Snooch to the Nooch.
If you want to talk filmmakers…I love Tim Burton. I love the Coen Brothers. I love Steven Soderbergh. I love Woody Allen. I like Kevin Smith. Notice the distinction? There’s a lot that I love about Smith: the honesty of his films, his willingness to say exactly what is on his mind, his devotion to the friends he had before he became rich and famous, his aversion to playing by Hollywood’s rules. I like all his movies, even the lambasted Mallrats. Heck, that’s probably my favorite for its glib, gleeful humor. No, wait, my favorite of his films is Chasing Amy for its absolute candor when dealing with a very strange romance (or are all romances strange? Mine always have been). I even respected Dogma. Linda Fiorentino really dragged the movie down (man, was she acting in another movie or what?), but I admired Smith’s willingness to tackle obviously controversial religious themes, and he did so in a way that challenged Christian believers rather than demeaning their faith.
All that said, I obviously skirted around two topics: why I don’t unabashedly love Kevin Smith, and his calling card to the filmmaking world, Clerks. Maybe I should discuss those in reverse order. Clerks was made on a shoestring budget provided by family and friends, maxed-out credit cards, and the sale of what must have been a considerable comic book collection. It was shot in black and white (a budget mandate rather than a stylistic decision), and chronicled a day in the lives of two convenience store clerks and the women one of them loved. As someone who worked in the retail sector between the ages of 18 and 23, I can definitely relate to the mental pain and frustration of working with the public. (Did I ever tell the story of trying to explain to some dope what it meant that the L.A. Confidential DVD was “dual-layered”? It took five minutes and three explanations of the dual layer process to discover that what he really wanted to know was if it was letterboxed, because he hated missing parts of the picture with those black bars. Idiot.) Smith always had a great ear for dialogue, and could write insights buried underneath the profanity and dick-and-fart jokes, but Clerks demonstrated that he didn’t quite have the filmmaking artistry of my other favorite directors. Unfortunately, his subsequent films have shown little improvement in the artistry field. But even there there’s another reason to like him: he admits he has a very uninspired visual style.
All right, jump cut to discussing the material at hand. Clerks spawned a series of comic books, and it was only natural that Smith and his cronies would want to bring it in animated form as well. After many years of pitches and planning, it finally landed a spot on the ABC network. It was an odd choice, considering that ABC is probably the family-friendliest of the Big Three networks. The reason can be summed up in two words: corporate synergy. ABC is owned by Disney, which in turn also owns Miramax, the company that distributed Clerks. Even when they had a broadcast partner, it was still an uphill battle for Smith and Company…but I’ll leave them to tell that, as Smith is only too willing to do. Six episodes of Clerks: The Animated Series were produced to be broadcast in Summer 2000. Only two episodes were ever hit the airwaves.
Most of you are probably familiar with the Clerks crew, but in case you’re not, here’s a quick rundown. The show centers on titular clerks Dante and Randal. Dante (Brian O’Halloran) regrets that his twentysomething life has degenerated to working in a convenience store, but is unwilling to do anything to change his situation. He tends to be uptight. His polar opposite but best friend is the happy-go-lucky Randal. Randal (Jeff Anderson) accepts his position at the bottom of the food chain, because it gives him a unique opportunity to make the lives of others miserable. Joining their adventures, albeit rather tangentially at times, are the “merry pranksters” Jay and Silent Bob. As anyone who’s seen the “Jersey trilogy” knows, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith himself) are really degenerate drug dealers, but lovable degenerate drug dealers. In the confines of network TV, they became the aforementioned “merry pranksters,” selling fireworks or just otherwise causing havoc. For the show (or maybe it was for the comic, but I only read the first issue), an evil archnemesis was created: Leonardo Leonardo (voiced by Alec Baldwin…yes, you read that correctly: Alec Baldwin). He’s an evil billionaire bent on world domination. You know, the classic comic book villain archetype.
Anyway, on to the episodes. I don’t think they were ever named (or if they were, it was not to the public), so I’ll just refer to them rather uncreatively by number.
I suppose any show needs an episode to set up its premise and introduce its characters. Clerks is no exception, except that the primary characters (Dante, Randal, Jay, and Silent Bob) are already familiar to the target audience (namely, fans of the movie). So, that leaves the writers to introduce Leonardo Leonardo, a very Alan Rickman-ish archnemesis (that’s by design). LL returns to Leonardo, New Jersey to unveil his new office building (in the shape of an L) that towers over the Jersey suburban landscape. He also unveils a new Convenience Store of the Future (the “Quicker Stop”) to put the stores of Leonardo out of business, including the convenience store (the “Quick Stop”) where Dante and Randal work. The dastardly duo uncovers his 89-step plan for world domination, and must turn to that bastion of fine television programming, the UPN Network, to thwart their nemesis. Shenanigans ensue.
What show isn’t complete without a flashback episode? What show uses that hackneyed device for their second episode? None and only Clerks are the answers to those questions, respectively. Dante and Randal lock themselves in a freezer and pass the time reflecting on their previous adventures, including but not limited to Episode 1. The episode includes one of the funniest gags of the entire series — that was unaired even in this episode’s solitary airing on ABC. It’s a parody of Schindler’s List called “Flintstone’s List.” Sure, it’s in poor taste, but what about this show isn’t? That’s why you watch. If you listen carefully, you’ll catch a very brief cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow as herself. This is the second of the two episodes that ABC broadcast of the show; the first was Episode 4, to be described later.
“Nothing can kill The Grimace!” By this point, the show was really finding its footing writing-wise. That said, the episodes also became more and more difficult to nail down to a simple plot description. Suffice it to say, this episode was a parody of the movie Outbreak, involving a smoking chimp, rotten burritos, a megalomaniacal general (voiced by none other than James Woods, who was admonished to play the character just like James Woods), Patrick Swayze, two giggling girls, and Dante declaring that he is gay (even though he’s not). The astute pop culture maven will recognize the voices of Al Franken (of “Saturday Night Live“) and Bryan Cranston (of “Malcolm In The Middle“). Trivia tidbit from the commentary track: there’s a gag in the middle of the episode about not being able to provide a cartoon likeness of Dustin Hoffman for legal reasons…because they really weren’t able to provide a cartoon likeness of Dustin Hoffman for legal reasons. Apparently, Mr. Hoffman is very litigious. They substituted a picture of Al Pacino portraying Dustin Hoffman.
There’s a very good reason ABC chose this as the first episode of the show to air: it’s the funniest one. In fact, I’d go as far as to call it transcendently funny. I’d go as far as to say this DVD is a must-buy for this episode alone. Yes, it is that good. A short summary can barely do it justice. I’ll give it a shot. Jay slips in a puddle of soda in the Quick Stop and sues for $10 million. The courtroom is presided over by Judge Reinhold (voiced by himself), with a jury of the NBA All-Stars (all voiced by themselves…and this would be a good point to mention that Charles Barkley appears in every episode). Dante’s lawyer fails to show, so Randal “defends” him. How? By calling filmmakers to the stand to demand his ticket money back for making bad movies. There are at least four dream sequences, the giggling girls make a reappearance…and then the episode abruptly ends. Or more appropriately, the narrator explains that the Korean animators replaced the end of the episode. What follows is the funniest few minutes of animation you’ll ever see, as Japanimation is sublimely parodied. It must be seen to be believed. There is nothing funnier in this world than hearing Tom Cruise’s most famous lines read in very halting English dubbing, or my favorite line: “Who drive car? Oh no bear drive car!”
The Bad News Bears, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and The Last Starfighter, all parodied in the same episode. It’s funny, but far from the magnificence of Episode 4. Dante coaches a little league team to victory, thanks to his star player Jay (who’s technically a 4th grader). His team must rescue the opposing team in the little league World Series from a strange religious cult where Randal is also being held, thanks to his expertise at a ’80s video game. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but it is funny. You might recognize the voice of Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap) as the voice of the cult leader.
This episode was written in response to the expected backlash against the show by fans of the movie. It takes place entirely within the Quick Stop (well, sort of) while wacky things happen in the street outside. The highlight of the episode is a running gag parodying The Matrix. I didn’t check the credits to see who did the voice, but it sure sounds like Laurence Fishburne.
Say what you will about the Disney megalith’s DVD track record, but when they do things right, they really do them right. They may have waited to release the Toy Story movies, but when they did we got the definitive box set. Same with Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. The Clerks Uncensored disc set doesn’t quite rise to that level, but it is an admirable and impressive effort.
The six half-hour episodes are evenly divided on to the two discs. They are presented in their original full-frame aspect ratio, with matrixed surround sound. Like the “Powerpuff Girls” disc I recently reviewed, this is near reference quality for a television animation-to-DVD transfer. The show’s visual style is preserved perfectly. The muted colors are accurate, and there is no edge enhancement visible in either the chunky or thin lines that build the characters. Only an occasional dust blip mars the picture. The audio is very dialogue-centric, relegating the front left and right channels largely to music, and giving the rear very little action. Sound quality, however, is superb.
As for extras, Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith introduce each episode as their alter egos Jay and Silent Bob. Each episode sports a commentary track and the ability to view animatics (animated versions of the storyboards) as a multi-angle feature. The commentaries are almost as entertaining as the show (as is usual with any Kevin Smith commentary). Present are Smith, Smith’s long-time collaborator Scott Mosier, supervising director Chris Bailey, co-creator Dave Mandel (an alumnus of “Seinfeld“), and voice talent Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, and Jason Mewes. While everyone has something to contribute at one point or another, Smith is definitely the chattiest of the group. Other extras include featurettes on character development and the show’s visual style, the show’s promotional spot played during Super Bowl XXXIV (that’s 34 to you philistines, or the one played in 2000), a promotional trailer played at the Sundance Film Festival, and a bevy of DVD-ROM material that looks interesting if only I had a DVD-ROM drive at home.
It’s a real shame that ABC didn’t give Clerks more of a chance. I mean, it’s not any worse than any other animated series, and certainly better than pablum like “The P.J.s” or “Family Guy” (though I do have to say I really liked “Family Guy“). Comedy-wise, it runs circles around ABC’s trite flagship comedy, “Dharma and Greg.”
Even if I did really enjoy the show (and I heartily recommend you pick up the DVD set), I do have one complaint. Six episodes are well and good. They make for close to three hours of entertainment when watched back to back. But, could the creators have maintained that level or brand of humor for an entire 26-episode season? Or multiple seasons? I highly doubt it. The show’s running gags (Charles Barkley, the giggling girls, every episode opened with a variation of “‘Clerks‘ is drawn before a live studio audience”) could not have possibly stayed fresh or laugh-inducing beyond the short shelf life they managed to garner. Frankly, it’s almost for the best that only six episodes were produced, and that we get them in this form rather than spread out week after week with commercial breaks interrupting the humor.
The court admonishes every reader to purchase a copy of Clerks Uncensored. At least, anyone who would appreciate the humor and not be offended by the potty-mouth humor inserted between the episodes is encouraged to buy it.