How "Clarissa Explains It All" Helped Change Television
When Mitchell Kriegman pitched Clarissa in the early '90s, Nickelodeon considered the project risky. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, the creator explains how he made it all work — and exploded kids' TV in the process.
For twentysomethings raised on a steady diet of Nickelodeon, few TV characters carry the clout of Clarissa Explains It All's eponymous lead. Clarissa Darling, played by '90s staple Melissa Joan Hart, was effortlessly cool, stylish, and opinionated — a relatable teenage girl who didn't talk down to her demographic but was still unequivocally a kid.
Girls wanted to be her. And boys, whether they were willing to admit it or not, wanted her to be their hip older sister. Clarissa wore Keith Haring shirts and headbands with equal flair, and she never apologized for any of her choices — whether that meant defending her brother Ferguson (Jason Zimbler) from a bully, or wearing an outfit of her choosing on school picture day.
At the time, a character like Clarissa was a revelation for young people looking for someone who was on their level but also cooler than they could ever be. For five seasons, she dabbled in everything from writing to DJ'ing to meteorology, all without breaking a sweat. And an entire generation — new to the world of sitcoms and to the thrill of a female protagonist — was hooked.
That was exactly what Clarissa Explains It All creator Mitchell Kriegman was going for when he pitched the series, which premiered in March 1991. But getting the fledgling Nickelodeon network to sign off on Clarissa was daunting.
The early '90s were full of challenges for Nickelodeon, which was still trying to find its voice. But that made it a dynamic environment for Kriegman, who also worked on the animated series Doug, Rugrats, The Ren and Stimpy Show, and Rocko's Modern Life.
"You could fail, but if you didn't take a risk, you were in trouble," Kriegman told BuzzFeed News in an interview at a coffee shop near his Santa Barbara, California, home. "I knew I was working with really smart people, and it was exciting. We had a lot of latitude to create ideas."
Kriegman was eager to produce something that would help define the network and would "explode kids' TV," as Nickelodeon program manager Gerry Laybourne put it.
But it wouldn't be easy.
"I was convinced that, first of all, they needed a person, because they had a place. Nickelodeon was at that moment this great place for kids, but there were no people there," Kriegman said.
As far as Kriegman was concerned, that person had to be the most original they could find, someone who would break new ground in kids' entertainment, as Laybourne wanted, and someone who would draw an audience in. And in Kriegman's mind, that person had to be a girl. "Girls were coming into an own they hadn't quite generationally at that moment," he said. "It was really a time for girls to step out and be exciting."
But when it came time for Nickelodeon to take Clarissa Explains It All on, "there were huge risks," Kriegman said. "People were skeptical about whether boys would watch a girl. That was the biggest stake in the ground, and that's what I had gone for in pitching it."
He added: "I had the contention that kids are more willing to cross genders and look at different genders. I was saying, 'Look, boys will identify with this girl and will be interested in this girl as long as we don't turn them off." After some resistance, he was able to successfully make his case.
Clarissa needed to appeal to everyone, and that meant her interests were creating computer games and tending to her pet caiman Elvis rather than anything perceived to be more traditionally female at the time.
"I wrote the show so there wasn't anything that overtly said to a boy, 'Run away,'" Kriegman said. "So there weren't shows about makeup. That wasn't a big sacrifice. Does a show for girls have to be about makeup? No."
Still, Kriegman made sure there were female writers to bring their own experiences as former teenagers to the table. Sarah Condon, now an executive producer on HBO's Looking, and Alexa Junge, who went on to produce Friends and executive produce United States of Tara, got their starts on Clarissa.
But the show still had hurdles to clear. Clarissa was also Nickelodeon's first sitcom, another uncertain prospect. The network's brand-new studios in Orlando were used for game shows, stock footage series, and promos. The camera operators were, by Kriegman's admission, new to the sitcom world. And the budget was staggeringly low: The creator pinpointed the number at somewhere around $150,000 the first year, which is paltry compared with the $800,000 to $1 million budgets of other contemporary sitcoms.
"We were using inexperienced people to do something that the network had no experience with," Kriegman said.
Clarissa didn't follow a traditional sitcom format either. For Kriegman, who felt compelled to follow Laybourne's "explode kids' TV" decree, trying new things with Clarissa was essential. "I knew I wanted to be able to use the kind of pretty established, obviously sitcom format but deliver a lot of stuff to shake it up, because it was so boring," he said. "As wonderful and amazing as Mary Tyler Moore was, it was stagnant, especially if you were thinking of kids."
Kriegman's experiments included the use of graphics software Paintbox, fantasy sequences, Clarissa's iconic direct address to the camera, and sharp references that spanned classic literature to pop culture and likely went over the heads of the show's youngest viewers.
"All those things are really par for the course for me," Kriegman continued. "Paradigm shifting is what we were after, and we were doing it all at the same time."
The appeal of Clarissa Explains It All was largely a result of the "kids for kids" mentality that Nickelodeon's programming aimed to reflect. Laybourne saw her staff as "kid advocates," which meant that Nick shows had to be written for children and tweens — not dumbed down for them. At the same time, writers were tasked with creating entertainment that they themselves would watch.
"That was revolutionary at the time," Kriegman said. "This is literally what they said to you: 'Do a show that kids will love and that you like too.' Which was a nice thing, because a lot of times it's not about whether you like it or not. It's just whether the audience likes it." With Nickelodeon, it wasn't about parental approval — "hence Ren and Stimpy," Kriegman was quick to point out — but about a consistency in quality that broadened the network's appeal.
"If you're 20 to 40 years old, you've got a level of intelligence and your reference base is such that you're gonna do something your colleagues will like and it holds up that way," Kriegman said. "Ren and Stimpy reset the clock on animation. There is no doubt about that. Pete & Pete was its own unique new telling and use of short forms. Once you start getting into that territory you tend to get stuff that is either a great experiment that didn't work or something that lasts."
As it turned out, kids were ready for shows that treated them like the curious, savvy soon-to-be-dubbed millennials that they were. Even if they didn't get all of the references Clarissa threw out — she was far better read than most teenagers her age — they appreciated that she was equal parts cool kid and intellectual. Clarissa was worldly, without being alienating. The key word, Kriegman said, was "aspirational."
The success of Clarissa Explains It All grew over the years: The final two seasons aired on Nickelodeon's new Saturday night lineup SNICK, which catered to a somewhat older audience. Though that allowed the writers to dabble in more grown-up topics like learning to drive and preparing for college, Clarissa remained relatively tame — its storylines were high school age-appropriate but still geared toward younger kids. The show never tackled sex and drugs the way other teen series, like 90210, did. Even family-friendly fare like Saved by the Bell was edgier.
While Kriegman had no desire to turn Clarissa into a racy teenage drama, he did want to add some slightly more adult complexity. Eventually, however, he reached a roadblock. "Network-wise, they definitely wanted to not shake up their franchise," Kriegman said. "I felt like we had to do things. I took their 'explode kids' TV' mandate to heart, maybe more than they wanted to at different points."
Kriegman had big plans for Clarissa as she entered adulthood, but similar to the debate over the gender segregation in kids' programming, common wisdom at the time suggested that Clarissa had to, more or less, stay 14. She aged on the show and eventually graduated high school, but her growth was deliberately stunted.
"I didn't find it to be a problem except for near the end when I wanted her to grow up," Kriegman said. "The show was dying to get older, and I wanted it to grow older, and I was ready to do that. I felt we had done 65 episodes of her younger. Why wouldn't we do it?"
There are storylines Kriegman still regrets not exploring. One memorable episode of Clarissa Explains It All had Clarissa going on a date and kissing her seemingly platonic best friend Sam (Sean O'Neal). If he'd had his way, Kriegman might have developed that further, but his hands were tied by network constraints. Conventional wisdom at the time suggested that a more adult Clarissa would be too old for Nickelodeon: Nick represented one age group, and MTV, another. The two could never cross.
Kriegman's desire to continue Clarissa's story remained. Shortly after Clarissa Explains It All ended its run on Nickelodeon in 1994, he turned to CBS to develop a follow-up series, which would track 18-year-old Clarissa in her first journalism job. But his pilot was heavily rewritten during the development process.
"They took out all the heavy kind of cool references that we were already more sophisticated on the Nickelodeon show than in that pilot," Kriegman said. "They dumbed down the show to make it work for adults. Think about that. That is a huge statement about what they were about. And they did it in a snobby way too. The exec at the time said, 'Network audiences won't put up with that postmodern crap you get away with with kids on cable.'"
Kriegman's experience on Clarissa was a major disappointment: He likened his time on the pilot to being a "zombie producer." Although he was never able to create the follow-up series he wanted, Kriegman has now penned a novel about a twentysomething Clarissa, Things I Can't Explain, which is due out in September. The book will cover subject matter that the Nickelodeon series wouldn't touch, including sex.
"She's older, and finally, she's liberated," Kriegman said. "It's very much like an extended rant of Clarissa's. But everybody's in there, I think, and hopefully there are a lot of surprises. And hopefully, it's slightly unnerving that you're faced with her fully grown."
While Kriegman hopes that the novel appeals to new fans as well as those who grew up watching Clarissa Explains It All, he understands the special affection the latter feel toward the character.
And because the series was written to entertain both kids and the grown-ups who were writing it, adult viewers can continue to revisit it without wondering what their younger selves were thinking. In Clarissa, Kriegman created something beloved by contemporary kids who have carried that passion into adulthood. Its ability to stand the test of time, along with other early '90s Nickelodeon programs, speaks to the success of the network's "explode kids' TV" mandate.
"There's nothing more gratifying for me than when people that grew up with it and remember it as a kid talk about it now, and see everything that they didn't quite see in it then. They are able to dissect it," Kriegman said. "It's amazing. They're probably some of the smartest viewers that have ever come along."