Can Tenacious D Follow In Borat’s Footsteps, Beat Cult-Comedy Curse?

'Pick of Destiny' looks to avoid fate of 'Mr. Show,' 'Strangers With Candy' movie spinoffs.

LOS ANGELES — The comedic formula seems to play out every couple of years: attract hipsters, become the next big thing, try to make a movie, then die.

When it happened to “The Kids in the Hall,” it was unfortunate; when the same fate befell “Mr. Show,” no one was laughing. This past summer, it happened again to “Strangers With Candy.” And the saddest thing may have been that no one even seemed to notice.

This week, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Rock Band in the World” sacrifices its “next big thing” status once and for all by asking hipster fans to share the theater with mainstream crowds. But now that Jack Black and Kyle Gass have put the finishing touches on “Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny,” one question rings more deafening than any riff they could ever devise: Can Tenacious D overcome the cult-comedy curse?

“For some reason, this thing that seemed like it wasn’t really going to catch on has ended up becoming massive,” marveled Colin Hanks, who has a cameo in the movie and has been a fan of the hard-rocking mock band since the mid-’90s. “[Fans have already witnessed] them actually recording a rock album and going out on tour like a real rock group does. And that all started because they played a bunch of shows in and around L.A. and made these HBO shorts.”

“Destiny” tells the comedic tale of how the duo came to rock so damn hard. The real story, however, is equally deserving of its own movie. After aspiring actors Black and Gass met in Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang theater troupe in the ’90s, they discovered a shared love for hard rock — and the rich comedic soil its self-important tendencies encouraged. Soon, they were playing small shows for influential Los Angeles crowds and getting their not-so-big break in a Pauly Shore clunker.

“We were in a movie — you probably haven’t heard of it — called ’Bio-Dome,’ ” Black said. “We had a one-minute thing in there where Tenacious D was singing a song. We were like, ’Dude, do you know what we should do? We should go to [L.A. movie theater] the Cinerama Dome, and as people are coming out of the movie theater, we’ll be there playing the song we played in the movie!’ [We figured] everyone would go, ’Aren’t you the guys from the movie?’ and then we’d be more famous.”

As it turned out, however, their “Bio-Dome” cameo was one of many disappointments that kept the D under the radar. “The movie closed so fast that we never even had time to do it,” Black grinned. “We went to the Cinerama Dome — and a different movie was playing!” So both actors kept their day jobs, and occasionally the two gigs would intersect — as in 1999’s “Tenacious D” show on HBO, which lasted six episodes. Once Black landed his highly visible role as hypercritical record clerk Barry in “High Fidelity,” however, his career began to take off — and the wild-eyed comedian refused to leave his bandmate behind.

In 2001, the D finally released a proper, self-titled album, which included such instant cult classics as “Wonderboy,” “Tribute” and “Dio.” “To see how it has spread is shocking, because I was a huge D fan for years before I even met Jack,” Hanks said. “If you had told me back when I was watching their HBO thing that they’d have an album and be playing Brixton Academy in London, I’d have laughed.”

Now, with “The Pick of Destiny” on the way, the days of early adapters like Hanks appear numbered. Then again, movie buffs who remember the box-office failures of “Brain Candy,” the “Mr. Show”-spawned “Run Ronnie Run” and the recent “Strangers With Candy” may argue that if “Destiny” doesn’t make Tenacious D a household name, it will kill yet another cult act that couldn’t dumb itself down enough for mainstream consumption.

Steve Carell admitted that his first inclination was to write off friend Stephen Colbert’s “Strangers With Candy” failure as being too smart for the masses — but he became more frustrated when he realized that the argument doesn’t hold. “I don’t think it’s necessarily intelligent comedy. … Certain things appeal to certain people,” he shrugged. “I grew up with Monty Python. Not everybody’s a huge Monty Python fan. But I loved it. I thought it was great. Some people are huge Benny Hill fans — and that’s a different sort of audience inherently.”

There is one recent phenomenon that falls somewhere between intelligent and stupid comedy. It may have paved the way for Jack and Kyle, and it can be summed up in three words: Sacha Baron Cohen. “He’s the entertainer of the year,” Black said of the “Borat” star. “Sacha dominated the comedy scene, and I can’t think of anybody in the drama or action or horror world that has made an impact like that — a slam dunk.”

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Cohen’s flick “Borat” (which, like “Destiny, takes characters from a cult TV show and targets movie stardom) has been breaking records over the past several weekends (see ” ’Borat’ Rakes In Another $29 Million; Will Ferrell Opens At #4″ ). Baron Cohen avoided studio manipulation, kept the character pure and the jokes outrageous and just may have shattered the cult-comedy curse forever. Commenting on Baron Cohen, Black could only hope that some of the magic rubs off on him. “I don’t know what his secret herbs and spices are in his secret recipe for brilliance,” the comedian wondered. “He just approaches it like a scientist and a chemist. He has a great mind for it.”

“Borat” packed nudity, racial humor and even kidnapping into a flick that somehow landed an R rating. Now, JB and KG hope mainstream audiences will take a chance on a flick that keeps things pure by unleashing the D’s naked rear ends, a Sasquatch hallucination and enough F-bombs to make Eminem blush.

“It’s a really hard thing to determine: What would appeal to a broader audience?” Carell said of the transition. “Ultimately, once you start thinking that way or along those lines, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You just have to go with what you think is funny, and if you start thinking of what a broad audience will find funny, what was funny in the first place would just be lost.”

“It’s a gamble,” Dane Cook chimed in, admitting that if things aren’t kept pure it’s the loyalists who will turn on a comedian first. “You just have to hope people show up. … Beyond just the fanbase, it’s about a story and a script that’s fantastic enough to draw new people.

“Tenacious D is going to be the example that you don’t [have to dumb things down] because I know those guys, and they’re not gonna hold back,” Cook continued. “If anything, they will set a new tone for guys like myself to be able to come in and pretty much do it the way you’d see it onstage and have that translate to film.”

Hoping “Destiny” will finally make the band as enormous as it’s pretended to be since the guys stood outside the Cinerama Dome with their guitars, Jack and Kyle swear that they aren’t “dumbing down” or “selling out” the Tenacious D act. “When you’ve got something good, I think it’s best to share it. Everyone should get a little taste,” Black reasoned. “We’ve been baking the D pie for many, many years — and it’s finally ready for everyone to enjoy. So hard-cores, sorry — we’ve got to let it out of the bag now. The D is for everyone, not just for you.”

“We’ve completely sold out from top to bottom,” Gass joked. “No, you know, people seem to enjoy what we did on HBO, so we pretty much took that world and just blew it up somewhat. I don’t think we were too conscious of trying to change us or anything like that. … We definitely made the movie we wanted to, and I feel good about not catering to [studio whims] much … We didn’t try to make ’Raiders of the Lost Ark’ or anything like that.

“There are some ’Raiders’-type segments in it, however,” Gass added with a grin.

“We stayed totally true to the D’s essence, and this is our pinnacle,” Black said. “This is the final piece of the puzzle of the D. We put everything [into it] — we put five years of work into this thing — and it’s our ’The Passion of the D.’

“Dude, it doesn’t matter,” Black finally said. “If people aren’t into it, I don’t care. I’m so into it, and I love it, and I’m very proud of it.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny.”

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