TV

CLASS CLOWN

Filmmaker and obsessive Degrassi fan Kevin Smith brings jay and Silent Bob to the set of the runaway Canadian hit

SHANDA DEZIEL November 29 2004
TV

CLASS CLOWN

Filmmaker and obsessive Degrassi fan Kevin Smith brings jay and Silent Bob to the set of the runaway Canadian hit

SHANDA DEZIEL November 29 2004

CLASS CLOWN

TV

SHANDA DEZIEL

Filmmaker and obsessive Degrassi fan Kevin Smith brings jay and Silent Bob to the set of the runaway Canadian hit

KEVIN SMITH SWEARS he could have got Ben Affleck to play a high school principal on Degrassi: The Next Generation. “Ben definitely would have done it,” says the New Jersey filmmaker. But in the end, he decided to give the star a break. “Ben was like, ‘Dude, I know it means the world to you, but I could not be more high-profile at this point and they’re beating the shit out of me out there.’ And I get that, because I know he would show up and the Star and the Enquirer would be like, ‘Affleck reduced to a f—ing Canadian teen melodrama.’ ” Of course Smith, the beloved, foul-mouthed writer/director of cult hits Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy,

certainly doesn’t think he’s slumming it by hanging around the hallowed halls of Degrassi and guest starring on three episodes of the popular CTV show, set to air in the spring. (And neither does Alanis Morissette who, as a favour to Smith, took on that high school principal role.) After all, it’s wellknown film geek lore that, back when Smith was a Jersey convenience store clerk in the early ’90s, he became obsessed with CBC’s original series Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, which ran in the States on PBS. Friend Jason Mewes and Smith (known onscreen as Jay and Silent Bob) would watch Degrassi at the store, debating which Canadian chick was the hottest.

Last week, Smith, 34, made out with his Degrassi babe of choice, Caitlin Ryan (played by Stacie Mistysyn, one of four original cast members who have reprised their roles on The Next Generation). “I sent in a storyline where I come up to Canada to make a Jay and Silent Bob movie and I meet Caitlin, who’s now a journalist. I get involved in her life and become a third wheel in that CaitlinJoey Jeremiah relationship. Then I didn’t hear back from the producer for a month. And I just imagined that she read that email and thought, ‘This motherf-—’s crazy; the

guy’s writing himself into our mythology, and the show is all about him.’ ”

The producer, Linda Schuyler, actually loved the idea, and all the details were eventually worked out. On the other hand, Smith’s wife, former newspaper reporter Jennifer Schwalbach, 33, wasn’t as keenafter all, Smith would be playing a version of himself that wasn’t married and didn’t

have a five-year-old daughter. In the end, the director says she “let him do it,” knowing how important it was to him. “The show still captures my imagination,” he continues. “I’ve been making movies for 10 years, but walking onto this set, meeting a bunch of Canadian kid actors, I kind of get a little goofy about the whole thing. Plus, never in a million years would I get the opportunity to play something of a leading man. Normally I’m a f—ing clown, so the opportunity to play somebody who’s kind of charming and romantically involved is special.”

Of course, Degrassi: The Next Generation returns Smith’s love. The special episodes will only attract more buzz to this cross-border hit. It’s currently the highest-rated Canadian drama in the 18-to-49 age group. In the U.SDegrassi is the signature series for The N (a digital and satellite prime-time channel aimed at 12to 17-year-olds). The network plays the show about five times a day— and new episodes draw an average of337,000 viewers, almost unheard of for a channel so high on the dial. Last October, the fourthseason premiere won its time slot in the teen demographic, beating out all the major network shows—and far exceeding the expectations of The N, which bought the series solely on the reputation of the original show. “Our tag line for Degrassi is, ‘It goes there,’ ” says Tom Ascheim, the channel’s executive vice president. “We got that from kids. It pulls no punches, wrestles issues to the ground and confronts them in an authentic voice.”

But sometimes it goes there and then some. Canadians don’t bat an eye at the way Degrassi treats serious, controversial subjects— including school violence, gay marriage and oral sex—with a unique combination of honesty and nonchalance. But in today’s political climate, The N—a liberal-leaning New York-based network—feels it has to be a bit more cautious. Last year, The N edited three episodes that featured a date rape storyline, and this season it shelved two shows that deal with an abortion, saying they were too heavy for summer viewing. “It’s a hot button topic,” says Schuyler, “they don’t come much hotter than that. Even with the original show we did an abortion story with the twins. They were Catholic, and when the pregnant twin decided to have the abortion, her sister said, ‘I don’t believe in what you’re doing, but you’re my sister, I can’t let you go alone.’ And they had to walk through a line of protesters to get inside the clinic. When it aired

‘NORMALLY i m a clown, so the opportunity to play somebody who’s charming and romantically involved is special’

on PBS, they actually cut the last few seconds, so you don’t ever see them walk through the protesters and into the clinic. That was in 1989, and it was the only show out of 70 that PBS cut.”

This time around, one of the lead characters, Manny Santos, terminates a pregnancy, and there’s scant talk of religion or morality, and no regret. “On American TV, we usually seem to be very liberal,” says Smith. “But as you can see from the last election, most of the country is insanely f—king conservative. So the idea of throwing a teenage girl on the screen who has an abortion and doesn’t get ostracized or cry or ask Jesus for help frightens an American broadcaster, knowing what their constituency is. You have a lot of freedom up here—it’s so enviable.”

But the success of Degrassi is about much more than tackling taboos and flouting conventions—it works because it’s entertaining, and the characters strike a chord. “I don’t know about you,” says Smith, “but when I went to school there wasn’t a Luke Perry look-alike. I didn’t have a bunch of gorgeous people in their 40s trying to pass for 17. The kids on this show look and act like real kids, so to me it’s worlds better than anything else out there.”

That said, the new Degrassi class is pretty cute. Last summer The N took the actors on a mall tour, introducing them to the fact

that, in one country at least, they had reached teen heartthrob status. “Here in Canada, we don’t really get recognized a lot,” says Cassie Steele, 14, who plays Manny. “Fans are laid-back, they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re on Degrassi, ha ha, loser.’ But in the States, you walk down the street and if people recognize you they’re like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, does anyone have a pen?’ ”

The highest praise, though, came this month when Steele and the gang found out the most vocal fan of the original series has come to like the new one better. Back in 2001, Smith got a copy of the Degrassi:

The Next Generation pilot and wasn’t impressed. He was excited to see that the old cast came back for a reunion but wasn’t interested in the new kids. It was three years before he checked in on the series again. “The kids had become better actors and much more intriguing and interesting,” says Smith. “I fell hard for it because it kept the old characters that I loved and then I grew to love the younger ones. The Manny-Craig-Ashley love triangle was spellbinding.”

Now Smith has his very own Degrassi love triangle. He jokes about slipping a member of the crew $20 so he’ll get to do multiple takes of the make-out scene. And even though Caitlin picks Joey, Smith’s finally lived out his fantasy of kissing a girl who says “aboot.” fill