Photo courtesy of Asa Moore/Goldenvoice
"To answer your question," Jack Black says to me over the phone, discussing legacy of his musical comedy duo Tenacious D, "Did we ever in our wildest dreams imagine the success that we’ve had? I’m afraid that I have to say yes." He's joking a bit, naturally—this is Jack Black after all—and is quick to clarify that even though he imagined Tenacious D would become a massive success, he never actually expected for it to happen. "For every Tenacious D," he continues, "there are 150 Tenacious Ds that go undiscovered."
It's with this confidence, it seems, Black and his bandmate Kyle Gass were able to make their group as much of a household name as you can become in the musical comedy world. In their two decade career, they've somehow only released three albums, but still stand as one of the last great comedy musical duos that made it before the internet and social media world of viral comedy (of course, it doesn't hurt their popularity that during this time, Black has also had an incredibly successful career in Hollywood as an actor). The self-proclaimed Greatest Band in the World has released a multitude of songs that even the most casual of music and comedy fans would probably be able to hum the lyrics to. Just take a quick glance at their discography for a list of bangers: "Tribute," "Kickapoo," "Low Hangin' Fruit," and my personal favorite, "Fuck Her Gently." In short, these guys have been making hits longer than most Vine stars have been alive.
On October 10 at the Shrine Expo Hall & Grounds in Los Angeles, Tenacious D puts on their third annual Festival Supreme, a celebration of all things comedy and music with a lineup curated by Black and Gass. This year's list of performers include anyone from Amy Poehler to Die Antwoord to The Kids in The Hall to Andrew W.K. They're also offering the opportunity to officiate a wedding for two fans, because, hey, why not? Below, Noisey is premiering the duo's video singing about the festival in which they do their best Frank Sinatra. Last week, I called Jack Black last week to discuss what's on deck, what it's like to bomb on stage, and what Tenacious D thinks of their legacy and future. Here's what he had to say.
Talk to me about Festival Supreme.
Yeah, well it’s been a real amazing experience just curating this festival for the last few years. Leading up to it, it’s always a stress house—because you’re basically throwing a big party. It’s all about making it as entertaining as possible. I don’t know about you but when I throw a party I tend to grip a little bit and start to worry a little bit about all the signs and tells, so I probably lost a couple years off my life because of this, but the euphoria of the night always makes up for the year of stress. If that’s even possible—to pack all that joy into one night to make it all worthwhile. But every year we’ve done it, it’s such a cream dream that we jump back into it—almost immediately. We let a few weeks go by and then we’re like, “Who’s on the bill for next year?”
How do you go about booking it?
We wanted to have a mega concert with all the comedy music fans in existence. We wanted to get the Spinal Taps, the Lonely Islands, the Flight of the Concords—all under one roof. And then it sort of expanded into this thing. Because it’s so fun! I don’t know. It’s something I would want to go to, I guess, and why do people do anything? It’s something people want to jump on.
Where do you see Tenacious D fitting in the world of crossover comedy and music? What do you view as your legacy?
Oh, hm. With the comedy music duos in history, I like to think that me and Kyle are in that evolutionary—or devolutionary timeline. I did this comedic picture of that historical context one time that I thought was funny. You start with the great duos of all time—start with Laurel and Hardy, then you have Smothers Brothers, then you have Cheech and Chong, and then I like to think you have Tenacious D, just in terms of those duos. If you look at them, it does look like devolution. They started out as towering monuments of comedy and slowly descends into this caveman-Cro Magnon-stoner culture. But it’s nice to kind of draw out that evolutionary thing and do it backwards so you start out with the perfect man and end up with monkeys. I kinda think me and Kyle are the monkeys of that chain. It’s near the end of the world.
Did you ever imagine that you’d hit this point where you are not only successful but incredibly influential.
Can you expand?
Well if you don't imagine it, you’re never going to even start. You don’t think you know what the final destination is and I still don’t know what the final destination is, but when you start out, you get up in front of a crowd because you think you’re good, you know? You think you have something to offer, and you think you’ll do something that no ones ever done before. Even though, like I said, there are tons of people before us. But it’s a slightly different spin, something you’re excited about. When you bring something to a crowd it’s exhilarating, it’s terrifying, and it’s deeply gratifying.
But to answer your question, did we ever in our wildest dreams imagine the success that we’ve had? I’m afraid that I have to say yes. And that’s what everyone is doing. Every one of those musicians or comedians pretends—they do that weird thing in the mirror or to themselves where they imagine an audience and they imagine it going well. They imagine it going very well. That’s all it is. You ever seen Kings of Comedy? That’s to the extreme, but there is sort of a mental illness that comes with this profession. You have to put up your cardboard audience and you have to imagine you are the king of entertainment—just in order to make it through. There’s the terror. The humiliation. You’re putting yourself in harms way, in a way. No matter what they say, all of them imagine they would do well.
But I need to clarify. I definitely imagined we would be huge. But I didn’t expect that we would be huge. It’s more of part of your fantasy life. You hope there’s a best case scenario. You imagine there’s a best case scenario. That’s what your supposed to do, right? It’s a creative visualization that makes things come true.
What do you feel like it is that you guys did that allowed you to execute that success? Every creative person—comedian, writer, musician, actor—imagines their success, but it’s rare, obviously, to make it happen.
We just practiced long and hard and cracked through with our very first song—which is still our best song—“Tribute.” It’s a simple concept and we worked on it for months and months before we ever got up in front of a crowd. But there’s also a very lucky meeting with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk and they put us on HBO. We wouldn’t of had—you know, for every Tenacious D, there are 150 Tenacious Ds that go undiscovered. We got lucky.
You guys have arrived at the goal you set long ago—the success you imagined. What do you do mentally to push yourself?
Well, it’s still fun to put on a show, you know? And at its core, that’s what it’s all about. The dynamic is different when you’ve already established a niche for yourself and when you’re new and fresh, there’s an excitement you can feel when people don’t really know you and you’re introducing yourself to the world of entertainment. So that’s gone—the luster is gone, the bloom is off the rose if you will. But I still approach it every day as another opportunity as to put on another good show. I just like doing it. At the end of the day, if you don’t like doing it, it’s not going to be good.
Do you have any specific instances of bombing early on?
Oh yeah, and those turn out to be the funniest stories. You cherish the bombs just as much as the triumphs in a way. That’s where you pay your dues. You learn more. Our famously worst gig was we did this thing called Miller Genuine Draft Blind Date. They had this concept where if you send in your bottle caps or something you have a chance to win a trip to the Miller Genuine Draft Blind Date. So they fly people from all over the country to a designated venue, in this case Las Vegas, and get them really drunk on Miller Genuine Draft, and then the curtains open and there’s a band, and you don’t know who it is until the curtain opens. So there we were at the House of Blues, I think, with two thousand drunk Miller Genuine Draft lovers from all over the country. The curtain opens on Tenacious D, and we weren’t what people were dreaming of. When you put people in that position, they start fantasizing, like, “Oh my god, maybe it’s gonna be Neil Young. Do you think it’s gonna be Neil Young?” Some people are gonna be like, “Oh god, I hope it’s Madonna!” Other dudes are gonna be like, “I just hope it’s Motörhead!” No matter what, no one is gonna please everyone in that crowd. It’s a dumb idea. So curtains open, Tenacious D, barely anyone knows us here because at this point we’re just some guys from HBO—we’re not even a real band. And right out of the gate, boo! Hatred. Boo! And we know contractually we have to play 35 minutes or we won’t get paid, or at least that’s what we’re thinking, so we were like, “we are not leaving this stage.” So it turned into this sort of torture and I think that the audience started to really enjoy themselves—like the booing became a fun ritual. It became a catastrophe—what do you call it when a catastrophe becomes funny? A fiasco?
When was this? Do you remember when?
Oh man, I don’t know. It was in the early aughts. That’s the zeroes, right?
Why do they call it the aughts? I don’t think that’s a good word.
I think about that whenever I write it.
I think it’d be better if it was the zeroes, and I think they aught to come up with a better name.
That’s a good one. You’re a comedian.
I think people will get that.
Yeah, because my pronunciation of “aught” is really part of the gag.
Yeah, because people will understand that you’re talking about the years, but also not.
Yeah, for sure. Make sure you put all the explanation of this at the end of it, too. That will really help.
For sure. Anyway, it’s interesting you say that, because I was reading a profile of Stephen Cobert recently and he said something almost identical to you: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”
It made me realize too that there is something great about torturing the audience. Sometimes they want to be tortured, because that’s the funniest thing there is. Giving them what they don’t want on purpose is often times the funniest possible strategy.
Just fuck with ‘em a little.
Yeah, they like it. They like that a little bit. That’s why now we give the audience a good blast of jazz—we do a 12-minute set of non-stop jazz in the middle of the set. People pretend to hate it but I can tell that they love it. They love it.
Speaking to that a little bit—something that I've always enjoyed about Tenacious D is that you guys cover such a range of genres. And then last year you ended up winning the Grammy for Best Metal Performance and there were segments of the metal world that got kind of pissed. How did you feel about that?
I mean, it is a joke. We should not be winning Best Metal Performance. We’re not really a true metal band. It just goes to show how ridiculous the whole Grammys voting machine is. It’s a popularity contest. I don’t want to start complaining about Grammys we should’ve won, but at the end of the day, everybody gets to vote on every category so people who aren’t experts on a category—you know, you’ve got an 84-year-old woman who only listens to jams from the 1940s going, “Oh, you know I’ve heard of that Jack Black!” How is that the way things should be structured? But I will take it to the bank because it was for a good cause, a fundraiser for Ronnie James Dio’s cancer organization’s Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. We have a song about Ronnie James Dio and that’s how we became friends with him before he died and he was in our movie and he’s so great and people love that and I think we won a Grammy because of people’s love for Ronnie James Dio, and that’s great.
You have your own stuff going on, obviously, but what is next for Tenacious D?
Well, we’re working on our next album. We’re very slow. We’ve been going on a six-year cycle. And that’s not going to change. That’s just how we do. We’ve got a very ambitious concept for the next record but we haven’t had time to sit down and crank it out, and really I just feel like I need a few years to recharge the battery properly anyway.
Can you give me a hint on what this big idea is?
No. [long pause]. Well, I will give you one hint. It’s so obvious. When you see it, you’ll be like, “Oh, well, of course!” That’s all I can say.
Last question: Is it weird being famous?
Oh, you know, it’s just what you would expect it to be. It’s great and it’s horrible and it’s no longer surreal because it’s become my way of life. I’d say since School of Rock, it’s been like everybody knows me. Weird. Yeah, it’s weird. It’s weird when everybody knows you. Actually, that’s like half true. About 50 percent of people know me, I would say. And that’s weird! I can’t imagine everybody. Nobody is known by everyone.
What about President Obama?
Do you think everybody knows Obama though? I’m going to say that 95 percent of the world knows Obama by name or photo. There are definitely millions of people who don’t know him, somewhere.
Eric Sundermann thinks you aught to share this article with your friends. Follow him on Twitter.