''Clerks'' gets a chilly reception at the network

By Jeff Jensen
Updated June 07, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT


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An animated sitcom based on a bare-bones independent film is unlikely enough — but one that finds laughs in the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Asian porn, and celebrity foibles is almost beyond belief. So what’s Kevin Smith’s controversial ”Clerks” doing on Disney-owned ABC — and now that it’s on the air, will they yank it?

EW Online asked the writer-director to address the behind the scenes turmoil surrounding last week’s long delayed debut, which had Smith publicly comparing ABC execs to creative rapists. (ABC declined to comment on any of Smith’s allegations.) ”Clerks”’s second episode airs tonight (9:30 p.m.), and Smith is predicting it’ll soon leave the air. What’s more, he’s even suggesting his imminent retirement from filmmaking altogether.

EW ONLINE: You say ABC, which promoted ”Clerks” during the Super Bowl, turned against you after seeing the ”something to offend everyone” finished product. Who pulled a fast one — you or ABC?
KEVIN SMITH: We told them everything that wound up in the f—ing shows. We didn’t promise anything we didn’t deliver, and we really didn’t deliver anything we didn’t talk about.

Why did you go with ABC’s six-episode deal in the first place, and not the looser UPN, which offered you a longer run?
Who are we to argue with [Disney president] Michael Eisner? Obviously the dude knows what he’s doing. He IS a corporate giant.

Did ABC’s standards and practices ask you to make cuts?
Yeah. We had this joke where Randal’s reading a book, and [convenience store clerk] Dante’s like, ”What are you reading?” And Randal’s like, ”It’s Dr. Seuss’ little-known adult erotica novel ‘Horton Hears a Hymen’ — ‘It was a fabulous nipple/ a wantabulous nipple.’ ” There was also a Steven Spielberg parody called ”Flintstone’s List.” You see cavemen being walked up to a train car, and the door closes, and then feet come out the bottom of the train and the train starts walking away. Phenomenal f—ing joke!

Why didn’t the show debut in March, as you say ABC had promised?
I guess Eisner and [ABC president] Bob Iger saw the show, and the word was they just didn’t get it. The day ABC announced its midseason schedule, we found out that suddenly we were moved to May 31. We were like, ”Why didn’t they tell us this?” We couldn’t get any answers. Nobody was returning any calls.

And how did you handle that?
We were all pretty f—ing livid. I said, ”But they LIKE the show — they told us!” So we were like, ”Can we get off the network?” And most of the other places were like, ”We don’t want damaged goods.” Also, the price tag is kind of cost prohibitive because it’s $750,000 a show. We finally relented and said, ”F— it, just let it air on ABC.” I’m about as many people seeing it as possible. It’s a dead show. We have six shows that will air, and that’s that. It’s kind of sweet because you don’t worry about ratings anymore.

Is all this talk about money, promotions, and time slots making you lose your indie credibility?
The sixth episode I’m really f–ing proud of, because we address the people we knew would be out there going, ”You guys sold out, you f—ing turned ‘Clerks’ into a cartoon.” So it’s all about Dante and Randal trying to keep the show as close to the movie as possible by staying in the store and not going outside.

In one episode, you poke fun at the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion. Why?
It really pushes the edge of the envelope, but [at least] it doesn’t push the edge of the envelope the way of kids sitting around saying ”ass” or ”dick.”

Then how do you justify Randal’s repeated use of the word ”fag” in one episode?
It’s an Archie Bunker moment. It’s not like we’re holding up Randal and going, ”This is how every American male should be.” It’s obvious he’s an idiot, and it’s obvious he’s being played as such. It’s also a wordplay joke. But that was a fight down to the wire.

”Clerks” includes a disclaimer saying the celebrity voices — everyone from Matt Damon to Patrick Swayze — aren’t real. Are you afraid of pissing them off?
It’s just a network covering its ass. [ABC] said we have to let people know that celebrities don’t endorse these unless they did the voices themselves. We said, ”Can we at least add a joke to each disclaimer?” My favorite one — which they didn’t let us do — was ”America rise up and slay your celebrities!” Anyone should be able to take a joke. Lord knows I’ve been the butt of a few. And some of the shit I’m the butt of aren’t even jokes, just flat out ”He’s a hack, he’s a terrible f—ing filmmaker.” I’m very self-deprecating, so if I can f—ing make fun of myself all the time, how come someone can’t take a little cartoon ribbing?

Are you referring to Patrick Swayze, whom you make fun of by showing him working in a pet store?
We were doing the ”Outbreak” parody episode and we wanted Patrick Swayze to do his voice, so we sent the script to his agent and his agent was like, ”He’s not going to find this funny at all.” Then we got a letter from his lawyer, a cease and desist kind of thing. We had to do this very delicate dance with the network’s legal department, so a few lines had to be dropped. The lawyer’s argument was, ”If people see this show, and we’re maintaining that Patrick Swayze is working at a pet store, we are inferring that Patrick Swayze’s career is in the toilet.” And we were like, ”AND?”

What’s ABC’s response been to all of this?
To this day, I’ve never heard from ABC. Not even the courtesy of a f—ing phone call, being like, ”Hey, sorry, we did like the show, but unfortunately we’re not in charge of network, Eisner and Iger are.” I didn’t even take a phone call that said, ”F— you and shut your mouth!”

You had a bad experience last year with Disney over ”Dogma” a Miramax/Disney-produced religious satire that was eventually released by the small independent distributor Lion’s Gate.
I got f—ed by the Mouse twice in a year! It doesn’t get worse than that! F— me once, shame on you, f— me twice shame on me, I guess.

You’ve always been pretty outspoken. Is it worth it for a studio to work with you?
Our track record is pretty good. We haven’t made a zillion dollars, but we’ve always made the money back. If Disney says, ”You can’t work with this f—ing kid anymore, he’s out,” and everyone else is like, ”F— Kevin Smith, f— him and his terrible f—ing movies and f— Jay and Silent Bob right up the ass with a broken stick,” and I’m pushed out of the business proper, I can still raise independent financing. F—, I’d put it on credit cards. If what you’ve done is entertaining, they’ll bite the bullet and f—ing put it out, because there’s an audience for it.

Has the TV show changed your plans for the future?
I think even before all this shit came to pass, [filmmaking] is not something I intended to do my entire life. I can’t see myself doing this all the way through my 30s, because I don’t think I have that much really left to say. I’m waiting for the day where I’m like, ”I got nothing left.” And that day is not far away. I’m not going to fake it. I’m just going to leave. Thanks for the party, thanks for the dip, I’m just gone.

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