I know it’s only rock ‘n’ roll but I like it, like it, yes, I do/Oh, well, I like it, I like it, I like it.
— “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)”, The Rolling Stones, 1974
In 2012, actor, director, television producer, stand-up comic, and comic book writer, director, and comic store owner Kevin Smith debuted a small but quite charming talk show Comic Book Men on AMC. I can listen to anyone talk about anything if they meet two conditions: 1) they know a lot more about the subject matter than I do, and 2) the subject they talk about excites them. Kevin Smith nails both in Comic Book Men. The owner of comic book shop The Stash, and author of several comics, Smith knows a lot and loves the medium.
Still, Kevin Smith talking comics would make for fairly boring television. What makes the show great is it’s a geeky version of the reality show-collecting genre. In 1997, PBS adopted British reality show Antiques Roadshow for an American audience. The entire show consists of people who bring in odd objects to be appraised by experts. Since, dozens of shows have mined the same human curiosity about collecting stuff: American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and the Storage Wars franchise exploit this obsession.
Additionally, Kevin Smith and his employees — Ming Chen, Walter Flanagan, Bryan Johnson, and Mike Zapcic — all understand the silliness of grown men being enamored by fantasy worlds. It can be uneven. There are times where some of the crew’s hijinks are a bit over the top. Also, they geek out over a lot of stuff, thus there’s going to be times when they geek out over stuff that particular members of the audience will respond to with a resounding “meh”. (For me, it was an episode where one of the guys got to meet Gene Simmons of KISS.) Ultimately, it’s an interesting show that provokes a little curiosity in its audience.
When Kevin Smith announced he was doing another show on AMC Geeking Out, my interest was piqued. While Comic Book Men adapted the collecting show for comic book culture, Geeking Out tries to adopt ET: Entertainment Tonight for geek culture, in which the scholastic element — actually learning about source materials and cultural history — gets replaced with celebrity gazing and fast-paced camera cuts. This is unfortunate, because the most interesting aspects of the show have been when there’s some depth to the content.
To his credit, Kevin Smith does undermine the most distasteful element of the genre: celebrity worship. All of the people who are interviewed act like normal folk. The interviews take place outside, on a New York City roof or in a hotel room. A running theme of the show, as suggested by the title, is people tend to lose a little intelligence and a great deal of civility when engaging people they idolize. Sometimes this can be very effective. In one interview, Smith has Matt Damon, there promoting Jason Bourne, read lines for several characters from the DC Universe. This made for a slightly more engaging celebrity interview. A normal interview likely would not get Matt Damon to say, “And they’ve been covering me, just like they covered up my escape. Sure they’d love to frost me. When it all comes down, I want a piece of him. A small piece will do, for old time sake, ya know. It still hurts when it’s cold”, which makes for some mighty entertaining television.
Smith’s experience with and knowledge of comics and comic history also allows for slightly more interesting interviews. Talking with Charlie Cox, who plays Matt Murdock/Daredevil on the eponymous Netflix series, got far deeper into the comic book character than you would find in the usual interview.
In talking about the interview with his co-host Greg Grunberg, best known for his roles in Heroes, Heroes Reborn, and Lost, Kevin Smith made slightly inappropriate comments. They referenced physiological responses to interviewing Mr. Cox. It wasn’t the first time that Smith used homoerotic innuendo in describing a male celebrity. While it seems nothing more than a kind of “not that there’s anything wrong with that” Sienfeldian bit, it’s slightly uncomfortable. Smith would not, and rightfully so, talk about how aroused he got talking to a good-looking woman, or comment on how well-developed her body was. It seems strange that he doesn’t apply the same social courtesy to talking about men. While it never gets to the point of being outright offensive, it’s troubling at times.
One of the main differences between the two shows is while Comic Book Men had four people sharing time with Smith, Geeking Out has only one co-host Grunberg. He tends to be a little stiff in front of the camera, and at times is too deferential to Smith. Hopefully over time, he’ll loosen up and be able to be more of a co-host than sidekick. To use a reference Smith would appreciate: Grunberg needs to be more Green Lantern to Smith’s Green Arrow, and less Robin to his Batman.
Inevitably, Geeking Out is going to draw comparisons to Comic Book Men. They both fill a particular television niche, and both share two qualities: they’re most entertaining when they’re educational, and the audience’s entertainment directly correlates with how interested they are in the topic. A devotee of the DC universe, for example, likely won’t care about the next season of Daredevil. At its worse, it’s not very engaging banality. At its best, it’s banality that can make you smile and nod.