Jack Black plays real-life murderer for laughs in 'Bernie'

April 23, 2012 at 10:12 AM ET

Laughing at murder and misfortune is nothing new for filmgoers with a taste for dark comedy, but actor Jack Black, star of the true-crime comedy "Bernie," admits that it's harder to sell an audience on the idea of humor when the mayhem in question really happened.

In "Bernie," Black plays Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede, a soft-spoken former funeral director convicted of killing elderly widow Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine) in 1996. Black stopped by TODAY Monday morning and explained why the story has big-screen appeal.

"It's heavy, but you know, we were pushing the envelope," he said. "We're going some places no one's gone before. And the truth is inside every story, no matter how dark, there's always going to be some kernel of comedy, I think. There's always a funny angle you can take on any story."

In this particular story, that angle is sometimes hard to describe.

"Well, this isn't going to sound funny now -- it's a difficult thing to pitch -- but the fact that her body was hidden in a freezer for nine months and nobody noticed -- it's very dark, but some people would find it funny," Black insisted.

To prepare for the part, the actor-comedian went to prison to meet the real Bernie. Black hoped "to get his blessing" and to learn just how to master the complicated character.

"It was scary," he said of the experience. "I've never been to prison before, and there's a lot of rough customers, as you would expect -- a lot of face tattoos, a lot of violence behind the eyes. But the craziest part was just seeing Bernie there, because he's just such a soft, gentle guy. He doesn't really fit there and it was quite surreal."

As for the film's detractors -- and yes, as one might expect, a comedy about a murder has its detractors, including Danny "Buck" Davidson, the Panola County, Tex. district attorney who handled the original case -- Black considers them inevitable and defends the project.

"We did the best we could to present it honestly and humorously," he said.

See for yourself when "Bernie" opens in theaters April 27.

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