You’ve spent decades of your life making people laugh. What do you think is the key to happiness in life?

It depends on what kind of person you are. Everyone has different ways of processing the world around them. If you’re an artist, or ambitious, and young, you sometimes don’t see things clearly because you’re so focused on the thing that you’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes you can be a little bit blind to the way you’re supposed to get there. So much about being successful, certainly in a creative business like this, is about engaging with people and having fun. And that’s the answer. You can’t forget that you need to have fun. If you’re so stressed out about your goals in life and your career and every little detail of things, you’re not having fun, and that defeats the purpose. That can hold you back in so many ways. It’s really about having fun with the people you’re working with, and with your audience. Because then everyone can see that, and wants to have fun with you.

Sometimes that’s hard for people in their twenties to understand. Your sense of time is a lot different when you’re young, too. You think you have more time than you’ve got.

I would just say that: try to have more fun, try to stay positive. There’s never really anything worth getting really angry about. I think back to a lot of the things that I’d get really angry about when I was starting up the show, like a joke or an idea, or the fact that someone wouldn’t want to shoot something with a certain camera angle. You look at all the bands in the world that break up, because the bass player doesn’t get along with the drummer. They have a disagreement and the whole thing falls apart. It’s sort of a tragic thing for a band that has worked so hard. And that can happen with anything. So don’t sweat the small stuff. Just try to enjoy the ride.



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