Gods of Rock (In Their Own Minds): The Early Days of Tenacious D
One night in 1996, Jack Black and Kyle Gass — the rambunctious, rotund frontmen for the mock rock outfit Tenacious D — stood on stage in a small cafe making demands. They were performing a bit in which they mapped out to a couple of Hollywood agents, played by Mr. Show’s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, the route that would take them to stardom. “Number one we want a fucking record deal,” began Black, before ticking off further requests for a TV show and a movie. “That would be the pinnacle — if we had a movie.” At this point in their career Tenacious D were little known outside of certain small comedy circles in Los Angeles, so as he began to speak Black was unable to suppress an amused grin at the outrageous nature of their requests.
Yet within a decade Tenacious D would achieve, in bombastic fashion, all that they envisioned that night on stage. In short order they had under their loosely strapped belts a television show, a critically acclaimed record, and a feature film with the band’s name blazed prominently into the title. Although the rock opera Tenacious D In The Pick of Destiny turned out to be a surprise box-office bomb, earning a paltry eight million dollars, the duo’s prominence was still incontestable. On the journey upwards their 2001 album Tenacious D went platinum, they played Madison Square Garden as part of a world tour, and Jack Black emerged as a mega-star actor in his own right.
But it was that first jewel in Tenacious D’s crown that best captured the rowdy, freewheeling spirit of their act. Co-created along with Cross and Odenkirk — two of the band’s earliest champions — the television series followed the absurd exploits of a fictionalized version of The D as they quested after rock supremacy while only managing to reach, at best, low-end mediocrity. Consisting of six shorts packaged into three episodes, Tenacious D aired on HBO sporadically between 1997 and 2000. Despite the long gaps between episodes and the short-lived nature of the series, the duo’s exuberant presence on screen was uniquely compelling enough to attract a cult following that would later serve as the foundation for their world wide fan base.
Unruly, unkempt, and blissfully unaware, the duo’s television alter-egos romp through performances with the cheerful abandon of men who believe their success is a foregone conclusion even as they repulse audiences on a nightly basis. But the feverish enthusiasm of those formative years wasn’t all shtick. “I just remember the early days of Tenacious D,” Black recalled to The A.V. Club in March. “We were just doing it because we were fucking psyched about getting up in front of a crowd of 14 people at the coffeehouse. We got the crazy juju from that. We had adrenaline, and it felt like a huge, fiery hoop.”
It’s this sense of heedless exuberance that defines the show’s sensibility. Each episode begins with the duo marching to an open mic while a spaghetti western soundtrack whistles in the background, looks of determination etched on their faces as if they’re about to play the Super Bowl. Their usual attire of shorts, tube socks, and sandals cut an aggressively un-hip appearance. Their songs about kielbasa sausage and karate are received with nothing but silent curiosity. And yet through their absurd overconfidence in the face of certain failure and their utter disregard for any notion of cool, they somehow manage to attain an air of respectability. Even the hapless open mic host, who has to suffer through the band’s delusional ravings every week, can’t help but resign himself to the fact that The D are a force that will not be deterred and so must be tolerated.
The loose format HBO allowed for the program provided space for the band to indulge their more fantastical sensibilities. A deranged hybrid of short film, sketch, and rock, the series at times has the feel of a ‘90s MTV music video hour hijacked by Mr. Show. This scene in which The D explain how they once wrote the greatest song in the world (but promptly forgot it) epitomizes the show’s creative flights of fancy.
At its core the act has always revolved around the tumultuous love affair between the two frontmen, and the show is at its best when capturing their frenetic, unhinged collaborations. In the real life history of the band, the duo met in a California theater troupe and solidified their bond when Black exchanged acting tips in return for Gass’s musical tutelage. The essence of this initial dynamic is preserved on stage with Gass functioning as the seasoned guitar impresario and Black acting as the driving force behind the band’s manic personality.
Years later, when the series was over and Tenacious D had achieved a measure of real world fame, the band would have to work at balancing the delusional egomania that serves as the underlying joke of their act with the reality of their success. But during the early days of their ascension they were free to kick their foolhardy bravado into overdrive. However, the charm and seduction of Tenacious D has always been their madcap earnestness. There’s no ironic condescension in their material, only full-throttle enthusiasm. In the first episode of the series, while playing a song that purports to chart The D’s rise to power, Black cries out to the apathetic crowd, “We know it’s open mic night — we don’t care.” And we truly believe they never did.