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Renegade independent filmmaker Kevin Smith has been a fan of the long-running Canadian teen drama Degrassi for as long as he can remember.At least as far back as his late teens, growing up in Highland Park, N.J., when he used to tune into the PBS-aired program to escape the drudgery of being a cash register jockey at a local corner store.

Fast forward a decade. To the point in Smith's career when he'd started getting critical accolades for cult films, such as Clerks and Chasing Amy. At that point, Smith -- in Toronto for business -- decided on a whim to get in touch with the folks at Epitome Pictures who make Degrassi. He knocked on the producer's door and was rudely turned away by the receptionist.

Smith, known for his adept skill with naughty four-letter words, promptly did what any self-respecting, thin-skinned man-about-town would do -- he went to Speaker's Corner, at CITY-TV central, and basically raised a middle finger to the folks at Epitome.

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Company co-founder Linda Schuyler was mortified. Long a fan of Smith's filmmaking -- and aware of his fondness for her show (he'd written about it in various publications over the years and always included Degrassi references in his movies), she tried to contact the Los Angeles-based director to make amends. They never connected, until a few weeks ago, when out of the blue, Smith called Schuyler at home, on a Friday night, and asked if he could direct a Degrassi.

That's when he told a press conference on the Degrassi set yesterday that he got his best putdown yet; the American did not comply with Degrassi's 100-per-cent Canadian content rules. "Usually I get told you've got the reverse Midas touch or get your skank off our program," he joked. So he offered to write: same answer. Finally, Schuyler said she'd be thrilled if Smith would do a cameo.

He turned her down flat. "I won't do a cameo. But I'll act. In a three-part arc. I want to get in between Joey and Caitlin," Smith said. So this week Smith's been in town shooting what will air as the final three episodes of the fourth Degrassi: The Next Generation season (to be broadcast in 2005).

He'll play, Smith adds, a fictionalized version of himself. And he and his Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back co-star, Jason Mewes, will enter the series as directors, who are scouting a school location for their new film, Jay and Silent Bob Go Canadian, Eh?

Smith will also get to pursue the Caitlin Ryan character (played by Stacie Mistysyn), he once fantasized about as a teen in Jersey.

He's also in the throes of trying to cajole his 10-year pal, Ben Affleck, to do a cameo, since there's a movie within a movie in the Smith episodes. "And Affleck could use a lift right now," Smith cracked. "What better way to revive a career than to be on a Canadian melodrama?"

Once Smith moved out of his home state and settled in California, he admits he lost touch with the Degrassi gang. Then a colleague mentioned Degrassi: The Next Generation was airing on Noggin. He TiVo-ed the show, and to his surprise, got hooked all over again.

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"I didn't think I'd get into the new kids. I'm kinda old," the 34-year-old said. "But I did. I got into them -- in a kind of creepy way."

The filmmaker, who also did Dogma, and the box-office stinker, Jersey Girl, said he's got a genuine soft spot for this program because it was how he and Mewes bonded. "I'd be watching it, thinking: 'Oh my God, this is insanely melodramatic,' and then I'd be weeping. Me and Jason [who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Jersey]would watch the show and then sit and then talk about it. Not in a let's-do-a-discussion way. More like who would you like [to sleep with]" Smith recounted to the media. "I'd say Caitlin Ryan and Mewes was Joe Jeremiah," Smith quipped.

Then Smith got serious and added, that his buddy Mewes had "a difficult time growing up, and [ Degrassi]was one of the first shows he identified with."

After the press conference, Smith also clarified his real feelings for Affleck, who met the director auditioning for Mallrats and has been in almost every Smith film.

"He's a great guy and an actor I totally believe in. And he's had a terrible . . . year of getting the shit knocked out of him. And at every turn, the dude can't . . . win. For the moment. But that just poises him for a tremendous comeback."

The press conference was more like a 20-minute standup by Smith, a hilarious bloke whom his wife, the actress Jennifer Schwalbach, calls Mr. Long Shorts because of his dubious bottom-half attire. He made countless jokes, but said what has always attracted him to Degrassi is the issues and continuity of the series. A program, he adds, that has the balls to tackle topics few other programs will, everything from teen sex, child molestation, wet dreams, animal testing -- the list goes on.

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"I'm also a sucker for star-crossed romance," Smith said, referring to the Caitlin and Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni) storyline.

"This show truly is a soft spot for me. There are very few fascinations I've been able to carry with me to adulthood," said Smith, who writes comic strips, owns two comic book shops, has won independent film awards, and received the Defender of Democracy Award from Norman Lear's People for the American Way.

"I left Star Wars behind. But Degrassi is just something that makes me feel young. It's one of the really cool things I wanted to do. And this is the topping on the cake: I said to Schuyler, if my plane goes down after episode three, I don't give a fuck. This would be my legacy."

At the end of the press conference, Schuyler presented Smith with a truly ugly Degrassi High cardigan in purple and neon blue. Upon receipt of which, Smith deadpanned: "You must have had to dig far into the archives for that one."

Then he added, in his smartass fashion: "No, really, thank you. I'll wear it to bed with the wife. I'll come to the room at night and say, 'Honey, I'm wearing the sweater!' "

If his five-year-old daughter Harley could grow up like any Degrassi character, Smith said he hopes its relative newcomer Manny Santos, played by Cassie Steele.

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"Her character seems to have a good head on her shoulders. I'm certainly not an idiot. I know my kid is going to get out there in the world and experience it in the way I did when I was young. My friend Walter has a kid and he's always telling me how he doesn't know what he's going to do when she starts dating.

"I say, shit, I'm just going to accept the fact my kid's probably going to be having sex at age 12, because I did at 13. So I'm sure the age will keep dropping. What you do as a father is you try to lay the groundwork, you try to be the best example possible so that she doesn't go for the scumbags of the world. I don't care if you have sex, just make sure it's with a decent guy. Because growing up I knew I was a decent guy. So hopefully she finds a dude who was kind of like me, and not," he giggled, "like a guy like Mewes."

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