Spotlight
Clerks: The Animated Series
Clerks' titular heroes do their thing
Marc Elias · September 5, 2004 | Artists and the companies who both nurture and exploit art all wish their relationship was not mutually contentious, but it often is. In 1970, Motown Records president Berry Gordy was very satisfied with singer/songwriter Marvin Gaye's eminently marketable career as a handsome R&B crooner. Upon hearing the master tape for Gaye's daring new single, Gordy resisted, saying that he knew the market and what it demanded. A convinced and defiant Gaye persisted, and eventually the single was released without Gordy's approval. Initially furious, when the single reached 100,000 re-orders and burned up the charts by the end of its first week, Gordy immediately demanded an album's worth of the music he was certain no one wanted to hear, let alone buy. The result was Gaye's soulful, socially-conscious classic record "What's Going On."

It may be a rickety conceit to compare naughty nerd-made-good auteur Kevin Smith with a powerful and troubled musician; and perhaps even more preposterous to compare the light-hearted, street-funny Clerks: The Animated Series with such a transcendent and relevant record. But for me, these artifacts have connections: I love them both, and they both faced uphill battles against a restrictive corporate culture before they could see the light of day and be judged by the public. For the purposes of this argument, where they differ (apart from cultural significance) is that Marvin Gaye and Berry Gordy's "gamble" was not only a massive financial success for its sponsor Motown, it also grew into one of the most beloved recordings the world has ever heard. Kevin Smith's snarky little show was bought by the wrong company, displayed on the wrong stage, and got canned after two episodes.

Writer/director Kevin Smith's career was launched in the early '90s with Clerks, a no-budget, black and white independent film about a day in the life of a pair of hipster nerds working as shop clerks in desolate suburban New Jersey. Financed with favors and credit cards, this little "flick" made its way to the Sundance film festival. Its endearing characters and witty, profane dialogue helped it stand out from its art-house peers enough to be acquired by Miramax for wide release. The film immediately became a cult favorite, with the Smith's highly-quotable dialogue being passed back and forth among nerds and hipsters alike.

Clerks: The Animated Series
Miramax, 2001
Directed by Chris Bailey and Steve Loter
6 episodes

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To its fans, the film's characters felt almost uncomfortably familiar. The aptly-named Dante Hicks suffers through the inferno of his meaningless job, while still trying to keep one heavy-lidded eye on his future. His friend Randal Graves seems to have no ambition other than to ignore the customers and pursue interminable pop-culture trivia arguments. Meanwhile, outside the block of stores, a pair of kinetic drug dealers—the loquacious Jay and the enigmatic Silent Bob—quickly joined the pantheon of cinema's most memorable comedic teams. The characters and their surroundings seemed so fully-formed, it was clear that Smith must have concocted this elaborate alternate New Jersey, complete with a population, a history, and even some new words for the language, during his own stint at the cash register.

Eventually, the characters and their narrative continued in several other films, such as Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma and 2001's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. An avid comic book and cartoon fan, Smith had envisioned the possibility of spinning Clerks into an animated series as early as 1995, but it was only upon hooking up with former Seinfeld producer David Mandel that the project became a reality. Unfortunately, that reality mainly consisted of dealing with an avalanche of rejections. At the time, The Simpsons was the only prime time animated series on television, and it wasn't until the success of shows such as King of the Hill and The Family Guy that ABC, the network affiliated to Smith partner Miramax through mutual parent company Disney (which was then a struggling third in the ratings), decided to give the series a chance.
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