Flavorwire Interview: ‘Clarissa Explains It All’ Creator Mitchell Kriegman on the Show’s Legacy, Hubcaps, and Gender Politics

By
Share:

In 1991, Mitchell Kriegman created Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All, a groundbreaking and charming sitcom with a female lead (Melissa Joan Hart) and an innovative visual style. Equally popular among boys and girls, the show would go on to become one of the biggest hits for the network. Twenty years after the series finale, the love for Clarissa has yet to die down. Kriegman is even keeping her legacy alive with a novel that picks up with Clarissa in her 20s. Flavorwire talked with Kriegman about the upcoming book, the importance of diversity on television, and the story behind the hubcaps on Clarissa’s wall.

Flavorwire: I want to talk about Clarissa Explains It All’s relevance because after we published this controversial interview with Mathew Klickstein, there were some “I can’t believe he said that Clarissa wasn’t a big hit” reactions. It was a weird, unfair comparison because different kinds of shows can coexist.

Mitchell Kriegman: Right. My reaction was: It’s not a wrestling match where we have to pit one show against the other. Pete and Pete was awesome and was created out of completely different circumstances. It was actually originally a promo series that Will McRobb created that was brilliant. It should’ve become some kind of series that was bigger. Ren and Stimpy obviously was groundbreaking [and] reset the history of animation. Jon Kricfalusi single-handedly reset how we think about animation. That is gigantic. But that’s one genre, Pete and Pete is another one, and Clarissa is a third. There’s a lot of aspects that were overstated, but in terms of comparing them… why? It’s an unfruitful process.

Why do you think Clarissa is still so popular?

It opened up sitcoms in a lot of different ways for that audience. She was an original voice, she was ahead of the curve, and encouraged everyone to be ahead of the curve. It was the show of a generation. Obviously it was the beginning of Nickelodeon being 24/7, but there was other stuff, too.

She had this orientation of being forward-looking and being an early adopter before there were examples of early adopters. She dressed as an early adopter. Before Clarissa, when you would go into a store, you would have to buy a coordinated outfit: a blue ribbon and a blue dress and blue shoes. The idea of a mash-up of clothes from your closet as a way to dress wasn’t — besides Diane Keaton in Annie Hall — a common idea. She was an early adopter in fashion. She was obviously, in the most weirdly prophetic way, an early adopter with video games where she thought she could make video games and did.

She didn’t just play video games but was intelligent and skilled enough to create them and use them in her own life, to work out problems via a video game.

Which is still a revolutionary idea. I know people working on huge startups and projects where their goal is to create video games that are self-made… that are educational and emotional. She did that and it was like, “Everything is possible. Everything is sort of my style. Everything is a toss-off. Everything has to be taken for granted.” It was an early mentality, this mindset of, “Of course I’m making video games” as opposed to, “Look at this incredible video game!” I think those qualities of hers — being interested in the new thing and never being shy about that, never being insecure about moving forward culturally or fashion-wise, in her relationships with Sam and her brother — she was better than the game.

I’m always interested in people who are better than the game. Muhammad Ali was better at boxing at one point. John McEnroe was better than tennis at one point. There are these people in the culture who, every once in a while, get better and stronger than the culture itself. My idea was to create a 14-year-old girl who was in this pocket of awareness about her life and was better than the game of being a tweenager.

A lot of the Nickelodeon shows were about everyone loving each other, and obviously Clarissa and Ferguson loved each other but she also wanted to kill him sometimes — which is what happens with siblings.

Now, that has become more provocative over time. You would never be able to do an episode about killing your brother. It was the tip of the iceberg of sibling rivalry by talking about wanting to kill him. I just saw there was such a great sense of relief and emotion in being able to say out loud, “I want to kill my brother.” But at the same time, I have to say, they would never let you use that word. The tension in that pilot was: Is she going to kill him? And how’s she going to kill him? What she does is this harmless, ridiculous thing of putting balloons on the chair. I think there’s a straitjacket and a bunch of other goofy things involved.

I asked my mom for a straitjacket because of that episode.

It looked kind of chic on her, didn’t it? It looked kind of fashionable, that she was in this straitjacket and she threw herself on the bed trying to get out of it. That was something right from my performance art and video art-world.

Clarissa’s relationship with Sam was portrayed in a great way in that they were always just friends — never anything over-dramatic or any pressure. You don’t often see that on TV.

The fact that I adhered to them being pals and being together all of the time was [the] idea that women and men could be friends. It was part of my gender politics of the show. Not to get intellectual about it — no one sat down with me and had a conversation about gender politics — it was inherent. The gender politics were flying fast and furious when I made that show, truthfully. There was a lot of concern about if I could pull it off. I worked very hard to make it appeal to women and men, girls and boys. If we get into the gender politics of the show, the orientation was that everybody is an individual, everybody can sympathize with each other regardless of their gender, and everybody can be friends.

From the perspective of gender, that was a really important relationship because it meant that guys watching the show could say, “Oh, I can sympathize with her. I want to be friends with that girl. It’s OK for me to be friends with her without having to jump her bones or feeling like I’m being a sissy.” Which, to this day, is a really hard thing to get across in television. To this day, gender — especially related to boys, honestly — is more problematic. Boys are more problematic; boys need new role models that girls have had since the time of Clarissa. I really, truly believe I could have not have done a boy like Clarissa.

I wanted to for a long time, and I still do, and I’m hopeful that maybe soon I will get a chance to do a boy character who is as interesting and has as many great relationships as Clarissa.

Clarissa had an amazing room that blurred the lines of gender. She liked what she liked.

It was personal. The lingo, the set, and the relationship with Sam, these things worked because you were on her side. She was explaining it so you had a natural tendency to listen to somebody when they’re telling you what’s going on inside their heads. The viewers have a natural tendency to buy in, especially if they’re charming and articulate and kind.

I always think about the hubcaps on her wall.

The hubcaps resonate with me because I knew I wanted them on the wall. Only recently did I realize that she collects hubcaps that were left behind on the street because she’s interested in cars and she wants a car. I figured at that time in the world, getting to drive was the goal in life — getting the freedom, getting out of the house, and not having to get a ride somewhere, which is still true. Those things were working because they came from a personal point of view — her point of view. It’s less provocative if your friend likes hubcaps than if you’re making a statement that all girls love hubcaps.

It’s an important distinction. It’s not, “We need to put hubcaps on the wall so boys feel comfortable watching.” It’s, “Let’s put hubcaps on the wall because she wants to drive.” It makes Clarissa an individual before a girl.

Exactly. You hit it, completely, because that was the goal. A lot of things become acceptable when you work that way. People are more open-minded towards a character or somebody you know in real life when they’re presented that way because they’re not trying to preach to you and they’re not selling you on something — which all has to do with the breezy, throwaway style of the show. If you do it all that way, then people will sit there and go, “Maybe I don’t want hubcaps on my wall, but if there’s something else I want to collect, I can do that.” Or “Maybe I don’t want to talk the way she does, but if I want to talk the way I want to talk, then I can do that.”

It’s influential. There wasn’t Clarissa merchandise, but there were things I’d pick up on like wanting to play video games or wear Dr. Martens. I wear Dr. Martens today because of Clarissa.

I had an amazing experience the other day in Santa Monica. I was walking down the promenade and I saw a Dr. Martens store. I know now there are Dr. Martens stores all over the place, but I’ve never seen one before… So, I walked into the store and I said, to the three clerks that were sitting there, “You know, I have personally done more to popularize Dr. Martens in America than anybody else.” They were like, “What the hell is this crazy old guy talking about?” I told them about the show, and it was like they were just beside themselves. They completely, utterly knew exactly what I was talking about.

Can you tell me about the Clarissa book?

I’m hoping, knocking on wood, that it’ll all turn out well. I’m hoping it’s going to be hugely satisfying to people who grew up on the show but also people who are just discovering Clarissa. I think I’ve answered every compelling question about Clarissa. I’ve imagined her completely in her 20s and I feel like I know her as well as I do now as I did then. 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. The thing about Clarissa is that she never lost. If Clarissa wasn’t winning the way she wanted to, she redefined what winning was. She was expert at coming out on top. She didn’t do it in an arrogant way but it was one of the things that gave her cockiness and victories.

She made her own victories.

I think that’s one of the most valuable things to do in life. Life is cruel and turns all sorts of bad ways, but you can define your own victories, find your own way to make it make sense for you. That’s how I see her. She’s still doing that in the novel. The things that can happen to you when you’re on your own and no longer at home, when your life takes twists and turns, especially related to the world we live in today, can be really tough. Defining your own victories becomes harder and harder and you take some real knocks. I’m hoping that the book reimagines her and her life completely.

Are you planning to do more Clarissa novels?

It all depends on how much people like it. I’m not in charge of that. It’s certainly set up so there could be more. There’s a lot to do to reintroduce her, all of the other characters, and all that’s happened to them. 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.

It’s better than a reunion special 20 years later when everyone’s grown up. In the novel, you can make Clarissa 26, which is a really absurd time in your life — probably the most absurd time outside of being a teenager.

There was a lot of thought that went into what period of her life I was going to start with again… When you go back to picking up Clarissa again, you don’t want to do the literal, boring, “Oh, she was this age in 1992 and in 2014 she’d be this age, and literally this and literally that.” That is such an irrelevant quest to try to figure out. Whereas finding her in her 20s — which isn’t a number, it’s a state of mind and a state of life — is what you want to see. You want to know how that girl in her teens turned out in her 20s. That’s what matters and that’s why I wrote it that way.

Do you have any opinions on the diversity issues in children’s TV that I talked about with Klickstein?

Absolutely. The bottom line is, first of all, I know Mathew and he wrote a really good book that really has done a lot of good things to get people to think about. I think that his book has been one of those things that is really great for everybody and I would hate for people to stop enjoying these things because of it.

But, let’s face it: This audience is a very sophisticated audience. It’s not like you’re sitting around writing about Smurfs or She-Ra and some of the other junk that was out roughly the same time. You guys are probably the first really truly, deeply sophisticated group of a generation of viewers of television and politics and that sees media in a way that is post-literature. It’s not surprising to me that there would be some negative reaction to his comments, even though I know him and I like his book.

Bottom line: There has to be diversity. There needs to be diversity. We’re not in a world of reverse discrimination at all. We’re still in a world that needs wider values and wider ranges of culture. That’s a general statement but then you go into what I consider the most important part, which is that it’s a rich world out there! Why wouldn’t you want to see something from the point of view of other people? Why wouldn’t you want, commercially and from a marketing point of view, to extend what you do with other audiences and give other people a chance to write their point of view?

I wanted to [write] a girl who was a Shinnecock Indian. I lived in Long Island for a while, where the Shinnecock Native Americans are, and I’m fascinated by what happens to a Native American girl who lives in two cultures at the same time. That would be an amazing show to watch. It would be an education for everybody. It would be empowering to Native American girls and boys.

I just see diversity as something that is always on the table and there’s never a moment where we stop wanting it. I think what happens is that people get threatened by it and feel worried about competing. I think that colors their judgment but I don’t think they should worry about it because I think everybody has plenty to offer in this category. That’s my take on it. It’s just something that I’m always interested in. I wish I could do better, honestly, and I wish I had the opportunity to do better.

When you were working on Clarissa, were you ever consciously worried about the lack of diversity on the show?

Well, it’s really interesting, because if you put yourself in the mindset, I was already doing something highly controversial in the moment, that was not expected to succeed, which was that I was having gender diversity. I had a girl as the lead of a sitcom in a time where it was a G.I. Joe/Barbie world and no one thought you could do it. I would’ve loved to have had more diverse characters in terms of ethnicity on the show — and lord knows you couldn’t do a gay character in those days; they’d laugh you out of the office.

But if you’re dealing with a world in which, for example, her fighting the bully in [“Bully”], was so controversial [that] at the time I wrote it, they lobbied me to take it off the air. If you’re sitting there trying to get a girl on TV in an authentic way that includes her willing to stand up against a bully, which is not absurd and has been happening forever, you’re fighting a lot of battles to try to add more controversial elements. Which isn’t an excuse. I wish [diversity] was there. I wish we had done more. Maybe if we had gone longer, we could’ve. I’m always trying to figure out how, in a natural way, to include more. But you do have to be driven by your creativity, and sometimes it’s not so easy to find ways to do that, but I don’t want it to come off as a cop-out. I just think it’s something you always have to be trying to do.