When I first saw the poster for Nacho Libre last summer—a picture of Jack Black leaping shirtless against the sky in tights and a cape, with wild hair and a mustache—I was excited for weeks. It seemed to promise the kind of film I'd been waiting five years for him to make: inspired, proudly absurd, uncorrupted by giant CGI gorillas, and with ample space for his signature improv. It turned out (except for a glorious moment or two) to be the exact opposite—even the 13-year-old who came with me thought it was lame. As always with Black's movies, I entered the theater primed to laugh and left feeling the kind of existential dread usually reserved for having just seen Oedipus Rex tear his eyes out.
Over the years, my relationship with Black's career has progressed from mild disappointment to outright abuse—a joyless but compulsive cycle in which I delude myself that somehow, next time, things will get better: He'll develop a sense of quality control, or a genius director will figure out how to use some fraction of his talent (e.g., David Lynch will adopt him as a lovable manic psychopath, or Wes Anderson will use him as a frenzied counterpoint to Bill Murray), or he'll quit Hollywood altogether and found a Monty Pythonesque art-comedy troupe that maintains rigorous comic standards and writes and directs its own perfect indie films. (Sometimes I fantasize that we live in an alternate cultural universe.)
But none of this ever happens. Instead, Black sleepwalks through "romantic" "comedies" about the soul-warming quirks of transatlantic love (The Holiday) or the ethics of loving Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit (Shallow Hal); he paralyzes half of his face muscles in a doomed effort to look unironic (King Kong); or he morphs into a low-fat, Muzak version of himself and leads preadolescents to soft-rock glory (School of Rock)—all for the delight of a mythical demographic that encompasses both 9-year-olds and their elderly chaperones. Black's films all have the same moral: that he shouldn't have made them. His mind is fundamentally incompatible with formulaic mainstream plots—it's like watching Miles Davis play The Lawrence Welk Show. There's no more-frustrating discrepancy between comic potential and actual achievement. How has the prince of wild improv become so predictable? Will he ever surprise us again? When will the Jack Blacksploitation stop?
Black first power-shimmied into mainstream visibility in 2000, stealing every scene from his better-known co-stars in High Fidelity. It seemed to signal the arrival of a new kind of comic energy. He was able to slip with shamanlike frequency into the charmed, ecstatic, triumphant red zone of improv—and while there he was funny, irritating, strong, and impossible not to watch. The Great Spirit of Comic Joy seemed to have anointed him its chosen earthly vessel.
Black is built like a Belushi-Farley power comic (short and chubby) but also weirdly nimble: He'll charge around like an angry bear, stop suddenly to do a precise pantomime with his fingers, then leap off like a ballerina, waving his flippy arms. His face, with its demon-clown smile and hydraulic eyebrows, looks like a parody of the theatrical. All of these attributes allow him to pull humor out of places that no other actor can. My favorite Black performance is a Saturday Night Live sketch in which he transforms the bland, uninspired "Happy Birthday" song into a three-minute Goth opera about the mystical tragedy of birth: He leaps and twirls across a foggy stage in a ruffled white puffy shirt, intones antiquated Britishisms ("Thou knowest me not!"), and shatters the Clock of Eternity with a broadsword while a druid choir drifts in and out moaning "Happy birthday." It seems like the distillation of his comedy; it's impossible to imagine anyone else doing it.
The core of Black's talent is his inspired parody of inspiration. Each of his characters tries (but fails) to live by Walter Pater's classic dictum: "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." He whips violently between extremes—depression, ecstasy, rage—and funnels every moment toward an exaggerated hyper-moment. His emotional spectrum runs roughly from toddler to adolescent, with blind, self-glorifying, Dionysian raptures followed immediately by apocalyptic tantrums—listen, for instance, to the classic Tenacious D skit "Inward Singing," in which he completes the entire cycle in two minutes. Although Black's critics tend to dismiss him as the kind of guy he often portrays—loud, boorish, dumb—his art actually runs much deeper. His best work is profoundly and purposefully stupid: He's examining what it means to be that kind of guy, swept away by super-sized joy.
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.