Comedy bands face an exclusive, thorny set of rules. For better or worse, the shtick’s the thing to which they must sacrifice all else. The defensive stance it allows—‘we’re supposed to be funny, not excellent’—can only work as long as the audience continues to recognize the humor. When the joke fails, so too does the defense.
So longevity is rare in novelty rock. Its obvious crowned heads are Spinal Tap, whose legend endures by virtue of being one of the foundational (and still funniest) acts of the subgenre. Ween has matured in both its technical chops and warped humor to create a way-smarter-than-it-seems concoction that still commands attention after two decades. And then there’s Seth Putnam, who chose a different approach entirely with his Impaled Northern Moonforest project.
Putnam’s brilliant stroke was to record one self-titled seven-inch that was an album-long pisstake on Immortal’s Battles in the North. With Immortal-like songs titles such as, “Nocturnal Cauldrons Aflame Amidst the Northern Hellwitch’s Perpetual Blasphemy”, Putnam recognized (like Spinal Tap before him) that sometimes just a small tweak is all one needs to hilariously puncture something earnest.
Indeed, after 10 years and fewer than 10 live performances the legend of Impaled Northern Moonforest has generated an entire sub-subgenre—Acoustic Black Metal (ABM)—that has adherents all over the globe. By abandoning the band almost as soon as he created it, Putnam allowed his joke to endure and gain a new punch line every time a new ABM band forms.
In their new 2-DVD set, Tenacious D: The Complete Master Works 2, we see that band members Jack Black and Kyle Gass have chosen neither the Ween nor the Putnam approach. They instead unsuccessfully augment their decade-old shtick (disc one) and confront the possibility that the joke no longer works because their lives are too different from when they started (disc two). And though they spend a lot of this set’s running time in a stage version of hell, the overall impression is a sort of artistic and personal purgatory. For the viewer, this is a wince-inducing but ultimately worthwhile peek into the actual world of one of comedy rock’s most popular fictional bands.
On disc one, “The full-length concert filmed at the sold-out Moore Theater in Seattle, WA, February 16-17, 2007”, Tenacious D performs against a production design theme plucked from the 2006 film Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, which was a critical and commercial failure. The live set roughly follows the plot of the film, where Gass and Black perform some songs, break up, reunite, go to hell, battle the devil, and emerge victorious. The set, costumes and effects are not spectacular, but they are too elaborate for the fictional Tenacious D captured by the cult HBO series from the late 1990s, whose charm always depended on a combination of ridiculously inflated self-opinions (“the greatest band in the world”) and low technical means (few songs, one fan, no money to pay the rent).
The entire crux of the humor was the disconnection between the band’s reckless proclamations of greatness and their actual, average selves. And even though this set contains some of the songs from that earlier, funnier television series and first CD release, this performance is too heavy on material and execution that never aligned with the concept that gave the band its humor in the first place.
I suspect the worst transgression for many Tenacious D fans is this concert’s electric backing band. The band poses a couple of significant problems when evaluated in the context of the HBO show’s internal (comic) logic. First, if Tenacious D is the greatest band in the world, it doesn’t need a backing band, and second, the charm of acoustic metal is that it isn’t plugged in. While the performance is competent, the band on disc one just barely resembles classic Tenacious D.
Though the first disc is likely to leave longtime Tenacious D fans with a sense of unease and/or betrayal, the second disc assures that their heroes feel their pain. In many behind-the-scenes documentaries, struggle and conflict for the on-camera participant translates into solid if slightly perverse entertainment for the viewer. Jeremy Konner’s D Tour: A Tenacious Documentary, which is the main feature on this disc, is not an exception.
The documentary begins and ends with two different versions of “Tribute”, one of Tenacious D’s most popular songs. A ditty with the conceit of being a tribute to the greatest song in the world whilst sounding nothing like it, the song succinctly illustrates Tenacious D’s grasp on reflexivity, irony, and yes, harmony. But by using two specific performances of the song as a framing device, D Tour shows that setting and circumstance also figure into the band’s alchemy. The opening performance of the song, at a small club in 1996 with Mr. Show creators David Cross and Bob Odenkirk offering an absurd assist, remains significantly livelier than the closing performance from the 2006 tour.
This sense of comparison and flux does not go unaddressed by the band members themselves. Early in the film, Black (who by the time of filming is a wealthy movie actor), excitedly tells Dave Grohl that the band is about to embark on a Broadway-ready tour. Gass (who by the time of filming is still known as the other guy in Tenacious D) expresses near-instant apprehension that a 35-date arena spectacular is not true to the spirit of Tenacious D. Despite selling out many of those dates, the documentary’s cameras reveal that Gass was probably correct.
While the documentary is not particularly well-lensed, the access that Konner has to his subjects ensures that the visual material effectively conveys the story. Many modern documentaries redundantly impose text and voice-over when the unfolding action (and its juxtaposition with other unfolding action) would be sufficient. Konner and his team of editors (James Atkinson, Eric Binns, and Kevin Mayfield) creatively use verite interviews to set up expectations for the next adventure on the road and to reflect on what has passed. Yet the mixture of commentary and actuality never feels contrived as it so often is on reality television, and the benefit of a tour documentary is that, good or bad, the production must keep moving along and there is little stasis.
The most compelling footage is that which reveals the changing relationship between Black and Gass. Black, the movie star and married father, stays in the family room and on the family bus. Gass, single and perpetual second banana, lives the at times humiliating life of the sidekick who routinely gets shut out of interviews and cropped out of pictures. The most explosive sequence in the film involves a misunderstanding at the Late Show with David Letterman, where Gass expects to join Black on the couch but realizes backstage he is not wanted after all.
Overall, D Tour is an entertaining film because it honestly confronts the shifting personas and competing priorities of a now legitimately famous band whose fictional identity (and humor) once depended on a willful defiance of its own obscurity. Gass says in the film that he has “sublimated” certain things in his life for the sake of the band. Even though that is probably not the most accurate word choice for what he’s trying to express, the rest of the film reveals his meaning.
His apartment (which we see when Black visits) is decorated with Tenacious D memorabilia. He is still single. He is still primarily known for being in this band. Black is still technically in the band, but his acting career and his family life are clearly his top priorities. Admirably, the film does not suggest that either man has taken the wrong path, but they are certainly on two completely different courses now. This disparity, more than a failed film project or an arena tour that didn’t hit the mark, appears to be the problem at the core of Tenacious D.
But all is not lost. If one keeps in mind that Tenacious D is not Black and Gass but instead the characters JB/Jables and his mentor KG/Kage (as the legend goes), then there is still the possibility for Tenacious D to rebound to glory. As we saw on disc one, the D has already been to hell and back.
While nothing here approaches the gonzo delight of the Liam Lynch-directed short films that appeared as supplemental features on 2003’s Tenacious D: The Complete Master Works, completists are rewarded with several television appearances and a one-off Channel 101/Tenacious D collaboration called “Time Fixers” from 2006. The exclusive Best Buy edition also includes additional deleted scenes from D Tour.