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Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

Featuring interviews with Kevin Smith, David Mandel, Brian O'Halloran, and many more

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    Oral History offers the most comprehensive retelling of a pop culture artifact.

    Kevin Smith is no Silent Bob. Contrary to his on-screen persona, the New Jersey filmmaker was the loudest slacker of the ’90s, and he used that voice to define his generation. At the time, Generation X appeared confused and lost to boomers everywhere, who all felt their eldest children lacked the necessary drive to figure out what should come next. Smith capitalized on that perception with a script that mined the angst and anxiety of his fellow maligned twentysomethings.

    It proved successful. With Clerks, Smith joined a cadre of young independent filmmakers in the mid-’90s, who all would help usher in the next era of Hollywood filmmaking. Unlike his peers, though, Smith stuck to his guns, refusing to leave his great state, and spent the rest of the decade carving our parables in the Garden State. He created his own universe, long before his influences would go on to create theirs, and it spawned both a devoted cult following and a unique brand.

    By the turn of the millennium, Smith could do anything. With Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma behind him, a pivot into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking was all but a guarantee for Smith. Instead, he turned away from the cameras, ditched the sets, and embraced the ink he grew up on to create an animated series. But not just any animated series, one based on the very film that gave Smith the proverbial keys to his kingdom.

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    Even now, the idea of Clerks: The Animated Series seems like a stretch; after all, it’s not like the lewd, black-and-white comedy screams for the animated treatment. But, by bringing in Seinfeld writer Dave Mandel, longtime producer Scott Mosier, and surrounding himself with some of Disney’s sharpest animators, Smith unlocked the shudders on the Quick Stop, and recalibrated his own source material into an entirely new medium and universe.

    And so, Clerks: The Animated Series premiered on Wednesday, May 31st, 2000 via ABC, only to be canceled two episodes into its six-episode order. It was gone in the blink of an eye, seemingly scrubbed from pop culture, and to no one’s avail. But then something funny happened: The show eventually made its way on to DVD, then on to networks such as Adult Swim or Comedy Central, garnering a cult following that continues to thrive 20 years later. Even now, all Smith has to do is tweet a single phrase, and the show’s legion of fans will reply with their favorite quotes — all from six episodes.

    It’s a magical thing, and certainly worth celebrating. That’s why for its 20th anniversary, we got the gang back together to hear all about how this animated series came to fruition. Ahead, you’ll hear from co-creators and writers Kevin Smith, David Mandel, and Scott Mosier, supervising director Chris Bailey, actors Brian O’Halloran and Jason Mewes, writers Steve Lookner, Brian Kelley, and Paul Dini, art department head Alan Bodner, lead character designer Stephen Silver, directors Steve Loter and Nick Filippi, editor John Royer, composer Jim Venable, and then-head of Miramax Television Billy Campbell.

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    Snootchie bootchies…


    sitcom Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

    Long before Dante and Randal were ever inked to paper, there was an earlier ill-fated attempt at bringing the film to television.

    KEVIN SMITH (CREATOR OF CLERKS/”SILENT BOB”): When we got home from making Mallrats, Scott [Mosier] and I — and when I say home, I actually mean Los Angeles because Paul Dixon the editor was going to be cutting the movie in Los Angeles — went to L.A. for post. And while we were there, Renee Humphries, who was in Mallrats and played Trish, she had emailed me and said “Hey, can you put in a good word for me for the Clerks audition tomorrow?” And I called her because I was like “What Clerks audition?” And she was like, “Oh, there’s a sitcom and I’m going in on it tomorrow.”

    RICHARD DAY (WRITER CLERKS LIVE-ACTION PILOT): I was on a TV show, and another producer on that show, who had a deal with Disney, came in mocking that he had been pitched Clerks as a potential series and “Isn’t that a bad idea?” And I heard that and went, “Oh my God. That’s a great idea. I want to do that.”

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    First of all, I really liked the movie a lot. I also thought it was this chance to do something that you ordinarily couldn’t do on TV if you were the likes of me. As somebody with no particular reputation, they would make me do like a Home Improvement rip off or a Friends rip off. Either a family show or a show with young, attractive people with glamorous jobs.

    And Clerks was none of that. It was ordinary looking people in dead-end jobs who didn’t have any real ambitions. I thought that was a good idea for a show. And I thought the fact that they wanted to adapt Clerks meant that they knew what it meant to do an adaptation of Clerks, and that I wouldn’t be held to the same rules that I would have been if I had just gone in cold and tried to pitch without a movie property attached.

    And I was wrong.

    clerks movie poster 1994 1020189218 Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

    SMITH: I called up my agent — I was at CAA at the time — Tori Metzger and said, “So there’s a Clerks sitcom?” And she said, “Uh yes. When you did the deal with Miramax, when you sold Clerks, part of the deal included television, sequel, and remake rights. So they decided that they wanted to do it as a sitcom.” And I said, “Oh. Who’s doing it? Can I be involved? We’re done with Mallrats.” I obviously didn’t know what we were going to do next. So all of a sudden, the idea of this Clerks sitcom that I had no idea was even being talked about, I was like, “Oh shit. I can go work on that. I’ve got plenty of Clerks stories.”

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    DAY: Right after I sold the idea that I would do a Clerks show to the WB, I got a call saying Kevin would like to meet you meet you. I assume somebody in his world said, “They’re doing a show based Clerks, do you want to meet the guy who did it?” And he said, “Sure.” So, we had a very short meeting. There was nothing of substance really that happened at that meeting. But you know, he got to meet me.

    SMITH: I met with Richard Day at Muso and Franks; the only time in my life I’ve ever been to Muso and Franks. He’s a nice guy. He went on later to work on Arrested Development. I saw his name on Arrested Development Season 3 stuff. So he’s a legit guy.

    So, I sit down with him, and it must have been awkward for him in some weird way. Here he was moving forward on a project, and suddenly the guy who created the movie the project is based on shows up. Akin to perhaps Robert Altman or the author of the book M.A.S.H. showing up and being like, “Oh, I want to be involved now in the show.”

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    So I sat there talking to him during the meal, and we started talking about the show and what it’d be. Eventually, I said, “I’ve got an episode I’ve always wanted to do. A story I want to tell, where basically I want to do an Outbreak episode where Randal thinks the pet store down the street that has a monkey has the Motaba virus.”

    Essentially, the episode of Outbreak we did for the Clerks cartoon.

    dante randall Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

    DAY: And here’s what I think was really interesting about those scripts. I won’t say they weren’t Clerks, because Clerks is whatever he says it is, but they weren’t anything that anybody adapting Clerks into a TV show would have felt justified in doing to the property. He took it in a very big direction.

    SMITH: And I’m not saying, “What an asshole he is.” I was new to the business, so I never even heard of this term. He goes “Yeah, that sounds like a good B story.” In sitcoms, you’ve got an “A story”, your main story, and then there’s something going on with some of the other characters in a “B story.” So, as he told me the Outbreak thing with Randal was a good “B story,” I was like, “This is never going to work out.” [Laughs.]

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    DAY: He’s written either two or three full scripts and I don’t know what they are for because we can’t flip one out for the pilot. The network and studio would never let you do that. And there is no show to write episodes for yet. So, I don’t want him to have wasted his time. And I just said something like, “You know, these are good. Maybe there are some ‘B stories’ we can use.” And he was apparently very insulted by that.

    SMITH: In any event, we go to the auditions, and we’re there for a few hours. We saw Jeff [Anderson] and Brian [O’Halloran] audition. We saw a lot of young Hollywood audition at that point. Some of the same people we’d seen audition for Mallrats months before. And then we were there for about four hours and it was coming up to lunch time. So, me and Scott were avid cigarette smokers and I said, “We’re gonna go outside and grab a smoke.”

    So we went outside to smoke, and as soon as we stepped outside, and the door closed, I lit my cigarette and turned to Scott and said, “Let’s get out of here.” And he goes, “Yeah?” And I said, “Yeah, man. This ‘aint ours. It’s so weird. I feel weird being in there. We don’t even get to say who’s good, who’s not, and who gets to be the guy. They’re not gonna use Brian or Jeff. All of this feels weird, so let’s go.” So, off we went.

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    DAY: I feel bad that the pilot became as laughable in the wrong way as it did. And part of that were elements outside of my control, such as who the studio wanted to cast. The best things happen, though. Because it failed, Kevin got to do a Clerks show. And he’s the one who has a right to do a Clerks show. So, I’m glad I didn’t prevent him from doing that, because certainly that was a positive experience in his life. Clerks remained a very big part in his work.

    Read ahead as Dante and Randal head to ABC…

    deal Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

    With the first attempt to bring Clerks to television having been deemed by all (including Richard Day) as a failure, it would be another couple of years before discussions started coming up again. 

    SMITH: I don’t remember if I was the guy going, “I want to make a Clerks cartoon.” I don’t think I’m that visionary. It’s so weird. I think about young Kevin Smith often and I can’t get my head around that guy going, “Yeah, a cartoon.”

    SCOTT MOSIER (CO-CREATOR/WRITER): My memory is that Kevin had brought it up, and he had talked to his agents at CAA. And I’m trying to remember if there was like an initial round of art that somebody did or something like that. But he was at CAA at the time. So my memory is that it started early on, but it only got traction later on when we switched over to WME, I believe.

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    DAVID MANDEL (CO-CREATOR/WRITER): I was a Clerks fan and I was a fan of Kevin’s and we had an agent that we shared at the time at the old Endeavour agency named Phil Raskin. And Phil was always like, “Oh, do you want to meet him? Do you want to meet him? Do you want to meet him?” And I never did, because I didn’t have anything to say. I was a huge fan, but I didn’t want to just be like, “Hey. How are ya? I like your stuff,” you know what I mean? So, I had finished up on Seinfeld and I went into this deal at Touchstone, which was under Disney and they owned ABC. Somewhere along the line, this thing very early came around, which was this idea of trying to do this animated version of Clerks, and I jumped at it.

    SMITH: Dave talked about wanting to use the characters, and the set up to just go crazy on pop culture and essentially do our version of The Simpsons. We were all huge Simpsons fans. So, the idea was of building a universe — a Springfield-like universe — for these characters. Since we couldn’t curse, because it was going to be on network T.V., we had to make up for that perceived deficit by bringing something else to the table. And Dave was like, “If it’s a cartoon, we could do anything. We could tell any story we want. Sky’s the limit. There’s no budget. You could do something like somebody built a way bigger Quick Stop across the street.”

    MOSIER: Early on, you all sit down and go, “Well, we can’t say ‘fuck’ and there’s a lot of things that we can’t do. Well what seems like sort of a fun idea or how do we sort of expand the universe?”

    jay silent bob gif Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

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    MANDEL: Something we almost preemptively knew was that, along with language, Jay and Silent Bob weren’t going to be drug dealers. They sort of became mischief makers, if you will. I mean, obviously, they sort of played it almost as high as usual, so to speak. So our general feeling was, If you knew who they were and what their origins were, you would still think they’re the same, hopefully. But if you didn’t know, obviously we weren’t going to say, you know, drug dealers.

    SMITH: I was already sold because I liked Dave. He had a great pedigree. Aside from Seinfeld, which I watched religiously, Dave wrote for Saturday Night Live, which was something I desperately wanted to do. He was funny, clever, a great guy, great to talk to at the table, we shared an agency, we could gossip about the business. We were all young. He was more-well trained than me. He was a Harvard kid and studied writing and stuff like that. I was more an outsider artist and stuff. But still, we got along really, really well.

    MANDEL: I can remember just talking about everything in the world from like old Saturday Night Live sketches to obscure runs on comic books that we both really dug. There was just so much that we had in common. It was pretty crazy actually, as I remember it. And we really just hit it off.

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    SMITH: So once we meet Dave at the diner, and we go through what this could be and we tell our agent, “Yeah, we want to do this,” they start getting ready to pitch it around.

    BILLY CAMPBELL (HEAD OF MIRAMAX TELEVISION): I was hired to basically start Miramax Television, and one of our goals from the beginning was to really utilize as much of the Miramax relationship or relationships as we could. And I ended up meeting with tons of different personalities. But one of the things that was really exciting for me and fun was being introduced to Kevin. I was just thrilled that I had the opportunity to sit and get to know him and talk to him. And from the very beginning, he was so easy to work with. Here’s a guy who had not only great success, but also a cult audience. If you were a Kevin Smith fan, you were a devout Kevin Smith fan. So, we weren’t sure how that would translate into broadcast television, but it was fun to just sit and creatively talk about it.

    SMITH: We pitched it everywhere. When we went to pitch to all these places, you name it, we went there. Any place that had a TV network, we went and pitched at.

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    MOSIER: At the time, we were at Miramax, and they were owned by Disney, and so there was this sort of synergy idea that was floated.

    miramax Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

    SMITH: At ABC, we pitched to Jamie Tarses, who was like the bigwig at that time in Los Angeles. So, we pitched to her, and she maybe smiled during our pitch, but it didn’t seem like it was for her or ABC at all.

    MANDEL: The other place that was very interested in it at the time was the very new Paramount network, UPN. And nowhere else seemed to care as much, but those were the two places it came down to.

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    SMITH: Dean Valentine, who ran UPN, had come from the ranks of Disney. He was a Disney exec. And then when they started running UPN, they grabbed him and bam, he’s over there running that. So after our pitch, he loved us and we got along great and shit. He was like, “This is UPN. You could run forever on this network. Sky’s the limit here.”

    MOSIER: They had just done Dilbert. So, I think it was part of their initial branding attempt was to be the animation network.

    SMITH: And Dean Valentine was offering 12 episodes on the air. Bang. Like 12 episodes. It was a half a season order, but they’ll go right on the air. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts, man. But it was at UPN. But we didn’t care. And Dave was like, “Look, I’ve been to big networks. I’d much rather be at UPN and own this place than go over to ABC and have to deal with notes and censors. You don’t want to deal with that. At UPN, we’ll have a lot more freedom.”

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    CAMPBELL: Dean responded really well. And we thought we got a great opportunity. At the time, they had acquired Dilbert. So on the business side and creatively, we were all excited. I thought, This is perfect. That would be a great night of programming. Animated on UPN, a much younger audience, a much more alternative audience. They weren’t a traditional broadcast network.

    SMITH: So we were all like “Let’s do this shit.” Meanwhile, Dean Valentine calls up his old boss Michael Eisner and says, “Hey, I just heard the Clerks pitch. I want this show. I think it’ll pair up real nicely with Dilbert. Dilbert first, Clerks second. Two cartoons back to back. So, do me a favor, man. Help me get this, ‘cause we’re friends.”

    And I wasn’t in the room, but apparently Michael Eisner was like “Okay” and then hung up and was like “What is the Clerks cartoon and why does Dean Valentine want it?” So he found out that we had pitched to Jamie at ABC and he said, “I want to hear this pitch. Bring this pitch to me.”

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    The other name — get ready to clench your asshole — that pops up in these proceedings, who wasn’t intimately involved but periodically, was Harvey Weinstein. So, Harvey Weinstein tells us at one point that we have to pitch again in New York to Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, and then the guy who was in charge of ABC, a man named Bob Iger.

    MANDEL: Not the most popular name to reference, but Harvey Weinstein was definitely very interested in this thing. They had just been bought by Disney, and he actually came with us to the Disney pitch where I think Eisner was in the room and certainly Iger, who was number two, was as well.

    SMITH: And we go upstairs, and Harvey tells us, “Look, this is where we want to be. I know Dean Valentine made that UPN offer and stuff, but ABC, this is where we want to be. This is a real network. So let’s do this right. And I’ll make it work. I’ve got this.” You know, he’s going to “save the day”, as if there was a day that needed saving. We already had an offer from a great company on the table.

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    MOSIER: My memory of it was mostly just sort of that out-of-body experience of, “Why are we in a meeting with Michael Eisner and Bob Iger?” [Laughs.] Especially the out of body idea of like when you’re sitting on set of Clerks making the movie itself. Like if somebody was fast-forwarding it to the moment where we’re all in New York City in a glass tower at a giant conference table sitting across from Michael Eisner and Bob Iger as they try to convince us to make a Clerks animated show for ABC. Clerks has been a source of many, many surreal moments over the course of our lives, and that was one of them. Like you’re going “Michael Eisner, why are you dealing with this?” It just felt like he got called to move a desk or something and he was brought down to do this thing. And you’re like “Why? What’s going on over there that you need to be the guy to lead us in?”

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    Harvey Weinstein

    SMITH: So we go into our pitch. We pitch as best as we could and stuff, and then after it was all done, they’re like, “Alright. We’re gonna think about it.” So, we left the room and went home back to Jersey. Then, we had a conference call that night. Harvey called, and it’s me and Mos on the phone and Dave Mandel. And he says, “Okay. I’ve heard from ABC and they are offering us six episodes, not guaranteed on the air.” And we were like, “Okay. But UPN is offering us 12 episodes put on the air. So that’s a better deal, right?”

    And he goes “Wellll, you’ve got to think ahead. You’ve got to be visionary. You can’t just go for what’s in front of you. You’ve gotta think. Now ABC and Miramax are owned by the same company, Disney. So this is really just them taking money out of one pocket and putting it into the other pocket. So if we go with ABC, maybe we don’t get 12 episodes on the air like UPN is offering, but they’ll let us run forever. Why would they cancel us? They own the show. You understand?” Then he says this. “Every once in a while, the brass ring comes around. ABC is the brass ring. You could do a UPN show, but anybody could do that. ABC is the brass ring.”

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    CAMPBELL: I told Harvey from the very beginning, “The problem with ABC is the expectations are going to be higher. So it’s going to be tough for us to hit those expectations with this type of project.” What I really was worried about was that ABC at the time had the most stringent Broadcast Standards and Practices department, which really meant that language, content, almost all of the really funny things that Dave and Kevin and the team came up with, we either had to take it out, we had to mute it, or we had to dilute it. And, unfortunately, that for me was the biggest disappointment.

    MANDEL: CBS had, even still then, all the old people watching and NBC had all the young people watching and ABC has nobody watching. And that was a thing that was a big problem for them. And so, I think they looked at us at the time as something very hip and cool. And, by the way, them being in last place, and their — if you will — desperation was one of the reasons we did go with them. I mean there was a method to our madness of making the wrong choice.

    MOSIER: ABC was in third place in the ratings. They were at that period of “How are they going to reinvent themselves?” And so, I remember it was the year of taking chances or whatever. It was us and I think they bought a show by Peter Berg called Wonderland that was sort of like ER in a mental hospital. So, they had all these midseason replacements that were sort of more geared towards testing the water in different directions.

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    MANDEL: It sort of came down to this idea of like the small pond versus the big pond, and I don’t want to blame anyone, but I will definitely say from the Miramax side there was definitely a lot of pressure. They wanted to, I think, appease their new owners of Disney and so they were definitely pushing hard on the ABC side of things as I remember.

    abc Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

    CAMPBELL: I think in the end, Harvey really forced us to take the Disney/ABC deal. And I told him that that was a huge mistake. And in the end, he said “I hear you. You may be right. But we’re part of Disney and that’s what we have to do.” And so then you just have to say “Okay.” And I told the guys, “This is what we have to do. So let’s do the best we can with it. You’re gonna be frustrated at times,” which I think they were and everybody was. But I said, “Let’s do the show that you want to do and I’ll try to handle the other stuff.”

    SMITH: I realize now that Harvey couldn’t tell us what to do. Because they didn’t have the cartoon rights for Clerks. Miramax didn’t and neither did Disney. They had the TV sitcom rights, which is how they made that one-off Clerks sitcom pilot, but they didn’t have the rights to do a cartoon. I had to grant them that permission. Scott reminded me of that recently. He was like, “You had to sign over a license deal so that they could even do the Clerks cartoon.” So if I had had known how much power I had, I might’ve been like, “Yeah, but a bird in the hand is two in the bush,” and gone for where they wanted us.

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    MANDEL: We made the decision ourselves. And we made it wrong. We should have picked UPN and we picked ABC. And I guess right there you could argue was technically the beginning of the end. [Laughs.]

    Read ahead as Dante and Randal get animated…

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