It’s not unusual for Carolines comedy club to have a packed house, though not usually at noon on a Tuesday. But, Kevin Smith has a new comic and collectible-centric reality series on the way from AMC this weekend — launching at 10:00PM EST after the mid season premiere of “The Walking Dead” — and a question and answer session had been called to order.
After lunch and some mingling followed by a few clips from “Comic Book Men,” which is kind of “Pawn Stars” for geeks, Smith took the stage, accompanied executive producer Charlie Corwin (“Swamp People,” LA Ink”) and the show’s stars. The series is filmed in Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash comic shop which Walt Flanagan — a longtime friend of Smith’s — has run since it first opened. In the show, Flanagan is joined by store worker and font of comic knowledge Mike Zapcic as well as Bryan Johnson and Ming Chen, who don’t normally work at the store but have been brought in for comedic relief. Fans of the Smith-run Smodcast Podcast Network and Smodcast Internet Radio know Flanagan and Johnson from “Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave” and Chen and Zapcic from “The SmodCast SMorning Show” and “I Sell Comics.”
Smith kicked the event off by explaining that the series came about thanks to “Red State” producer Elyse Seiden who knew Corwin and brought up the idea of a television show to Smith. At first, the indie director didn’t have any ideas, but that didn’t last long. “Kevin without an idea doesn’t happen very often,” Corwin said. He and Smith started talking about doing something on AMC and Smith tossed out the idea of setting up a reality show inside a comic book shop, but without falling into the stereotypes associated with being a comic book fan, saying those stereotypes are tired and don’t describe the guys on the show who have their lives well put together. “If you’re doing something and they’re paying you for it, it never feels like fucking work. If we can all get our lives to a place where we’re doing something we absolutely love and get paid for it, boom — we’ve cracked the code.” Smith went on to explain that Flanagan was the root of all this because it was always his dream to run, not own, a comic book store.
Smith’s excitement at seeing his friends on television was palpable as he brought them on stage. The first question from the audience got right to the heart of “Comic Book Men,” asking how real the series is, whether the people coming in are plants and how much, if anything, is scripted. “Here’s the honest thing: If you’re rolling cameras in the store for two months hoping that people come through the door to kind of do transactions like, ‘I want to sell this,’ you’ll burn a lot of film with nothing going on,” Smith said. “So what you do is, you collect people in advance, put out a notice going, ‘You got anything to sell? Want to come to the store to sell it?’ That way, you can put everybody on one week and shoot all the transactions. You run it kind of the same way you would run a production, but the only thing you kind of work on in advance is, “You be here at this point and time — whatever you say or do on camera is up to you.”
“I would just add, most importantly, that these guys are doing what they do,” Corwin said of the show’s stars. “They’re just being themselves. They’re doing what they do, whether they have cameras on them or not.” Smith added that they’re not paying people or hiring actors, noting that interesting characters will show up for free.
Another person asked about the balance between speaking to the geek audience and to non-geeks who might need a few more things explained to them. Smith credited “The Simpsons” character Comic Book Guy for getting some portion of comic book culture into the consciousness. “To throw out some TV buzz words,” Corwin added, “the authenticity of [the show] is what’s accessible about it. We wanted to show the real thing because we feel like that’s the only way to portray it.” Smith added that like “Clerks,” “Comic Book Men” is a snapshot of real life he hadn’t seen portrayed in Hollywood. Smith explained that the search for a comic book store to use ended pretty quickly after Corwin heard the “Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave” podcast and realized that the eventual stars’ real dynamics would play well on TV.
The subject of the show’s potentially off-putting title for female viewers was brought up, and Smith said that it was simply a reflection of the reality of this particular store. At one point, there was a casting call to find a woman to add to the cast, but the end result felt forced. AMC said it didn’t fit “the reality of the show” and scrapped the idea. Smith did note that there are women in the show, just not any as a main character, expressing interest in doing another show called “Comic Book Women” if this first season does well and noting that he already owns the title. “Part of the fun of the show is watching the camaraderie of people who have known each other for 20 years,” Smith said. “It’s just a snapshot of this fucking store. Unfortunately, there is a sausage party [there].”
Corwin took the floor to explain that AMC was looking for a show that “would entertain and appeal to the amazing audience watching ‘The Walking Dead.'” He complimented the cable network for being open enough to embrace the same kind of storytelling that was prominent when Smith burst on the scene in the mid-90s. Smith jumped in, comparing the AMC of today with the Miramax of the 90s as the kind of place that people really wanted to work, complimenting the netowrk for making the show even better looking than he expected.
In an attempt to work around the usual format of having people talk to the camera, Smith said that AMC suggested the idea of having them do a podcast to open the show and get the conversation rolling. “I like that so much, because I’m a huge fucking podcasting nerd and believer, as you can see,” he said motioning to his S.I.R. (Smodcast Internet Radio) hockey jersey. Jokingly comparing watching people podcast on TV to watching people read, Smith said he finds watching conversations take hold of a person visually interesting. “I’m surprised the framing devices work as well as they do,” he said. “It looks way better than what I would have settled for.” There will be an exclusive “Comic Book Men” podcast available from AMC for every episode of the series that airs.
The first episode of “Comic Book Men” doesn’t simply feature the goings-on at the shop or never-ending clips of the stars talking about comics — there’s also a scene at a flea market where the guys are competing against one another. When asked if the series would have more of that out-of-the-store element in future episodes, or even get into the gaming world, Smith responded positively, saying there are plenty of dimensions of geek or nerd culture ready to be explored. “For this first season, we’re pretty much in the store. Every once in a while we go on the road,” Smith said. “We hope to get to a second season because, like, let’s send the boys to Comic-Con in San Diego, let’s send them to a comic con in Brazil and see what happens. Maybe they get kidnapped!” On that note Smith admitted to doing an upcoming zombie episode not because AMC asked them too — in fact, they asked them not to — but because the undead happen to be popular now. If the series is renewed, he hopes to add Star Wars, Harry Potter and other themed episodes. “If you grew up when we did, in the 70s or 80s, you’re definitely going to see stuff on the show that you had as a kid,” Smith said, emphasizing that the series will be about more than just comic books.
The next question was pretty straightforward and got the whole panel involved in the answer: When did you get involved with comics and who is your favorite character or comic? Flanagan answered first, stating he began with Marvel monster comics around the age of four and was instantly hooked. DC Comics’ assassin Deadshot is his favorite character. Not much of a comic reader, Johnson simply stole Flanagan’s answers. Corwin passed to Smith, whose first comic was either “Hot Stuff” or “Sad Sack.” A few years later, he became a Marvel Zombie, but stopped reading in high school. A few years after that, he met Flanagan who got him back into comics with “The Dark Knight Returns,” and he’s been both a DC and Batman fan ever since. Zapcic remembered his first comic as “Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, a comics he had before he could read and went on to steal his older brothers’ comics. His favorite character is Nightwing. Finally, Chen got into comics around the age of six when a friend gave him an issue of “Avengers,” Currently, Daredevil is his favorite character.
As the rest of the panel opened to the audience, Flanagan admitted to being worried about the cameras around the store, that it would be a hassle. “It took a couple days to get over that there were cameras on you and revert back to what you would normally say in situations,” he said. “After a while, I would really forget there were cameras there and just tried to have fun with it.”
“I do the ‘Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave’ podcast with Walt and Quinn, and Ming comes on a lot too, so we have conversations like that weekly on mic and all the time off mic, so the cameras didn’t phase me that much,” Johnson added. He went on to say he initially thought Flanagan’s reservations about the show would mean it wouldn’t happen in the store. Flanagan responded that he didn’t have a choice, but Smith interjected saying he, in fact, did have a choice. Smith convinced Flanagan to do it by explaining that it would be good for The Stash. Johnson also took some convincing, but Zapcic and Chen were onboard from the start.
“The only problem I had with it, like Bryan and Walter, was that I didn’t want to look like a complete chump,” Zapcic added. “That buried itself in my brain for a week and a half and I was very self-conscious of the cameras, but you can get used to anything.” Smith said that concern over looking foolish or stupid was a resounding worry from the group, but that they actually look like they’re having fun on screen.
Chen reiterated how the podcasts actually helped prepare them for being filmed. Smith said the quickness displayed on the podcasts — and in real life — are what make the show so enjoyable. Even the crew mentioned how quick his friends were when talking to each other and customers. “I never thought podcasts would prepare you for a TV show,” Smith said.
The topic shifted to some of the more interesting characters who made their way into the store to try and sell things. “Some people who, I guess, came in with stuff that wasn’t super-interesting was sort of reflected in their personality,” Johnson said, adding that some of those people would shut down and only give one word answers. Zapcic brought up someone they dubbed “Sweaty Guy,” but no customers out and out lost their minds.
When asked if the stars of the series were ready for potential geek backlash, Smith and the guys agreed that doing the podcast every week and simply working in the store has fully prepared them for viewer feedback. Chen added that, factually speaking, they’re pretty knowledgeable, between Flanagan and Zapcic.
Flanagan immediately responded with “Superman” #75 when an audience member asked if there was a particular book that people keep bringing in that’s actually worthless. Zapcic added “anything with’ 2099′” to that list as well.
The final questioner started off saying that she thought the pilot was actually funnier than most sitcoms on TV, then asking if they will film at Comic-Con International in San Diego and who was the weirdest customer they’ve dealt with. Smith answered the first by saying that it will most likely happen if they get picked up for a second season. “If there’s a show called ‘Comic Book Men,’ it can’t not make an appearance at the San Diego Comic-Con,” he exclaimed. Chen then told of a man who came to one of Smith’s signings at the store, didn’t look so good and wound up vomiting while Zapcic mentioned a guy who comes into the store for “Simpsons” comics who will watch episodes played in the store, “and will yell at the TV and call Homer a moron.”
AMC’s “Comic Book Men” premieres Sunday, February 12 at 10:00PM right after the return of “The Walking Dead.”