Dallas’ Zeus Comics aims for viral video status with new Web series
Richard Neal is happy people are talking about "The Variants." But don’t tell him it reminds you of "Clerks."
"Everyone makes that comparison, but I’ve never seen ‘Clerks’ or any Kevin Smith movies," he confesses, adding that admission often triggers gasps of disbelief. "And now I don’t want to watch it and be influenced by it."
Not having seen a movie isn’t such a big deal, unless you happen to be a comic book-obsessed store clerk-cum-budding filmmaker like Smith once was … and which Neal is now becoming. The owner of Zeus Comics on Lemmon Avenue, Neal has tapped into his inner nerd to create an online series inspired by his experiences as a shopkeeper and out-and-proud geek.
Neal and his friends, all of whom are working for free, have already shot and edited two episodes, and scripted another eight. Episodes are filmed before the store opens, "so if you drive by on a Sunday morning and see Barry in Spandex with people honking at him, you’ll know we’re filming an episode." (New episodes will debut the first Wednesday of each month.)
Neal was inspired by "The Guild," a failed TV pilot about online gamers that became a successful Web series. On "The Variants," Neal plays Richard, a gay store owner dealing with his sourpuss clerk Barry (employee Barry Fuhrman), forlorn hetero Joe (Joe Cucinotti) and aspiring actress Keli (Keli Wolf). So just how did Neal come up with the characters’ names?
"Ha!" he laughs. "When we first came up with the idea for the show, we built from the idea that it would be a reality series," but they decided a scripted version based on exaggerated versions of themselves worked better.
"Barry and I both play unapologetically gay characters, but extremes of ourselves," Neal explains. "Joe is the heterosexual who can be socially awkward, the nerd who pines for the girl he can’t have — that’s the Spider-Man story." Keli, meanwhile, assumes Joe is gay like everyone else, and ignores his lame flirtations.
"We’re working for comedy but not trying to be clichÃ©," he says. "We’re not writing the gay characters any different than we would other characters. But we cover the wacky customer service moments. Barry plays the store clerk you like to watch but don’t want to encounter in real life."
Neal hopes to contrast both straight and gay nerd humor with lots of pop culture references in creating a series that appeals to a wide range of fans, not only from Dallas but throughout the online and comic communities.
"My goal is to make someone spit milk out their nose," Neal says.
Sounds like he’s seen "Clerks" to us.
"The Variants" debuts Aug. 5 on TheVariants.com and YouTube.com, with new Webisodes the first Wednesday of every month.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 31, 2009.