I deeply love New Jersey, though not enough to live there. So when I heard that MTV's reality show Jersey Shore has been portraying my home state as a pit of testosterone, salaciousness and vulgarity, I was furious to think that it might be an inaccurate presentation of New Jersey's testosterone, salaciousness and vulgarity.
To check, I asked director Kevin Smith, New Jersey's great chronicler in films such as Clerks and Mallrats, to watch the show and comment on its inaccuracies. Smith, who lives three miles from my house in Los Angeles, does not watch any reality shows because that would take time from comic-book reading. But he invited me over to his giant house, where he greeted me in a black robe covering his New Jersey Devils T-shirt and pants. Clearly I had overdressed for Jersey Shore watching. Smith led me to his bedroom and brought us a bunch of boxes of Yoo-hoo on a silver platter. Then we lay down on his bed on our stomachs, his 103-inch plasma television screen two feet in front of our faces. We were going to see 4-ft. 9-in. Jersey Shore star Nicole (Snooki) Polizzi life-size.
While all of Smith's quotes below are otherwise accurate, because of the sensitive nature of my editors, I changed his profanities to ones used in Elizabethan times.
As the first episode started, we were both shocked to learn that only one of the eight Italian-American cast members was actually from Jersey. The rest were Bennies, a term for people who come to the shore during the summer. "All these jackanapes are Bennies," Smith sort of said. "Looking at this show and thinking it's about New Jersey is like looking at Hogan's Heroes and thinking it's a real depiction of World War II." When Smith saw the cast's house decorated with maps of Jersey surrounded by Cadillac emblems and Italian flags, he vowed to take down his own antique map of the state. "This is like the moment for Catholics when Madonna started wearing a crucifix and turned it into a trinket," he said, before yelling "Flax-wench!"
Not long into the show, however, we both admitted that the Jersey on the screen looked familiar. In high school I abused hair gel and Jovan musk and rocked a black tank top. Smith went to the movies in the town that Sammi (Sweetheart) Giancola is from, and we both had spent some time at the beach where the show is set, Seaside Heights or, as my friends called it, Sleaze-side Heights. When Smith saw the iron-on-T-shirt shop the show's stars were working in, he yelled excitedly that he had bought three shirts there not long ago. In fact, he wouldn't stop talking about it. "I make movies where people are like, 'I've been to that convenience store!,' and here I am doing it: 'I've been to that store. It's famous! I'm famous!' "
But the saddest part was when Giancola strolled down the boardwalk with her sweatpants rolled down at the waist and Smith sighed deeply. "My wife won't do it," he said. "She says it's too Jersey. She also says you can't do it with Juicy Couture. It's depressing. I think it's an awesome look." And indeed it is. Though we both thought Jenni (JWoww) Farley's scarf of a blouse draped over her giant fake breasts was a bit much. Or, more accurately, one of us pretended to.
One episode down, Smith developed an unnatural emotional connection to Snooki, who on her first night in the house stripped down to her bra and thong, got in the hot tub with all four male housemates and tried to make out with each of them. Smith figured that he would have hooked up with Snooki and then tried to save her. "I'd date Snooki, and she'd cheat on me repeatedly. 'Snooki, I'm trying to help.' 'I don't need your help, you fat canker-blossom!' " I have no doubt that by now Smith has called his agent about meeting Snooki.
With all the pausing to deconstruct the mating rituals of people who introduce themselves by lifting their shirts and pointing to their abs, it took us six hours to get through two episodes. We were deeply disappointed by how our state was being tarted up. "There's more dignity to my weed-dealing clowns," Smith said. "When Jay and Silent Bob seem like better role models than these dewberries, we're in trouble." But we did see in the show that rough-hewn, eager-to-shock impishness that gave both of us our personalities and our careers. We also recognized that Jersey toughness that led our wimpy writer selves to run to Los Angeles, where the witty use of profanity and not our ability to throw a punch got us jobs and wives. So if other people need to believe two-dimensional vulgarity is all there is to New Jersey, we can let them have their little minstrel show. We didn't need it. Though Smith asked me to leave the DVDs behind, just in case.