Getting kicked off an airplane for being too fat turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Kevin Smith.
At first, of course, he was humiliated. “It felt like they stripped me of all my accomplishments by reducing me to ‘fat guy in a little chair on a plane,’?” says the indie-film director and comedian, known for such mid-’90s slacker classics as Clerks and Chasing Amy. He figured he had two options: “Crumble, wither, die, and go away. Or fucking rise, man. Rise above it.”
And rise he has.
Ever since Smith was famously ejected from a Southwest Airlines flight in February 2010, he has taken back the power he lost that day and used it as fuel for an extraordinary career reinvention. “That moment was a kind of leap-off moment,” he says. “That was where things really started to drastically change.”
No longer willing to fly, Smith parked himself at the “SModcastle,” a 50-seat theater in Hollywood where he turned his already-popular podcasts (or, as he calls them, SModcasts) into a live experience and became one of the first people to make money off the burgeoning medium.
Long disillusioned by the movie business, he thumbed his nose at the Hollywood industrial complex by riding a bus cross-country and selling out venues like Radio City Music Hall in an oddball self-distribution plan for his horror film, Red State.
This week Smith’s self-deprecating humor and geek appeal return to TV with a comedy special called Kevin Smith Burn in Hell, airing on EPIX. And on Feb. 12, AMC will debut Comic Book Men, a reality TV series set in the Red Bank, N.J., comic-book store Smith has owned since 1997. The show finds Smith’s employees—two of whom were real-life models for characters in Clerks—assessing the value of collectibles that customers bring in, like vintage Bionic Man dolls. That’s intercut with podcasting sessions where Smith and his pals posit fanboy inquiries like “What superpower would you choose to have?” Think of it as Pawn Stars meets The Big Bang Theory with a splash of Jersey Shore (minus the abs).
And in perhaps Smith’s most unlikely move yet, his first self-help book will hit shelves in March. Its title, like much of Smith’s vocabulary, includes a word traditionally unfit for a family newsmagazine. And yet every bit of Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good stands apart from other celebrity books. It’s told with the same honesty that consistently and authentically connects to Smith’s devoted audience.
Savvier marketers than Smith would term him a “brand,” but that word isn’t part of the 41-year-old’s vernacular. “I don’t know, I’ve never really thought of myself as a brand,” says Smith. Still, he knows one thing: when he talks about what he likes, the audience responds. “The world is full of such hype and gloss and bullshit that when you’re passionate about something they can hear it in your voice, man.”
“I think he just creates what he likes to see, and there are a lot of guys like him,” explains comic Jon Lovitz. “He is his audience.” Lovitz ought to know. The two teamed up and turned his Universal City comedy club into the Jon Lovitz Podcasting Theater when Smith out-grew his SModcastle theater last year.
Sharing his passions for Superman, sex, and hockey with likeminded people is what got Smith past that dark day on the airport tarmac two years ago. He took to Twitter, where he had already amassed a serious following (today he’s at almost 2 million). Smith has been blogging since 1995, when the New Jersey native started his own message board. “By the time Twitter hit, I knew how to have 50 conversations with strangers online,” says Smith, citing Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule”—that 10 years or 10,000 hours of something will make you an expert at it—for that prowess.
More often it’s Smith’s shortcomings that make him relatable. By tapping into his failings, he exposes a vulnerability that fans find compelling. He has never fit societal norms, in his size, style (he always wears a hockey jersey) or sexual comfort zone (he’s the rare straight man who celebrates gay sex, for instance). All this makes Smith an acquired taste. But once acquired, it’s hard to let go.
That’s what AMC is hoping with Comic Book Men, an attempt to retain the fanboy audience that tunes in for the comics-spawned series The Walking Dead. The potential benefit for brick-and-mortar comic-book stores, struggling in the digital age, isn’t lost on Smith, who’s always keenly aware of changes in the entertainment business and what he can do to keep ahead of them.
To that end, he’s been branching out internationally. Smith recently finished sold-out runs in England and Australia, two destinations that can’t be reached by his tour bus. “I had to get over myself and just start getting back on planes,” he says.