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ABC + politics a bad equation for 'Clerks'

Sunday, May 28, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor+

The new animated comedy "Clerks" had a turbulent gestation period. It arrives stillborn Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on ABC, the victim of television politics.

Based on the 1994 debut of New Jersey filmmaker Kevin Smith, "Clerks" seems like an odd choice for a series. After all, the movie was filled with raunchy sex jokes and profanity. But it was also deviously funny and garnered an avid cult following.

The 1994 film chronicled the lives of Quick Stop clerk Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and his buddy Randal (Jeff Anderson), who worked at the video store next door. The slacker team of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) were also introduced. The animated series carries on their adventures, using the voices of the actors from the film.

At the January Television Critics Association press tour, Smith said he'd wanted to make a "Clerks" cartoon since 1995, but network executives said only "The Simpsons" worked as a cartoon. After the success of "King of the Hill," the environment for an animated "Clerks" became more welcoming.

But there was still the issue of content.

"We knew that we couldn't do what we did in the movie," Smith said. "Something like 'South Park' is on cable and it's hard to duplicate that on a network, let alone a Disney network. So let's go in the opposite direction and try to make it funny without being crude at the same time. It forced us to be funnier than we were in the movie."

In January, Smith expected "Clerks" to be put on ABC's schedule as a midseason replacement in March. ABC executives seemed enthusiastic, plugging the show during January's Super Bowl telecast. "Clerks" was produced by Miramax, a division of Disney, the corporate parent of ABC. Synergy was in the air.

Then Smith read in Daily Variety the show wouldn't premiere until May, meaning ABC was essentially throwing up its hands and giving up on "Clerks," burning off the episodes in the summer.

"We didn't even get a call telling us we were moving," Smith said in a phone interview earlier this month from his Red Bank, N.J., office. "You'd have thought we made a cartoon about how Walt was really cryogenically frozen and a Hitler contemporary.

"At the end of the day it wasn't their type of show," he said. "An executive said point blank, 'Maybe the show shouldn't have been on this network.' Well thanks for telling us now."

Smith and the show's other producers considered taking back the six episodes and reediting them into a theatrical release, tying the episodes together with a narrator, maybe a modern Uncle Remus, a la "Song of the South." But they decided not to, figuring, "more people will see it on TV than ever would see it in the theater if we turned it into a movie."

Smith said ABC's top executives were excited about the series until their bosses at Disney expressed a dislike for "Clerks." Then, Smith said, the show was treated as damaged goods.

"When we pitched this show, ABC was the third-place network," Smith said. "By the time we delivered [completed episodes], 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' was a hit and the network was tied for first place. Before nothing was working, now they don't need risky and risqué projects like ours."

Each episode of "Clerks" begins with a different "South Park"-like disclaimer about the impersonation of celebrity voices. An upcoming episode begins, "No celebrities have endorsed any aspect of this show. In retaliation, this show endorses no celebrities (except Ben Affleck, pre-'Reindeer Games')."

Wednesday's premiere episode, titled, "A Dissertation on the American Justice System by People Who Have Never Been Inside a Courtroom, Let Alone Know Anything About the Law, but Have Seen Way too Many Legal Thrillers," finds Randal defending Dante in court after Jay slips and falls in the Quick Stop. Actor Judge Reinhold lends his voice to the judge, aptly named Judge Reinhold

Like Fox's animated "Family Guy," "Clerks" features many tangents, cutting to scenes from characters' imaginations and pop culture. Ultimately the premiere ends with scenes drawn in Japanimation cartoon style (think: Pokémon).

It's occasionally brilliant parody, at other moments just silliness that drags. "Clerks" doesn't live up (or would that be down?) to the reputation of the outrageous 1994 film, but its spirit of experimentation at least makes the show different.

Earlier this month Smith stopped in Pittsburgh while on his way back to New Jersey after receiving an honorary doctorate at Illinois Wesleyan. It's the first time he'd been in town since filming "Dogma" here in 1998.

"My wife was with me and it was neat to be back in Pittsburgh, because our romance really bloomed while shooting 'Dogma,'" Smith said. "Pittsburgh was a really great town to us and it looks great on screen. If we do another picture that requires more than one location, Pittsburgh is where we'll be."

In January, Smith said his next film project would be a live-action "Clerks" movie sequel. Now it doesn't look like likely.

"I think I'm a little 'Clerks'-ed out," he said. "The next movie we do will be the last film with Jay and Silent Bob in it."

If the animated "Clerks" is received well, Smith said an animated "Clerks" film - made from scratch, not cobbled together episodes - is a possibility. Regardless, Smith said uncut "Clerks" episodes will be released on video, which could be the only way fans get to see all the episodes.

"If our ratings are cellar-dwelling bad, we could get the old 'Wonderland' oust," Smith said, referring to the ABC mental hospital drama, canceled after only two episodes aired. "They didn't take long making that decision."

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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