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The Untold Truth Of Clerks: The Animated Series

In 1994, director and eventual podcaster Kevin Smith introduced himself to the world with a black and white comedy about two acerbic 20-somethings trying to make it through the workday without losing their minds called "Clerks." Not only did the film launch Smith's career, but it also spawned a pair of sequels: "Clerks II" from 2006 and "Clerks III" slated for release in 2022. "Clerks" also launched a cinematic universe that includes 1995's "Mallrats" and 1997's "Chasing Amy," as well as a criminally underrated animated series that briefly aired on ABC.

The cartoon typically referred to as "Clerks: The Animated Series" takes the concept of the original film and runs wild. Since this is a cartoon, the writers' imaginations weren't bound by the restrictions of typical live-action storytelling. They could go anywhere they wanted in time and space, and they often did. In just six episodes, the animated clerks gain an archnemesis, survive an imaginary pandemic, ride in a car driven by a bear, travel around the world, and even enter the Matrix.

"Clerks: TAS" is imaginative, funny, and desperately in need of a relaunch. Some of the humor doesn't hold up; although in fairness, we suspect if we compared their per-episode average numbers of misogynistic or homophobic jokes, "Clerks: TAS" would come in slightly below NBC's "Friends." Furthermore, the "Clerks: TAS" concept remains solid and could easily be updated for a modern audience. If you've seen the show hundreds of times or you just encountered it for the first time yesterday, we're diving into some behind-the-scenes info. Let us now enter the bizarre world of "Clerks: The Animated Series."

It's not the first Clerks TV series

As was often the case with successful comedies in the '80s and '90s, an attempt was made to turn "Clerks" into a live-action sitcom. Kevin Smith was not involved and the final result reflects his absence. Other than the names Dante, Randal, and Veronica, and the fact that it's set primarily in a convenience store, very little of what was produced actually resembles the film it was based on in any way.

The characters are all wrong. In the film, Dante is an intelligent guy who just can't seem to figure out what he wants out of life. Randal is a sarcastic loudmouth who looks down his nose at the entire world but is so funny and sharp that you like him regardless of his faults. In the unaired pilot, Dante is a charmless jerk and isn't particularly smart. Meanwhile, the show's version of Randal, played by Jim Breuer, is just plain stupid. He provides no witticisms, nor clever banter — only bland, dumb-guy dialogue. 

Veronica is pretty close to her cinematic counterpart, but her relationship with Dante makes a lot less sense. Why does he like him? Plus, there's no Jay and Silent Bob. Thankfully, the pilot failed to get picked up and Smith was free to pursue his idea for a "Clerks" cartoon.

Only The Simpsons

"Clerks" doesn't seem like the kind of movie that would typically get an animated spinoff. It's low budget, there's no color, and the story is very grounded. However, according to the audio commentary included on the DVD for the series, Kevin Smith mentions that he'd been wanting to do a "Clerks" cartoon since 1995. Smith goes on to explain that he had a meeting with Fox, the network responsible for "The Simpsons," and his pitch was rejected.

The reason they gave was that they believed that primetime animation only worked for "The Simpsons." Whenever shows like "The Critic," "Fish Police," or "Family Dog" tried to find an audience during peak viewing hours, they crashed and burned. Therefore, perhaps the network can be forgiven for assuming that a cartoon based on an independent black-and-white comedy with a small cult following probably wouldn't fare very well.

A few years later, thanks to the success of shows like "South Park" and "King of the Hill," the idea of a "Clerks" cartoon seemed more feasible. Smith teamed up with "Seinfeld" writer and future "Veep" showrunner David Mandel and the two began collaborating on the series.

They should have gone with UPN

Once the team was assembled, Smith, Mandel, and producer Scott Mosier went around pitching the series to different networks. According to the commentary, these networks included UPN, HBO, and ABC. The meeting with HBO went well, but the premium cable network wanted the show to be dirtier. Apparently, Smith and co. had been pitching a more family-friendly version of "Clerks" and the executives at HBO wanted f-bomb-loaded dialogue in the spirit of the movie. For whatever reason, the "Clerks" team decided to keep shopping the series around.

Dave Mendel explained that ABC wasn't initially interested in the show. They went on to pitch the show to UPN, who were so enthusiastic that they offered to air 13 episodes guaranteed. That would mean, regardless of the early viewing figures, UPN would air all 13 episodes. Feeling that they could use this offer as a bargaining chip with ABC, they re-pitched ABC the show and the larger, more-established network bought it.

The decision to go with ABC was partially about pride. They didn't want to be on a smaller network on the cusp of going under and becoming The CW – they wanted to say that a major TV network was airing their show. However, ABC wasn't as committed to the series as UPN and did not hesitate to cancel it when the first two episodes failed to meet viewing expectations. The DVD commentary makes it very clear that Smith and Mandel regret this decision.

Getting Jay right wasn't easy

When it came time to design "Clerks: The Animated Series," the goal according to director Chris Bailey was to develop a new animation style. They didn't want to simply replicate other shows that came before. To do this, they studied the movie to capture the essence of each character. While they were able to find most of the characters with relative ease, figuring out a look for Jay proved a little difficult.

Jay is a rude little imp and drug dealer who says whatever's on his mind with zero regard for the people around him. This gave animators the impression that he is an evil, malicious character. Bailey said, "It was very funny because no matter who we gave the assignment to, their first stab at the character was to draw him as some kind of malevolent witch."

While Smith continued to suggest that actor Jason Mewes has very feminine features and was fairly innocent, Bailey didn't understand what Smith was talking about until he met Mewes at a table reading. Jay wasn't a bad or mean guy; he just doesn't understand that what he's saying is inappropriate or offensive. After coming to this realization, animators started making the character look younger and gave him small, innocent eyes that capture the character's naivete.

A simplified realism

One of the fascinating things about "Clerks: The Animated Series" is that it does resemble the film to a certain extent. Not only did they manage to nail the characters, but there is a simplicity to the look of the world that fits right in with the aesthetic of the film. Chris Bailey talked about discovering the look for the series during a behind-the-scenes featurette.

"I see a lot of shows on TV that people say look like comic books, but they really don't," he said. "I thought it'd be fun ... to do a nice black ink style in the backgrounds and use flat color with maybe one or two gradients like we'd seen in some of the better graphic novels out there." This approach carried over to the look of the town of Leonardo as well. After seeing reference photos of the real Leonardo, New Jersey, the animators knew it was important to not make the fictional version too pretty. "Clerks: TAS" always includes a dead tree outside of the Quick Stop and cracks in the sidewalks to reflect the "ungroomed" nature of the town.

They wanted to make the look of the world and characters simple enough that a viewer could draw them if they wanted, while keeping the presentation realistic and believable but also exaggerated enough for these characters to plausibly go on epic adventures. It was a delicate balance that the design team absolutely nailed.

The network didn't like Alan Rickman

For fans of the show, it's hard to imagine anyone else providing the voice of Leonardo Leonardo than Alec Baldwin, who was unknowingly using "Clerks" as a trial run for a delusional rich guy persona he'd later use on "30 Rock." His performance allows you to quickly forget you're listening to Alec Baldwin and 100% buy into this doofus with an ax to grind against two clerks who are barely aware he exists. However, there was a time when the deliciously villainous tones of the late Alan Rickman, who Smith worked with on "Dogma," would have brought the character to life.

At the time, Rickman was perhaps best known for the roles of Hans Gruber in "Die Hard" and the Sheriff of Nottingham in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." Obviously, the guy had a knack for playing despicable but entertaining big screen menaces. Given his working relationship with Smith, casting him must've seemed like a no-brainer. At first, the character was designed to resemble Gruber, but Rickman vetoed this in order to keep a healthy distance from one of his old roles, so changes were made.

The finished product still resembles the actor somewhat, and Rickman recorded a vocal track. The only reason we didn't get to hear it is for some reason, the network didn't like him. Would Rickman's voice have saved the show? Probably not. Still, it would have been interesting to hear his take on the character.

Brian O'Halloran loved the show

Interviews with the people who worked on "Clerks: The Animated Series" as well as the DVD commentary track give a strong impression that most of the people involved had a good time. Perhaps none more so than actor Brian O'Halloran, who reprised the role of Dante Hicks. Multiple times during the commentary, O'Halloran mentioned what a dream come true it was to voice a cartoon.

Not that you can blame him. His performance works exceptionally well. His animated counterpart looks just like him and even carries the same bored, aimless body language O'Halloran utilized during the original film. His voice sounds like the same old Dante, but with new variations that feel completely true to the character. When talking to Fixist in 2020, he gushed about the show.

The interviewer suggested that the cartoon existed to get kids hooked on "Clerks" early. O'Halloran responded, "No, but I loved that project to death. It's one of my favorite things we've done. I really wish we can go back to that someday in some way, either in a full-length feature movie or a television show."

The Outbreak episode was pitched for the sitcom

One of the best episodes of "Clerks: The Animated Series" is a parody of the film "Outbreak" about a new pet store that opens near Quick Stop. One of the animals at the store is a monkey. When Leonardo Leonardo eats some expired burritos Randal after refuses to throw them away due to the presence of a big bee near the dumpster, Leonardo Leonardo becomes ill. Randal assumes this is the start of a pandemic brought on by the monkey — which is more-or-less the plot of "Outbreak" — and chaos ensues.

The premise accelerates quickly and fits into the structure of an animated series like a glove. Originally, Smith pitched this idea for the failed live-action sitcom. While talking to Consequence, Smith said executive producer Richard Day suggested the storyline might work as a b-story. Being the creator of "Clerks," Smith was obviously a little offended. "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," Smith said before laughing.

For his part, Day admitted, "I won't say they [the scripts Smith had written] 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." 

The Powerpuff Bond

The music in "Clerks: The Animated Series" is one of its defining characteristics. The film features sparse use of incidental music with heavy helpings of needle drops from bands like Soul Asylum and Alice in Chains. It captures the somber, almost melancholic mood of life as a retail employee and definitely pins the film to the era in which it was made. As far as "Clerks: TAS" goes, the score matches the series' vibrant, cinematic, and eclectic energy, making it an equally appropriate and effective pairing.

The man responsible for that music was James L. Venable. Animation fans likely know him as the composer for "The Powerpuff Girls." In fact, that is how Kevin Smith became familiar with his work, as he told Billboard. "We fell in love with him, me and Scott Mosier, because we are both big fans of 'Powerpuff Girls,'" he said. He enjoyed Venable's work so much that the director asked him to score "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" even though Venable had zero experience working on feature films.

"It was completely unfamiliar territory for him. But he crushed it." Their relationship is one of the few enduring positive elements that survived the cancellation of the show. Since then, Smith and Venable have reunited on "Jersey Girl," "Clerks II," "Zack & Miri Make a Porno," and "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot."

Two and done

Six episodes of "Clerks: The Animated Series" were produced, but only two aired. Oddly, instead of the pilot which sets up the entire rest of the series, the first episode ABC decided to air was the chronological fourth. In the episode, titled "A Dissertation on the American Justice System by People Who Have Never Been Inside a Courtroom, Let Alone Know Anything About the Law, But Have Seen Way Too Many Legal Thrillers" Jay slips and falls at the Quick Stop and sues the store and Dante for $10 million. On the commentary, it's explained that the network felt this was the strongest of the six, and that's why they aired it first.

Coincidentally, the second episode broadcast by ABC, titled "The Clipshow Wherein Dante and Randal are Locked in the Freezer and Remember Some of the Great Moments in Their Lives," was the actual second episode of the show. It's about Dante and Randal getting trapped in the Quick Stop freezer and flashing back to all their old episodes (of which there was only one — the pilot) like a long-running sitcom. Both episodes are definite standouts, however a lot of the gags from Episode 2 don't really land unless the audience has seen Episode 1, which they definitely had not, because ABC never aired Episode 1. 

The exact reason for the show getting cancelled is unclear. Not even Smith or Mandel know for sure. In the commentary, they point out that a fair amount of people tuned in, and the ratings weren't abysmal. Whatever the reason, the series didn't get a fair shake.

Clerks led to Kim Possible

The early cancellation of "Clerks: The Animated Series" is in no way indicative of the show's quality. While it might look a little dated now, there was nothing like it at the time. Part of the reason it may look retro to some viewers is because many of the people involved went on to develop the massively successful Disney animated show "Kim Possible."

The shows do not look identical, but there are obvious similarities. If the lines around the "Kim Possible" characters were a little thicker, it would almost look like something straight out of "Clerks: TAS." It is a sleeker, perfected evolution of the same style. Director Steve Loter said as much when talking to Consequence. "What's really funny about 'Clerks' is that 'Clerks' was the precursor to 'Kim Possible,'" he said. "Alan Bodner, Nick Filippi, Chris Bailey, myself, Stephen Silver... We basically trained ourselves on 'Clerks' to be on 'Kim Possible.'"

Kevin Smith wants to do it again

Aside from the dated and offensive material, "Clerks: The Animated Series" was a solid show with the potential to run for years. Had it not been cut down so early, we may be talking about it in the same breath as "The Simpsons" or "South Park." Most of the parties involved seem to remember it fondly and lament the fact that they never got to see the show's full potential. However, there's still time.

While talking with The Laugh Button in 2019, Kevin Smith detailed his dream for the future. He mentions how well things were going with "Masters of the Universe: Revelation" and the fact that Netflix will likely ask if he has any ideas for future shows, saying, "And when inevitably the conversation happens when they're like 'Hey, do you have any ide...,' they won't get to finish that question before I go 'Clerks' cartoon.'"

He points out that it's a recognizable IP and it could easily come back, like "Family Guy." "Like remember how they canceled 'Family Guy' and after a few DVDs 'Family Guy' came back? They cancelled our sh*t in 2000. If I can make the 'Clerks' cartoon come back in 2020, that's a little magic trick that gives my f**king bullsh*t a little more gas to lead to a little more life." 2020 may have come and gone, but that doesn't mean we've seen the end of "Clerks: TAS."