The day has come that many would have bet every farm in the Midwest we would never see: Jason Mewes has just turned 40 years old.
Mewes is the Sid Vicious or Keith Moon of indie comedy films. A performer who has savant-like abilities to create a specific type of character, but was also almost consumed by that character, even as his underlying sweetness and innocence remained visible. Few would have thought he would make it to this age, especially those who knew him 10 or 15 years ago. And fewer still would have predicted that, at 40, Mewes is sober, active, working, and growing in the film industry and is one of the funniest and most self-effacing personalities in the world of podcasting. It was a long journey for him to get to this place.
Mewes came from the sort of lower-middle-class poverty that is endemic to American life. His mother, to whom he was always close, was a drug addict who eventually died of AIDS. She was both a good and bad influence on him, as his old friend Kevin Smith reports. She would share drugs like oxycontin and not worry too much about the long-term effects. In the early days, however, Mewes was basically just a street kid. He came into Smith’s orbit at the Youth Centre in Red Bank, New Jersey, where they both grew up. Jason was simply one of the many “at-risk” kids who would frequent the centre, but he displayed a singular comic genius right from the start, acting in his uniquely childish, libidinous way with little regard for what his “audience” thought. Jason, as a person doing crazy things like performing fellatio on every joystick on every video game in an arcade, was completely without self-consciousness. It almost didn’t matter if he was being entertaining to the people in his vicinity (he was), because he was so intent on just pursuing his own idiosyncrasies.
Later, when Smith came to make his seminal 1994 film Clerks, he carefully wrote a part for Jason, basing it on the “best-of” parts of his singular persona. Smith recalls the odd experience of having to “teach Mewes how to be Mewes on screen,” since Jason’s complete lack of self-awareness was dealt a blow, reading his character quirks and linguistic oddities on the printed page. He literally did not recognize himself. This is a curious aspect of Jason Mewes, at least in the early days: he didn’t see himself as funny. He was just being himself. When Smith took what he was doing and wrote it down, Mewes was taken aback, suddenly so self conscious that many of his famous scenes in Clerks were shot with no one behind the camera, because he couldn’t bear the thought of people looking at him. In his glory years, in fact, Mewes was often as shy, awkward and evasive off-camera as he was bursting with energy on-camera.
Clerks marked the debut of the now-famous characters Jay and Silent Bob, who are so iconic that they stand above Smith’s own sometimes uneven film catalogue. Even in less essential Smith material such as Mallrats, Jay is always entertaining, bringing that shame-free, unapologetic, utterly convinced stoner energy that is unmistakably his. There are no other characters even remotely like Jay in popular culture, except possibly Ricky from Trailer Park Boys or Dean from Michael Dowse’s FUBAR. (Yes, I’m aware I just name-checked two Canadian pop culture references. I think Kevin Smith, a very open Canuckophile, would approve.) Jay and Silent Bob have become much more than two pot dealers who hang out in front of a convenience store. They’re an iconic pairing, whose poetic insanity and “hetero life-mate” status take them into mythic territory. In an unfilmed sequence meant to start their tour-de-force, 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith envisioned starting on two soldiers in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution, guarding a supply cache and complaining about the conditions and bemoaning the lack of female company. He would then have faded into the same two characters in the present day, standing on the same spot in front of the now-famous “Quick Stop” convenience store in New Jersey. Another important nod comes in Smith’s 1999 masterpiece Dogma, where an angel (played by Ben Affleck) calls Silent Bob “Schulerbop”, even though their characters have not been introduced, apparently implying that he and Jay are actually immortal supernatural characters in disguise. It works because these characters are both specific and broad, and we love them for the superficiality. We don’t really want to see Jay and Silent Bob at home, eating Kraft Dinner. It works much better to think of them as immortal spirits, because we can keep their characterizations somewhat superficial.
The problem for Jason Mewes, as Smith himself later astutely admitted, is that he wasn’t able to do anything else. He was essentially a street kid from New Jersey who Smith plucked up from his roofing job and taught how to play Jay, and then asked him to do it over and over again for a decade. Jason had no other skills, very little education and very little maturity or impulse control. Like many rock stars before him, he very quickly lost track of where Jason stopped and “Jay” began.
By his own admission, Mewes was drunk for all his scenes in Clerks, out of insecurity and anxiety. Things escalated, drug-wise, and by the time of 1997’s Chasing Amy he was an avid user of cocaine. Dogma showed Jay in his heroin injecting years, often “nodding” off between takes. A dark slide into heroin followed, and Smith forced him to kick before the shooting of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which he did in the time-tested tradition of getting blind drunk. It would be years before Jason was allowed back on a Smith set. His antics, including having heroin FedEx’ed to a hotel where they were doing press interviews for the film, had taxed the formidable patience of Smith’s longtime producer, Scott Mosier, for the last time.
But Smith remained personally loyal to Mewes, feeling the pull of that responsibility for taking this street urchin and making him a movie star. This relationship had its times of serious testing in the mid-2000s, as Smith recalls in his memoir “Me and My Shadow”. Like many addicts before and since, Mewes lied to Smith, stole from him, brought drug dealers and hard drugs into Smith’s suburban home with his wife and young daughter and left a trail of wrecked apartments and cars in his wake. The death of Mewes’ mother drove him into a cycle of prescription medication abuse, co-dependent relationships, and a string of girlfriends, many of whom were not good influences. There were rehab stays and relapses: his is the classic story.
By 2006, one of the rehabs actually worked, and Jay stayed clean and sober with the help of new friends, including Jack Osbourne. Smith felt comfortable enough to write a sequel, Clerks II, and include a newly sober Jay, a rather daring move considering how much of that character’s personality is interwoven with drugs. But the experiment worked: Jay was hilarious, and still his unapologetic self in Clerks II. Having discovered religion while serving time, so goes the character history, Jay still deals but does not use. Instead, he dances to “Goodbye Horses” (complete with tadger tuck), belts out heavy metals songs into a drive thru microphone (having abandoned the Quick Stop for a fast-food place) and is still a chaotic ball of hormones and energy. As a bonus, Mewes’s sobriety did wonders for his comic timing, and only made him a funnier and more precise comedian. It was a true triumph for him personally and professionally.
Mewes also almost stole 2007’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno from Seth Rogen, playing a budding porn star whose rallying cry, “Let us fuck!” is only made funnier and more powerful by Jason’s Pacino-like delivery. It was a supporting role, but pointed a possible way forward for Mewes as a character actor, playing parts other than “Jay”.
Ever since, Jason Mewes has kept very busy playing small parts in a string of films and TV shows, recording the podcast “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old” with Smith, which Kevin describes as his public AA meetings. Now happily married, sober and healthy, it was Mewes who took over as producer on the recent Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie. For a guy who was almost fired by many a producer, that must have felt like coming full circle. Happy Birthday and Snootch to the Nooch.