By DAN NATALE
AMCs Comic Book Men, a reality TV show set at Red Bank’s Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash that airs its season finale tonight, features a cast renowned for snide and jaded banter on the world of comic books, movies, and television.
Throughout their playful, occasionally ball-busting discussions conducted online on ‘smodcasts‘ that anchor the show, store employee Ming Chen tends to be the brunt of the jokes due to his laid-back, friendly and unassuming disposition.
Chen, 38, started on his path to comic book heaven in 1996, while attending the University of Michigan. There, he studied everything from economics to organic chemistry, until he found himself skipping class to follow his true passion: web design. Chen says he fell backwards into his life as a professional nerd after he created a fan website for Kevin Smiths movie ‘Clerks,’ which prompted Smith to offer him an internship. Since then, Chen has formed lifelong friendships with Smith and the cast, which includes Bryan Johnson, Michael Zapcic, Walt Flanagan, and Steve-Dave.” This chemistry, Chen says, is what creates the show’s natural feel.
redbankgreen sat down with Chen, who also hosts the show Puck Nuts and is often featured on the podcast Tell em Steve-Dave,” for an installment of our infrequent Human Bites feature, which focuses on people and their passions.
How and when did you get into comic books and movies? Was it when you were a little kid?
Yeah, I think comics you always get into when youre a little kid, you know, once you turn two or three. I think some of my earliest memories were waking up to watch Super Friends when they used to do Saturday morning cartoons. That was some of my first exposure. You see some of the cool superheroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, and the Wonder Twins. Well, maybe not the Wonder Twins.
When youre a little kid its your gateway into reading. I think Mike, who I work with, mentioned thats how he learned how to read, and I dont think it hurt me. I got my first real book in first grade. A friend of mine gave me a copy of the Avengers 214, and I still think I have it in a box somewhere. Ive kept it all these years.
What is it like being interested in things like comic books and collectibles, something that a lot of people give up when theyre younger?
I think its a good test. I mean, some people will scoff at it. Theyre like, What, you like comic books? Comics are for kids. Same with toys. Theyll say toys are for kids. Not anymore. Thats kind of a good test. If they kind of scoff at it then its like, Ok this guy isnt very open minded or woman. If you watch movies, or read, or youre just interested in great stories, then most of the great stories are in comic books. Take Walking Dead for example. People love the show. I would say 80 percent of the people that watch it dont know that it started with the comic. Its cool. Comics are cool!
Was it Kevin Smiths idea to get into podcasting and stuff like that?
Yeah, he and his producer Scott Mosier started that in 2007, February. They made ‘Clerks’ together. They did all the movies together. They used to live here in Jersey. They used to hang out together a lot. They moved to L.A. and they got busy, so they didnt see each other that much, and they figured that podcasting was a way to get together for at least one hour a week and just talk about whatever.
Yeah, it seems like theres a big problem with content control because theres so many people that can film and record stuff.
Yeah but in the end, the good ones will stand out and rocket to the top of the charts on iTunes. You can pick em out pretty easily. And for the people that are good at it, its great for them, because they can do it when they want it, they can do it how they want it, and theres no one above them that tells them, ‘hey you cant say this, or you cant talk about this.’ You can skip a week; big deal.
What are some tips to being a good podcaster?
Be yourself. One of the big things is just to keep talking. No dead air. What I do is to make a list of what Im gonna talk about. It works as a safety net.
It definitely seems like a really cool job.
Its fun, and its not something that I ever pictured myself doing. Im not very talkative, so I never saw myself doing it. But its weird: when you work with Kevin, you do things that you never thought youd do, and if you do it enough times, you start to get kinda decent at it sometimes even good.
Would you say the other guys pick on you a bit?
Yeah they do, but Ive known Bryan and Walt for about 17 years. Ive known Mike for over 10 years. Thats what happens when youre friends with someone for over 10 years. You dont hold back anymore. Sometimes one of the guys in your group of friends makes it easy. It happens to be me, unfortunately, for the most part, but sometimes I give it back to them. Not as often. Im more laid back then they are. If you see a guy like Bryan Johnson or Walt, theyre quick, man. If you leave an opening theyre gonna take it. Theyre gonna take that shot ant theyre gonna hit a bulls-eye.
Would you say you got tougher skin from working on the show?
Yeah, most definitely. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Its still one of those things where my friends can make fun of me. But if anybody else, if you dont know me well enough, dont even try.
Whats your favorite part of doing the show?
Im not gonna lie: its great seeing yourself on TV. Its fun. I think everybody in this world wants to be on TV, even if its just for 10 seconds. And to get a whole show out of it, thats amazing. For the most part, Im usually in here getting made fun of and just talking Star Wars or comic books with these guys anyway, so to have it in front of cameras, and on AMC with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and Mad Men, I mean how amazing is that? Even if I was on the Fuse channel or TLC or whatever, that would be cool, but to be on AMC, which is like the big leagues, is amazing.
Whats your favorite kind of nerd?
My favorite kind? Back in the day, I used to be kind of a film nerd. I would go see a movie on opening day. Sometimes I would go see it twice if it was good enough. I was trying to be like Quentin Tarantino. I would read all his interviews, and I saw an interview where he would go see a movie twice; once to drink it in, and another time to analyze it. A lot of people can recite lines and little details, almost like a walking IMDB. I would say that those would be my favorite kind.
Comic book nerds are great too. I work with them, and Im friends with two of them who can look at a panel with no words and no frame of reference, and tell you who drew it, what issue it came from, what number, what was going on in history at the time, when they bought it, what they were doing when they bought it, how old they were. Comic book nerds are fun too. Its like “Rain Man.”
This might have been on the show before, but if you were a superhero, who would you be?
I have a couple. There was a comic book that D.C. put out called Star Men. They kind of re-updated it. They had a character called Jack Night. Hes the son of the original Star Man. Hes kind of reluctant. He finds a thing called the Cosmic Rod that his father developed, and hes not a dude who dresses up in tights. He doesnt really have any super powers. In his day job, hes an antique junk toy collector. I think all those elements kind of hit me. He wears a cool leather jacket and sun glasses, and if I were a superhero, I would do that.
Finally, whats more important: comfortable shoes or good food?
Oh good food by far. One: you need to eat to live. Youre gonna do that, so might as well eat good. Two: the thing with food is that you have so much variety. Even if you pick the simplest thing say, hotdogs there are a hundred different ways you can prepare a hotdog, especially here in Jersey. I love variety. I like going to a hundred different places even for the same kind of food. One guy will do it one way, and another guy will do it another way, and you can see which one is better. Im very into food, if you cant tell. The first thing I do when I go into a new city is search for the best restaurants and then I go to them. Comfortable shoesnot such a big deal. Im more about good-looking shoes.
Dan Natale of Red Bank is a student at Brookdale Community College, where hes the assistant editor of the student newspaper The Stall, and an intern at redbankgreen.