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10:48 am | 16 June 2004 | Tom Green & Dualism

combatting (via ironic overparticipation) the ever-rising tide of over-intellectualism (hey i know i am as guilty of it as the next egghead) i hereby present my extremely academic essay on Tom Green. this is a work in progress; certain elements of Green's oeuvre, such as the recently-acquired (thanks d.j.J.J.) Endangered Feces, aren't yet included. i know you will look for future editions with bated breath. I just know it.



The Backwards Man:
Tom Green and Dualism as the Nature of Comedy

"Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be."

-William Hazlitt [1]


"Il n'y a pas de comique en dehors de ce qui est humain... Comment un fait aussi important, dans sa simplicité, n'a-t-il pas fixé d'avantage l'attention des philosophes ? Plusieurs ont défini ‘'homme 'un animal qui sail rire.' Ils auraient aussi bien pu le définir un animal qui fait rire, car si quelque animal y parvient, ou quelque objet inanimé, c'est par une resemblance avec l'homme, par la marque que l'homme y imprime ou par l'usage que l'homme en fait."

-Henri Bergson [2]


Being a true comedian necessitates a level of self-loathing, of contempt for one's own human-ness, tempered with an equal amount of compassion for humanity at large. The delicate balance between the two allows a comic both to ridicule human action and, at the same time, to render it funny instead of merely cruel. Aristotle reminds us that "comedy is an imitation of persons who are inferior; not, however, going all the way to full villainy, but imitating the ugly, of which the ludicrous is one part. The ludicrous...is a failing, or a piece of ugliness which causes no pain...the comic mask is something ugly and distorted but painless." [3]

Tom Green, lanky, outsider comic beloved of teenagers and select adults, is clearly funny. But at first reflection, one is inclined to loathe Mr. Green; indeed, I did. My first exposure to him was in 1999. I was at home visiting the folks when my brother, then twelve, began beckoning furiously: “Come look at this! It's The Tom Green Show!”

I stood in my mother's emerald-and-fuchsia suburban living room and watched as a grown man, accompanied by snickering camera crew and frequently visible boom mic, dragged a cow's disembodied head into his sleeping parents' bedroom. “This is a message from Don Corleone !" he shouted predictably upon their awakening, as gore from the animal's head seeped across the sheets. My brother, ignorant of the cultural reference encoded therein [4], laughs hysterically; I, nervously.

The next segment featured Green, apparently on a roll, letting himself back into his parents' Ottawa home while they were both at work. He introduced approximately 50 specimens of mixed livestock—goats, pigs, chickens, et cætera—into their modest suburban ranch-style house, and waited for them to come home. When they did, the horror with which they greeted their scat-bespackled home was applauded gleefully by my young brother.

That day, I drove home feeling a mild distaste for Tom Green. As you may have inferred, I tend towards the cerebral, and though we hope that there is some higher motive, some far-removed and intellectual ego laughing down at the herky-jerky robotics of Green's punch-drunk id, we must sometimes suspect that there is not. This suspicion averred me from partaking of any Tom Green media for the next two-and-a-half years.


'We like quiet'

That which repulses us about Tom Green is, perhaps, also that which allows us to draw near to him. Beyond the mere and hackneyed concept of 'envelope-pushing,' Tom Green persists in extremity until it has removed itself from the realm of extremity and has journeyed into some Methodic arena where human conduct is but a stylized and eminently mockable animal routine. His 'publicly unacceptable' behavior really serves to underline a rejection of etiquette for etiquette's sake. In essence, Green is announcing that he will not kowtow to social convention merely to be liked; in fact, he will defy convention-and thus, defy likeability-and in so doing avoid the possibility of rejection. He is immune to being made sport of by outsiders, since he has already made sport of himself. Witness Tom Green Subway Monkey Hour, an hour-long special produced for MTV, wherein Green goes to Japan, ostensibly to apply his special brand of humor to the people there. At first, I had thought that perhaps he would fail; that his excessive, decadent expulsions of id wouldn't work in the (as Westerners perceive it) stoic and austere atmosphere of Japan. And at times Green encounters just that difficulty. Polling subwaygoers as to their fruit preferences (“Who here likes bananas! Bananas? Bananas?!"), he is rebuffed by a businessman who hisses, "You be quiet! We like quiet!" But Green's agenda was never to be liked; though he recoils momentarily, it is just that: momentary. Soon he is back on the streets of Tokyo wearing an aluminum, fork-tine-shaped headpiece and a t-shirt exhorting onlookers to "Go Fork [Themselves]."

Addressing cultural differences is hardly a new theme for Green. He exemplifies that brand of humor which can be thought of as explicitly Canadian: a sort of wry endurance, more subtle and pathetic than English humor, better natured than French. Yet in all his exploits, he seeks to underline the contrast between different slices of humanity (rich vs. poor, old vs. young) or to explore the richness of their interplay (the Japanese as explained to Americans by a Canadian [6]) with comical results. In one segment of his television show. Green has replaced a microphone with a dildo [7] and is questioning people on the streets. Most people realize that he is waving a rubber penis at them and refuse to speak; one elderly man, however, doesn't comprehend and speaks politely to Green. Though this is supposedly the 'funniest' part of this particular scene, it is also the most affective, and in Green's eyes we hope to see some sympathy for the man who is unaware that he has become a punch line.


In Freud's terms

Though we initially perceive Green's humor to be of the anal variety, endlessly expelling that (cultural fodder) which is forced upon him at all turns, further analysis (no pun intended) and repeated viewings reveal to us the true oral nature of his flailing: a perpetual hunger, not only for acceptance, but to both reveal to the world the idiosyncrasies of our modern life, and to ask for more of it.


Tom Green vs. Jerry Lewis

I don't see any need to drag Jerry Lewis into this.


Again with the Aristotle

Twenty-five centuries ago, Aristotle distilled drama into a set of common components that could be used to explain drama and how it does (or sometimes doesn’t) work. In neo-Aristotlean terms [8], all of these elements (action, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle) are present in Green’s work and are, in fact, used to heighten his comedy. ‘Thought,’ meant as the ‘rational background’ to the actions of the participants, is upheld by Green’s victims while Green himself mercilessly defies it, thereby increasing the tension between the two modes of behaviour. Similarly, the ‘music’ of Green’s work ranges from his singing ad hoc ditties celebrating IKEA, to the repetitive recording of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” inexplicably broadcast from a Santa Claus mannequin in a Japanese mall, upon whom Green is simulating fellatio—the echoey, distant sounds of the popular American tune increase both the lunacy and the dissociative nature of the tableau.


In Bergsonian [9] terms

At the turn of the 20th century, Henri Bergson stated "in laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate and consequently to correct our neighbor...there is nothing comic outside of that which is human." Tom Green exemplifies this idea, ridiculing our very human-ness both to point out our flaws and to emphasize those flaws' intrinsic humanity; in a sense he seeks to both underscore our seriousness, and to ask us to relax.


In Idlean [10] terms

Eric Idle, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame, posits a binary opposition between two types of comics (the ‘White Face’ and the ‘Red Nose’). The latter, a manifestation of 'physical' comics, with his expulsory, infantile humor, blunders haplessly through a world whose ironies beg to be revealed through repetition and exaggeration, retaining a kind of innocence. The former, the ascetic, 'mental' funnyman, excoriates himself as he eviscerates his surroundings, punishingly, acerbically. To m Green is both, or, more accurately, is the tension between the two: a childlike persona that is more often than not oblivious to the intellectual ironies of daily life, but who is acutely aware of the desperation and self-loathing with which he shouts that he cannot be hurt while wearing his cheese helmet. [11]


Oh, yes, the cheese helmet

During the end credit crawl of Freddy Got Fingered, we see an outtake from the point in the movie wherein Gordy, while employed in a Los Angeles cheese-sandwich factory [12], crawls down an assembly-line conveyor belt with slices of preternaturally orange American cheese stuck to his largish head. As he crawls, he howls at the elderly, hairnetted women assembling said sandwiches, "You can't hurt me...not with my cheese helmet!"

Though I believe that Green meant for this sequence to be no more than yet another ridiculous, site-specific exhibition, I like to think that the cheese helmet, in all its pasteurized-processed glory, functions as an effective metaphor for Green's entire ego. Clearly a helmet made of cheese would go no great distance in saving one from actual attack; however, the helmet serves as a physical manifestation of his comedy, which in turn is his armor against the world. After all, what is more ridiculous than sliced cheese worn as armor? The key is that it is his belief in the power of the cheese-as-helmet which reinforces its effectiveness against not physical, but mental or psychic attack. He is in effect announcing that he cannot be emotionally wounded while hidden by the ludicrousness of his actions. And, indeed, he cannot. In an advanced version of sticks-and-stonesmanship, he has become the lunatic who, when teased by children that he is mad, responds, "Yes, I am...what of it?"


In broader comedic terms

Traditional discussion of comedy maintains that the contrast between the straight man and the childlike comic is the key to true hilarity. Because Tom Green at first seems to lack any straight man, subsisting instead in a personal mire of just plain weirdness, we might assume that he is self- sufficiently comedic. Deeper exploration defies this interpretation, though. Tom Green is able to perform both roles. In one of the culminating scenes of Freddy, Gord, experiencing a sort of comic-writer's block, is advised to relax with some music and snacks while he fries to create. Gord classically misinterprets this advice, instead rigging an epic pork-pulley-system in his parents' living room. We see Gord, each of whose fingers is attached by string to a sausage suspended from the ceiling, playing a keyboard and chanting robotically [13], "Daddy, would you like some sausage? Daddy, would you like some sau-sa-ges?" As his father enters and begins to berate him, we cannot help but see that Gord [14] may have intentionally misunderstood. This literalization, a classical comedic device, allows Green to perform both roles when he is alone, and to force his father to become the straight man when he enters the situation. The joke is then further refracted, since Mr. Brody assumes that Gord is a "retard" and feels superior to his son through that son's own actions, in a situation that is almost painfully ironic in its deliberateness, and which also smacks of an exquisitely juvenile need to become what we are told we are.


An object with constant velocity will maintain that velocity...

This refraction, this constant volleying of the force of Tom Green's will against the mores and attitudes of society, is a self-fueling phenomenon, bringing to mind Newton's first law of motion. Part of Green's genius is not just that he is his own straight man, but that he frequently makes the passersby with whom he interacts, and thus society itself, both straight man and idiot; he works himself into a frenzy of peculiarity and in so doing provokes more extreme response from his environment, thus allowing him to stay in motion, a deranged, shrieking pendulum.


...unless acted upon by some external force

But if Green's aim is to remain imperturbably removed, protected from revealing himself by using his comedy as armor, this refraction proves to be his downfall. When, for example, he flails spasmodically on a Venice sidewalk, screaming the phrase "do you like the way I dance?" into a megaphone, onlookers ranging from mildly amused to horrified become his straight men against their wills: it is their reaction that he bounces his comedy off of; their reaction that, in the end, is the joke. But when an older man pauses to pronounce Green's dance 'beautiful,' Green is then the straight man [15]. The pedestrian has accepted his routine and lent it validity, and the joke is now on Green. By that passerby's simple act of unironic appreciation, Green is reflexively rendered pathetic in the best Greek tragicomic sense. By shouting, "Yes, it's beautiful!" the old man has unwittingly validated Green's need to for acceptance, and has trumped him, has killed him with kindness.




FOOTNOTES

[1] Hazlitt, William. Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819
[2] 'There is nothing comic outside of that which is human... How is it that such a significant fact, in its simplicity, didn't catch the attention of the philosophers? Several have defined man as 'an animal that knows how to laugh.' They could as well have defined it an animal which makes one laugh, because if some animal or some inanimate object reaches that point, it is by a resemblance to the man, by the mark which the man makes there or which, by his use of it, he has made." Bergson, Henri. Le Rire: Essai Sur la Significance du Comique ('Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic'), 1900
[3] Aristotle. Poetics, §23-24
[4] From The Godfather, part I, of course. In “A Theory of Comedy” Richard F. Taflinger, PhD, mentions the need for "a set of established societal norms with which the observer is familiar...against which incongruities may be found." (Article from Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works, 1996.)
[5] And thus the most comedic: I have a hard time laughing at people I hate.
[6] This kind of humor also translates over to the American Midwest, the citizens of which seem sometimes to be secretly Canadian (I am from Michigan, and I mean this as a compliment).
[7] Hearkening back to the classic gags of the Old Comedy of Greece. Semos of Deos, an historian from the fourth century BC, notes that actors wearing red leather phalluses traditionally engaged in obscene dialogue and made fun of their audience as a means of levity.
[8] So called because of their subsequent clarification by modern theorists.
[9] So: “of or related to Henri Bergson and/or his theories.” Ibidem.
[10] So: “of or related to Eric Idle and/or his theories.” Idle, Eric. The Road to Mars. Pantheon: 1999.
[11] Don’t worry, I’m getting there.
[12] Also note cultural references here to factory scenes in both Laverne and Shirley and I Love Lucy.
[13] Also bringing to mind Bergson's axiom stating that the laughable element of any humorous situation is mechanical inelasticity where one expects adaptability: that one would continue to sit, though the chair be pulled out from beneath him, is comedic because he has failed to adapt to the situation's change.
[14] Who is additionally, it should be mentioned, wearing a plastic shower cap from which two steaks have been suspended in a vaguely Viking-esque fashion.
[15] Against his own will, and he knows it; you can see the defeat written on his face.

a work in progress, ©claudia sherman. as of June 16, 2004.


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