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Clerks: The Animated Series: The Definitive Oral History

on May 31, 2020, 12:00pm
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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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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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