Not-So-Central Casting: Kevin Smith and the Birth of the Reality Podcast

Just two years ago, Kevin Smith was at a crossroads. Cop Out, the first movie he directed from a script he didn’t write, starring Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis, tanked at the box office. It was the second straight box office bust for him after the weak performance of Zach and Miri Make a Porno. But Cop Out was different: it was panned by critics and not received warmly by his old fans. Burned by the studio experience, he decided that his next project would be a horror movie, a big departure from a career made of talky comedies. But Hollywood didn’t welcome this kind of reinvention, and finding financial backing proved to be harder than expected. Then, one day he boarded a Southwestern Airlines flight and was asked to step out for security reasons, allegedly for being too large to fit in a regular plane seat. In the following days he became the talk of the gossip world, with unflattering headlines such as “too fat to fly”. It was a dark time, but Kevin Smith came back up the way one of his movie characters might have done: by smoking mountains of weed. Cannabis got Smith out of his funk, rejuvenating his career and ultimately leading the author in a new direction, and maybe, to the creation of a new industry.

Smith is not just a filmmaker: he’s a talker. At the beginning of his career, he became famous for his Q&A sessions, at first performed after screenings of his movies, then staged as stand-alone events. His fans, already in close contact with him through his website, became acquainted with some of the most intimate details of Smith’s life, from the moment he had sex with his wife for the first time (a bloody affair), to his interactions with top Hollywood producers, as well as celebrities like Prince and Tim Burton. Never one to hold back, he often revealed unflattering details about the subjects of his talks. Very few people in Hollywood are as open as Smith is. In 2007 he started publishing a free podcast called Smodcast, with his friend and collaborator Scott Mosier. The show, a series of talks about day-to-day life between Smith and Mosier, became one of the most popular podcasts on the iTunes store. Episode after episode, the one thing that was clear was how much Smith was enjoying the process of talking in front of people. But at the time, podcasting was a new thing, a side project for famous people and a hobby for amateur radio hosts.

Smith has built a loyal and large fan base, and has stuck to his guns for most of his movies, championing a comedic style that balances foul humor and sentimentalism. His best work, movies like Dogma and Chasing Amy, feel personal and earnest. His latest movies managed to strike similar chords, but the felling, for many, was that Smith has been working on the same formula for too long. Smith doesn’t seem to mind, and his fans know it. Each time a new movie came out, Smith’s reactions to his critics became a little like a show inside the show. The director is witty and very opinionated, while being very unforgiving with other people’s criticism. He says he doesn’t read reviews because they aren’t important, then glows when he hears about a good one. He has no problems talking trash about other artists in public, revealing personal details of his working relationships with names such as Bruce Willis and Timothy Oliphant. Still, he’s able to directly and very harshly reply to any slant from random Twitter followers. Everyone is full of contradictions, but most of us have the time to keep things for themselves and then select their output. Smith thinks aloud, publicly and often.

Soon after entering his new weed-fueled life, Smith found himself reenergized. He points to weed as the reason of his newfound ability to stop worrying too much about other people’s opinion of himself, opening him to just try new stuff. He established funding for Red State, his horror movie, and decided that he wanted to bring podcasting to another level. He started a handful of new shows, like Hollywood Babble On, with radio host and impersonator Ralph Garman, an overview of the surreal world of Hollywood gossip. And, just as he did with his movies, he involved his friends in his new adventure. Jay and Silent Bob Grow Old is a dialogue with his friend Jason Mewes about life and struggles with drugs; Tell ’em Steve-Dave is hosted by a group of his old friends, one of whom also happens to manage his comic book store. The shows were often performed live, at first in a small theatre in LA, then at the John Lovitz comedy club. Soon after, the Smodcast Network became big. The Lovitz comedy club became the Lovitz Comedy Club Podcast Theatre. Then Smith started his own internet radio, SIR (Smodcast Internet Radio). Now anyone can listen to Smith’s voice for an average of ten hours each week, and his narrative is becoming fresher and more powerful. Turns out, his best characters are not inspired by his real-life friends, they are his real-life friends. And he is the main character.

Kevin Smith in real-life has all the eloquence of a Kevin Smith character, but he’s more interesting, three-dimensional, well-rounded and complex. The story of his life seems to be his most accomplished narrative achievement, still ongoing, and thrilling. And we can explore it in real life, seemingly without any boundaries; Smith is uncannily candid. He makes others feel at ease with spilling their guts. Jason Mewes, one of his closest friends and earlier collaborators, has had a harrowing life, dominated by drugs and abuse. He’s getting over it in public, talking with Smith about some of the most terrifying events one can hear, from parental abuse to juvenile delinquence. But thanks to Smith’s approach, it’s never terrible, it’s inspiring. Especially because Mewes is becoming more and more confident, episode after episode. Listening to Jay and Silent Bob Get Old is to witness a man grow and finding his own voice.

In a way, Smith is making a transition from movies to an audio reality show. A good reality made by smart people who use themselves as subjects, so that it never feels exploitative. It’s about learning about day-to-day life. It’s about being open and shameless. In an era where everyone is broadcasting their life, making every moment into a narrative piece, Kevin Smith is ahead of the curve: his life story is one of the first to really transcend the tropes of standard reality shows while keeping all that makes such a format compelling and seducing.

Meanwhile, he has released Red State by touring though the United States with the print of the film, following each screening with a Q&A. The unconventional distribution method, married with foreign and VOD sales, has worked well, making the film profitable in a very short time. It’s also one of his best works. An energetic, exciting movie that shows a side of Smith that the audience never experienced before. It’s earnest and raw. Not perfect, but rather more like the work of a new director. It could have been the beginning of a new chapter of his career as a filmmaker, but he decided that it would be the beginning of the end. His next movie, Hit Somebody, will be his last, according to Smith himself. He will dedicate himself to other ventures. He might be the first entertainer to turn podcasting into a workable business by mixing it with live shows. Other performers, like Marc Maron, are trying a similar model, but not at the same scale as Smith’s venture.

His retirement from moviemaking may be real, although he’s already said that Hit Somebody will actually be two films, so it’s not going to be too soon. But it’s hard not to think that the announcement might just be a strategy to make his stories more interesting, to keep his listener on their toes to see what’s next. And then, when it’s going to be time, stage a great comeback. Fans will look forward to this not just to see new Kevin Smith movies, but to have more Kevin Smith’s stories to listen to.