When I Close My Eyes I Dream of Jack Black
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Thinking of the perfect comeback too late — what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier — struck in spades when I met the now-famous actor.
By Eugene S. Robinson
There’s nothing about Jack Black that I shouldn’t love. That puckish sprite’s thoroughly realized performances in fine motion pictures from Kung Fu Panda to, well, Kung Fu Panda: The Secrets of the Furious Five, along with his mock musical outings with Tenacious D and his work on Mr. Show, should have been enough for me. They most certainly would have been enough for anyone with a finger on the pulse of hipster pop culture and a deep sense of postmodern irony.
Beyond that, Jack Black and I share a lot in common, starting with the same birthday and, maybe most significantly, friends. One of whom said to me, “Hey, let’s drive to LA. It’ll be fun. I need to meet my agent, and we could hang with some of my theater peeps.”
Maybe she didn’t actually say “peeps” — this was 1993 — but the intention remains: We’d take a road trip to Los Angeles, have fun in small doses and do what people there seemed to do: mostly, chat, hang, chill. Back then, no one was famous, and it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway because this so-called actors’ gang wouldn’t have been much more than a passing interest to me, my appearance in Bill Cosby’s Leonard Part 6, the worst movie of 1987, notwithstanding. I was, and remain, siloed in music.
First stop? A café meetup with Jack Black.
[Jack] Black eventually rolled up, big entrance, pet-name exchanges, air kisses, all ultra-Hollywood to me, and amusingly so.
We sat at a sidewalk table, ordered, chatted easily and waited for the dude to show. Black eventually rolled up, big entrance, pet-name exchanges, air kisses, all ultra-Hollywood to me, and amusingly so. I remember smiling.
“And, Jack, this is my friend Eugene.…”
I stood to shake his hand. Black looked to be about 5-foot-6, and though we probably weighed the same, I’m 6-foot-1, so I looked down at him and my offered hand hung in the air for a beat before he shook it, not looking at me as he did so.
But I’m easy, and, still smiling, I said that I was glad to meet him. He pulled up a chair across from my friend and next to me. They chatted about people they knew — household names now, but struggling strivers back then. I just listened, with absolutely no need to be star of the sidewalk table. Black was quick-witted and droll. Then he swiveled to face me.
“So what are you up to, Eugene?” I got it, all of it, immediately. This was some sort of 20-something Algonquin Round Table deal where the best and brightest of the Los Angeles creatives would meet and greet and say things that were wonderfully witty and incisive and full of insight.
Not expecting to be called on, I started to say, “Ah, you know.…” But before I even got there, Black swiveled back to our friend and rolled on. In theater terms, he stepped all over my lines. Rather than be offended, I was amused.
As a kid I never knew how to make sense of nonphysical attempts to bully me. They always seemed amusing, and here I was amused. To the point of chuckling. Black sneaked a look my way, a frown on his face.
“I’m sorry, Eu-gene” — he leaned on the syllables of my name — “what were you saying?”
And once more into the breach, I start to answer, and he interrupts, figuring I hadn’t gotten it the first time. This time I responded not with a chuckle but a laugh. I don’t know if it was what Black was expecting, but it’s what he got. He amused me. Like a clown.
The meeting drew to a close, Black took his leave, and our common friend said something along the lines of him being one of her more “reasonable” exes. And then I understood. Our commonality, like some sort of Jean-Paul Sartre No Exit love triangle, had given Black cause for consternation. He did what he did — be funny — because he couldn’t do anything else.
As the years passed, my mind returned to this moment. Often. And like Columbo, I returned.
“Say, you remember hanging out with Jack Black way back when?” I asked my friend. “What the hell was his problem? I mean, he was kind of a disrespectful prick, wasn’t he?”
“I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “He’s probably only met like two Black people his whole life. Maybe he was just intimidated. Or nervous.”
“Nervous people don’t blithely step into harm’s way on a whim.”
“Who knows? And why are you still thinking about it?”
A good question. In the intervening years, Jack Black has been unavoidable — from billboards to hit movies — and I’ve had many occasions to think of him. Then, one day, it hit me in full Goodfellas fashion: He had insulted me, to quote De Niro, “a little bit.”
And then the way was clear: My earlier equanimity hardened into an irascibility, made even more potent because of how pointless it was. I would dream about slapping Jack Black at that café table. More than this, I’d tell anyone who stood still long enough — friends, family, people on line at the movies buying tickets to Jack Black movies — about his crime against at least this one small portion of humanity.
“Jack Black? You know that guy sucks, right? It’s just my opinion, of course … one man’s opinion against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.…” Here my voice and my eyebrows raised like that of a pork chop preacher just getting warmed up, oblivious to having lost my audience back at “sucks.”
And having just written that, I am smiling once again — pleased with myself. Now, that is funny. And a little sad. But mostly funny.