Trolling, as a practice, is as old as discourse itself—you know there were some toga-wearing shitheels calling dialectics “dia-lick-dicks” just to piss off Socrates. But trolling as an art form was arguably popularized in the mainstream by Tom Green, a personality most members of Generation Z have probably never heard of.
MTV’s The Tom Green Show found the Canadian prankster blurring the lines between playfulness and antagonism by badgering people on the street, whether that be through a shit-smeared microphone or a relentless curiosity as to where someone was going. Green took things further in 2001 with Freddy Got Fingered, a literal troll of a film that all but expressly dares its audience to walk out. But, as the last decade has shown, Green’s method of trolling is downright polite compared to today’s culture, with the man himself expressing confusion at the current state of entertainment.
A new piece in The Awl explores how, despite being an influence to so many entertainers (and assholes) that came after, Green himself has essentially crumpled in the face of modern trolls. As a means of example, the article points to a 2006 incident where 4chan users began pranking the live show he hosted from his own basement, leading Green to bark at them like an out-of-touch old fart. It’s not often you see the originator of a comedic style become undone by its evolution.
The Awl writes:
Tom Green, a transitional figure in the history of trolling, was now officially on the side of the old, the out-of-touch, the weak of heart (someone who responds to the trolls, “feeding them,” displays the vulnerability upon which they will capitalize). He’d matured and just wanted to be left alone to wear his suit and interview his guests, and his own counter-trolling efforts, which involved rapidly hanging up on callers, proved ill-suited to dealing with his anonymous opponents. But it seems that Green has come to terms with this: today he is a low-level celebrity, doing his show and a conventional punchline-driven stand-up routine, and it is what it is.
Unlike his spiritual prankster successors—“Jackass”’s unhinged, self-destructive Steve-O and “Million Dollar Extreme”’s vicious, unrepentant Sam Hyde, Tom Green was never all-in when it came to treating people like a jerk. It was an act, one that he was clearly never quite comfortable with. “If YouTube had existed in 1999, I wouldn’t have had a show,” he told the hosts of an Australian morning show. “And if YouTube had existed in 1999, I wouldn’t have wanted to do the show, because I couldn’t imagine clips from it following me a decade later.”
While the article itself resonates as critical of Green, there’s a certain tragedy to the whole thing. Green’s stunts paved the way for some of the best comedy shows of recent memory—Nathan For You is but one example—but his retreat into safer, more staid styles of comedy is evidence of his own inability to keep up with those trends. For Green, trolling was a thing of youth. Now, however, it’s a part of culture.