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'On borrowed time': How a heart attack brought Kevin Smith back to 'Clerks' and Mooby's

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 2/5/2021 Ed Masley, Arizona Republic

When Kevin Smith came up with the idea for a fast-food chain called Mooby's, it was just supposed to be the setting for a scene in "Dogma," his fourth film. Mooby the Golden Calf is a fictional children's television character in the movie based on Mickey Mouse.

Kevin Smith wearing a hat © Provided by the artist Kevin Smith

He wasn't expecting to open an actual Mooby's — not even as the pop-up restaurant experience that brings the golden calf to the Van Buren in Phoenix for a 10-day run beginning Feb. 5.

"I never imagined we'd actually have a pop-up fast food restaurant where I would see old women walk in and order a (chicken sandwich with a sexual innuendo for a name) and giggle," he says, with a laugh.

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"That's the kind of (expletive) that does it for me. I don't need to win an Academy Award. I just need to have little moments like that."

He's hoping to make it to the Phoenix pop-up, having missed the one last month in Minneapolis.

TAKE A LOOK: Mooby's opening at the Van Buren in downtown Phoenix

It was right around when the holiday surge was happening," he says. "So I had to not go because my wife wouldn't let me go to an airport. But I can get in a car and drive to Phoenix in five or six hours."

Because they launched these Mooby's pop-ups during a pandemic, it's been reservation only. 

"You can't just walk up," Smith says. "You get a scheduled slot. You come in, you see the interior, which we deck out to look like the movies, you pick up your food, you take selfies and then you generally go about your way."

If the weather's nice in Phoenix, Smith is hoping they can make use of the patio at the Van Buren.

CHECK OUT: Here are 7 metro Phoenix restaurants with new patios for outdoor dining

"We were able to do that in Jersey in the early fall," he says. "But other places like Chicago, we haven't been able to really go outside. So I'm looking forward to Phoenix."

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How the Mooby's pop-ups came about

The director got into the pop-up world through his partner in the Mooby's venture, Derek Berry, whose previous pop-up experience includes Saved By the Max (based on "Saved by the Bell") and the Peach Pit (from "Beverly Hills 90210").

Last year, Berry planned to do a "Clueless" pop-up tied to the 25th anniversary of that film. When the pandemic hit, the film's producer, Paramount, pulled out, so Berry reached out to Smith about doing a Mooby's pop-up for a month in LA.

It performed so well, they did a second month in LA. Then, Gianni's Pizzeria in New Jersey (the state where Smith's film universe, the View Askewniverse, is set) reached out and asked if they could host a Mooby's. 

Kevin Smith holding a sign posing for the camera: Kevin Smith holding a Mooby's container. © Peter Ackerman Kevin Smith holding a Mooby's container.

"We were like, 'I guess. We hadn't thought about it,'" Smith recalls. 

That Jersey pop-up happened in September. Now, they've got six cities lined up in the next six months.

"The way it works is any restaurant can get in touch with us," Smith says. "And we take a percentage, but basically, they pay for everything and they keep everything except for whatever off the top. I don't know the exact percentage. But it's minimal. In terms of getting rich off food and drinks? I'm not retiring anytime soon."

Yes, there is Mooby's merchandise too

There's also money to be made on Mooby's merchandising. 

"We had a run of Mooby's banks that Diamond had made years ago that never went anywhere," Smith says. "With the Mooby's restaurant, they (expletive) fly off the shelves."

a cup of coffee on a table: Merchandise for Mooby's. © Peter Ackerman Merchandise for Mooby's.

Part of the appeal of the Mooby's experience, he says, is the pop-up nature of the restaurant.

"I don't know if I'd ever put down roots and be like, 'We're doing a (expletive) brick and mortar,'" he says, with a laugh.

An even larger part of the appeal is the nostalgia fix.

"There's some memory tied in with Mooby's," he says. "And then thank God, the food is tasty."

TAKE A BITE: Here are 10 restaurant chains we want in Phoenix

That's key in this business, he says. 

"If the food sucked, then we're just a gimmick."

Chris Rock suggested bringing Mooby's to real life

Smith remembers hanging out with fellow actors Jason Mewes, Chris Rock and Linda Fiorentino outside the original Mooby's (a repainted Burger King) on set in 1998 when Rock suggested the idea of a real-life version of the restaurant.

"He was like, 'Do you think this could ever be real?' And I was like, 'Why would you do this? You've got a Burger King. You've got a McDonald's. You've got Kentucky Fried Chicken.' I never once thought there would be a world where fans would go to Mooby's."

If he had foreseen it, he says, with a laugh, "Believe me, I would've put Mooby's in every (expletive) movie I ever made."

Chris Rock is walking down the street © Will Heath/NBC Chris Rock

In addition to being a "hoot," these Mooby's pop-ups have afforded Smith another way to keep his brand alive in the midst a pandemic as he approaches the third anniversary of the heart attack that nearly killed him.

"My job is the Kevin Smith business," he says. 

"And if you're not aware of me, I'm out of business. So this is another way to be relevant. If someone opens up the newspaper and goes 'Oh the dude who almost died and made 'Clerks,' he's got a restaurant coming this week. He's still around? Go figure,' it's just one more arrow in the quiver, so to speak."

And in the end, he says, doing a Mooby's pop-up is very on-brand for his career

"If Quentin Tarantino did a pop-up Jack Rabbit Slim's, he'd do it in Los Angeles and be like, 'That was fun.' And it would end. But you know me, man. I'm still (expletive) talking about 'Clerks.' I'm about to make 'Clerks III.' I never let a joke die."

Why Smith is making 'Clerks III'

"Clerks," of course, is the low-budget black-and-white comedy set in a convenience store with which the young director effectively launched his career in 1994 while also introducing Silent Bob, the character he's played in several films.

It also introduced the View Askewniverse, the fictional universe in which a number of his more career-defining films are set, with characters and concepts crossing over from one movie to another. 

Kevin Smith wearing a hat © Victoria Will/AP Photo Kevin Smith

Mooby's, for example, made appearances in "Clerks: The Animated Series," "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and "Clerks II" after being introduced in "Dogma."

"I knew I wanted to use Jay and Silent Bob in everything, because Jason Mewes is my friend, I thought he was really funny, and if I put him in movies, I could pay him and he could not borrow money from me," he explains, with a laugh. 

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Originally, Jay and Silent Bob were the only things connecting "Clerks" and the director's second movie, "Mallrats." Then he shot a new ending to "Mallrats" that tied directly into "Clerks." And just like that, a universe was born.

About the View Askewniverse

Smith says he borrowed the universe concept from superhero comic books, John Hughes setting several films in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, and John Landis giving two characters from "Trading Places" a cameo in "Coming to America."

"I started doing it just because it was fun," he says. "If I'm gonna make all these movies and I'm gonna set them in New Jersey, why do they have to be separate from each other? Wouldn't it be great if these people knew each other?"

At a certain point, he started making films outside the View Askewniverse because he'd gotten too much grief online and in the press for repeating himself.

"They're like 'He just does those Kevin Smith movies. Jay and Silent Bob always popping up. It's getting boring.' That's when I was like, 'I guess I need switch it up.' And so I put my toys away."

How a heart attack changed Smith's focus

It took a heart attack to bring him back around to those old characters.

"After the heart attack, I felt like such an old man," Smith recalls. "It has a way of (expletive) making you feel like, oh my God, your age. I was like 'What would make me feel better and young?' Playing with my toys. I pulled them all down out of the attic and started setting them up again."

That led to "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot," a 2019 film that gave way to a traveling roadshow he compares to falling backward into a pool of pure nostalgia.

"I'm so glad we did that Reboot Roadshow Tour right before the pandemic," he says. 

"It was a lovefest. It was like going to church every night, where I was both the priest and Jesus at the same time. And everybody was celebrating me and my dopey little world." 

He recently finished the second draft of a "Clerks III" screenplay, which he's thinking may be shot before the project he had planned to shoot this year, a "Mallrats" sequel titled "Twilight of the Mallrats."

Kevin Smith wearing a hat © Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images Kevin Smith

"Clerks III," he says, is very close to real life, with one of the two main characters, Randal, suffering a heart attack.

"I certainly know how to write about that," Smith says. "And he's so freaked out by his heart attack, he has a midlife crisis and decides, 'I've wasted my life. All I did was sit around and watch movies. Well, from now on, I'm making a (expletive) movie about my life right here at the convenience store."

So he and Dante, the other main character, essentially shoot their own version of "Clerks" within a sequel to that film.

"Nobody else is gonna do that movie," Smith says. "They'd be like, 'Why bother? You already did it once.' And I'm like 'Because it'd be (expletive) up, man, to frame the same sequence in black and white, with the same composition, everybody standing where they're supposed to, that we did 27 years ago, but everyone's older. That's nuts."

Smith laughs then says, "That's not anything that's gonna win you an Academy Award. But I was never gonna do that anyway. And so you look for things that just excite you. Things that go like, 'oh, that'll make my (expletive) expression change.'" 

In the meantime, he's living the dream.

"I never dreamed the whole movie career would happen," he says. 

"I was just like, 'I'm gonna make a movie,' and it all worked out. So now I'm playing on borrowed time since the heart attack, and (expletive) like this is just like, 'Wow, I did not see this coming. I'm gonna lean into this.' It's fun. People like it. The moment people don't like it anymore and they're like 'This is boring,' we'll just stop."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'On borrowed time': How a heart attack brought Kevin Smith back to 'Clerks' and Mooby's

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