Rocking your world, D-style

A talk with comedic actors/musicians Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE Kyle Gass (middle) and Jack Black are the sole members of rock/comedy phenomenon Tenacious D.

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE Kyle Gass (middle) and Jack Black are the sole members of rock/comedy phenomenon Tenacious D.

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As Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D settled in for the latest in a line of interviews, they offered a pointed critique of an on-air segment they had just done for a radio station.

“If you think we sold one record with that, you gotta be kidding,” Gass told Black.

If that’s the case, the radio appearance was one of the few times that Tenacious D failed to impress listeners who have come in contact with their musical and comedic talents.

The pair, known for their portly body-by-Budweiser physiques and highly contrasting hairlines (Gass is the one with the prominent bald spot, while Black has a full head of hair), have used the wonders of cable television, film and live performance to turn Tenacious D into an entity of near mythic proportions.

Spots on the HBO program The Show led to Tenacious D getting its own short-lived but much admired HBO sketch series. Meanwhile, occasional live shows, including high-profile gigs with Pearl Jam and Beck, also helped raise its name recognition.

The duo’s specialty is a mix of rock music and comedy that is a bit different than anything contemporary culture has seen. Tenacious D is part Smothers Brothers (without the political bent), part Wayne’s World (without the geek factor), part Spinal Tap (without the makeup or exploding drummers) and perhaps a bit of Bob and Doug MacKenzie (without the jokes about beer and back bacon).

Armed with their trusty acoustic guitars, Tenacious D offers up songs and comic routines that generally center on all the important issues faced by male adolescents on the verge of adulthood—in other words, sex, women and rock ‘n’ roll.

“That seems to be the magic elixir,” Gass said.

“The music was in us and it had to come out,” Black said.

“I think the thing is that we both really like music, have chops and try our best to actually write good songs, even though they tend toward humor,” Gass said.

“Even though they just plop right out of our butts improvisational style,” Black said, “But that’s not true. You [Gass] actually work up some songs. I’m the one who just poops it out of my butt.

“It adds a real freshness,” Gass concluded.

Without prompting, Black then let the world in on the inner workings of the musical genius that is Tenacious D.

“This is the formula for writing a Tenacious D song,” he said. “Kage [one of Gass’ nicknames] will come up with a tasty lick, and he’ll jam that. And then you’ve got to come up with an idea for what this song is about, what’s a funny concept or something stuck in my craw. Then I’ll just improvise on top of his thing that he’s been playing. He doesn’t play me that riff beforehand. He just plays it, and the first time he plays it I start to think, not even knowing where the thing is going to go. Somehow it cranks out some of the best music earth has ever known.”

Listening to Black and Gass, it’s clear the two enjoy an easy chemistry on both a professional and personal level. Ironically, they say things were originally anything but harmonious when they first met in the early 1990s in the Los Angeles theater group, the Actors’ Gang.

“Fire and ice, buddy,” Black said, recalling his first impressions of Gass.

Over time, though, the chilly relationship thawed and Black and Gass began to collaborate on some comedy routines, one of which provided the original inspiration for starting Tenacious D, although they certainly didn’t know they were creating such a viable entertainment vehicle.

“I still don’t know what the concept is. We pretend like we know and we planned it all along, but really…,” Black said, not needing to finish his thought.

As the legend of Tenacious D spread, Black has also made a name for himself in film. He gained considerable notice for his scene-stealing role as the hyped-up record clerk in High Fidelity, as well as parts in other well-known films such as Cradle Will Rock, Saving Silverman (with Chicoan Amanda Detmer), I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and others.

Now Black has moved into the role of leading man in the new movie Shallow Hal, which co-stars Gwyneth Paltrow. Gass, as he was eager to point out, also has a small role in the film.

"[Leading man] is still the same job,” Black said. “I study the script and memorize my thing and try not to freak out, stay relaxed … but it’s not like coming in and doing a funny part in somebody else’s movie. In some ways I prefer that, I must say.”

In fact, Black noted, the big difference was that, as the lead actor, he was responsible for carrying the entire film instead of a single scene or two. That translated into more pressure.

“It’s not as fun, because when you’re the lead guy for the most part, you’re, like, delivering a lot of pipe, meaning just, like, saying here’s the story. You have to do descriptive scenes instead of just, like, a party scene," Black said.