Clarissa Explains It All debuted in 1991 and quickly became a classic. “The idea that you do something 20 years ago, and everybody still remembers it—not just remembers it fondly, but passionately, and cares about it—I just love it,” says Clarissa creator Mitchell Kriegman. “It’s the most satisfying thing in my career.” Which is saying something when you’ve worked on Rocko’s Modern Life, Doug, Ren & Stimpy, and Rugrats, created Bear in the Big Blue House, and written a novel about Audrey Hepburn.
We chatted with Kriegman about everything from Clarissa’s style and her pet alligator, Elvis, to the show’s graphics. He also opened up the Clarissa vault to give us a peek at the show bible, sketches for Clarissa’s bedroom, and pages from the original pilot script for the proposed Clarissa spin-off. Way cool!
Before he created Clarissa, Kriegman wrote for National Lampoon, The New Yorker, and Saturday Night Live. But his new show was most prominently influenced by his performance art (Clarissa wearing a straitjacket in the pilot was taken from one of his acts) and two shows that he worked on for the Comedy Network: One, a show with musician Rachel Sweet, was “sort of parody of explaining things,” Kriegman says. The other, called Higgins Boys and Gruber, starred Steve Higgins (now the voice of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon) and his brother, Dave. The duo created wraparounds for the channel’s standup clips that “were only 30 seconds to a minute long, but they had this ongoing story,” Kriegman says. “They’d talk to the camera and to each other, there were short scenes instead of these long scenes, and things would jump around.”
When the network asked for ideas for shows, Kriegman proposed cutting together all of the segments into a sitcom. “I really wanted to do that show, and I pitched it to the people there, but nobody got it at the time,” Kriegman says. “But I realized that I had learned everything I wanted to know about sitcoms and how to do them in a way that was really cool.” Those influences, combined, led to Clarissa.
Kriegman, who had a development deal at Nickelodeon, pitched his idea for a sitcom there. At that time, the network had game shows like Double Dare and Nick at Nite programming, and it had aired just one sitcom, Hey Dude. “Gerry Laybourne had done a ton of studies with an ad agency about the potential audience,” Kriegman says, “and she was really developing her philosophy, which had a lot to do with the network being on the side of the kid, rather than, say, on the side of the toy company. It would be really pure in its intentions—the shows had to be what kids wanted, instead of what adults wanted. It was a bit of the anti-Disney at that time.”
Laybourne gave those studies to Kriegman to analyze, and, he says, “I knew that they needed a girl. They had all this boys stuff, and they weren’t seeing girls in the modern way that girls existed.” So he did his research, reading teen magazines like Sassy and getting input from his wife, who was an editor at Seventeen magazine at the time.
Kriegman planned to make his protagonist interesting to boys, too. “As big a deal as it was at the time, it was a pretty mild idea: ‘Don’t alienate the boys,’” he says. “I don’t think there’s any giant biological barrier to a guy identifying with a girl or a girl identifying with a guy, if the issues are universal to both of them. In that sense, it’s not rocket science.” So Kriegman shied away from story lines that boys wouldn’t care about—no episodes about make-up!—and gave Clarissa a boy friend who wasn’t a boyfriend.
“That’s a secret that’s going to go to my grave with me,” he says. “The only thing I can say is that I intentionally picked a name that she could say that she hated.” Kriegman will say where he got the idea for Clarissa’s last name, though; it comes from the Darling family in Peter Pan.
In her book Melissa Explains It All: Tales From My Abnormally Normal Life, Hart says she’d been auditioning for a role on the NBC series Blossom—playing the titular character’s ditzy best friend, Six—at the same time she was auditioning for Clarissa. She auditioned for both roles three times, and ultimately decided that Clarissa was the right role for her.
Kriegman auditioned another actress who, he says, “kind of was Clarissa, and it was a choice between Melissa and this girl. She was a little more Claire Danes-like, honestly.” He ended up choosing Hart because “she was so charming and she just lit up the screen. Because she did that, I could load her up—make [Clarissa] really quirky and different. She could make it play.”
The pilot episode also featured another actor playing Sam, Clarissa’s best friend. Sean O’Neal, who eventually won the part, recounted his audition in Slimed: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age: “I was there for a few minutes, possibly had read a scene, and then Mitchell asked me to leave the room. Before I stepped out, though, he asked me to mess up my hair. I was a nutcase when I was in school and a little bit of a class clown, so I always used to rub my heavy-duty cowlicks, which made my hair stand on end. When I left the room and messed up my hair, I came back in and Mitchell said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got the job.'”
The detailed, 52-page document included character descriptions (Clarissa is “the Ferris Bueller of girldom, but also kind of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes,” while Sam is described as a ‘tip of the iceberg’ character … there’s always a backstory to everything he says”) as well as monologues and catchphrases; detailed breakdowns of how the fantasy sequences, video games, and graphics treatments were done (“Clarissa … instigates and controls all the video effects … Usually Clarissa says ‘OK’ just before she initiates a video effect”); guides to the music stings and sound effects; and guidelines for how Clarissa addressed the camera (“there is no fourth wall … Clarissa talks to the audience naturally and unselfconsciously as any two people talk to each other”).
Kriegman distributed the bible to the show’s writers, and they used it as a guide while writing episodes. Delightfully, it ends with tips for how the writers could submit their scripts: “If you have a modem we can arrange for you to modem your script. Please contact the staff if you have the facilities to modem in your work.” (Hey, it was 1990!)
In the show bible, Kriegman noted that “Although sibling rivalry may not always be the subject of an episode it is always present as part of the context. … The issue of sibling rivalry is treated simply as a fact of life … rather than something the show ever needs to apologize for, or explain away, or tack a moral on.” (He also notes that writers “get extra points for coming up with a good sibling rivalry story.”)
“I went into the show wanting to do sibling rivalry,” Kriegman says. “If you’re going to have sibling rivalry, and you have a girl—which was a given from my perspective—she has to have a really annoying younger brother. He’s got to be the opposite of her.” So he created Ferguson, the anti-Clarissa, who is described in the show bible as “the ultimate goody goody brown noser … Ferguson is the enemy and he feels the same way about Clarissa.”
Sibling rivalry had been present in many prime time sitcoms, but never really in a kids’ show, when Clarissa began airing in 1991. “That was a big deal,” Kriegman says, “to have her actually hate her brother and actively try to kill him—which I don’t think you could do now, by the way, but that’s what she was trying to do in the pilot.”
Kriegman wanted to give Clarissa a pet, but felt a regular cat or dog wouldn’t do—he wanted “some different, off-the-wall thing,” he says. He was inspired by a college girlfriend “who had a wading pool in her off-campus apartment that had tadpoles and turtles and all sorts of stuff in it. She was brilliant—she also had a miniature alpine gondola hanging across it. And I was like, ‘Wow, that is just so weird.’ And that’s where the idea for Elvis came from.”
Look carefully in later episodes of the first season, though, and you’ll see that in wide shots, Clarissa’s foot-long “security alligator” looks a lot more stiff. “He didn’t last past the first season, because cutting away to Elvis became really boring,” Kriegman laughs. “He’s just sitting there. We’d have some guy take Elvis footage and we’d try to use it later, but it was just really [like]: ‘Do we really have to cut away to Elvis? He’s not the most interesting thing in this show.’ It’s amazing how much Elvis was the foremost thing in people’s minds, because Elvis existed for like six episodes or something.”
When Kriegman needed a theme song for Clarissa, he went to his friend Rachel Sweet, who came up with the iconic theme song we all have stuck in our heads. “I did not give her any direction,” he says. “She came up with ‘na na na na na na.’ ‘Way cool’ she must have gotten from the show in some way.”
During the first season, the opening title sequence looked much different than the one you probably remember (which you can see above). “There were these jump cuts of her doing things like being a monster, being a ballerina, playing basketball,” Kriegman says. “I just changed it because she was very young—they all were—in the original sequence, and I thought I could do something a little cooler.”
In a typical sitcom, there’s a serious A story, which comprises most of the action, and a more lighthearted B story. But Clarissa flipped the format. “The A story is fanciful and absurd and the B story is compassionate and more serious,” Kriegman writes in the show bible. “Obviously this is a comedy, not a heavy issue oriented show, so the B story never gets moral. It’s more likely to be about friendship, hate, love, doing the right thing, being fair, etc. … That’s not to say that the A story might not have something serious at its root … but the way it’s expressed is so completely absurd that the issue is never addressed with a heavy hand.” So, for example, in “School Picture,” the A story is about Clarissa wanting to wear cool clothes to school picture day, while the B story is about her mom, Janet, and her dad, Marshall, arguing about Janet’s high school boyfriend.
Of all of the sets, Clarissa’s bedroom was the most complex: There’s a They Might Be Giants poster on the wall, a science experiment in the corner (according to the show bible, Clarissa is “watering plants with Club Soda, Perrier and Evian to see which makes them grow fastest”), a dollhouse made by her dad “out of real housing materials that she uses for all of her video equipment,” a collection of weird hats, hubcaps on the wall, and black checkered paint over the flowered pink wall paper.
“I’ll never forget when we designed her room,” Kriegman says. “The designer was very upset at first, because he wanted to design a very girly room. And I said, ‘OK, you can design her girly room,’ and so they did. It was pink. Then I said, ‘Now we’re going to take car paint and paint black checkers across the wall.’ They were in shock. I mean, there was a cameraman who said, ‘What is she, possessed by the devil?’”
The bedroom was also the most elaborate in terms of shooting possibilities. “There is a ‘wild’ closet that we can shoot from the inside of,” Kriegman writes in the show bible. “We can shoot from outside the window, outside the door, through the doll house, from under the bed, from inside the chest at the foot of her bed, anywhere. Clarissa can start a scene from any one of these points of view.”
Sets outside the home, meanwhile, were much less detailed at first. “They should have the basic walls and props to establish the setting,” Kriegman writes in the show bible, “but they can remain sketchy because it’s a memory of what happened rather than a realistic recreation.” The sets became more elaborately designed over time.
The team included Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Becky Hartman Edwards (Parenthood, Suddenly Susan, The Larry Sanders Show), Doug Petrie (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Horror Story), Alexa Junge (Friends, The West Wing, United States of Tara), Peter Gaffney (Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Recess, The Simpsons), Patricia Marx (SNL, Women Aloud, The New Yorker), Alan Goodman (The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, Hey Dude), Neena Beber (How to Deal, Daria), Peter Mattei (Love in the Time of Money), Michael Borkow (Roseanne, Malcolm in the Middle, Friends), Glenn Eichler (The Colbert Report, Daria), and Alison Taylor (The Cheetah Girls, Lizzie McGuire).
“The initial response was that she’s rude,” Kriegman says. “She’s talking back to her parents and she doesn’t respect them.” The network also thought that her jokes were too sarcastic. But Kriegman had come up against this kind of thing before. “That’s usually the initial response to my girl characters,” he says. “And I always say the same thing: ‘If a boy were saying this thing, and doing this thing, would you be complaining that they are being too rude, or they’re being too sarcastic or jokey with their parents?’ The answer’s no.”
Kriegman says he offered to tone down the dialogue and cut a couple of lines, “but once the show gets going and people like it, and they can see that the world doesn’t end, and that suddenly they’re not being accused of undermining the morals of children, they trust you.”
Clarissa’s best friend, Sam, rarely came in through the front door; his preferred method of getting into Clarissa’s room was a ladder. In reality, the ladder was just three rungs high, and O’Neal had to lay on his back and wait for his cue to put the ladder on the windowsill and climb in. “Honestly, the toughest part was getting up,” the actor says in Slimed!. “I had to hunch over my knees as I made my appearance.”
It sounds like kind of a pain, but Kriegman wanted Sam to make his entrances through the window for a very good reason. “Do you really want him to have to ring the doorbell, and say, ‘Hi, Mrs. Darling, OK if I go visit Clarissa?’” Kriegman says. “It’s just way slow to do that.” He also liked that it was a quirky, unexplained thing. “It’s never commented on, and he just does it at all hours of the night and day,” Kriegman says. “I really wanted to do something unique. It was in keeping with a kids-first point of view.”
In one early episode, Clarissa discovers that Ferguson is being bullied by Clifford Spleenhurfer—and she stands up for Ferguson. “As much as she hates her brother, she can’t have some guy picking on him,” Kriegman says. “And so she calls out this guy.” Clifford and Clarissa set up a time to fight. (Hart actually learned how to box for the episode.)
Initially, Kriegman says, there was an outcry at the network about the episode. “At first, people were saying, ‘Well, a girl would never fight a boy,’” he says. “And that’s just so not true.” Kriegman stood his ground and found a fun way to end the episode that didn’t involve fisticuffs—Clifford declares his love for Clarissa … in song—and the episode became one the network was proud of.
Clarissa’s signature style was created by Lisa Lederer, who had a magazine background. “Clarissa wasn’t really a tomboy and she wasn’t really the weird girl. She was always just herself,” Lederer says in Slimed!. “It felt like what we were doing was creating this girl in a more real way, to represent the way that girls—that people—normally dress.”
“If you went to a store to buy clothes for a girl in those days, it was all coordinated,” Kriegman says. “There was a pink ribbon that went with a dress that went with a pair of shoes. She blew that out of the water. She made her own outfit from her own choices in her closet. I definitely wanted her to just dress the way she wanted to. It was about her expression.”
About a month after the show started airing, an ABC executive made apparent to Kriegman just how influential Clarissa’s sartorial choices were. “The head of ABC at the time called me because I had done some pilots for him that never went anywhere,” Kriegman says. “He said, ‘My daughter came down the stairs dressed in eight mismatched things and leggings.’ He asked her, ‘What are you doing?’ and she said, ‘I’m dressing like Clarissa.'”
Clarissa’s Orlando-based cast and crew worked in three-week blocks, with two weeks off in between, until they’d completed all the episodes in a season (usually 13 to 15). They’d typically spend six days a week, and a total of 70 hours, working on each episode. Scripts were handed out on Fridays, table reads were on Sundays, followed by rehearsals and, finally, shooting on Wednesdays. The schedule—which also included tutoring for the show’s young leads—required incredible amounts of energy. Hart writes in Melissa Explains It All that when one director tried to get them excited after a number of takes, he would tell them to “‘Shoot this one out of the cannon!’—as in, the scene—which become known as a ‘Cannon take!’ for short.”
Because of all the time they spent together, the cast and crew grew close: Crewmembers helped Hart with her school projects and threw her a graduation from “Nickelodeon High School” (they voted her “most likely to have her own series”). And they bonded outside of work, too. “Adults and kids got together Friday nights after the show was done and had the best party,” Kriegman says. “Everybody was so happy to be with each other, which is phenomenal when you work long hours in Florida in a studio like that.”
Back in the ‘90s, creating news-style graphics wasn’t as easy as it is today: Kriegman and his crew had to make Clarissa’s graphics using a special computer called the Quantel Paintbox. “We literally hired a news graphic artist, Don St. Mars, to create the graphics,” Kriegman says. “And then we had to figure out, ‘Well, these graphics can’t feel like they were created by somebody other than Clarissa.’ We had to find her handwriting and her style. And it had to be just a little bit better—actually, a lot better—than what a kid her age could do, but enough that you believed it was her.”
Clarissa’s video games, meanwhile, were designed by Tim Burns, whom Kriegman met while performing in a comedy show (Burns would later write the script for An American Werewolf in Paris). He also created Kriegman’s favorite segment, a Russian shopping channel that appears in the first season episode “No T.V.”
In Slimed!, the Clarissa crew recounts how Kriegman had a rule on set that no one could use purple. According to production designer Byron Taylor, when he pitched painting purple squares in Clarissa’s room, “Mitchell said that there’s only one criterion when you go to shop the show: No purple. … It was a very big deal. There could be no purple in his office; there could be no purple on the show. He didn’t even like it when people wore purple.”
According to Kriegman, he doesn’t really have a thing against purple; the rule was arbitrary, and something he did on purpose. “Clarissa is the first big show I ever ran,” he says in Slimed!. “And I had this advice from an old pro in the business who said, ‘The first thing you do when you go down there, come up with something arbitrary that everybody’s gotta do and stick to it and never explain it.’ … I knew I had to assert myself. … I actually had an idea about the wardrobe, which is that, because I wanted the show to appeal so fervently to girls and boys … I wanted her to wear pink and blue. So I decided that purple would ruin that, so I just said, ‘No purple in the clothes.’ And in the set design I would say ‘No purple.’ And so then it grew, right? Inside I was laughing a little bit; it was a weird little thing. And by the way, Lisa snuck in a bunch of purple plenty of times.”
“He was more politically nerdy than I was, I was more tech nerdy,” Zimbler told Mashable in 2014. “But he was unrepentantly nerdy and proud of learning, and he made being bookish cool—or cool for being uncool. I really dug that. Now, I’m still working with computers and in the past few years, my political awareness has really heightened. So, yeah, I’m totally the older version of how Ferguson would have turned out.”
Hart, meanwhile, saw key differences between herself and the character she played. “I’m not as wild as Clarissa,” Hart told The New York Times in 1991. “We dress similarly, but Clarissa is into manipulating her parents. I don’t. I just talk mine into things.” Two years later, she told The Orlando Sentinel, “I think I’m different from Clarissa in a lot of ways. For one thing, when Clarissa meets new people, she always starts out with a bad impression. I think Clarissa’s attitude is: ‘Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.’ I’m not like that.” Still, there is some of Hart in Clarissa: She told Kriegman after an audition that They Might Be Giants was her favorite band, and soon, it was also Clarissa’s favorite band; Hart said “obeykaybee,” and eventually, Clarissa said it too; and when the writers found out that Hart played the flute, they made one episode about an upcoming flute recital.
Among them was James Van Der Beek, who gave Hart her first on-screen kiss; the future Dawson’s Creek star played Paulie, a drummer that Clarissa—who is pretending to be a punk chick named Jade—meets at a party in the episode “Alter Ego.” It was also Van der Beek’s first on-screen kiss. (Shannon Woodward, who would later star in Raising Hope, played Missy in the same episode.) Future Buffy and Gossip Girl star Michelle Trachtenberg played Elsie Soaperstein, the brat who lives next door who Clarissa had to babysit, in a season four episode, and Heather MacRae, star of Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), played Clarissa’s touchy-feely aunt, Mafalda, in two episodes.
Other notable guest stars included Sheeri Rappaport, who made her television debut playing Piper Henderson on Clarissa and currently stars in CSI; Joanna Garcia, a love interest for Ferguson, who later starred in Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Reba; and comedian Wayne Brady, who played a pizza delivery guy in the season five episode “Editor in Chief.”
According to Zimbler, the cast had competitions to try to make each other laugh—and no one was better at making the actors break character than Joe O’Connor, who played dad Marshall Darling. “I aspired to have that power and capability,” Zimbler told Mashable. “We were once shooting a scene, and Joe and I were waiting in the wings just off set for our cue. The scene started taping, and I told him a joke just as we were about to walk onto the set. He was unable to collect himself, and just walked into the scene laughing and couldn’t keep his composure. I nailed the timing. It’s not even that great joke, but when you’re 15, 16 years old, telling an adult something that funny is a pretty great feeling.” (The joke was: “How do you get four old grandmas to say ‘f***?’ You get a fifth to say ‘BINGO!’”)
In 1994, Clarissa and the Straightjackets released This is What Na-Na Means. The record was a collaboration between Rachel Sweet, Tony Battaglia, and Kriegman, with Hart on lead vocals. “We had the idea to do this grunge, garage band album,” Kriegman says. “[Rachel and Tony] did these awesome songs.”
But the final product didn’t turn out exactly how Kriegman had hoped. “It was so good that [the network executives] got worried it was too much like a real album,” he says. “So they pulled it back and cut all the mixes down to one and a half to two-minute songs, and they insisted on this goofy kiddy wraparound thing. It ruined the record. It was a good record with big guitar jams and six-minute cuts that could have broken through, I thought. It was so disheartening I actually took my name off when they released it.” You can listen to what was released above.
Players had to “[answer] questions about all kinds of interesting stuff like your friends, school, and your favorite pizza toppings!” according to the back of the box, which was, of course, written by Clarissa. The goal of the game will be easy for a Clarissa fan to guess: “Take Driver’s Education, get your license and a key, and try to win a CAR. … Look out though! There’s more than one challenging family, school and social crisis you’ll have to deal with along the way!” Kriegman wrote the game with Mollie Fermaglich. “I lost the last time I played,” he told us.
Midway through the fourth season, Nickelodeon decided to cancel the show because Clarissa, at nearly 17, was too old for their viewers.
“In their defense, they had a rigid idea about the age range,” Kriegman says. “In those days, Nickelodeon stopped at 14 and MTV started at 15 or 16, and there was no middle ground. They didn’t cross that line, ‘cause that was MTV territory, and the attitude of MTV was way different than the attitude of Nickelodeon. The audience changes before the media changes, so [the network execs] weren’t really aware how much kids had grown in the time that we had done the show. They felt she was way too old for the network. And I just felt like she could’ve kept going, and there wasn’t really a reason to stop from any perspective. I think people would have stuck with her.”
In 1995, Kriegman pitched a new show, called Clarissa, to CBS. It saw the titular character deferring her college acceptance to take an internship as a cub reporter at a New York City newspaper. She moves into the attic of her Aunt Agnes’s Chelsea apartment building, hangs out with her best friend Piper (an art student at Cooper Union College), and butts heads at work with the other new intern, a competitive guy named Filmore Young (and they totally have a will they, won’t they vibe). She’s also competing to be assistant to the newspaper’s star columnist Hugh Hamilton, who goes through as many as five assistants a month and is kind of a mess. “Each character in Clarissa is in one way or another concerned with the issue of ‘going for it’ vs ‘giving up,’” Kriegman writes in the treatment. “Clarissa sits at the center of this challenge in a positive way and Hugh Hamilton at the center of the same issue in a negative way. But all of the characters … can be organized in relation to this question.”
The show, as Kriegman envisioned it, would have many of the same elements that made Clarissa Explains It All so different, like on-screen graphics inspired by news programs and flashbacks and fantasies, but they would be “refined and streamlined,” according to the treatment. CBS gave the show the go-ahead, and Kriegman cast the show, built the sets, and wrote four drafts of the pilot, “Clarissa Invades New York”; you can read the first few pages below.
But that was not the show that would get made. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, executives at CBS put the show on hiatus, then hired a new writer to take over. “The first thing they did was cut all the really cool stuff that was in the pilot—she talked to the camera, there were fantasies, just like Clarissa Explains It All,” Kriegman says. “I said, ‘Why are you cutting out all the stuff that we were famous for?’ And the executive said, ‘You know, you can do that on basic cable, but network audiences don’t put up with that post-modern crap.’ And so he took out the talking to camera, except for the very first subway thing; he took out all the graphics; he took out all the fantasies. He made it into the most mundane kind of normal sitcom.”
That left Kriegman as the executive producer on a show that looked nothing like his original vision. “I was like a zombie producer,” he says. “You’re not in charge of it anymore and just sort of walking around like a dead person. I’m still trying to get it produced and get it done, and we did the best we could, but it was something that I knew wasn’t going to work.” CBS filmed the pilot—which, typically, is a proof-of-concept for a show and not meant to go on actual TV—and started airing it “as if it was real, which then caused fans of the show to say, ‘Look at this failed pilot, must’ve been terrible,’” Kriegman says.
It’s called Things I Can’t Explain, and in it, Clarissa is 26 and living in New York City. “I think I’ve answered every compelling question about Clarissa,” Kriegman told Flavorwire. “Everything is dealt with: from where her [fashion] sensibility comes from to what happened to Elvis to what she’s doing now and what’s hard about her life to her relationship with Sam, obviously, and how things change in your 20s. It’s about how you can be a know-it-all when you’re a teenager and then not know so much in your 20s, and how time, the economy, and the world can be cruel to you—no matter how optimistic, positive, and smart you are. She takes some real knocks. … It’s definitely written in a way that I hope is deeply satisfying for the novel itself, but represents an opportunity to continue the story. I think she’s still a fascinating person.”