One reason Black is so good at parodying the theatrical is that he comes from a serious theater background: As a teenager he joined Tim Robbins' L.A.-based troupe, the Actors' Gang, where he played in Brecht and Ionesco (which I would pay lots of money to see). Unlike Belushi and Farley, Black's explosive comedy doesn't seem to require a destructive lifestyle: He told Lemony Snicket (in a weirdly revelatory Believer interview about weddings) that he doesn't like getting drunk, hates big parties, and feels self-conscious dancing in public. He's 37 now, a recent husband and father. This calm, reflective, intelligent side seems to guide the adolescent wildness.
Black's most consistent refuge from the scourge of family comedy has been Tenacious D, the seriocomic two-man "folk-metal" band he formed with fellow Actors' Gang member Kyle Gass in 1994. The band simultaneously parodies and pays tribute to the transcendent power of Rock, which they re-imagine as a spiritual legacy running from Beethoven to Ozzy Osbourne and culminating in what Black has called the "theatrical bombast" of Meat Loaf (which, if you haven't seen it lately, is a thing to behold).
In 12 years, the D has managed to inspire a healthy cult of fans, release a couple of albums, and build some actual rock credibility. The band's comedy grows out of an obvious disjunction: Two fat guys with acoustic guitars sing about how they've harnessed the satanic powers of heavy metal to conquer the world, all while harmonizing like Simon and Garfunkel in front of bored crowds at open-mic nights. The music is awful as heavy metal but perfect as intentionally awful heavy metal. The band's songs are blissfully self-referential—they rock almost exclusively about how hard they're rocking:
We ride with kings on mighty steeds, across the devil's plain.
We've walked with Jesus and his cross—he did not die in vain: No!
We've run with wolves, we've climbed K-2, even stopped a moving train.
We've traveled through space and time my friends to rock this house again.
Tenacious D's lyrics are a stew of Renaissance Faire Olde English ("Be you angels?/ Nay, we are but men!"), Dungeons & Dragons clichés ("The demon and the wizard had a battle royale"), and nonsensical bragging ("We are the inventors of the cosmic astro-code")—it sounds like an egomaniacal stoner reciting all of epic literature from memory. Black often surrenders himself to frenzied bouts of power-scatting (a-riga-goo-goo, riga-goo-goo!) in order to demonstrate the depth of his inspiration. A handful of their songs are comic masterpieces—e.g., "Tribute," the tale of how they vanquished a demon by composing, on the spot, the greatest song in the world, only to forget the song afterward and be forced to memorialize it with the current (significantly less great) tribute song.
Unfortunately, Tenacious D remains the closest Black has ever come to finding a proper vehicle for his talent—and the band, like his awesomeness, seems to have peaked five years ago. Back in the glory days, the D kept one comedic foot planted firmly in experimental sketch comedy (Python, Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show) and the other in Spinal Tap; regrettably, the new film, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, dips its third leg into the worst of American lowbrow (bad SNL, Mad TV, Rob Schneider movies). Whatever energy inspired the band's original rise to power has been spent. The closest the movie gets to the old spirit (and it's not particularly close) is in its trailer. This marks the official end of my faith in Jack Black: His only project seemingly immune to the corrosive mediocrity of mainstream comedy has finally been corrupted.
So why is it that, somewhere deep in the starless night of the winter solstice of my soul-cosmos, I still detect the faintest glimmer of hope? Black's career seems to have reached the archetypal Jack Black moment: The inspiration artist is uninspired, repressed, imprisoned by the status quo. We've written him off. It's the perfect situation. If we're lucky, he's about to respond like he always did in the old days: to launch himself into the heavens and blow our minds with a kick-ass riff that no one but him ever could have seen coming.