20 years ago, Tom Green directed his first film. Now he’s living in a van.
Picture this: A disturbed young man, prone to zoophilic outbursts, returns to his family home in Portland, Oregon, after being fired from a factory job in LA. His father berates and belittles him, often leaving his mother shaking from fear. He strikes up a relationship with a wheelchair-bound nurse to whom his father refers as a “cripple” and “retard slut whore.” Tired of the abuse, the young man invents a lie during a family therapy session: that his father sexually molested his younger brother, Freddy. The brother is committed to a home for abused children, their mother leaves the house, and the young man learns to channel familial trauma into art.
Then picture this: the synopsis offered above is not for a dour, European arthouse drama but a $14 million, 20th Century Fox-distributed comedy written by, directed by, and starring a Canadian comedian most famous for an MTV prank show. The film’s father-son rift is rectified only after the son (Gord, played by writer-director Tom Green) moves his family’s house to Pakistan and jerks off an elephant onto the father’s face. This is the curious case of Freddy Got Fingered, the comedy masterpiece that turns 20 today.
When Tom Green first answers my phone call he’s in the middle of roasting a turkey. It’s Christmas Eve, 2020, and he’s putting the turkey in the oven for a dinner he’s sharing with his dog. He repeats this phrase a few times, picking out different syllables to emphasize each time: “I’m just putting this tur-key in the oven, just gotta get this turkey into the oven so I can eat some turkey.” Hearing this fills me with an ecstasy comparable to an Elvis fanatic hearing their idol say “thankyuhverymuch.” Already I have experienced one of Tom’s great comedic gifts: to repeat an innocuous phrase in a nebbish tenor until it becomes gut-bustingly funny. I am reminded of so many of the best gags from Freddy Got Fingered: think “this is a fancy restaurant,” “Japanfour,” “I’m a farmer, daddy,” or the deathless “daddy, would you like some sausage?”
I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of saluting Freddy Got Fingered 20 years to the day since its premiere. The film is a larger-than-life monument to comedic commitment, influencing an entire generation of weird comedians and setting an unbeatable bar of beyond-the-pale shock comedy. I first viewed it with two tallboys in hand at a high school sleepover and have spent the past ten years raving about it to every friend with a sympathetic ear. The good people at The Film Stage promised me exclusive rights to a “20-year retrospective” article back in 2014 or so; since then I have seen Tom Green live, read his memoir Hollywood Causes Cancer, and watched the film an additional (give or take) 12 times. Each time I am astounded by its audacity, by its creative and spontaneous spirit, and by the emotional core at its center (yes, seriously). I contacted Tom on the eve of its anniversary and he agreed to a phone interview. Though he was good-humored, patient, and gracious enough to talk Freddy with a super-fan, I could tell he was not inclined to discuss it too in-depth; many answers came with a caveat or platitude to the effect of “onward and upward.” They were by far the most uncomfortable portions of this exchange. Perhaps the film is still a touchy spot for the comedian; perhaps it’s languished in infamy for too long to feel like his creation; or perhaps it’s just that he lives in a van now.
Last year, Tom bought a van and outfitted it with a solar-powered battery system, full-service recording studio, and enough camera equipment to produce a television series. Tom has lived in it with his dog Charley for the majority of the past year. The decked-out camper has proven a creative boon: from within he directs and edits the DIY YouTube diary series Van Life, as well as the podcast Van Life with Tom Green, where he interviews friends and celebrities. I caught him on a rare break from “van life,” while home for Charley to get surgery. Our winding conversation will provide some pearls of wisdom for any Tom Green fan curious about his thoughts on the film, aging, Gen Z, David Cronenberg, nature, colonialism, and 9/11’s effect on comedy.
The Film Stage: So where are you?
Tom Green: I’m back in LA, just for another few days. I’m here because Charley is recovering from surgery. She’s doing real good. She’s just basically, you know, she’s been about a week now since she’s had her surgery, and then I’m going back into the wild.
So surgery and then you’re back to it?
Yeah, man. I’m living very remote, off the grid, no people around. Wilderness and nature. I built this van where I have a recording studio in the van and I’m just kind of… living off the grid, you know?
I saw an episode of Van Life and was pretty impressed: the drone footage, the ambient score, the Marshall McLuhan needle drop…
One of the things that I’m really enjoying about it is, having done television and film for 20-30 years, I’ve always had a crew with me, even back in the public-access days. So it’s kind of fun to start developing… I’ve always been a photographer, that’s what I studied in school, but it’s been pretty cool to develop a style of shooting, and with some of the new camera equipment, some of the things that they’ve done with the new camera equipment is: it’s made it easier to focus on yourself with different lenses. You can really kind of document yourself.
Could you imagine doing a full-length fictional narrative in this style, or is it mostly for Van Life?
It’s all evolving. I’m definitely going to do some full-length stuff in this style for sure. This is kind of the early stages of a new kind of style of filming that I’m figuring out; I’m just figuring out what I want to do with it. But for now I’m enjoying doing it as an extension of my social media and doing stuff on my YouTube channel and doing my podcast as well, Van Life with Tom Green.
You’re hoping to be in the van long term.
Listen, it’s, uhh… I love it out there in nature, I’ve always loved that, and also, when you’re doing photography and videography, you’ve got to go film something interesting. I think so many people are on social media now, we’re all just sitting in our homes and everyone’s sitting on their couch staring into their iPhone, and at a certain point the level of interest that even I have… just, you know, I’ve run out of stuff to film in my house. I’m really enjoying going out and exploring and taking people on this ride with me cause everyone right now, kind of suffering and isolated and stuck at home… I feel like the audience is interested, I’m interested, I’m taking people on a little journey and an adventure and it’s been a lot of fun. Good way for me to deal with the isolation of this pandemic also.
Yeah, and it seems like a creative evolution or reaction to your current inability to tour, which you did for, what—4 or 5 years straight?
Uhhh… 12, you know? [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. 12 years, yeah. I was on for over a decade now, on and off. 12 years going on 32. I started doing stand-up in the late ’80s when I was in high school.
Right, right. I guess 10-12 years of spending most of the year touring. I imagine being able to do Van Life is an exciting evolution of that idea.
Yeah, it’s kind of the plan for when touring starts up again: I’m going to be doing it from the van, as opposed to flying from gig to gig. Going to set up my tour more like how a band would do a tour. I’ll be in the van and I’ll go city-to-city and I’ll do some filming in between.
I want to get more into Van Life, but I contacted you because I want to do a long form piece on Freddy Got Fingered on its 20th anniversary. First off: I feel like a lot of fans and people that love the movie view it as a punk rock exercise, a “fuck you” kind of thing, but I always viewed it as the pretty earnest story of an artist who doesn’t know what to do, who has boundless creative energy and doesn’t know where to put it. It has some rhythms that are in line with an Eraserhead or Being John Malkovich. I was wondering if you had any non-comedies in mind when you made the film.
Well, I’ve always loved dark movies and strange films and, you know, I’m a big fan of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. I also love Monty Python and I love SCTV, so I had a lot of inspiration from those. And I come from skateboarding and sort of, that sort of… like, you mentioned Being John Malkovich—Spike Jonze came from skateboarding, and he’s got that kind of out-of-the-box, punk rock attitude. So I think there’s definitely a desire to, as you said, give the middle finger to the standard cookie-cutter movie, and probably a lot of those people I mentioned had the same kind of motivation when they made films. They were tired of seeing the same sort of predictable story and predictable style of shooting and predictable music and I definitely wanted to kind of change things up. Probably explains why I’m living in a van right now. I want to find new ways of doing things.
Definitely get the Lynch vibes, the Cronenberg vibes. I read in your memoir that Freddy Got Fingered originally had a Cronenberg-style, dark synthesizer soundtrack that got cut in the edit.
Yeah… I mean, the movie was changed quite a bit, you know, in the process of editing, through the studio notes and things like that. I definitely think there was a much more cohesive, smoothly moving storyline, and even just visually I think it cut together and was smoother when I did my initial cut. But, you know… nothing you can do about that. 20 years ago, my first movie, I kind of had to listen to the people that paid for it, so I made a few changes here and there. But I ultimately think that, at the end of the day, there was so much bizarre craziness, and the scenes themselves still had the heart and soul of what the movie was supposed to be. It just didn’t have the smoothness that I know I’m capable of as a filmmaker, even in my first film.
I remember when we screened it the very first time at the studio, the legendary studio head Arnon Milchan, when the movie finished screening he stood up and he literally started doing the slow clap, and he called it the best film by a first-time director he’d ever seen in his career. Everyone in the room was celebrating how excited they were. And then we went out and did a focus group—everyone flipped out. So I had to go in and cut some things.
But I don’t like to focus on that, because it’s a) so long ago and b) kind of got the cult following now, and people have responded to what it did end up being, so… so, you know. Onward and upward.
I was curious about some of the songs that did make it into the film: there’s Iggy Pop, the Ramones, New York Dolls, Gary Numan, Moby. I was wondering if you had a hand in choosing those.
Well, I chose all the music. I basically picked every song for the movie. Iggy Pop’s on the soundtrack. You’ll notice in the movie itself it’s Sammy Davis, Jr. singing “I Gotta Be Me,” but we weren’t able to get the rights to it for the soundtrack. So Iggy Pop then ended up re-recording it specifically for Freddy Got Fingered. I spoke to Iggy on the phone after we recorded it, thanked him, it was one of those things. I was a 28-year-old kid making my first movie and I’m now responsible for an Iggy Pop song that never would have existed without Freddy Got Fingered.
That’s killer. I didn’t know that story. Could you imagine making Freddy Got Fingered without the Fox deal? Do you think it was so wrapped up in where you were at that point that it would have been a different movie?
Well, yeah, it would have been a completely different thing. So much about… certainly at that period of time I was being offered movies by studios, I had my show on MTV… we wrote that movie knowing that it was going to have a bigger budget, so we wrote in effects and things that we wouldn’t have been able to do on a shoestring. I always try to write something towards how it’s actually going to be funded and produced. So we wrote that movie knowing it was going to be a studio film. So yeah.
Any scripts you’ve written since?
Uhh… you know, honestly right now, I’m just trying to focus on right now. What I’m doing now is, you can really just go on YouTube and watch the Van Life short films that I’m doing, which, you know, I do have an intention to evolve them into something a little bit more cinematic, and possibly a television show. So that’s where I’m putting a lot of my effort. So yeah. That’s what I’m doing. I’m having a lot of fun with it, you know?
Cool. It seems that you and Gord from Freddy Got Fingered have a lot in common: artists that have turbulent relationships with their family and put it in their art. Do you relate to Gord? Do you think that the artist is a fundamentally naive or innocent person?
Umm… I mean, certainly when they’re young, yeah. I think so. When you’re young, I think you are a fundamentally naive and innocent person when it comes to art. Cause you haven’t been put through the meat grinder, so to speak. You really are much more open-minded when you’re young, and I think the trick, as an artist, is to kind of keep that sort of youthful naivety alive, even if you’ve gotten told “no” too many times or been beaten down by the system. You’ve just got to not get too cynical about it and be able to still have the freedom to go out and experiment and have no fear. You know? I still try to do that. I still try to not have fear about being told no. “This is too weird, people might not like this. Maybe you should do what everyone expects you to do.” That’s the death of all art, you know, when you start trying to think of what the endgame is before you know what it is you want to do—”What’s the story I want to tell?” We were so hellbent on the idea of smashing the conventions of the way television was made on the Tom Green Show, and then we got the movie deal and it was “Oh, let’s try to smash the format of the big-budget comedy movie, make it so crazy that people can’t believe what they’re looking at.” There’s still a story of mine in there that’s a total metaphor for my life: I wanted to make a comedy talk show and the character, the metaphor of that, was that he wanted to be an animator, but it was really the same thing, the same story.
I read that you had William Shatner, James Woods, and Jon Voight in talks for Rip Torn’s part. Do you remember any other odd casting trivia, any almost-casts?
Those were the main ones. The role of my father in that movie was so important: a real war of the roses between the father and the son. So the father role was so hugely important. Honestly any one of those actors would have been, of course, incredible—they’re all incredible actors. Jon Voight, James Woods, William Shatner. Any one of them would have been incredible. It really boiled down to the studio making a deal with whoever it was, and the studio had some input into that too, and I was really happy that we ended up doing Rip but I can see the movie would have been amazing and great with any one of those guys. But it certainly wouldn’t have been the same, you know? Rip Torn has a dangerous energy to him. Which I think was really great for the movie and I think that that was cool.
Yeah, he’s got the New Hollywood chops. What’s that clip where he hits Norman Mailer in the head with a hammer?
That was a real-life version of what happened in my movie!
Anything else you can remember about the direction process? In your memoir you describe it as comfortable. The vibe on set was positive?
Yeah. Honestly it was super supportive and it was great. And I really do feel, having produced and directed the Tom Green Show for many years, as far as editing it all and visualizing it all, I did feel, even though it was my first movie, I was prepared for it in the sense that I’d been doing this show for many years at that point. And a lot of directing isn’t just about directing the actors—that’s important too—isn’t just about the visual depiction of things, but it’s also just about organizing everything and making sure that everything is running on time and making sure that everybody’s happy on set. It was an interesting time for me. I had just gone through cancer surgery. I was definitely dealing with some physical pain and, sort of, readjustments to getting up in the morning, you know? Lymph node dissection was pretty intense.
But it was one of those things where it was a moment in time where I had the opportunity to make a movie. We delayed it for 6 months while I recovered, and I came back and we did it. I think that certainly had an impact on everything in my career—the fact that I had cancer when I did, it really did throw me for a loop and probably slowed me down in a big way. Kind of pulled the rug out from under me a little bit. But in the long run I kind of look at it like, you know, everything happens for a reason, and I think possibly if I hadn’t gotten cancer when I did I might have fallen into this trap of just doing a bunch of, just kind of more middle-of-the-road things, and maybe it would have been financially a bigger deal but… what I’m doing now, and doing stand-up comedy, to me I feel is, like, a far more pure version of what it is that I’m going to ultimately end up doing with my ideas and with my art and with my filmmaking, cause I’m able to just kind of go out and have fun and do what I want to do, which is really ultimately what it’s supposed to be… you know?
It kind of seems like the early 2000s was a little less comfortable with that fluidity than now, where a lot of people in alternative comedy—Nathan Fielder, Eric Andre—seem to have fans and a public at large that can more easily understand what they do.
I think the thing that people often forget about when they talk about that era… kind of a crazy thing to forget about, but I really feel like things were starting to go in the direction that they’re at now, but right after Freddy Got Fingered came out, 9/11 happened. Right? And all of a sudden everything got way, way more, like, conservative. People weren’t like, “Let’s go make a crazy film.” Things got real serious there for about a decade. And it took about a decade, I think, for people—including the studios and the television networks—to kind of, you know… certainly five years where it was all about 9/11. Remember? I don’t know if you remember [or] how old you were. For five years all anybody was talking about was the War on Terror, this and that. It became a very serious time, and I don’t think people wanted to really just sort of go make a really silly, outrageous movie for a little while.
I think maybe everything got so politically coded post-9/11. So that kind of absurdism, which really doesn’t have much of a cultural aim other than to poke a hole in some things and shock some people… maybe there just wasn’t as much of that lightheartedness in culture?
Yeah… it’s possible. I just think that there was this sort of, this very confused sort of state that everyone got into, when it came to making film or a movie. It was like, “How is this going to relate to what’s going on right now in the world,” and I know that changed a lot of things. People thought “We have to be more serious now, we better not go do something completely… you know. Ridiculous.” And then that faded over time and people started to, like, get annoyed with that. And now we’re back to a place that I think is a great time in comedy. You got guys like you mentioned: Tim and Eric, Eric Andre, all these hilarious people doing outrageous things. It’s awesome.
I think part of what (perhaps) makes them more easily discernible than Freddy Got Fingered, which premiered in upwards of 2,000 theaters across the country, is that Tim and Eric have the advantage of being an inside joke. Anyone who’s up at 3 a.m. watching Adult Swim is in on it.
Yeah, that’s possibly true too. It was definitely sort of a strange moment in time where I happened to be able to kind of fool my way into the mainstream. The show was on MTV, it was one of the more popular shows on television, and we were sort of able to get that one past the powers that be.
Which obviously is part of the fun for a lot of people. That first time you see it, the full shock of what you’re seeing goes so far past not only mainstream comedies of that era, but really anything that’s been made on that budget level.
I think that anybody that’s a fan of Freddy should definitely subscribe to my YouTube channel right now. And get in there and watch what’s happening now. Cause what’s on the surface, it might not be crazy comedy like it used to be, but—I don’t want to say too much—I just want to say, you know, now’s a good time to come on and jump on the, on the, on the, on the ride cause it’s about to get weird.
Super exciting. The aesthetic of the kind of YouTube video that you’re… not mocking, but doing a take on, is prime for the taking. A lot of people are really into that kind of DIY—
And I think what’s fun about it is, because there is a big audience for that, it’s a fun little world in the comments of these videos, and it’s going to get more fun, cause there’s going to be things people are not going to understand pretty soon. Right now it’s just starting with the music. People go, “Ohhh, why don’t you put some happy music in it?” They don’t know where this is going to go, you know? There’s not happy music cause we’re not… we’re not going down to the county fair, with the corn dogs and cotton candy in the next video. It’s going to get weird, you know? People are probably going to get confused, right? And then their confusion—which actually, and when I say “they” I mean some of the viewers—their confusion will come out in the comment section and, uh, that… that is the punchline. [Laughs]
That’s great. I’m super excited for that.
There is also a real element for me of, you know: I love photography, I do love nature, I do love going to these places. I get kind of a thrill from going and taking my audience to the Chapo Canyon native ruins. And the beautiful things that nobody’s even heard of before. Make the audience sort of say to themselves, “DAMN, why have I never heard of that before? Why is this under wraps?” And without saying it, people might think a little more about what’s happened in the history of this country with Native Americans and the colonial past, which doesn’t really get talked about that much, you know? Without saying anything. Just taking people to these beautiful places. These beautiful parts of the country. Nature that is just so incredible. And maybe people will say, “We want to preserve this stuff, you know? Maybe we should protect our environment? Maybe we want to go visit some of these places, you know?” Maybe things aren’t so horrible in America right now, like we’re constantly being told on the news, cause, you know, you can get up and you can get in your car and you can drive out of the city and you can go to a place completely free. Completely free to go to these places. And it’s a beautiful thing to celebrate, you know? Being in America and having an opportunity to do this. Because other people in other parts of the world can’t do that. You know? So there’s a lot of real sincere filmmaking going on in there, too. But I also want to confuse people at the same time.
My friend has this mantra: that the corrective to culture overload is not a snarkier culture, but less culture. To remove yourself from the epicenter of the ideas that bother you.
The social-media news cycle that is so brutal, its quick reaction times, the post-modern way you have to be negotiating all that.
It’s a major corrective for you to be out there, for one to be out there.
Oh, yeah. And it’s real nice for me, just on a personal level. The places I’m going, I’ve got no cell phone reception. I’m not able to surf around on Instagram all day cause I don’t have any cell phone reception. And people ask me what do you do and I turn my attention to turning on my drum machine and making a beat or pulling out my editing equipment and editing some footage. You know?
Pretty wild that you can do all that in the van.
That’s a big part of the real story of it, which is kind of the thing that, sometimes, I worry that I bore people with the details of the technical stuff, but the fact that I have this solar-powered battery system that allows me to essentially go off-grid for extended periods of time and charge up my batteries and run a whole recording studio and not have to go to a hotel room to charge up my camera batteries—stay out in the middle of the national park indefinitely and keep filming and editing and make the score, and sitting back and listening to it on speakers like I’m in a real recording studio. And I’m in a comfortable thing, and I look out the window and I’m looking at a sunset over a mountain and it’s incredibly beautiful, and that then inspires you and you’re relaxed and it actually changes what you end up doing because you’re kind of in a relaxed state and, you know, you’re not all caught up in the day-to-day stress of life and it’s… pretty fun. I’m having a good time. [Laughs]
Sounds like you got some big plans for 2021. I’m excited.
Yeah. I am trying to stay positive in the face of this crazy time and, you know, I appreciate you taking an interest in what I do. I really do. Because it’s nice when new generations of people come along and found out what I’ve done in the past and what I’m doing now, and I really appreciate the, uh, promo, man. Thank you.
I’m sure it’s something you’re aware of, but: for a lot of millennials and people of my generation, it’s a very earnest interest in what you do. Just the other day my friend posted a clip of you in Canada in 1998—you’re at a political meeting and you’re saying you’re a mynah bird?
Ha! Yeah. We just barged into this weird meeting at the University and…
That’s cool. Some people probably understand, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that, at the time, that shit was way crazier. People hadn’t really seen anything like that on TV before. So it’s funny now. At the time it was just kind of, like, really kind of really confusing for people, you know, people didn’t even realize it was real—there wasn’t really reality TV yet and stuff. I was more media-literate than a person on the street. People would ask me “are those your real parents?” and I’d kind of look at them like, “You think they were actors?”
Maybe a hack question: could you imagine a version of yourself born in 2000? What do you think you’d be doing now?
If I was born in the year 2000… you know…
You were a young, Gen Z kid.
I’d probably be trying to do something like I’m doing right now. The van probably wouldn’t be as nice, but I’d be up there doing some videos, I’m sure. Working my way towards getting the van that I’ve got now.
It is hard to say, you know, cause my influences would be different, everything would be different. So. You never know. You know? You never know. So maybe I’d be an accountant.
Hedge fund manager.
Yeah. It’s hard to say, you know. So much of my desire to make video came from growing up in a world where I wasn’t allowed to have a video camera because they were too expensive. You couldn’t get one. So I really wanted one, you know? With a video camera in my phone, maybe it wouldn’t have been as interesting to me. Who knows.
Harder to subvert when everyone around you is doing some version of that thing. Maybe the temptation to do shock comedy would be greater, cause the gag itself isn’t shocking.
It’s really hard to say. I’ve thought about that a fair amount. I don’t know what would happen. I can tell you one thing, though: I’m glad I was born when I was. Super happy to be the age that I am, you know? I’m 49 years old. I love being 49. I wouldn’t want to be 20 years old right now. No offense to anyone who’s 20. But I feel great. I’m doing what I love; I’m in control of my life. It’s nice. I was so stressed-out when I was growing up. You get a lot less stressed when you get older because there’s so much less of your life left to ruin. You know? I’m not terrified about the future—because there’s so very little of it left. You kind of got to enjoy every day for what it is now. Not get totally wrapped up in stuff. So that’s good.