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Kevin Smith smelt it, Judd Apatow dealt it

Apatow has made a fortune off sensitive slackers with potty mouths and encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, but Smith paved the way for him. Their worlds collide in “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”

Even if you obsess over pop culture for a living, you can still sometimes miss the obvious stuff that’s staring you in the face. It took me my entire childhood to realize that the title of comic strip “Hi n’ Lois” was a pun. It wasn’t until college that I figured out that in one of my favorite childhood Saturday morning cartoons, “The Ant & the Aardvark,” comedian John Byner was impersonating Jackie Mason in his Aardvark voice.

And then there’s Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow. Like most movie fans, I first noticed Smith upon the release of the microbudgeted and hilarious “Clerks,” although it wasn’t until “Chasing Amy” that I became a fervent admirer. And while I was also a fan of Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” I didn’t immediately connect the dots to notice that both of these comedy auteurs were covering similar territory.

Both filmmakers have given a voice to a segment of their audience that was long absent from the screen — smart nerds given to bawdy humor and obscure cultural references who, in their heart of hearts, were looking to give up all-night videogame sessions for the right girl. Apatow’s heroes — not only in the two features he’s directed, but also in films like “Superbad,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Pineapple Express,” which he produced — and Smith’s protagonists both revel in their Peter Pan–ness before eventually putting away childish things.

It’s somewhat shocking to realize how much things have changed in 15 years; when “Clerks” came out in 1994, the Internet was very much in its nascent stage and nerd culture hadn’t quite broken out yet. So when Smith’s raggedy black-and-white, coupla-white-guys-sitting-around-talking-about-“Jaws”-and-oral-sex comedy hit theaters, it packed a powerful zeitgeist-y wallop.

As much as filmmaker Richard Linklater or author Douglas Coupland, who respectively introduced the phrases “slacker” and “generation X” into the popular vocabulary, Smith knew how to channel the voice of his peers and how to recreate the conversations of smart, funny people being bored out of their minds by their go-nowhere jobs.

While Smith was getting “Clerks” together, Apatow was making a name for himself on TV as executive producer of “The Ben Stiller Show,” a sketch comedy series that didn’t score enormous ratings but which had its finger on the pulse of Gen X as much as “Clerks” did. “Ben Stiller” was similarly witty and incisive about pop culture; one of its most memorable sketches was for a theme park called Oliver Stone-land, where guests were greeted at the front gate by an animatronic Jim Morrison who kept repeating, “Break on through… Break on through… Break on through…”

Women give as good as they get
As Smith continued building his cult-like fan base with “Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma,” Apatow was making more smart TV with “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Critic,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared.” On their divergent paths, both men were creating a new kind of banter, one that assumed a certain knowledge of bad TV and hit movies as well as a willingness to be cheerily profane and scatological, even in conversations with women, who tended to give back at least as good if not better than they got from the men.

When Joey Lauren Adams’ lesbian character Alyssa explains to Ben Affleck’s hetero Holden exactly what it is that two women can do together in bed — in terms that cannot be reproduced here — it felt like a watershed moment: For once, a guy was speechless and flabbergasted over something a girl told him in a conversation about sex. It’s a moment that presaged Katherine Heigl’s character in “Knocked Up” being completely nonplussed about the guys putting together a Web site devoted to celebrity nudity or Steve Carell’s inexperienced “40-Year-Old Virgin” finding himself outgunned by the voracious ladies he encounters.

Both Smith and Apatow are, of course, standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them. Woody Allen drops references into his witty dialogue, although his tastes run more to Schopenhauer and F. Scott Fitzgerald than to Chewbacca and Jughead. And while some champions of the French New Wave might be horrified at the suggestion, a case can be made linking Smith’s and Apatow’s dialogue-heavy romantic comedies about the mutual bafflement of the sexes to the urbane and wordy classics of filmmaker Eric Rohmer (“My Night at Maud’s,” “Pauline at the Beach”).

Apatow acknowledges his debt to Smith — at a panel featuring the two filmmakers at this past summer’s Comic-Con, Apatow noted that “Kevin Smith laid down the track” — and now Smith borrows from the Apatow repertory company for his new film “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”

Zack is played by Seth Rogen, whose connection to Apatow goes back to “Freaks and Geeks”; in the last few years, Rogen co-starred in “Virgin,” starred in “Knocked Up,” and co-wrote and appeared in both “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” Elizabeth Banks, before taking on the role of Miri, also appeared in “Virgin.”

Playing opposite them, however, are longtime Smith collaborators Jeff Anderson (one of the “Clerks”) and Jason Mewes (the Jay to Smith’s Silent Bob). And while the film features moments that you might find in either director’s work — Zack refers to the robot Twiki from “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” when talking about Miri’s vibrator — “Zack and Miri” is uniquely a Smith movie, from its working-class concerns to a subplot involving making a movie in one’s place of business, which is how “Clerks” got produced in the first place.

For fans of their work, it’s exciting to see that Smith and Apatow respect each other and are now even sharing cast members. An eventual collaboration between the two might give the movie world its ultimate smart, smutty, R-rated comedy — a scatological “Citizen Kane,” if you will.