Running gags and inside jokes in Kevin Smith's View Askewniverse
With Red State out on tomorrow in the UK, we provide a run-down of the running gags and inside jokes in Kevin Smith’s earlier films…
“See, all these movies take place in this small town called Shermer in Illinois, where all the honeys are top-shelf but all the dudes are whiny pussies.” Jay, Dogma.
A large part of Kevin Smith's career as a filmmaker has been spent telling stories about New Jersey, not to be mistaken for “just making the same movie over and over again.” With an affection for John Hughes, who set a number of hugely popular teen comedies in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, Smith followed up Clerks with a number of movies set in the same microcosmic continuity as his first film.
Colloquially named after View Askew Productions, the View Askewniverse encompasses all of Smith's films from 1994 to 2006, with the exception of 2004's Jersey Girl. Aside from being set in New Jersey, the films feature a company of actors who appear in various different roles throughout, including Jason Mewes, Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Jason Lee, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
The films also have a number of running gags, recurring themes and characters that connect the films to one another. Perhaps not all of them are apparent, unless watched in sequence. So here's a lexicon of running jokes to look out for in Kevin Smith's films.
Jay and Silent Bob
First and foremost, the most obvious connecting tissue between these six films. Jay and Silent Bob are drug dealers who stand around in malls and outside convenience stores and fast food restaurants, plying their trade while the skinny one sings and/or dances and the tubby one stays quiet and smokes cigarettes.
Courtesy of author surrogate Holden McNeil in Chasing Amy, Smith raises the idea that they're meant to be like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the Vladamir and Estragon of these movies. Simultaneously, we're given the more realistic view, that they're more like “Bill and Ted meet Cheech and Chong.” One way or another, they find their way into all of these movies, often in pivotal roles.
In Chasing Amy, they're the inspiration for Holden and Banky's comic series, Bluntman and Chronic, and Silent Bob is at his most wordy as he delivers the film's title drop moment. But they also directly help to save the day in Mallrats, Dogma and Clerks II.
Watching these movies, a movie that actually stars Jay and Silent Bob seems like such a ludicrous prospect, that when they eventually made it, and called it Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, it proved as cartoonish as the continuity would ever get, outside of Clerks: The Animated Series.
It sees Jay and Silent Bob travelling to Hollywood to prevent a big-budget Hollywood version of Bluntman and Chronic. Although they take centre-stage, it's also a look-in on most of the established characters in the Askewniverse. Even so, it may have stretched the joke too far for some, and they're back to selling drugs outside Dante and Randall's workplace in Clerks II. They're flexible in terms of story, but they start and end the whole series of films in exactly the same place.
Her funeral is dubbed “the social event of the season” by Randall Graves, and Julie Dwyer's tragicomic death is a plot point in Smith's earliest films. Although Mallrats came later, Julie's death takes place the night before that film starts, which means Mallrats is the earliest film in the continuity, chronologically.
The film's hero, TS, apparently told Julie that the camera adds ten pounds, on the day before her appearance on a dating show that will be televised nationally. This caused Julie to have a fatal brain embolism during her 700th lap of the YMCA swimming pool. In Mallrats, this means that TS girlfriend Brandi has to fill in on the dating show, and she dumps TS in the process.
In Clerks, there's much discussion of her funeral, which Dante and Randall close the Quick-Stop to attend. They're quickly chased out of there once Randall knocks the open casket over, a scene which turned up in animated form as Clerks: The Lost Scene on the tenth anniversary DVD.
While Jay and Silent Bob are played by Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith throughout the series, Willam is less obvious as a recurring character because he's played by two different actors. In Clerks, he's the guy who's fascinated by the act of snowballing, and he's played by producer Scott Mosier in Clerks, and later in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.
But when he appears in Mallrats, searching for a sailboat in a Magic Eye picture, he's inexplicably recast as Ethan Suplee. The two look nothing alike, and yet we're meant to assume they're the same character. It's even weirder when you consider the Julie Dwyer thing, and realise that Willam looks like Ethan Suplee one day and Scott Mosier the next.
There's never been an official explanation as to why Mosier didn't reprise his role as the befuddled man-child in Mallrats, instead appearing elsewhere in the film in a smaller role. But Smith has jokingly posited something similar to a DC Comics concept, by proposing a “Willam of Two Worlds” scenario. Meh, works for me.
Smith has been known to cast his friends in his films – the talent pool available while making Clerks has been continued into most of Smith's subsequent films. Walt Flanagan plays no fewer than four roles in Clerks, but the gratitude for his work on the film seems quite peculiar.
Flanagan has been immortalised in Smith's dialogue as Walter, a shared cousin of Randall from Clerks and Brodie from Mallrats. Each of them tells a story about their late relative, with Randall's focusing specifically on how he broke his neck in an ill-advised but bold attempt at auto-fellatio.
And then Mallrats opens with a story about how Walter kept getting cats stuck in his rear end, in the vain hope that they'd be able to dislodge the gerbil he'd previously lost up there. Still, Walt's most memorable on-screen role is in the role of Walt Grover, a stooge to comics nerd Steve-Dave Pulasti, who has his own catchphrase, “Tell 'Em Steve-Dave.”
One of the more obscure references to Walt in the film comes when Jay and Silent Bob are on the run from security guard LaFours in Mallrats, and Jay says “Man, that bastard's faster than Walt Flanagan's dog.” This gag actually got its own comic spin-off, written by Smith, in which the dog gets stoned and chases the dynamic duo across New Jersey all night, leading directly into Mallrats.
But the reference itself was explained on a 2010 episode of Highlands: A Peephole History, a show on Smith's Smodcast podcast network where he and his friends discuss their childhood and history in New Jersey. After quitting his behind-the-scenes job on Mallrats, Walt went and bought a dog, which he could only describe as “fast”.
Smith explains that he added Jay's line after hearing about this because “When that line happens, in a theatre someday, only one man is gonna laugh.” That, more than anything else, gives you context for the level of common experience between Smith and his collaborators that is present in these films.
It's never overtly stated that Randall and Brodie are cousins in the movies themselves, but call it the expanded Askewniverse, if you will. It's easier to spot cousins of Dante Hicks, because they're all played by Brian O'Halloran. Arguably the hero of the whole continuity, Dante bookends the films by appearing in both Clerks films, and also in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. In each of the other films, O'Halloran appears as another Hicks cousin.
In Mallrats, he's Gil Hicks, the dating show suitor who winds up embarrassed and exposed as a homophobe (sort of) by Brodie. In Chasing Amy, he's a high-ranking executive, Jim Hicks, who wants to make Bluntman and Chronic into a cartoon series. And in Dogma, he's Grant Hicks, an unfortunate newsman who dies painfully when angels attack.
Hell, maybe it would have been better to explain that the Suplee Willam and the Mosier Willam are cousins. If you're going with the “Willam of Two Worlds” theory, you might as well say that the numerous O'Halloran roles are not Dante's cousins, but his clones, or something.
Just as Tarantino characters only ever sit around and talk about McDonalds in the minds of those who haven't really bothered to watch those films, it's a common pre-conception that Kevin Smith characters sit around and talk about Star Wars. That series does come up a lot, but there seems to be more of a debt to another of Smith's favourite films, Jaws.
For starters, the heroes of Mallrats are called TS Quint and Brodie Bruce, referencing Quint and Brody in Steven Spielberg's film. See also: Hooper X, the militant black artist in Chasing Amy. And don't forget, TS wants to propose to his girlfriend on the Jaws ride, “When the shark pops out of the water”, which is just about as romantic a proposal as a film geek could imagine.
Chasing Amy does it best, however, with a scene in a bar between Holden, Banky and Alyssa Jones. It's a parody of the Indianapolis scene in Jaws, where the three men sit around the table comparing injuries from their travels. Instead, Banky and Alyssa regale each other with tales of injuries they've sustained during oral sex with women.
Right down to Holden doing a Brody, by looking at a small wound and deciding not to mention it, it's inspired. An earlier draft of the script takes the parody even further, with an actual spoof of the Indianapolis monologue that talks about all the men who went down on an older lady who lived locally when Holden was a kid. The scene works better in the film itself, because it's subtle enough that the gag might take a while to dawn on the viewer and yet completely reminiscent of one of cinema's most famous scenes.
First appearing in Dogma, Mooby's is a fast-food restaurant chain that provokes the ire of fallen angels Bartleby and Loki. Loki, the former angel of death, delivers his wrath upon the board members of Mooby's, and accuses them of idolatry. The restaurant's mascot is literally a golden calf, so it's a little on-the-nose in that way.
The restaurant reappears in Jay And Silent Bob Strikes Back, but it's most prominent as the setting of Clerks II. When the Quick-Stop burns to the ground, Dante and Randall get new jobs at a New Jersey branch of Mooby's for about a year, until Dante seems set to start a new life in Florida.
In both Dogma and Clerks II, Mooby's symbolises the utter lack of identity in modern corporate culture. The board members mindlessly celebrate the influx of yet more income from the golden calf's spin-off media, the guile of their unmentionable extra-curricular activities looming between them. And Dante and Randall are reduced to burger-flippers, mocked by people they knew in high-school. Somehow, Mooby's represents a fate worse than being clerks.
So there's a rundown of what's going on at the heart of the periphery in Kevin Smith's movies.
In a week that finds his new film, Red State, considerably lacking in comic relief, perhaps it's worth revisiting those earlier films and seeing what other in-jokes you can unearth.