‘Freddy Got Fingered’ at 20: Tom Green Interview
“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” –Jonathan Swift
There are polarizing films, and then there is Freddy Got Fingered. Tom Green’s 2001 feature debut as writer-director drew what could be fairly called a “mixed response,” in the same sense that nitroglycerine is a mix of glycerol and nitric acid. Something about his unique brand of comic abrasion — maybe it was his shrieky delivery, maybe it was the cartoonish sense of absurd physicality, maybe it was all the animal genitalia — brought out the nastiest put-downs its detractors had to offer. The way it was covered at the time of release, one would get the idea that this mid-budget indie production was not mere bad art, but a threatening cultural force in need of all-out opposition.
Dissing the film grew into a performative sport, as a faction of critics competed with one another to convey their displeasure with ever-increasing cleverness. In his thumbs-down review, Roger Ebert wrote, “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.” The Toronto Star instituted a -1/5 star rating for the first time in its publishing history. Red Letter Media’s Mike Stoklasa, the guy who once used the YouTube series to deliver his 70-minute exegesis on the finer points of The Phantom Menace, described Green’s film maudit as “the second-worst thing to happen in 2001.” The Razzie Awards, the program celebrating cinema’s direst annual offerings that had nominated boundary-smashing horror classic The Blair Witch Project for Worst Picture just two years earlier, lavished Green with five statuettes.
He showed up to collect them with pride, rolling out a red carpet for himself and playing harmonica in lieu of an acceptance speech until he was forcibly removed from the stage. He took this in stride, as he did the rest of the often nasty reception, in part because he didn’t need the approval of anyone who refused to give it to him. “People talk about the financial success or failure of movies,” Green tells Decider over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “Freddy Got Fingered was an overwhelming success, and people don’t always realize that. They talk about the critics, and the box-office during the theatrical run, but the movie made almost $25 million on DVD in the first year alone. There were people who got it.” To say that Tom Green got the last laugh on the legacy of his one and only directorial effort would be inaccurate, because he had never stopped laughing to begin with.
New York Times staff critic A.O. Scott, recent author of an essential tome about the intimate intricacies of how we process art, took a more circumspect view than most of his peer group. “…Mr. Green stage[s] his gross-outs with a demented but unmistakable integrity,” Scott concluded. “Like it or not, he’s an artist.” In the crowded media sphere, he was the de facto representative for the hordes of burnouts, wasteoids, skate rats, and other myriad weirdoes responsible for making this the after-the-fact cult sensation it is today. They “got it” then, and their number has only grown as a new generation of teenage hooligan reared on The Eric Andre Show (an undeniable descendant of Green’s) taps into the same frequency hiding between the sophisticated and the sophomoric.
The question of getting it is central to Freddy Got Fingered, not only in the story of the film’s unlikely fate, but in the story it tells. As unemployed cartoonist Gord, Green leads a demented take on the 19th-century Künstlerroman novel form, in which an artist comes of age while raging against a society unable or unwilling to recognize his vision. At the urging of his apoplectic father (Rip Torn, perfectly cast), Gord sets out from ’90s slacker haven Portland to Hollywood in order to sell his intriguing yet half-baked concept for an animated series about a cat able to see through wooden doors. His ambush pitch to an executive at the cutting-edge Radioactive Studios doesn’t go so well; the suit tells him, “Your drawings are pretty good, but it doesn’t make sense, okay? It’s fucking stupid… There has to be something that happens that’s funny. What the fuck’s happening here?” Rather than allowing these notes to change him in pursuit of some broader appeal, Gord responds by becoming more and more himself.
Like his onscreen avatar, Green didn’t know any other way to be. His early career was marked by similar frustrations of selling himself, and he broke through them by refusing to compromise. Though his father — a Canadian army tank commander, a strict military man still more supportive than the outsized equivalent portrayed by Torn — dropped a teenage Green off at the local Student Employment Center in Ontario at age fifteen, he funneled all the money made mowing lawns back into his aspirations. He used his wages to buy a drum machine, which enabled him to make the DIY rap album that landed him a modest record contract, which in turn got him the gig on Canadian public-access TV that would evolve into The Tom Green Show. It wasn’t paid, at first, but it afforded him something even more valuable in total creative freedom.
Without oversight or meddling from the top-down, his sensibility would flourish and connect with a late-night audience willing to follow him down whichever rabbit holes he felt like plumbing. If he felt like including footage of his surgery for testicular cancer, a clip that slyly reappears on a background TV in Freddy Got Fingered, no one could stop him. The combination of sketches, song parodies, and reckless stunts (it was here the he originated the cow-udder-suckling gag he dusted off for Freddy‘s end credits) caught the attention of MTV, where the re-licensed show rose to new heights of underground cachet. Suddenly, Green found himself in the unexpected position of having some measure of “heat” in the industry that he’d always been outside of.
“It was actually not really a problem, getting funding and getting it off the ground,” Green recalls. “You go back to the time, 1999 — my show was basically the biggest on MTV, Road Trip had just come out and ended up the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time. I was able to get things made, and easily. I was getting offered a lot of movies, and I was feeling very set in my ways. Still am! But I was new to Hollywood and wanted to make the craziest movie I possibly could, maybe that anyone ever had. So I turned those movies down, and decided I only wanted to make my movie.” A few studios engaged in a minor bidding war for Freddy Got Fingered, though New Regency’s head Arnon Milchan was looking for another director to manage Green. “I went to Milchan and explained myself, my passion for filmmaking, how I’d gotten directing experience from The Tom Green Show, and laid out my vision for the movie,” he says. “They just let me!”
Green recalls his initial motivation being “an aggressive effort to do something different.” Inspired by the likes of Monty Python, Airplane! and The Naked Gun, he wanted to unshackle his humor from realism, turning Gord into a chaotic force capable of doing or saying anything. If he saw a horse’s penis and felt compelled to grab it and use it like a toy microphone, that was his muse to follow. The lunacy covers the whole film like an ambient fog, driving his father to a memorable mooning and his mother (Julie Hagerty) to a night of passion with a cameoing Shaq. “It was my attempt to mock the traditional studio comedy by pushing the gross-out genre way beyond what you were seeing in the really popular movies coming out around that time. Something About Mary, American Pie, these movies that were, uh [takes a moment] more predictable, let’s say. It was a send-up.”
With a check for fourteen million and an enviable level of autonomy, he went about shaping the world of his film in his own image. Sometimes, that was literal, like when his crew had to dig a massive trench on the outskirts of Vancouver to create a convincing facsimile of Pakistan for the th-th-that’s-all-folks button delivering on a setup that came an hour prior. Later on (the final day of shooting, in case Green broke his arms or legs), they rearranged a shopping mall for the Back to the Future-aping opening credit roll that sees an untouchable Gord zipping around on his skateboard, pulling tricks and nabbing food-court snacks from the lame-os sauntering about.
More frequently, he bent the fabric of the film’s universe to accommodate his bizarre, sui generis notion of what’s funny. The executive from Radioactive tells Gord to figure out his characters by “getting inside the animals,” a bit of advice Gord takes literally when he pulls over on the side the road to cloak himself in the gutted carcass of a deer. He starts to bristle whenever placed in a situation boring him with its normalcy; he can’t work his job at the cheese sandwich factory for more than a minute before grabbing a salami and waggling it between his legs while yelling, “I’M A SEXY BOY!” The arrested development implied in that phrase constitutes his defining feature, the irrepressible energy bursting through any time he tries to stuff it down. He stands for everyone who feels like a child in disguise any time they enter an office or some comparably buttoned-up setting, suddenly compelled to start throwing papers and screaming to break the tedium.
But standing for that viewer meant standing against someone else. The film defines itself by a spirit of antagonism to the mainstream, aligning it with punk and alternative cultures, and necessarily setting it up for a backlash. “It was really exciting at first, but then a lot of things occurred in quick succession,” Green recalls. “Me getting cancer, Road Trip getting big, and then the threat of overexposure. I went from being the new kid doing his cute little show to being on Entertainment Tonight, where people could see me. I probably got a bit annoying for some people. We released the movie while all this was going on, which was hardly a tiptoe into the waters of comedy. This was an extreme concept meant to test people’s boundaries.”
Gord is allergic to dullness. He can’t talk about the drudgery of work without sarcastically squawking, “I’m going to go get a JOBBY!” and only dons a suit to do his Backwards Man character. It’s not that he’s reluctant to apply himself, just that he can’t imagine engaging with something as meaningless as meetings, timecards, or fealty to middle-management authority. He proves himself a resourceful and industrious guy when he wants to, at one point rigging up an elaborate system of pulleys to dangle meats from the ceiling that can then be jiggled by the playing of a keyboard. “To me, it’s part of my artistic expression — the way the sausages bounce up and down, the way the sound mixes with it,” Green says. “Not a day has gone by in the last twenty years without someone coming up to me and asking if I’d like some sausages.”
While his behavior may seem feral and random to the un-attuned, it makes perfect sense for those sharing in his position relative to the Establishment, whether that’s the parents who won’t let him eat a chicken sandwich or the finance douches he imitates at a fancy dinner descending into anarchy. We can be either Gord or the people irritated by him, a dichotomy the film leans into, letting the people who feel like no one gets them in on the joke. “People who who were in diapers when the show was on are seeing this for the first time and asking, ‘What is this crazy movie?’” Green says. “They see it for what it is, which is ridiculous and strange. It’s more fun now, to find it as something you think no one’s heard of. It’s being viewed the way it was intended to be viewed all along.”
That spirit of self-deprecation, or perhaps just a refusal to take one’s self too seriously, manifests in a cutaway shot near the final scene in which one extra holds a sign reading “When The Fuck Is This Movie Going To End?” He knew that by this point, some ticket-buyers would be looking for the exit, if they hadn’t already fled in a huff. His film was not for everyone, though unlike most movies that fit that description, that was by design. Not being for everyone meant that it would be for some people, a faction that never felt spoken-to by the palatable or even the comprehensible. Freddy Got Fingered extends understanding to those who have felt misunderstood, a humanity enriched by the staunch misunderstanding with which it was greeted. The film’s great strength lies in how it casts the two sides of its low-stakes culture war. There is them, the small-minded squares, and there is us, the freaks responsible for making art frightening and confounding and disgusting and beautiful.
Freddy Got Fingered extends understanding to those who have felt misunderstood, a humanity enriched by the staunch misunderstanding with which it was greeted.
“When you’re a kid, you’re encouraged to draw, you’re encouraged to play music, all these creative things,” Green says. “As you get older, real-life pressures start to come down on you, where you have to worry about making a living and paying bills and looking out for a family. Looking out for yourself, too. Obligations keep you from spending all your time on something that can then turn into a hobby. It becomes a dream, for most people, unless you have enough talent or drive or, hopefully, both. It’s a scary place to be, when you have a lot of love and passion for the thing you want to do.”
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevassse) is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vox, and plenty of other semi-reputable publications. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.
Where to stream Freddy Got Fingered