25 Years Ago: Tenacious D’s Short-Lived HBO Show Debuts
He asked us, "Be you angels?’" And we said, "Nay, we are but men." Rock!
Lasting a mere three episodes on HBO throughout 1997-2000, Tenacious D’s self-titled comedy series served to introduce the greater world to the self-proclaimed “greatest band in the world.”
Already a staple in the Los Angeles music and comedy scenes, members Kyle Gass (aka KG, Cage, Rage-cage, others), and Jack Black (JB, Jables, others) had caught the attention of David Cross, who cast Black in several minor but memorable roles in seminal sketch series Mr. Show. (Black showed off his pipes in a musical sketch graphically illustrating the dangers inherent in the old farmer-with-three-daughters joke.)
Thanks to their friendship with director Jason Bloom, Tenacious D also made their screen debut singing the song “5 Needs” in 1996’s ill-considered Bio-Dome, which may be the infamous Pauly Shore vehicle’s only highlight.
Cross and Mr. Show co-creator Bob Odenkirk’s assisted in getting Gass and Black a shot at a HBO series, in order to showcase for both their no-joke musical virtuosity (with Gass’ nimble acoustic lead guitar vying with Black’s bombastic and operatic vocals), and their brashly singular comic voice. Anticipating HBO’s later Flight of the Conchords series in 2007, Tenacious D premiered on on Nov. 28, 1997 with Black and Gass playing slobbish oddballs whose dreams of rock superstardom remain unsinkable despite the harsh realities of life as perpetual open mic-ers – and the duo’s outsized and often ludicrously inflated egos.
Each of the three episodes follows the same formula. First, we see Tenacious D at the single dingy open mic where they’re grudgingly welcomed once a week by the beleaguered emcee (and fellow Mr. Show player) Paul F. Tompkins. (Leading off his intro with an unimpressed, “The band asked me to read this,” Tompkins dutifully recites band-penned statements such as, “Warning, if you want your asses blown out, stay in the room.”)
Then it’s Tenacious D time. The lyrics of their initial song, the epically self-important “The History of Tenacious D,” build to a crescendo, “Tenacious D time, you motherfucker go — Fuck yeah!” Black’s wild-eyed commitment gives the moment an anthemic spirit as stirring as it is silly.
Technically, you could view each episode as two separate, shorter pieces. Titles split the running time into two tales of aspirational infighting and creative travails.
In the first episode, for example, a segment called “The Search for Inspirado” tackles the writer’s block that followed when Tompkins forced them to come up with a new song for the next open mic. Crammed into their tiny shared apartment, Gass and Black naturally drive each other batty. Diva Black’s hair-trigger abusiveness toward his bandmate eventually causes a breakup, leading to their triumphant onstage reunion with the slow-build brotherhood banger, “Kyle Quit the Band.”
In the second segment, the unlikely but dead serious come-ons from Tenacious D-smitten waitress Laura Kightlinger (“so which one of you assholes is gonna fuck me?”) spurs the boys to romantic rivalry, culminating in an absurd action set-piece set to the band’s “Karate.” (“With karate, I’ll kick your ass / From here to Tiananmen Square!” growls Black, going on to musically promise some serious, public hair-related violence for good measure.)
The Tenacious D formula is a heady and genuinely rocking mix of throwback pretension and actual musicianship that pays tribute to the musicians they’re riffing on while never crossing over into "Weird Al"-style parody. Tenacious D is a true band, having opened for everyone from Weezer and Beck to Tool and Foo Fighters, whose Dave Grohl was an early fan.
Watch Tenacious D's Video for 'Tribute'
They’ve also released three full-fledged albums, sold out stadiums and generally blurred the line between what they are and what they’ve always pretended to be. The duo clearly relishes in their decidedly unglamorous rock personas, favoring cargo shorts and belly-stretched T-shirts onstage while presenting themselves with the exaggerated confidence of true hard rock mega-stars.
Tenacious D’s musical comedy presence is a put-on backed up with some outstanding musicianship, underscored by their 2014 Grammy award for Best Metal Performance for a cover of Dio’s “The Last in Line.” The honor is as bewildering in its meta-textual implications as the song is legitimately awesome.
Suitably named for sports commentators’ description of scrappy defense, Tenacious D's show conquered every rock-star trope with steamroller abandon. A supposed groupie (frequent D collaborator JR Reed) becomes hilariously stalked once the initially scoffing Black and Gass become obsessed with their only fan. They eventually invite the terrified fanboy to join them for the weirdly touching fan tribute “Special Things.”
Speaking of tributes, the second episode contains what may be the greatest song ever from “the greatest band in the world” – or at least their tribute to the greatest song in the world in the heady and irresistible “Tribute.” Inspired by the complaints of a fussy neighbor (30 Rock’s Scott Adsit), the song details the band’s supposed “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”-style music-off with a demon – who's played by Adsit in the band’s video fantasy.
They emerged victorious by playing a completely improvised song that, sadly, they can no longer remember. “Tribute” ends up as merely an homage to a long-lost masterpiece, while still offering a potent potion of loony inventiveness and impossibly catchy power-duo one-upmanship turned up to 11.
HBO was charmed enough to offer Black and Gass a full 10-episode order for Tenacious D, but the duo turned them down after learning that the offer was contingent on giving up creative control. HBO wanted Tenacious D to merely contribute songs for future episodes, a switch perhaps precipitated by their admittedly out-there sophomoric absurdities.
The final episode concludes with the only so-so segment of the abbreviated run, a road trip adventure where the guys find themselves at the mercy of a cult whose members save their feces in glass jars. It's just the sort of conceit that would send an already-wary cable network in search of a new creative team.
Still, there’s a distinctly funny and tuneful vibe to Tenacious D that still works years later. The second-episode segment “Death of a Dream,” where the stark realities of the music industry finally shake Gass and Black’s (over)confidence to the core, takes a brilliantly absurd leap involving John C. Reilly as a drum-pounding Bigfoot. He's eventually kicked out of the reinvigorated band with a gentle “it’s not you, it’s us” speech.
Reilly’s Sasquatch returns in overcoat-and-fedora disguise, however, tearfully admiring the band’s subsequent open-mic comeback. He secretively asks Tompkins’ emcee to just let the band know that “a friend” said they kicked ass, before running off with signature Sasquatch lope. Reilly then quickly returns to tell Tompkins that he’d better just say it was Sasquatch, because otherwise they won’t know which friend he means.
Tenacious D continued after this brief TV sojourn, releasing an eponymous debut album that went platinum while garnering a fair amount of critical acclaim. They then took these television alter-egos to the big screen on the Liam Lynch-directed Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny in 2006. The film bombed commercially, despite the return of Reilly’s Sasquatch and roles for certified rock royalty Grohl, Ronnie James Dio and Meat Loaf. The resulting soundtrack album, however, eventually reached No. 8 on the Billboard 200.