A story for The Australian’s arts sections, which ran on April 12 2012. The full story appears below.
Comic duo gets serious, for laughs
by Andrew McMillen
The first time cinemagoers laid their eyes on Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith was in Clerks, a 1994 feature film that depicted a day in the working lives of two frustrated store clerks stuck in dead-end jobs.
Mewes and Smith played the bit-part characters of Jay and Silent Bob, respectively [pictured above; Smith on the left]. Their introduction occurs seven minutes into the film, when Mewes — a tall, wiry youngster — takes up his regular post outside a convenience store (where Smith, then 24, worked as a clerk during the day). Jay drains a beercan, spits out its contents, then announces, “I need some tits and ass, yeah!” He does a little dance, then adds, “I feel good today, Silent Bob!” before expressing in detail his desire to copulate “with anything that moves”.
All the while, his stocky, mute friend in a trenchcoat puffs on a cigarette, barely acknowledging the string of explicit and provocative statements that Jay directs at passers-by. It remains a compelling introduction to two of modern American cinema’s most enduring — and unlikely — comedic characters.
Written, directed, produced and edited by Smith, Clerks never appeared on more than 50 screens at one time during its theatre run in the US. Rated R for “extensive use of extremely explicit sex-related dialogue”, the film seemed doomed to a niche audience at best. Yet word-of-mouth marketing prevailed and it grossed more than $US3 million for distributor Miramax Films.
Not bad for a project made on a shoestring budget.
Clerks became a cult favourite that led to a string of popular comedies directed by Smith: Mallrats in 1995, Chasing Amy in 1997, Dogma in 1999 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2001. The two characters last appeared on screen together in 2006’s Clerks II.
This month Mewes and Smith will tour a live show in Australia for the first time, under the name Jay and Silent Bob Get Old.
Mewes, now 37, casts his mind back to his late teens, when Smith — four years older — began working on Clerks. “Back then, it was just me and him,” Mewes says. “We’d wake up and work our nine-to-five jobs at the convenience store and the video store. He told me he was writing a script and was going to go to film school. It wasn’t that I doubted him; it was like, ‘Oh cool, you’re going to school.’ I didn’t think anything about it. I was just like, ‘I’m going to go to work tomorrow, you have fun.’ ”
Smith’s hard work evidently paid off, and he brought his new friend along for the ride: one that took the wealthy writer-director to the heights of owning a home in the Hollywood Hills with his wife and daughter, and Mewes to the depths of addiction to heroin and, later, the painkiller OxyContin.
In a 10-part series published on his blog in 2006, entitled Me and My Shadow, Smith described at length the roller-coaster ride of Mewes’s addiction and his numerous attempts at rehabiliation. Using his flair as a writer and eye for detail, Smith wrote of Mewes’s “first taste of heroin courtesy of a girl whose name he doesn’t remember, on a jungle gym in a park lit by the Canadian moon”. Later republished in the 2007 book My Boring-Ass Life, Smith’s tale remains moving, even for those with little interest in his films.
Mewes has never read Me and My Shadow in full. “I’ve read sections of it,” he says. “It sort of upsets me a bit to read it. I’ve never been able to sit through and read it from beginning to end.” The Australian tour, Get Old, born from a successful podcast of the same name, has its roots in Mewes’s addictions, too.
Six years sober, he relapsed in 2009 on painkillers after a dental procedure. “When people go into surgery, you try not to take pain medicine if you’ve (been) addicted to pain medicine (in the past),” he says. “But if you are going to take it, you should talk to some people; a sponsor, friends, and you have to see them every day, (to) be accountable for what’s going on. I didn’t have any of that going on at the time. There was no one I had to be accountable to.”
When Mewes told Smith of his desire to record a regular podcast before a live audience, his friend encouraged him to speak about his experiences with addiction. According to Smith, “it’s much easier to fight a dragon if everyone can see it, and it’ll remind you about where you don’t want to be ever again.” The live shows became a kind of therapy for the actor.
“Talking about everything has been very helpful for me,” Mewes says. An unexpected outcome eventuated, too: group therapy. “I’ve had people come up to me after shows and be like, ‘Hey man, I’m six months sober today and it’s seriously because of you because when I was sick and I was getting off the painkillers, I wanted to go use but then I’d listen to three of your podcasts in a row and it would inspire me not to go get high again.’ That’s very flattering and awesome. It’s just a bonus to what I thought (the podcast) would be about.”
Jay and Silent Bob Get Old has no real structure: it’s just two friends who happen to be famous speaking about whatever comes to mind. The show was first hosted at a 45-seat venue in Los Angeles, which sold out five weeks in a row. On upgrading to the 230-seat Jon Lovitz Comedy Club in Universal City, the pair continued to fill the venue each week. They booked bigger shows in capital cities across the US, and their Australian tour — consisting of theatres that hold 1000 to 2000 people — has mostly sold out.
“That we can get 2000 people who want to come listen to me and Kevin sit down and talk and tell some of our stories is pretty amazing,” Mewes says, laughing.
When asked whether he’s concerned about sharing too much, Mewes replies: “No, not really. Not when I hear stuff like (former addicts thanking me).
“Sometimes I think I over-share about me and my wife, and my wife might be at the show and afterwards she’ll get a little embarrassed or upset with me.”
This is unsurprising, given that both men discuss the topic of sex — both in the past and with their wives — frequently during the stage show. “That’s about it. There hasn’t really been any backlash.”
Despite the gravity of discussing Mewes’s former demons, there’s much more light than shade at play in Get Old. After all, most people are there to laugh with their film idols rather than mull over life lessons.
“My goal is to entertain everybody,” Mewes says. “I hope they have a really good time. And of course people are paying money. I want them to be like, ‘Oh man, we went out last night, and we saw Jay and Bob. I’m glad I did that on my Friday night, instead of going out to the bar or to the movies.”‘