By Lisa McDonald
Live Music Head
(originally published at www.fyimusicnews.ca Dec 3 & 7, 2009)
Rick Green is a Canadian comedian, actor, satirist, writer, and holder of a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Waterloo. From 1975 until 1979, Mr Green worked as a presenter at the Ontario Science Centre where he developed numerous plays, programs and exhibits. Following the OSC, Green brought his gift for comedy and his love for performing to numerous Toronto stages by joining Paul Chato, Dan Redican and Peter Wildman in the enormously popular sketch comedy troupe, The Frantics. The antics of the troupe were displayed on the award-winning CBC Radio show Frantic Times and the television program, Four on the Floor. In 1987, Green won two ACTRA awards for Best Performer and Best Writer of an Entertainment Feature for the 13-part CBC series, The Frantics Look at History.
From 1989 to 1994, Rick Green was writer and host (Commander Rick) of TVOntario’s Prisoners of Gravity, a show that explores literature, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics. At the same time, Mr Green joined creator Steve Smith to co-write eight seasons, direct four, and perform in 173 episodes of The Red Green Show as the hapless klutz, Bill Smith. The Red Green Show is one of the longest running prime time series in North America. In addition to the television series, Green co-wrote and illustrated several Red Green books. Rick then began developing a fast-paced comedy series called History Bites for the History Channel. Each episode of History Bites focuses on a different historical event and imagines what it would be like if television were there to cover it. As creator, writer, director and performer, Rick Green brought History Bites to its 5th season.
Over the years, Mr Green has written and directed corporate videos, television commercials and films, written for stand up comedians and dozens of magazines and newspapers, as well as taught classes in writing and physical comedy. The multi-talented artist has been nominated for over a dozen Gemini Awards and is currently immersed in developing a website called Totally A.D.D., which not only stems from the award-winning documentary A.D.D. and Loving it?! for which Green wrote, produced and directed for Global TV along with actor, comedian and host Patrick McKenna, but this project specifically draws upon his own battle with A.D.D. and his passion for education and personal commitment to transforming our view of mental health. Unbelievably, Rick has found a moment in his busy schedule to chat with me extensively about his past achievements and current endeavours...
What led you from the Ontario Science Centre to performing absurdist comedy on stages with a sketch troupe?
I have a degree in physics and in some ways physics is a lot like comedy. It’s about exposing the truth underneath. It’s about expecting one thing and finding another. Physics fascinates me and I have a tremendous interest in it. But I knew I didn’t have the personality to be a physicist. All of my demonstrations at the OSC were full of humour. I found humour to be a powerful teaching tool. The OSC had a 40-foot long carbon dioxide laser; a million dollar machine used to burn holes through anything in six seconds flat, and its power was astounding. This was around the time of Star Wars and after I demonstrated the laser, there would be silence. Then I’d say to the class, “The only thing preventing this laser from becoming a weapon is not just its length, but the fact you’ll never find a holster big enough to hold it!” And this would be followed by laughter. I really found humour useful in clarifying, demystifying, and removing fear. I demonstrated for school groups and it was always the comedy that helped engage them. Some people were shocked that teachers of science could be funny, but I think comedy stimulates people to ask better questions. I’ve done a number of presentations over the years on how science and the arts differ, but they’re also very similar in their search for truth. Before discovering humour as a teaching tool, it was like trying to sell cars by forcing people to listen about octane combined with oxygen to release....
Oh, you lost me already!
Exactly. That method won’t sell cars. But just like a scantily-clad super model draped across the hood brings attention to the car, humour can get people interested in science. The people doing scientific research are very passionate. It’s not magical, but there’s a sense of the mystical in what they’re doing. They’re looking for what really is, not just a simple explanation.
Were you always this interested in science?
Yes. I was always building stuff in the basement. But I prefer to work with groups of people. I’m not interested in working alone.
But what exactly led you from the Ontario Science Centre to stages for the performing arts?
I was always performing on stages, even at the Science Centre. And in the evenings I was doing comedy on Scarborough Cable and other shows. But after meeting Paul Chato at the Nervous Breakdown on Carleton, I got more involved in sketch comedy. It was great to get up in front of an audience and do strange stuff for thirty minutes straight. I’ve probably been in front of an audience close to 10,000 hours. I was up to 3,000 hours when I left the Science Centre.
Was your first performance as a kid in the family living room?
I use to do magic shows as a kid. And I killed ‘em with a couple of Ed Sullivan routines in high school. Girls came up to me afterward saying, “You were great!” And I thought, “wow, a girl is talking to me. I’ve found it!” (laughing)
Others would be wooing girls by picking up guitars and imitating rock stars, but you...
I was never great at playing an instrument, but I could make them laugh. One seminal experience I had was just before my uncle, who was an architect, died. It was his last Christmas and he was not doing well, battling cancer. Everyone was being cheerful around him; he being the elephant in the room. I had made this kit with my younger brother; a do-it-yourself home architect kit; a little box with girders and pieces of Leggo in it, stapled up and sealed. It was cute and it was funny. People laughed over it and they were so relieved to laugh. It was healing. When my uncle passed away a couple of months later, the first thing out of my aunt’s mouth at the hospital was, “He just loved that kit. It meant so much to him.” Early on I realized that it’s possible to change the world. People were doing stuff that wasn’t just entertainment. Monty Python was breaking up how you viewed everything. George Carlin and Richard Pryor were also starting up.
You’re talking about the heavyweights.
And shows like M*A*S*H and All in the Family came to television; comedy that could get nasty. Even Laugh-in was shocking, political and nasty. When the Frantics didn’t have nudity in their television show, the American broadcasters said, “It doesn’t matter; it’s your religious humour that’s dangerous.” I think all of this ties together. There’s always been an aspect of teaching in everything I’ve done. Even playing Bill on the Red Green show, there are physics lessons. There hasn’t been much incentive to write that kind of comedy, so writing it takes a unique skill. And when someone does it well, like Mr Bean, it becomes hugely popular all over the world. Did you know that Mr Bean is actually used as a therapeutic tool for Aspergers-afflicted kids in England?
The kids indentify with Mr. Bean completely. When someone wants to know about Aspergers, you can begin by describing Mr Bean; grumpy, confused, very literal, intrusive, has a girlfriend, but really only warms to his teddy bear.
When I think of stand-up comedians, I think of tragedy. Tragedy is comedy. Behind the curtain, aren’t all comedians living on the dark side?
We’re not a very happy bunch.
Rick Green as Bill Smith (Red Green Show)
Can you tell me more about the character Bill Smith?
Bill was the character in the segment of the Red Green show called Adventures with Bill. Trying to do simple tasks, Bill would always find himself in clumsy situations. The segments were shot in a silent home-made movie format with a voiceover by Red. Bill rarely spoke but carried out his tasks with slapstick comedy routines. On the first day of shooting, we discovered we brought the wrong film. There was a moment on the set where we said, “What do we do? Do we break for twenty minutes while someone goes back to get the right film?” We instantly made the creative decision to shoot in black & white instead. And just like my character, it was during the Red Green show that I discovered I too had A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder).
Looking back at the history of the Frantics, with performances on stage, radio, and television, the troupe’s popularity and success grew rapidly in a short period of time. Was there a particular moment when you just knew you were on to something?
We were on the stage for three years before we went to radio. At that point, we really started to find our voice and we just kept developing it. It was an incredibly creative collective and a real democracy. I got to re-write anything I wanted and anyone could change it back again, but I got input on everything. Having the discipline to deliver a CBC radio script every two weeks was unbelievable. I learned I could always find a better verb; always write a better draft, and always find a little extra to give my character. But in radio, it gets taken away so you can move forward to write the next one. It was almost like that great saying, “creative works are never finished, but abandoned”. There was a lot of material to be written and endless delivery dates. The Frantics rose to the occasion but when you don’t know you’re at the mercy of A.D.D. like me, it was easy to assume weakness. I would be lazy, give in too easily, and be stupid in some areas. When I later learned what some of my A.D.D. symptoms were, I got the chance to deal with them. Like when I thought I had trouble focusing when it was really just that I was hyper-focused on the wrong thing. I could be writing and look up four hours later to realize I had to pee the entire time and that I was starving. To switch from one thing to another was brutal and I never understood why. It was only five or six years ago when I became aware of my condition. The more I read about A.D.D., the more I say to myself, “Jesus, no wonder.” A.D.D. people love to work under pressure. The adrenaline wakes up the mind, but can be exhausting on the body. I found strategies that compensated, and made them work for me.
Patrick McKenna with Rick Green
So you’re saying you’ve had A.D.D. all your life, but only discovered it five or six years ago? Yet, you’ve achieved so much!
I’m what you call high functioning; that’s the A.D.D. term. Unlike some with A.D.D., I grew up in Don Mills with a supportive family and went to university. I have gifts that I benefit by, and a lot of things fell my way. But some people with A.D.D. can’t hold down a job. A.D.D. can be so severe that you can’t even finish a sentence. You get impatient. You lash out. I use to get nuts in traffic, but now that I know the reason I can calm myself and let it go. In the documentary I did with Patrick McKenna called A.D.D and Loving It?!, we addressed the impulsivity and the impatience. How some of us would rather get off at the next exit and go a hundred miles out of our way, rather than be stuck in traffic. And some people with A.D.D. who, having drove a hundred miles out of their way, will then pull up at the nearest car dealership and impulsively buy a car. They arrive home to announce, “I bought a car!” And the wife says, “what the...?”
That sounds extreme, but I would think some A.D.D. actions would appear to others as anxiety or reactions to stress.
A.D.D. afflicted people are stressed, but the flip side is you can look A.D.D., when you’re not. How often do you lose your keys? Having learned to put small structures in my life to prevent it, I still lost my wallet on the way over here. It’s the first time it’s happened to me in years. But finding out you have A.D.D. in adulthood is like finding out in adulthood that your left leg is three inches shorter than your right. It’s been that way since birth and without knowing it, you develop all sorts of strategies to compensate. But then there are times when you think back to the high school dance; and the girl you knocked over into the punch bowl. She went off with someone else, got married and lived happily ever after. I spent 15 years in therapy trying to figure out my anger toward women.
How do you feel about that now, knowing it was the A.D.D.?
Relief. Okay, so my left leg is shorter, but why didn’t somebody tell me?
After discovering you had A.D.D., did you go around apologizing to people for the past?
I went around explaining it to people. And it was like, “That’s interesting, but you’re so successful.” And this response made me angry. I know I don’t look different, but I’ve taken the medication and the difference is astounding. I’m completely different on the inside. For example, I had a year and a quarter’s worth of GST that I couldn’t even look at. But when I went on medication, it all got done in a day.
But there’s no denying the success. So it must be like, “wow, if I can do all that without medication, look out now!”
The challenge is not having regret. I don’t get those years back. Now I want people to know sooner. What shocks me is the amount of terror people have over the diagnosis. Out of all the different types of diagnosis you could ever get, A.D.D. comes with good news and it’s why I have a website in development; to help people understand the condition.
Can you tell me more about the website as well as the documentary?
A.D.D. and Loving It?! aired on Global TV last September. It’s an entertaining and hilarious documentary because it’s made by a comedian, written by a comedian, directed by a comedian, and stars a comedian. Global TV will air it again in the New Year, 2010. It was astounding for me to read viewer mail that said, “my son is now beginning to see the life he can have.” The response was fantastic.
It must’ve been so rewarding to read that.
Oh, it certainly was! It’s fun to make people laugh, but even greater fun to make people laugh with tears of relief. I did a one-day workshop last June for CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) where people came in, sat down with arms crossed and eyes shifting side to side with a look that said, “I hope no one sees me here”. The look was of someone ashamed or something. But within fifteen minutes, most of them were laughing. There was laughter, there were tears, and there were thank yous! The workshop was life-altering for some people.
Did the documentary turn out the way you expected it to? Are you happy with it?
A.D.D. and Loving It?! turned out exactly the way I had hoped. The question I got from so many people in television was, “but how did you get that made? They don’t make documentaries like that anymore. It’s not exploitive, it’s not confrontational, it’s not fake drama, it’s not reality tv, and it’s not intervention.” It’s a documentary that’s funny. but it’s even less than a documentary and more an educational film. We originally titled it A.D.D. and Loving it, and then my wife suggested adding the question mark at the end after we learned about people with A.D.D. who weren’t functioning as well as others; like A.D.D. people who have five hundred television shows under their belt, you know? And it was my wife who said, “I think the message should be: you can’t love A.D.D., but you can have A.D.D. and love life.” And that’s exactly it. My wife is an editor and quite gifted at teasing out the truth that underlies something.
The documentary aired already, right? But was it a full length doc or a special that ran in many parts?
We shot 26 hours of amazing material that was cut down to 42 minutes for the documentary. But at the end of the documentary there’s a wall covered with a ton of post-it notes with questions written on them. This made us realize we could use the rest of the footage on the website to help address those questions further; questions about medications for example. It’s shocking how many people fear medications due to lack of education. There are many safe medications for A.D.D. which have been used for over seventy years. And they work with minimal side effects. We’ve done the studies. But there are groups out there who demonize. Nobody wants to go on medication, but they’re all on caffeine. These medications are safer than caffeine.
Isn’t a large percentage of society on anti-depressants?
Yes. I know so many people who by the time they reach adulthood, are going through some level of depression. I went through a bout of depression, as did Patrick.
I believe most of society is depressed at some level. I know I am. I’m not taking anything, but...
I couldn’t figure out why I was incapable of certain things and really capable in other areas. Depression really undercuts your ability to take stuff on because you think, “well, I could write or direct a movie, but Jesus I can’t even do my GST!” There’s a great phrase in the documentary when a doctor says, “The number one reason adults come to see me is: unexplained failures. They have huge successes and then periods of completely blowing it. And they can’t for the life of them figure out why.”
I really want to see this documentary.
We got great numbers. We did almost double than anything else that ran in the same time slot for Global TV that year. We struck a nerve and I know from the response of the doc and the people registering at the website, there’s a hunger for this information.
Back to the Frantics... was there a point where you just knew you were on to something?
I think it was when we were in California doing the Dr. Demento show. Dr. Demento hung out with Weird Al (Yankovic) and both of them knew everything. They knew everything when it came to recorded comedy. Having said that, Dr. Demento introduced the Frantics over the air as, “the greatest comedy troupe in the world who doesn’t have a snake in their name.”
A snake in their name?
Ah, of course!
And at that moment I realized, this is what I hoped for! The Frantics were compared to Monty Python many times and I knew we could never replace them. But now we were second, and that was cool. It took a moment, and then it was like, “thank you!” The Frantics had a bunch of skits running on Dr. Demento’s program, but we were down there at the time to promote our second album. It was like being voted for by your peers at the Academy Awards. It was reassuring.
In 1989, the Frantics went out with a bang. I heard the show Frantics Walk Upright - a Journey through History was not only your last big hurrah, but your most profitable show ever. Broadway was calling! How did you feel at the time the Frantics came to an end?
The Frantics were together for the same length of time as the Beatles. But two of the guys wanted out and I got tired of convincing them to stay. I’d hear, “oh, we’ll never be on Letterman or Carson.” This is all hindsight so who knows for sure, but had we had a really strong leader, or someone to say, “this is where you’ve got to take it...” I don’t know whether we’d have listened, but...”
You did go out with a bang.
It was like, “we got this show coming up so we’ll do it. But then, that will be it”. But of course what happened was, the show was a huge hit. It was held over and reviewers were saying “this is good enough for Broadway!” We could easily have gone, but some of us wanted out so...
You went on to other projects.
I did tons of stuff. I wrote for Smith and Smith, a show for Steve Smith and his wife. But I wrote under the name Enrico Gruen because they couldn’t afford to pay me the actor’s rate.
And you also co-wrote, directed and performed with Steve Smith for the Red Green Show. Is it challenging to wear so many hats on a project?
Steve had said let’s do something else because my wife needs a break. And the Red Green show took off. We got more email in the first three months of that show than most shows get in their entire run.
So you went from not being paid under your own name, to a show as successful as this?
What we were doing was partly solo budget that nobody was committed to for a lot of money. We were allowed to play, and Steve jokes about this, but there’s a huge amount of truth when he says, “They only gave us enough money to deliver something, but not enough money to ask us to deliver anything specific. “If you can deliver something to fill this time slot, we’re happy.” We not only filled the time slot, but we got to develop our own voice and garnered all these fans to become the number one show, without anyone’s advice. And then later, an executive came along and gave us all these things he wanted us to do. We tried all the things the executive wanted, but because it was someone else’s vision, it almost killed the show. When a great show comes along it’s because the creative team has been given free reign to come up with their own ideas.
With the types of programs aired on HBO and Showcase over the last several years, I believe that.
People working in television are definitely getting more freedom. The Red Green Show got it by default because the show wasn’t very expensive. And History Bites was done for a fraction of what anything else would have been done for as well. Prisoners of Gravity also cost a fraction of what TVO’s other show Imprint, cost. And yet we beat them all in the ratings. What I learned along the way was that when you go after something particular, it may alienate people at first... “oh no, we’re not interested in science fiction.” But those who are interested in science fiction, are now rabid and the rest will follow. Why? People knew what they were getting with Prisoners of Gravity I guess; they knew what to expect. It had a voice just like the Frantics had a voice and Red Green had a voice; very different voices, but ultimately a voice with a joyful self-deprecating sense of humour. A woman wrote to the Red Green show once and said, “never have women on the show because we know how you act. We know how you act when we’re not around.” The show is about guys who are left alone to behave badly. But I was really proud of Steve for covering subjects like homophobia on Red Green. You may think the audience isn’t liberal minded enough, but we got it in there. When you have a lodge member on the Red Green show that’s gay and Red is cool with it, it’s a neat little message to send out. And with that in mind, families came out for Red Green and families came out to see the Frantics. There was a gleeful childishness to it all that I just loved. And as for wearing all the hats, you kind of have to in order to make a decent living. I’ve learned that producing and directing is just a step beyond the writing anyway; it’s really the next level. It’s a collaborative process that I find fun. Unlike Steve, who has no interest in directing, I like it because I can work with actors and clarify the jokes that I wrote.
Which roles do you prefer?
I’m probably the most comfortable with writing. But the most fun would be in directing! After it’s written, I can watch comedians bring my stuff to life. And watch them add stuff to it. To go up to an actor you admire and say, “what if when he says that, you turn your head and do this, and stare for a fraction of a second...” And the actor will nod his head and say, “oh, that’s good, that’s good, okay.” The cameras roll again, and when I call cut, we’re all laughing. I just love that.
Your phone must ring off the wall.
It doesn’t ring at all. I think everyone assumes I’m too busy. But perhaps it’s because I’m not in the schmooze circuit. I don’t do stuff for publicity and promotional purposes. I don’t think of those things. Especially not while I’m doing a series like History Bites where I’m working three different jobs; I have enough to think about.
Do you find one role more challenging than the other?
That’s a good question. I’ve never been confident with my acting ability. I played a mafia accountant on Train 48; an accountant who was being blackmailed for having done something nasty with a young girl. People I worked with were complimentary toward me, but I wasn’t comfortable playing a pervert. It was a stretch. But I don’t think I’m necessarily all that funny either and yet, when editing my comedic stuff people roar with laughter. I remember one time shooting The Adventures of Bill. We were shooting outdoors and being the film was silent, we never had to stop for airplanes and we could talk freely on set. After the first shot was set up and Steve was ready, I made my typically crazy entrance in a car and Steve dodges me to avoid getting hit. With no audio to worry about, I got out of the car and exclaimed, “how ya doin’ ya stupid fat fuck!” A little smirk would spread across Steve’s face and the entire crew would be howling. And away we’d go! The fun would begin! But unlike the clip I saw of Charlie Chaplin doing take number 280, we didn’t have the privilege of that kind of time. The budget was so low that often things were done in one take. And the mistake I sometimes made was over-shooting. We’d shoot so much material. The Frantics radio show was the same way.
Dan Redican told me he learned not to get so egotistically attached to material when working on the radio program.
The context is always what makes the audience laugh the most. If they laugh, they’re going to tune in next week and if they tune in next week, you get more money to do another show. Being egotistically attached to material could be destructive to that.
But who determines what will get the biggest laugh? What you may determine funnier might not necessarily be the same as what I would determine funnier.
There’s some level of that, but as we went along we got better at judging what worked and didn’t work. At the beginning of Red Green, we’d be right approximately a quarter of the time. Later on, we’d be right forty or fifty percent of the time. We also did stuff that was deliberately so bizarre that it was anti-laugh. In the Frantics, Dan did some sound poetry for instance that was not what I would even call dramatic. It was just odd; odd stuff that went on and on. But what I love about writing is being able to hand it over and provide work for all the wonderful people involved.
You trust them?
It’s more than that. It enables them to do what they love to do. There’s an actor by the name of Peter Oldring who is known for being profusely thankful and at the end of shooting, he’d come up and say, “This was so much fun. I will do this any time, please call me.” Peter Oldring is good and should have his own show. But he worked with us that day, horsed around and had fun. When you get to showcase a talent who takes your material and goes beyond it, making it funnier than you could ever imagine...
People must really like working with you.
I guess. There’s an incredibly good lighting guy I work with who leaned over to me one day and said, “Don’t tell my wife, but I could work someplace else making three times as much as money. I stay here because I love this. It makes me laugh! ”
If we could all be so lucky!
If you can feed yourself doing what you love, you’re fine.
With your role as the hapless klutz Bill Smith in mind, who are your role models?
For that character, it would be Benny Hill. And there’s definitely some Harpo with his off-to-the-races grin. There’s a scene in one of the Marx Brothers films where Harpo is walking along the hall and a woman is walking by from the other way. Harpo doesn’t say anything to her; just stops and stares at her with that grin. She screams (laughs) and runs off with Harpo chasing after her. It’s the stupidest thing, but not threatening at all. My character Bill has that same level of, when the brick falls down on his head and makes him go down too; he pops right back up saying, “let’s try a different size brick!” One of the things about A.D.D. is the ability to forget. Like the gambling addict who forgets the two hundred times he lost, but remembers the only time he won. I like to bring that element of joyful childishness to the character.
The klutz thing makes me think of Jerry Lewis.
Harpo wasn’t a klutz, but he was a gifted physical comedian. Harpo was a role model for me, as was Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. Not so much Charlie Chaplin but many of the silent actors too. And I can’t forget the physical comedy of Warner Brothers cartoons; the flexibility, the timing, the beat, walking off a cliff, looking up, looking down, holding a sign that says “oh dear!” To create that kind of timing is astounding. And it’s drawn!
And I think of Lucille Ball when I think of physical comedy.
And Laverne and Shirley. But what happened in the eighties were shows like Seinfeld. Seinfeld came along where you had a stand up comedian who was not physical, but had Michael Richards complimenting the ensemble with his own brand of physical comedy as Kramer. It definitely added to Seinfeld’s success.
When you’re writing for an actor, are you thinking of yourself?
If I’m specifically writing for myself, then yes. I write keeping my strengths and limitations in mind. I don’t have such terrific balance, but I know I can fall anywhere and not get hurt. I can run up to a car, jump on the roof, slide down the other side, roll up, and walk away in winter. It looks hilarious. But if you’re not writing for yourself, it’s better to have someone else in mind.
So you never get hurt doing these stunts?
Well, sometimes I do. I remember Jim Carey asking me, “how do you do that without getting hurt?!”
You’ve worked with Jim Carey?
Yes, I wrote the first movie he ever appeared in. I can’t remember the title of the film now or whether I’m credited as Rick Green or Enrico Gruen, but occasionally the film shows up on the Drive-in channel. The premise is a movie director who wants to do a thing on orphans, but everywhere he goes they want him to do porn, or something about nudity or strippers (laughs). The actual producer of the film approached the Frantics as writers, and the other three guys said, “I’m not doing this!” But me, I was like, “this could be fun!” I wrote five or six scenes for the film that I thought were hilarious. But the lesson I got from Carey was in the joy of wanting to be there. When I was back stage at Yuk Yuk’s with the troupe, it was tough because there’s four of us alongside a lot of stand-up comedians. And as you’ve mentioned, a lot of comedians are dark; dark, gossipy, suspicious and even at the age of 22, quite cynical and resigned. I see Jim Carey over there on his own and when he gets up on stage, he just stands there grinning, looking totally happy to be there. And as I watched him, I thought, I want it to always be that way for me. To be up there glowing like that! It’s a fucking (pardon me) powerful opportunity to give one of the greatest gifts of all, which is laughter.
You got a sense of Carey’s genuine joy?
He was just grinning; standing there grinning with absolutely no material. Carey had a way of making it look like he’d dislocated his shoulder and he’d throw his arms around and make it look creepy and funny, but basically he had no material. It was the same with Howie Mandel. Mandel could get up with no material as well.
Perhaps the physical comedy they were doing was the material.
And the pleasure and joy of that was palpable. I realized I didn’t want to take the time for anything that wasn’t just that. There’s a phrase I heard recently from an old guy on the street after my wife asked him how he was doing. He said. “any day I’m on this side of the sod is a good day”. And I thought that’s it! I know people who are generous. I know people who are love. That’s who they are.
Some people say we can choose to be happy simply by telling ourselves, “I’m going to be happy”. But I don’t buy it.
Well, it’s not easy. The voice in your head will say you can’t. It would take other stuff, bad stuff to happen before you could realize this statement. Have you read the book Night by Elie Wiesel?
It’s about a guy in a German concentration camp who realizes he has no control over what’s going to happen to him. The only thing he has control over is how he’s going to take it.
But I still have difficulty with this because you make it sound like a choice.
It is a choice. He could stand there in the concentration camp screaming, “this isn’t fair, just because I’m a Jew! What has happened to this great country? This is not right!” Or, he could say, “the sun is up and the sky is blue. I’ll be a leader today and inspire happiness in someone”.
Sounds like Roberto Benigni’s character in the film, Life is Beautiful.
For a long time I didn’t understand it either. But now, I get glimpses of how I’m being. There was a point where I suddenly realized I could be where I am, have everything I have and everything I don’t have, and be totally okay. And I could get there without all the unnecessary worry. Rather than, “yea, it’s a nice day, but there’s a shop we have to get to, oh my god, c’mon, let’s go!” why not say, “Yes, there’s a shop we have to get to. But it’s a nice day.” There is a choice in how you’re being. I believe everything I do is a choice. I no longer say, “It’s shoot day. I have to go and shoot the tv show”. Of course there’d be consequences if I called up and said I wasn’t coming, but nobody forces me to do anything. I don’t have to be a father to my kids. I could walk away. People do.
People walk around carrying a lot of hurt. The sadness prevents them from being happy.
Absolutely, but as Buddah says, “all unhappiness is due to unfulfilled expectation”. It’s the simplest thought and it’s the most profound. So when you look at the Frantics as they say, “oh, we’ll never be on Letterman or Carson”. I say, “But we’re on stage tonight in front of people who are falling over laughing. Why be concerned with three years from now and potentially not being on the Letterman show?” It’s not always as simple as that, I know. I myself was a master of worrying. Like when my kids were born, the worry was the worst. It’s taken some doing, but I have trust in the universe now.
And how did you gain that trust?
It came through courses and books which helped me see the chatter in my own head. I realized I could interrupt the flow of chatter. The chatter is never going to be reality. First of all, there is no real reality. I mean, you could argue this chair is made of wood and I would agree with you, but “is it ugly or is it beautiful? Is it a treasure or an embarrassment that should be replaced? Are they nice? Does she like me? Is this a great room? I could walk into your house and have an opinion on everything. But do I have any ideas? That’s the issue. Most of the world is stuck on opinions. Everyone has an opinion on the government, the TTC, Harper and Afghanistan, and that’s okay, but what ideas do you have? I’m interested in people who let go of opinions and are willing to say, “I don’t know”. I can look at things now and say, “I don’t know”. I can look at things and say, “I’ve got no idea”. And I’m willing to say, “I’m an idiot”. The more I learn about psychology, the more I realize we decide stuff within thirty seconds, based on appearance, movement and timber of voice. Our minds follow this by generating all the reasons why. We don’t listen, reason and then decide. We decide within seconds. Like when I walked in here tonight, your mind was probably going a mile a minute in one long sentence, “What’s this guy like? Is he this, is he that, he’s got white hair, is he a goof, physical comedy, History Bites, is he good, Red Green, la la, la....”
The Red Green Show
(laughter) That’s just the kind of chatter that keeps me up all night!
And it won’t stop until you’ve got something bigger on your plate. There’s a great phrase, “if you’re problems are stopping you, you need bigger problems.” I didn’t get it right away, but it got realized the day I picked up my daughter and she said, “I can’t come out, I haven’t got my hair done and I have no makeup on.” She was fifteen and stuff like this matters at that age. But the reason for it is, “what would people think?” A bigger problem would be, her brother is on the front yard choking. How she looks now would no longer matter. Whether she was dressed wouldn’t matter. She’d be out that door trying to save her brother. You can wait until life thrusts bigger problems on you like choking or cancer or something, or you can choose bigger problems now. I started watching people around me who I really admire and soon noticed my brother. My brother has all this stuff going on, but still took on this charity that does micro lending in third world countries. It’s a huge undertaking, yet he chose to jump into it anyway, despite his busy schedule.
Well, I definitely have more opinions than ideas.
What happens when you lean toward ideas; you let go of cynicism and resignation. You’ll be able to dream again.
Years ago, I may have listened to what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t have heard.
I know. I wouldn’t have heard it either. I would have thought, “what are you talking about? The world’s not safe! “ And someone else would say, “yes, it is safe”. Some people look at roller coasters and have very different opinions on whether they’re a good thing or a bad thing. Some people have no fear of them and some people, like my wife, would say “you’ll have to shoot me before I’ll get on that roller coaster”. It’s the same roller coaster with the same level of safety, but people have different beliefs. And there’s people who smoke and tell me they only drink bottled water. And I say, “you’re inhaling arsenic, but you’re concerned with chlorine in the water?”
Sometimes I get really impatient. What I learned from one of the courses I took was, if you are able to say “I blew it” or “I’m an idiot”, you will be liberated. It gives permission to allow humanity. I really understand now that a fourteen year old, or a seventeen year old, or someone of any age really, can say, “my parents don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me!” And ten minutes later, that same person will be saying, “I tell ya, I know my parents!” But you don’t know your parents any better than they know you. Nobody really knows anybody. We have shields up and defence systems in place. And when we come home at night, it’s no wonder we’re not satisfied. We’ve met thirty people at a party and although some of them were interesting, we basically spent the night bumping into masks.
As a writer, I expose myself all the time. I hope it does liberate people. I know when I read someone who exposes their flaws, it endears me to them.
The humanity of that and the compassion of just allowing ourselves to mess up, is good.
The Red Green Show was well-received. To what do you owe the show’s popularity?
I think the characters allowed us to say things about men. During the show, Steve gave everyone a copy of the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And with every page I turned, I got 99 ideas for different skits. It’s a funny read from that point of view. It sparked one idea after another.
And didn’t duct tape have something to do with the show’s success?
When viewers send photos in of all the things they’ve done with duct tape, you know it!
Duct tape must have been flying off the shelves.
Steve went to 3M one day and said “we’ve been selling a lot of duct tape for ya!” And 3M went, “thank you”.
Did you write and illustrate books to accompany the Red Green Show?
Yes, two or three. I did most of the illustrations in them. I use to paint but I haven’t in a long time. My wife would like to see me get back to it.
History Bites has an interesting premise. “Creator and host Rick Green takes viewers on a journey up and down the television dial for a hilarious look at what Regis Philbin might offer a peasant during the reign of Vlad the Impaler with pronouncements by Judge Judy for blue collar Transylvanians.”
History Bites was a great way to comment on the modern world. It was a pleasure to read through history books to find just the right parody. We did a segment covering the first Thanksgiving as All in the Family. We only spent about four hundred dollars on the set, but the actors were so good. They were so funny. I won a Gemini for directing History Bites. Many winners at the ceremony got up and said, “I’m so glad my mom’s here to share this with me. When I got up there, I said, “What an honour to finally win this. I wish my mom was here to share it, but its $220 a ticket! My mom said, “Screw that!” After running a few one-hour specials, History Bites is nominated for a Gemini again this year.
But I think the award that meant the most to me was the CAMH award for Transforming Lives. It’s given to one celebrity and seven or eight other people who make a difference around mental health. And it was the first time A.D.D. was recognized. When a guy from BMO Financial handed me the award I said, “I’m the only person in North America in the last twelve years to thank a banker!” It was great to win for A.D.D. and Loving it?! Having never done a documentary before we made one that’s not only funny, but with subject matter that people carry very strong opinions about. In my acceptance speech I said, “we did this so 10,000 children won’t go to bed at night staring at the ceiling, eyes wide and moist, terrified there’s something wrong with them.” My own embarrassment about coming out with A.D.D. pales in comparison to these kids; they are the bigger problem.
The Frantics made household names out of characters like Mr Canoe Head, Canada's aluminum-headed crime fighter. But then there’s Hoverboy; a superhero with a bucket for a head who has hovered his way through animated shorts, radio, and comic strips, and straight into the life of Rick Green. Who is this Hoverboy, and what is his relationship with you?
Hoverboy is the most over-exploited, under-rated lightening super-hero ever. Hoverboy started as an animated cartoon and then went to comic books. Hoverboy is the Spinal Tap of comic books. Working with Hoverboy is as much fun as working with the Frantics. It’s the structure. There’s this whole gay sub-text that’s hilarious. We just finished doing 30s-style radio shows with Hoverboy. Our friend Bob Segarini took part and he was very funny. The next step will be a screenplay for Hoverboy and a cartoon. And if you visit his website (see links at the end of this article), he’s got new stuff coming up all the time.
Are there many other projects you’ve been working on to keep your creative juices flowing?
It’s mainly been about the website for A.D.D that’s driving me. Every two weeks we’re posting another hour’s worth of material up on the site. There’s lots of interesting scientific information and videos that help the 40% of A.D.D. people who also have learning disorders like dyslexia. I’ve also been doing comedic rants on the website. I have a whole series of proposals in the works for different things because I have so many different interests.
So when you go home tonight, what will you work on?
Tonight? Well, I might putter about in the basement with my model railroad. Or I’ll cut out ads from these hilarious 1950s magazines I have. I plan to make a big collage of house wives from the 50s holding everything from batteries to vacuum cleaners.
Do you ever watch television?
Not really, but I should. My wife and I haven’t been keeping up with television. I think when you edit and stare at a screen all day, the last thing you want to do is watch television. I’m better off going to the Art Gallery or goofing around with poster paints and a big pad of paper. I think everyone should play with Leggo for at least two months of their lives; Leggo or Tinkertoy. I’m a big believer in trying everything.
Sounds like you’ve never grown up. But in a good way.
In some ways I’ve grown up a lot, but in other ways I give myself the freedom not to, and not to be embarrassed for playing with model railroads. A lot of people roll their eyes when they see some of the detail I put into it. But I chose to turn off Sonny and Cher and play with my model railroad.
Will you be delighting us with your creativity for many years to come?
I know I could churn out tons of material. I could churn out 15 seasons of something right now. I know I could. It’s not arrogance. It comes from years of experience. But it’s got to matter. It has to be meaningful to me. When I find something interesting that makes a difference, I will do it.
Do you find you have to make yourself happy first?
Always. I wouldn’t want anyone not to. I wouldn’t want my kids to do something with their lives that didn’t make them happy. It’s hard to appreciate when you’re in your twenties, but your teens don’t come back. When you’re in high school, childhood is gone. Every step your child takes is another milestone. One door closes and another one opens. They’ll never cling to you the same way again.
And the thing that gets you up in the morning?
I think it’s a huge level of curiosity. I’m willing to try things and I’m willing to fail. It’s painful when you fail, but regret will stop you from appreciating what can happen. A defining moment for me was ten years after my dad passed. I was still suffering. There’s a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is, “I miss him” and suffering is, “my life has never been the same”. When I finally told my mom, “I suffer because I never got to tell dad I loved him”. She said, “oh, he knew!” Hearing that, tears poured down my face and I let go of the suffering. Being a comedian, I’m larger than life to my family in some ways. But I look at my kids and I know they know. So does my wife. I tell them I love them.
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