Inside Clarissa Explains It All with Creator Mitchell Kriegman

“Take your pleasures seriously.” — Charles Eames

Before grabbing my crème brûlée latte at the café round the corner in preparation for putting this “Nostalgnick” piece to bed, something about my lovely young barista struck me as fairly reminiscent of what I was about to write.

“Did you ever watch Clarissa Explains It All?” I blurted out to her, trying to avoid eye contact with her rather lascivious décolletage cresting her folksy-DIY blouse. “Hell yeah!” she told me. “That was my show!”

Not too surprising. She’s probably either a little younger than I, or my age. And she’s a girl. Cleaning the dishes behind her was a fairly epicene duder who loudly announced the same thing. “Oh, I loved that show!”

A few days earlier, a selfsame fey IT girl who works at my buddy’s place told me that one of the main reasons she initially got into technology was because of Clarissa’s preternatural interest in computers and videogames. I have to admit, I was a little less than astonished that the show still holds such resonance for these lumpen laborers. It wasn’t just, “Oh, yeah, I remember that show. Want any cream?” or “Clarissa explains what exactly?”

There were two things that surprised me when I spoke on the phone to Clarissa Explains It All creator Mitchell Kriegman. One is that there exists out there a Melissa Joan Hart album under the name Clarissa & the Straightjackets, with the not-so-surprising title of This is What “Na-Na” Means (a clarion nod to the show’s theme song).

Released in 1994 — when Kriegman’s series would finish its fifth and final season — the seven-song album boasts such madrigals as “Walkin’ in the Cemetery” and is peppered with heart-wrenching lyrics of the ilk: “Down my block/There’s a tragic girl/She seen a big black hole/I see a magic world.”

Word to your motha.

According to Kriegman, when first completed by Hart, “Na Na” was “too good” in the eyes of the corporate lackeys at Sony Wonder who determined it would be impossible to market the thing as a kids’ album.

See, by the time Clarissa had finished its four-year tenure, Nickelodeon was a very different beast than it had been in its freewheeling, devil-may-care days, back when Kriegman had birthed his literal brainchild about a strong and precocious “smart aleck” young girl with the unlikely name of Clarissa Darling (which she herself hated, as she makes clear immediately in Episode One).

Hence, according to Kriegman, Sony Wonder “slashed up” the original Straightjackets album, made it much shorter and added in “a bunch of silly audio noises and quotes” to the effect of his taking his name off of the project.

And, I suppose, that’s the second thing that surprised me about my over two-hour long conversation with the man now living in the Hamptons with his 14-year-old daughter (whom he assures — with apologies to Hart — is “much cooler than Clarissa… or anything else I could have imagined”). He’s so goddamn thoughtful and earnest about his show — and about much of what was going at Nickelodeon in those primordial days. Perhaps it has something to do with what Kriegman referred to as a “dual nature” to Nick’s programming over its first decade-and-a-half.

To clarify, Kriegman invoked his work on Sesame Street in which Cookie Monster would vaunt as Alistair Cookie for Monsterpiece Theater. “Kids wouldn’t get that joke,” Kriegman confessed. “But they would love watching Cookie Monster… and, meanwhile, their parents could laugh at something they would understand — a parody of Masterpiece Theater — too.”

Kriegman, as with most of the show creators and writers at Nick in the eighties and nineties, were able, as Charles Eames said time and time again, to “take [their] pleasures seriously.” He had, after all, created a show that, in his view, would become the sole paradigm for the “tween” set that was to come ten years later.

Punky Brewster had been a bit younger when she first burst onto the screen, and Patty Duke (along with her identical twin cousin) had been a might bit older. Little House on the Prairie and Adventures in Wonderland were adaptations and not exactly tween fare anyway.

Blossom Russo may have given Clarissa a run for her money as the first true TV tween, but there’s no debating that Clarissa was at least the first female protagonist on any Nick show — leading the way for all her gal progeny to come.

But, like Kriegman, Clarissa also took herself rather seriously most of the time… even when she was goofing off. Perhaps this stemmed from her possessing — rather intentionally I learned in talking with Kriegman — that uniquely “androgynous” quality born of what Elinor Glyn was talking about when she coined the phrase “It Girl” in reference to Clara Bow: “A nameless charm, a special magnetism that attracts both sexes.”

Sure, Clarissa (and, I suppose, Melissa Joan Hart) was only 13 or so when the show began its 65-episode run, but her “It”-ness definitely imbued the years she explained “it” all to us, and now at last — well, it’s time to let her originator explain where “it” all came from.

Could you describe your early background in television?

I had started as a performance artist and video artist in SOHO. My specialty was performing in the dark. I was kind of discovered by Michael O’Donoghue [of Saturday Night Live fame]. He put a few of my video art pieces in a special he did called Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video [1979; known as “The TV show that can’t be shown on TV!”]. It was very notorious at the time.

In those days, everything I did was “avant-garde.” It was always funny in some absurd way or another.

When did you start developing the idea for Clarissa Explains It All?

I became a writer for Saturday Night Live, but it wasn’t that interesting to me. I enjoyed it and I had a great time there for a while, but it was kind of predictable. It wasn’t the best era when I was there at SNL. The first “digital shorts” NBC ever ran were my pieces and I was happy with those. Mostly what they did in those days was very much parody/knee-jerk humor and I was a snob about that.

When I worked on the original Comedy Channel, I produced a show called The Higgins Boys and Gruber [created by Joel Hodgson, who went on to make Mystery Science Theater 3000] and The Sweet Life with [actress/singer] Rachel Sweet. And both of those shows were really important to how I came to create Clarissa Explains It All. That and the performance art I had done were directly involved with my concept of the show.

I did this experiment when the Comedy Channel was having its most difficult period, where I took one of these particularly unwieldy [episodes] of Higgins Boys that had like 20 segments. And I felt that there could be a narrative. Sitcoms at that time were pretty boring. They were brilliant — like The Mary Tyler Moore Show — but they were boring. Nothing much ever happened. Characters didn’t change much. They were never outlandish. They were pretty locked into their format.

And so when I saw I could do these really short, talk-to-camera quick scenes filled with fantasies and still tell a story, and it would still feel like a sitcom. I thought that was really totally cool. But, nobody at the Comedy Channel was interested in me doing that, so I took that idea over to Nickelodeon and used it for Clarissa.

Why go into children’s programming?

The joke about my work is it was always “immature for adults” or “too sophisticated for children.” The video art was very goofy, off-the-wall. It was in keeping with the work of Andy Kaufman and [photographer/video artist] Bill Wegman. It was more from that kind of world of absurd, slightly punk comedy that was intentionally a bit stupid.

In New York City in that time — and it’s still true to some degree — there were two kinds of entertainment jobs: You worked on SNL or you worked on Sesame Street. And a lot of people worked on both. And it was not unusual for people to work on “edgy comedy” and “kids [shows]” just to keep working.

The thing you have to remember about Nickelodeon at that moment was that they were Nick at Nite for kids, basically repackaged stuff and some game shows. They didn’t even have kids commercials. They had commercials for fly-fishing. I think they had their first Skittles commercial during Clarissa.

Why Nickelodeon as opposed to, say, Disney?

I had done one show for Nick already, for Nick at Nite, which was a parody show about television commercials. So I already had my foot in the door there, and I had a development deal to create a show, which became Clarissa.

Gerry Laybourne [original program manager at Nick who would go on to become president of Disney-ABC Cable Networks before creating the Oxygen Network in 2000] created the thrust of Nickelodeon and what our sensibility was.

She hired this brilliant marketing company to understand who our audience was. And I actually got all that data. She shared it with me. I was kinda really into the idea of both expanding their audience and identifying their audience, helping to define what Nick was.

Why a girl?

I wanted to create a character that would be Nickelodeon, so to speak. I had decided that a girl could really do that. No one wanted to do that at the time because the belief was that it was all Barbie and GI Joe. The belief was that boys wouldn’t want to watch Barbie. A few girls would watch GI Joe, but no one would buy advertising on a show that boys wouldn’t watch.

Nickelodeon wasn’t sure if it would work either, but they were willing to take a fly on it.

I believed that boys and girls had a lot more in common. I think part of that was growing up with older sisters who could beat me up sometimes. I didn’t grow up with the same sort of stereotypes. So the distinction was never really an issue for me, and I thought that if we could create a “cool” girl who boys liked and girls wanted to watch, then we could prove it to America that you could make a show with a girl protagonist.

Was Nickelodeon a very different network then?

It did grow into being something big during my time there. When we were at Nickelodeon, our mandate from Gerry down was to basically explode kids’ TV. They weren’t going to like your idea if it was just a “good kids show.” They wanted something that was going to break new ground and do something different, take risks and create a new paradigm.

If you look at the shows we did, they all met that requirement. With a few exceptions.

Ren & Stimpy reinvigorated cartooning. Clarissa was the first tween sitcom. Our job wasn’t just to create some shows to make money. They wanted to make money for sure and we had to do it for nothing, but they wanted something that would be the “anti-Disney.” Disney was really boring at the time. Disney was Old Yeller. And the most staid kind of stuff for kids. Really “goody-goody.”

They [Nickelodeon] wanted us to create a new genre of kids’ TV in every area. So, it was really exciting. Your job wasn’t just to create something really good for kids, but something that you loved, too.

Was there a real sense of “team” amongst all the show creators?

It was definitely fun to be there all together at that time. I think one of the reasons I was involved in so many different shows while I was doing my own was because I was a little more experienced than some of the others who were there. I had written cartoons before and I had worked on Saturday Night Live.

There was also a sense of competition. It was healthy competition. I always would make something and hope that it would blow Will McRobb’s mind [co-creator of The Adventures of Pete & Pete], or make the others say, “Wow, did you see what they had Clarissa do this time?”

The competition was good because it made us all want to do our best work and to keep pushing ourselves. And we knew that we were doing something special there that was cutting edge and wasn’t really being done anywhere else at the time.

Where did the name “Clarissa Darling” come from?

I don’t really know where “Clarissa” came from; it was a name that I had never really heard before and didn’t think was very common. So I knew it would stick in the mind of the audience. It was also a name that she could hate. The series opens with Clarissa saying her name and that she hated it, and I think that right away you knew who this character was, a girl with an attitude about her own name; you connect with her immediately.

“Darling” came from James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. That was what Wendy’s last name was. Wendy Darling.

How did you find Melissa Joan Hart and could you talk about working with her?

Originally, we found someone who was a little cooler than Melissa, but she wasn’t as accessible. And when Melissa came on set, she lit up the screen in a way that was amazing. She was so light and was funny and smart. She became Clarissa.

And, of course, whenever you’re working on any show with a central character, you start to do everything you can to make sure the character fits the actor like a glove, so I started writing around Melissa and would put in things she would actually say and do to make Clarissa even more like her.

She never improvised because she was young and it was not in her consciousness. But Melissa would sometimes say on the set “obee-kaybee” — which turned out to be from The Cosby Show — and I put that into the scripts because it was something I knew Melissa liked to say.

But some actors, when you do that, start to think that they’re writing the character and writing the lines, and they’re not a lot of the time. Egos get out of hand and it’s easy to forget that there are writers and producers. Melissa never did that.

From where did Clarissa’s memorable sense of fashion and interior design come?

My genius here was going outside of Nickelodeon for my own costume person and that was Lisa Lederer. She was one of these New York folks who brought a downtown scene sensibility and I remember when she first came on set that the people at Nickelodeon were freaking out because she had a nose ring.

At that time, I couldn’t dress Clarissa or think of her clothes to save my life. That was all Lisa and we knew we had done something right because as soon as the show starting airing, girls were dressing that way.

You have to remember that before Clarissa, girls were given outfits to wear. Matching clothes. Girls didn’t pick their own clothes and make their own styles. Now we take it for granted. Annie Hall was a good example for adults. People didn’t create their own styles except in minor ways. Punky Brewster wasn’t fashionable. She was being “quirky, goofy girl.” She was really Pippi Longstocking.

This was something that had the potential of being fashion. Lisa Lederer was so good at what she did. It wasn’t just quirky, it was brilliant. It was fashion.

When we first came to the set to for Clarissa’s room, it was done in all pink and was very frilly — like most girls’ bedrooms at the time on these kinds of shows — but I had the set designers literally take black car paint and make checkered walls on top of the pink wallpaper. One of the camera guys came on the set and said, “She’s possessed by the devil!”

How did you come up with the idea of Clarissa creating her own videogames so early in the realm of PC prevalence?

I liked videogames and even though I was a little old for them at the time, I played them a lot. I would play Berserk, Asteroids and whatever else was around.

I never really thought about it as impossible or strange that she would make her own videogames. We always would make her blasé about it: “Look at this cool videogame.” No one at Nick ever said it was something I shouldn’t do, and again it was about making her look cool for boys who would want to watch this girl who was pretty and smart and into videogames like they were.

Could you discuss the indelible music of the show, particularly the theme song?

The theme song was written and sung by Rachel Sweet with whom I had worked when I directed her show back on the Comedy Channel. She went off with producer Anthony Battaglia and when she came back, I thought it was perfect. It was a gift. I didn’t think she had to change anything.

We had to use a light laugh track on the show because that was how multiple-camera sitcoms were produced in those days. People expected a laugh track and it’s what Nickelodeon wanted.

I tried to use music to fulfill the same function. To fill up the audio space and guide the audience to the jokes. And then we tried to give each character an identifying sting or two. It was another way to play with the paradigm of the sitcom.

This came up more than once when I asked friends what questions they would ask of you: why did Sam always come in through the window?

I wanted this boy who was in Clarissa’s life to be her friend, and didn’t want him to have to go up the stairs or through the front door and talk to her parents every time. It was a way to get him in her bedroom and start interacting faster, and it was also a way to show that they had this real friendship that wasn’t about anything sexual.

They were friends and I wanted to keep it pre-sexual, which worked… right up until she was 16.

Where would Clarissa and Sam end up today if they were real people?

I’m still in the development stages on this, but it’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m actually working on a series of books, hopefully. We’ll see.

Could you discuss the nature of Clarissa’s regularly breaking the fourth wall?

I don’t really think that it’s “breaking the fourth wall” when characters do this on TV shows. When you’re watching the news and they’re talking to the camera, they’re not really breaking the fourth wall.

In my mind, TV doesn’t really have a fourth wall, it’s different. And I loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, was a big fan of John Hughes, so that was definitely an influence. But I had specific rules on how she would talk to you, like you were in the room with her. There are some times when characters talk to the camera in shows where I don’t think it works at all, where it’s really hokey.

Sometimes I think people aren’t doing it right. But, everyone’s entitled to do whatever they want to do. I think everyone got sick of sitcoms being the same, so it was great to change them. Woody Allen talked to the camera in Annie Hall in a great way. You can analyze the sociology behind it, but I can say from a creative point of view, it was just refreshing. Sitcoms had been a very rigid format.

How did Clarissa end up with a brother like Ferguson?

Yeah, isn’t that ridiculous? [Snickering viz “Ferguson” actor Jason Zimbler’s looking nothing like Melissa Joan Hart.] I really related him to the Michael J. Fox character [Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties].

I needed to have an obnoxious brother.

Clarissa was going to be this wildly creative person. It stood to reason that Ferguson was going to be this “stick.” A really rigid stick of a person who was extremely competitive. And that made perfect sense from a character/show point of view, more than anything else. Ferguson had to be something utterly contrasting to her. I wanted that red-headed obnoxious little kid.

It was amazing that they accepted that first episode with Clarissa trying to kill her brother. In those days, people did not talk about sibling rivalry at all. It was kind of taboo. But we went right at it with her trying to kill him. No one seemed to give me any trouble about that. They just let me do it. I don’t think you could ever do that in a show now. But I think it was healthy to bring out the fact that people can talk about sibling rivalry in shows like this.

What did the “W” in Ferguson W. Darling stand for?

I don’t have a clue what Ferguson’s “W” means. I had even forgotten Clarissa’s middle name until someone reminded me recently that it was “Marie.” There were some other great writers on the show, you know. Like Alan Goodman and Alexa Junge who went on to work on Friends [as well as Sex and the City and West Wing for which she received two Emmy nominations].

The most amazing person that you would never guess worked on the show was [The Hunger Games author] Suzanne Collins. She was the quietest, nicest person. Like having JK Rowling working on your show!

Any actual tension between Melissa and Jason?

I don’t really think so. Melissa was really in her own little world. You have to remember that Melissa was in every single scene with the exception of maybe two in every single episode in the history of the franchise. The level of facility at which she had to perform, her endurance was amazing. She was never cranky. I had to be sensitive to whether she’d be tired, and my heart always went out to her for her good nature. She was always really great.

I think they were in different worlds. Melissa was a professional actor from a very young age and Jason was new to it; he didn’t really know what he wanted to do with it and I loved Jason.

And I loved Sam, the guy who played Sam [Sean O’Neal]. I liked everybody. I loved the mom [Elizabeth Hess], I loved the dad [Joe O’Connor].

The cast, the crew, the writers were in Florida all together, and we would make sure we would have a wrap party every Friday at which everyone would feel welcome — the camera person, the makeup person, Melissa, Joe, Elizabeth and everybody wanted to be there. The prop guy wanted to be there.

And I can tell you, on a lot of shows, the crew goes one way and the cast goes another and no one wants to see each other, least of all the producers. So, it was a really happy experience. Most of my shows, if they’re set up well are that kind of experience.

Was there any sense of your being a “father figure” of sorts to the actors?

Yeah, well when we were all living in Orlando filming the show — and none of us were from Orlando — I felt very protective of Melissa and was making sure she had money for clothes and that her guardian was taking care of her all right. It was my highest priority. She was like my daughter for those years, and I think about it a lot because my daughter is that age now.

I made sure she was doing well and wasn’t working too hard, was going to her tutoring, that people were treating her right.

How about to those of us who grew up on the show?

Yeah, well I have a sense of it now.

There’s the fact that you’re interviewing me about this 20 years later or something. My favorite thing is that, to this day, everywhere I go to pitch a movie or a TV show or a book, there’s always someone 24 to the 30 there. These are the people who are starting to run all the things in the world. As soon as they hear I created Clarissa, they go crazy and revert to being 14-year-olds. Even some of the guys — “You created Clarissa?! — and it’s so much fun for me because I have this instant connection to people, and whatever years have passed vanish in a second, and that’s pretty cool for me.

Especially for those were who were girls at the time, there was finally a show for them. Looking back, you know what Clarissa’s values were and, to me, they were a lot better than what came after — Lizzie McGuire and Miley Cyrus.

Clarissa was smart. She wasn’t trying to be a “star.” Being a star for Clarissa would have been a step down. Her character wasn’t aspiring to be famous in a rock and roll star kind of way. She admired smart people. She admired Madonna, but she admired a scientist, for that matter. She was way more cool than the characters from these other shows.

The shows that came after are supposed to be “aspirational,” but [their characters] are really aspiring be show business stars, which is about the least functional, least useful thing in the world. American Idol and all these shows are great, but being a scientist or being a journalist or being a painter or being anything is more important.

These other shows are so focused on being a singer, which usually has some sexual component, of course.

Clarissa was a girl who stood up for herself and other people around her that she cared about. She never wavered or backed down and always went after whatever it was she wanted. She always did things her own way and would have a plan. If the first plan didn’t work out, then she would go to her next plan. And if that plan didn’t work out, then she would have another plan. That’s truly aspirational.

Having been something of a father figure for Melissa, what were your thoughts on her scantily-clad Maxim cover and feature in 1999?

Oh, you know. That’s her mom trying to change her profile. This stuff happens. My job was just not to do things like that while she was working with me.

I don’t think those things are so terrible. I think kids grow up and they don’t stay the same. And where’s the line when they grow up? Is it when they’re in Maxim? I’m not a puritan about that stuff. It’s show biz. She’d already done Clarissa. What was she supposed to do? So, she posed…

I would be more upset if she were drunk or got busted for drugs; that’s something that would be regrettable. Showing a bit of skin after being a goody-goody girl? I mean, nobody’s goody-goody!

How do you know who these people are to begin with? One thing that I can say that differs between Melissa and some of the other Disney actors or whatever is that Melissa has always been a good person. She’s never wavered from being a really great person. I’ve never seen her do anything cruel or any unfair thing in her life, you know? She’s understanding and sweet and beautiful, and I’m not just being a doting father for saying that. That’s her personality.

Some of these kids get crammed into these shows and they’re clearly not all angels to begin with. So, I would never worry about Melissa. One thing I can tell you is that she would never let things get out of control.

What happened to the “older” Clarissa spin-off, Clarissa (aka Clarissa, Now)?

I was really circumvented on that. Suddenly, they hired a writer to take all my stuff out. And I’m like, “What did you buy? Why did you do this?” I wanted to make a prime time show out of Clarissa, let her grow up, have boyfriends and move on. I really felt like I deserved that chance and wanted to do it.

Melissa was great; maybe her management didn’t really feel that way.

So the network executives said to me, “Well, network audiences don’t like any of that ‘postmodern shit.’” They didn’t like talking to the camera and the fantasies. Famous last words. As if network audiences were different than cable audiences. That’s supposedly why they took everything out.

I had cast everybody in the pilot. The cast was amazing. I had written the story, a lot of the dialogue. I had hired Cabot McMullen [Scrubs, Cougar Town] to build the set. He was a genius. And, then I got sidelined. There was nothing I could do about it. I was lucky to be able to hang in there, honestly.

Are there any plans to release more Clarissa DVDs?

That would be Nickelodeon. I don’t know. Maybe now that they’re doing this “nineties thing” [new programming block, “The 90s Are All That”, airing on Nick].

What are you doing now?

I’m finishing a novel and I have a movie that we’re hoping to shoot in June and I’m teaching micro-budget and webisode filmmaking at Stony Brook Southampton University.

What are your thoughts on the resurgence of these Nick shows?

Well, you gotta love it. At least Nickelodeon is responding to this audience in a different way. I wish Nickelodeon were still trying to break the paradigms, you know? Maybe they’ll get to that again. It’s a very tough business now. It’s not so easy. They had nothing to lose when we were there. So, maybe it’s harder now. But maybe it’s time to do that again.

I like to put a stick in the ground and say “let’s do something different.” That’s my kind of creativity. I’m really excited when people are doing something new and different. Nick let me do some incredible work and they supported me over and over again when I tried to take a risk. Nick was one of the best working situations in my life, getting to do Clarissa and Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy at the same time.

It was a dream. I loved it!

Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.

Inside Clarissa Explains It All with Creator Mitchell […]