Back in early 2000 Kevin Smith, then at the height of his popularity as a filmmaker, saw the launch of a primetime animated series based on his debut feature, the 1994 cult classic comedy Clerks. The show was set to air Wednesday nights at 9:30 on ABC, the ideal time slot for a show inspired by a movie whose script was so rich in poetic vulgarity and profanity that the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board originally slapped an NC-17 on Clerks, a decision that was later successfully appealed by the film’s distributor Miramax Films. Smith had entertained offers from rival networks for the animated Clerks series before settling on ABC as an act of corporate solidarity since the network was owned by the Walt Disney Company, the multimedia conglomerate that also owned Miramax.
The writer/director then brought in his producing partner Scott Mosier and former Seinfeld/Saturday Night Live writer David Mandel to help him oversee the show’s production. Six episodes were produced and ABC launched a marketing campaign that included promos that aired during that year’s Super Bowl and made the rounds at film festivals, the very venue that launched Smith’s filmmaking career. But as the show’s premiere approached the executives at ABC suddenly got cold feet. When Clerks: The Animated Series hit the airwaves on May 31, 2000 viewers were actually watching the show’s fourth episode. The next week the intended second episode aired but since it contained many references to the unaired first episode the show’s audience was left utterly perplexed. Lousy ratings for both episodes resulted in the network quickly cancelling the series.
The following year all six episodes of Clerks were released on VHS and DVD, including the four that never aired, in their intended broadcast order. The healthy sales of the release led to Clerks returning to television as the original six episodes were aired on Comedy Central and Adult Swim. A direct-to-video animated movie called Clerks: Sell Out was rumored for years following ABC’s cancellation of the show but the project slowly died due to Kevin Smith’s hectic schedule and the reluctance of Disney, who owns the rights to both the movie and the cartoon, to again work with former Miramax honchos Harvey and Bob Weinstein following the duo’s tumultuous split from the company.
But now it looks like Clerks: The Animated Series may be following the leads of other cancelled unjustly primetime cartoon series that built up sizable cult followings after their forced departure from the airwaves like Family Guy and Futurama. A follower of Smith’s Twitter feed expressed their admiration for the Clerks cartoon and Smith responded with a surprising revelation:
“Via @Just_Reboot ‘Clerks cartoon was brilliant, I rewatch it bi-monthly’ @Miramax 2.0 and I are hoping to give you new eps weekly next year.”
Since Disney lost control of the Clerks series when they sold Miramax last year the company would have no say over the content and characters in the new animated episodes, nor would Smith and company be beholden to put the show on a Disney-controlled television network, so this time around the sky’s the limit. There are a multitude of pay and basic cable channels that have found great success with edgy and inventive original programming like HBO, FX, AMC, Comedy Central, Showtime, and Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim program block where the Clerks cartoon would flourish and not be subjugated by constant corporate oversight and creative interference.
Granted if a basic cable network picked up the series it still wouldn’t able to be as joyfully vulgar as the movies, but as long as the show stays true to its characters and packs in plenty of heart and soul to go with its envelope-pushing humor and pop culture references (which most of the time were a lot funnier than Family Guy‘s) it won’t matter much. Even though the original animated series watered down the humor of Smith’s caustically funny directorial debut it was still really funny and at times brilliant, and the design of the characters strongly resembled the Oni Press one-shot comics published in the late 1990′s.
I fondly remember watching the animated series during its abbreviated run on ABC and laughing a lot even though the network intentionally butchered the order of when each episode aired, which is very similar to what Fox did to Firefly. I missed the first aired episode, which had Jay (voiced by Jason Mewes) suing Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and the Quick Stop after suffering a minor injury in the store and the case was presided over by Judge Reinhold (voiced by….the real Judge Reinhold), because I was at work that night and forgot about the show’s premiere. The following week I remembered to set my VCR to record the show (that’s what we old timers did in the days before TiVo and DVR) and watched it after work. That was the aforementioned “flashback to the first episode” episode that went over the heads of everyone watching because of the references to an episode that had been unjustly shelved. It wasn’t until the complete series came out on DVD that I was able to watch the unaired premiere episode and finally get the joke.
Back in those days it was hard to launch a new primetime animated series because they all existed in the shadow of the success of The Simpsons despite the fact that most of the better ones had little in common with Matt Groening’s long-running Fox creation. These days it’s easier for cartoons geared more towards mature audiences to be successful thanks to shows like Family Guy, South Park, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Archer, and The Venture Brothers. Adult-targeted animation with narrow audience appeal has become more acceptable to the mainstream and in that environment it’s very possible for Clerks: The Animated Series to find the critical and commercial success it was wrongfully denied over a decade ago. Hopefully the show will really happen and the original voice cast, which consisted of many of the actors who appeared in the 1994 comedy, will return to voice their characters as only they can.