Tom Green is a guilty, hazardous-to-the-health pleasure, much like Easy Cheese, WWF SmackDown!, and casseroles topped with crushed potato chips. A random white Canadian guy, Green made a TV career for himself by playing pranks on unsuspecting citizens and embarrassing himself in public. What is amazing is that he got paid to do this for several years on MTV, until the ADD generation got tired of his antics. What's more amazing is that people stuck with him that long. I laughed until I cried watching The Tom Green Show -- when he painted his long-suffering parents' house plaid, or made his hungover best friend do trapeze tricks, or pretended to fellate a cow's teat.
Tom Green is a bad person. I am worse for laughing.
Green has a disturbing yet disarming on-screen persona. He screams suddenly, plays up his bulging eyes and slack mouth, and has a Rain Man-esque habit of repeating phrases over and over again: "Thisisadildo, thisisadildo, adildothisis?" You can't help but think that something is wrong with him, that maybe his vile behavior isn't totally his fault. Watching Green is like seeing a baby reach into his diaper and start flinging poop -- it's hilarious and disgusting and also fruitless to lose it over someone who knows not what he does. But ultimately you have to clean it up, fuming and wondering if the joke's really on you after all.
Green always needs someone to be the butt of the joke, or the foil to his bad behavior. He is egalitarian: He's willing to humiliate himself as much as he'll humiliate you. He's also shameless -- what else can you call a guy who documented his testicular cancer and let the camera get up close and personal with his surgically removed bits?
So it seems only natural that he would try to stage a comeback with a show filmed in Japan, where shame still has an unmatched power to enforce good behavior. The Japanese are a famously law-abiding folk, the kind who will wait for a "don't walk" light to change at four in the morning. They can also be as fantastically weird as anyone else -- but we never get to find this out by watching Tom Green's Subway Monkey Hour, an hour-long special that just aired on MTV. It's all about Green -- Green teasing a mountain monkey, or dressing up in an Elvis outfit and harassing schoolgirls.
My question: Why bother to import him? Because if one looks around Japan, there's plenty of kooky stuff. There's the schoolgirl gluing the top of her rumply "loose sock" to her leg. Or the braying karaoke singing and copious vomiting that take up most businessmen's nights out. Tom would have a field day at any fertility festival, when folks parade around with giant wooden phalluses. Not to mention the late-night TV shows, which have a kind of scatological, kinky bent.
Subway Monkey works well when Green interfaces with these pre-existing weird Japanese elements. In the show's best scene, for example, he activates a life-sized animatronic Santa Claus that sings "The Yellow Rose of Texas," Green then places himself in strategic relation to the Santa's switching hips -- hand, butt, or mouth pushed up against the red felt over Santa's gyrating privates.
In other good moments, it seems like Green was shooting for non-poop-level humor. The special is laced with fake old footage of Japan, accompanied by a cheesy, educational-film voice-over spouting remarks like: "Remember, when you are traveling abroad, you are an ambassador for your country. You should be on your best behavior." The scene then cuts to Green baiting people on the train. At the end, the show skewers the idea of the transforming journey to the Orient. "I think my time in this mysterious country has changed me forever," Green said. "I'm not the same man I was two weeks ago."
To my disappointment, however, much of the show stank. Green hurls the proverbial crap for too long, and can't even scratch the Teflon dignity of most of the Japanese people he torments. In the United States, he's been threatened with a bat, beaten multiple times. The worst we see in Japan is when an auctioneer cuffs him on the head. Others react with an absurd, touching politeness. After being subjected to Green's high-volume Elvis routine, a young man says, "Thank you for the entertainment. Should we call police?" Then Green boards a packed subway car with a microphone, bellowing for people who like apples or potatoes to raise their hands. A diminutive, balding older man departing the train said, "We like quiet. Quiet, please."
Coming back to Green after a multiyear hiatus, I was unsettled to find him somehow not as funny. Perhaps you can't step in the same crap twice, or I'm not the same person I was two years ago, when Green reigned over MTV. Or perhaps someone finally got the better of him. There was certainly something unflappable in the way his Japanese victims ignored him. The obnoxious, squawky huckster was undone by the soft words, the deadpan faces, the stony silences. This time, maybe the joke was finally on him.