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Embrace Nostalgia and Innovation With ‘Clarissa Explains It All’ Creator Mitchell Kriegman

Embrace Nostalgia and Innovation With 'Clarissa Explains It All' Creator Mitchell Kriegman

Below, we discuss why Clarissa was never allowed to grow up, how her quirky fashion sense was inspired by “Annie Hall,” what other great writers Kriegman helped nurture early in their careers (one of them might have written something that rhymes with “Schmunger Games”) and why he’ll defend Lena Dunham until the day he dies.

In preparation for this interview, I was re-watching a few episodes of “Clarissa” — I started with the first season and then went to the fifth, just to see the contrast. But there isn’t a lot.

No, there isn’t, unfortunately. I wanted there to be more. I was ready to do that way back then. In fact, “Clarissa” is a sitcom where the story did accelerate a lot and things moved around a lot. There are big jumps in time. If you look at sitcoms of that moment, they were actually even more handstrung than “Clarissa” was. But [Nickelodeon] didn’t really let her grow up and I wanted her to grow up.

Is that part of why you think it came to a close? You hit the wall in terms of how much longer she could be a kid?

Well, I have to rephrase that because I was ready for it to go on forever. I used to say to them, kids have grown up with this girl. Why would you stop letting them grow up with her? It just seemed ridiculous to stop — and the ratings never dropped. It was always doing really well. But they had a very arbitrary cutoff, which is that in those days, Nickelodeon went up to this age and MTV started at that age. [Both Nickelodeon and MTV are owned by Viacom.] And they were so religiously adhering to that idea that they were afraid to let her grow up and they didn’t see that middle ground where she existed.

That triggers the fascinating idea of moving “Clarissa” from Nickelodeon to MTV.

That would have been good. I might have suggested that. I don’t know that I did, but that would’ve been a good idea. I definitely tried to move her to CBS, but then we got completely sandbagged at CBS.

Is that the unaired pilot that popped up on YouTube?

Yeah, the aired un-aired pilot. [Laughs.] The pilot that was never supposed to air that aired. Yeah. No, I don’t know if you know the story of that, but I had written all these drafts of it. I had cast all the actors, I built a set and everything, and suddenly they decided that they wanted to get rid of all the talking to camera, all of the fantasies and all of the animations and all this other stuff. And they brought in another writer. It was insane. I asked them why and they said “Well, you know, network audiences can’t handle — don’t like all that. You can get away with that on cable, but network audiences won’t put up with that postmodern shit.” That’s what they said.

That’s actually hilarious, because looking at all the stuff you were doing on “Clarissa” right from the beginning, it’s stuff that shows like “How I Met Your Mother” now get a lot of credit for trying. They’re exploding the sitcom format — by using the exact same format as you were.

Right. I mean, look at “Modern Family.” There are so many things that came after that that started doing that. So, it was all baloney. Whoever that was at CBS at the time, they just were afraid of it.

That line between “kids” entertainment and adult entertainment and how it affects people working together is really interesting — I actually have friends from college who are professional writers and they’ve been working on the kids’ side of things for so long that when they try to work outside Disney or Nickelodeon, they can’t.

Well, see, I would be glad to talk to them and help them. [Laughs.] Because here’s the thing. Let’s go back to the novel — right now, this thing called Y.A.

Publishers Weekly did a survey: 55 percent of the buyers of Y.A. books are adults. The largest group of that group are 30 to 44. So, what is Y.A. really? You can say it’s for adults or kids. But, the truth is Y.A. is popular fiction with a young protagonist. What is fiction in general? It’s popular fiction with an older protagonist. If you write a novel, popular fiction with a young protagonist, they will push you into this category and it’s an arbitrary category.

I mean, if you think about it, “Catcher in the Rye” would be released as a Young Adult novel. Plenty of kids read “Gone With The Wind” or “To Kill A Mockingbird” at 11. So, it’s actually very arbitrary. If you approach your work in TV or film or novel writing as that you’re writing a full piece of fiction, that you’re creating something that is going to work for everybody, but it has a young protagonist. By its very nature, it’s gonna have certain attributes, but it doesn’t mean you have to see yourself in some kind of–


Yeah. Or some kind of niche that you can’t get out of. There isn’t anything more satisfying than having done “Clarissa” and having all these people who are in their 20s and 30s talk about it seriously and think about it seriously. Now, when I wrote it, I made sure it worked for kids, but all that stuff was always in there. It was never hidden.

I’m so glad you brought up Y.A. because that proves — looking at the CW today, all of the programming on that network is pretty challenging. It’s not necessarily the best-made television on TV right now, but they’re trying things that you wouldn’t normally expect a young audience to be able to accept.

Well, the bottom line is that young audiences are always more willing to accept innovation over other audiences. That’s really the bottom line. I went from working on “Saturday Night Live” to working on “Ren and Stimpy.” When you compare those two, which one do you think is more out there and more sophisticated? “Saturday Night Live” just seems sophisticated because it’s on at night. I mean, it’s not. It could be on in the daytime and you wouldn’t think it’s as good. “Ren and Stimpy” is wild. It’s creatively challenging. It’s all sorts of stuff. So, I don’t get hung up on that stuff and I think especially creative people shouldn’t, even if networks do.

So much of what you’ve done has been oriented towards younger audiences. Is there a specific reason behind that?

Well, I actually started out doing more comedy and I was a performance artist and a video artist and then “SNL” and all that stuff. My stuff was kind of dark, but the truth was that it was very child-like for adults. My sensibility was very child-like on my adult stuff and my kid stuff is very sophisticated. So, then it becomes like where do opportunities arise? And I definitely preferred working at Nickelodeon in its inception to working at “Saturday Night Live” as it was sort of going downhill. There’s no doubt about it that my karma is kids.

READ MORE: Why The CW Deserves Your Attention

I made a list, when I was going through the “Clarissa” credits, of names I recognized from other shows — like Douglas Petrie (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and Glenn Eichler (“The Colbert Report”) and Rachel Sweet (“Sports Night,” “Hot in Cleveland”).

Right, right. And Alexa Junge (“The West Wing,” “Big Love”).

For you, working with them, was there a sense that you were working with people who would be moving to different areas?

Well, no one knew. I hired just really smart people. Alexa Junge is a really good example. The truth is that Alexa knocked herself out in the first season of “Clarissa.” It was just me and her writing in the beginning and we had some freelance writers — like Patty Marks did an episode, who writes for the New Yorker, and we even had writers that went on to do “Roseanne.” Lots of really cool writers. [“Hunger Games” author] Suzanne Collins, you know. That’s another famous one.

I don’t deserve any credit for any of them. It was just that they were really smart people. I like to work with really smart people. They all went on to do really great things on their own. I was just lucky to find great people. I definitely do this thing of finding smart people before they’ve become jaded or become tired in the business or set in their ways. I’m just most interested in people who are willing to go with me to break some of the rules and do things a little differently. And usually that means they’re smart and I like to think that they learn something working with me. Some of them say that and I’m happy to accept that, but I think they deserve all the credit for everything they do.

Is there something specifically making entertainment for children that you think works really well as a stepping stone? You mentioned the idea of getting people before they’re jaded. Is that essential to that process?

Well, it was when I was doing a lot of the good stuff. It isn’t always now. When I was at Nickelodeon, our job was to explode kids television. “Ren and Stimpy” reset the clock for animation. “Clarissa” did an innovative sitcom on cable with a girl that hadn’t really been done before. “Pete and Pete” did its really unique thing. So, our job was to do something new and great and innovative that kids would love and we loved. So, kids [programming] was a great place to do that.

For me personally, the reason why my career is all over the map — and it kind of is, it’s animation, it’s puppetry, it’s sitcom, it’s novels, every kind of thing in the world — it’s because I’m just more interested in paradigms and I’m more interested in things shifting. I’m more interested in that moment where you can do something fresh. So, that’s why I gravitate to where there is opportunity.

For you, as someone both playing with technology and playing with the novel format, what’s the most exciting element of the media landscape right now?

In terms of creating something, I think novels are a really cool way to go. Honestly. And I know that sounds very retro in some ways. But, I think novels are a bit of what movies used to be, in the sense that movies were the unit of entertainment for a while. Novels have become that and they usually get adapted into TV or film. So, there’s always room for a really good novel. I’m excited about that and I think people come to novels with a pretty fresh mind, which is exciting.

I also think that web series is an amazing kind of area to develop stuff in. I don’t mean the kind of a-step-down-from-TV sort of web series, I mean like original people shooting their own thing with a 7D camera. Lena Dunham is — should be — the model for so many people. Film school, they gotta throw film school out, and follow the path of Lena Dunham because she did tons of short web series and tons of filmmaking that was just “pick up a camera and make a film.” And that led to her success, in my opinion.

Yeah, point to something and say this is what I want to do, it already exists, just give me more money? That’s a pretty easy sales pitch. But do you worry at all about the over-saturation element?

There’s always over-saturation. That’s a little bit like saying there are 5000 people that applied for this grant. The truth is, a creator has to have self-confidence. I don’t know why you would bother if you didn’t and if you don’t, you shouldn’t tell anybody and just pretend like you do. My big rant is that if you create something, you need to really go for it and feel like you’re invulnerable — because why shouldn’t you? It’s everyone else that needs to figure out what they want to do. You’re competing with the good people, and you really ought to see yourself that way.

The bottom line is yes, there’s more media being created than ever. Everybody and every discipline has to think visually, from scientists to journalists to everybody. They can’t forget about images now and that’s a good thing. It’s like the music business — the demise of the record labels has led to actually way more music being made and a lot of it is really great. It becomes harder to distinguish yourself, but you have to do that, and you have to be sort of fearless with that.

So, what’s next for you? What’s moving from the back burner to the front burner?

My second novel comes out next year. And that’s “Things I Can’t Explain” based on the character from “Clarissa,” which I’m extremely excited about. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. I’m working on my third book, which is my own little secret. And, I’m looking at doing TV again. There are some TV projects that I’ve been talking to people about. I’d love to do that ten-episode arc series where you can create something and have it have a beginning, middle, and end,

Would that be for a young audience?

Not necessarily. People look at “Clarissa” differently now. Just like a Y.A. novel can have lots of levels, I think a kids show can have lots of levels. I think they can embrace that.

What’s so interesting is that even in this brand new landscape that Netflix and Amazon are creating in terms of digital content, the kids stuff is still in its… I don’t want to say ghetto, but that’s kind of what it is.

I think it should break out of that. I really do. If everybody wanted to, they could do what we did when I was working on “Ren and Stimpy,” “Rugrats,” “Doug” and “Clarissa,” which is: Let’s innovate. Let’s do something that breaks across. That was the brand in those days. There’s been a copycat brand that’s been going on for a while and maybe it will change, maybe it won’t! Maybe just a few people will do something really cool. That happens.

Where do you think the most innovative kids content is right now?

“Adventure Time.” “Adventure Time” is the one show where I sit there and go “God, I wish I created that show.” That’s so much out of the mind of one guy and I just think it’s amazing. I love it.

Do you think it’s because it comes from one person, as opposed to like a factory system?

Well, in general, it’s better when it comes from one person. There’s no doubt that [“Ren and Stimpy” creator] John Krisfalusci created something. It has reverberations across other categories like John, like I said, he reset animation. It started everybody thinking about animation again in a way that they hadn’t been thinking about it. So, you want to have a voice. Creator-driven is what they used to call it. You want a voice-driven show. That is what makes things exciting. Then you get a vision. You get a window on a world. You see new things, and who doesn’t want to see something new? So, I think it can happen in a lot of different ways but at some point people have to trust the creator to work on something.

I will say that “Clarissa” was the first show that first got me thinking about fashion. I’d never paid any attention to it before, but everything she wore felt really accessible and relatable and fun.

You know what it is, is that before “Clarissa” everything was coordinated. People gave children or bought for children — girls — coordinated outfits. Blue ribbons, blue dress, blue shoes. So the idea that you could create your own stuff from your own closet was a bit of a new idea. I think Diane Keaton kind of felt like she did that in her world. So, I just thought that would be great for “Clarissa.”

Was that a direct inspiration? “Annie Hall” to “Clarissa”?

I think I cited it as an explanation. Let me put it that way. [Laughs.] Because I had to justify a lot of the weird things I did. I had to justify that I wanted her to dress in a completely original fashion, because I just thought why not. It was an expression of who she was. I just wanted to rock the whole idea of what a kid was at that time. Like, her bedroom is an example of this. People were scared and appalled by it for a while: I’ll never forget, there was one cameraman who would say, “She must be possessed by the devil if her bedroom has those big black squares on the walls. What parents would allow her to do that?” That’s what I wanted. I wanted a kid to explode the world, to show how innovative and offbeat kids could be and be original and express themselves.

It’s one of those messages that you’re not hitting over the head. It’s something kids just absorb organically.

Well, here’s why it works. Because I didn’t say that all kids dress this way or all kids should do this. What I said was that in the show, this is her idea and she’s talking to you. You almost always will listen to somebody’s quirky idea of what they do and why they do it. You don’t feel like they’re telling you all girls do this, or all boys do that. Because every expression is a personal expression, what it does actually is that it enables other people to express themselves personally. If Clarissa can dress up the way she wants, why can’t I dress up the way I want? That’s the idea of it.

There’s this concept right now of “so specific that it’s universal.” Lena Dunham is a good example of this I think — she tells a story so specific to her and her reality, but in doing so, universal qualities come out of it, so it becomes something that people can connect with.

Yeah, and I think they fault her. I’m a huge defender of Lena Dunham.

I can tell!

I will go down defending Lena Dunham under any circumstances. I think what she does is that she makes it possible for a lot of other people to express themselves in a lot of ways. When people try to box her into being somehow preachy, as if she’s saying everybody should do what she’s doing, it’s completely BS because it’s not what she’s doing at all. It’s because they’re threatened by a woman who is expressing herself, who is unconventional, who is saying some things that are very true. And I’ll tell you something else — she’s way more daring as a comedian than Woody Allen ever was and many of the great comedians that we’ve had. She puts herself out there, she’s not afraid of embarrassment, she’s innovative in the way she’s created her characters. So, I think everyone is underestimating her.

I want to take it back a little to how Clarissa talks to the camera, because there’s that idea that the the fact that the YouTube vlog format might feel new, but if you look at “Clarissa,” there are just decades worth of kids who are responding really strongly to having someone on screen talk to them.

Right. Direct address.

And then you take it all the way back to Shakespeare with direct address. So, what is it about direct address that you think proves so compelling?

A lot of my other shows, they talk to the camera. Little kids actually think they’re being talked to by TV. It’s a very powerful means of expression, so what does that say? That says that the inner child in all of us responds to someone talking to us on TV.

The second thing is that TV is unique in direct address. It works better in TV than it does in film, in general, because in TV, it’s not really breaking the fourth wall. Like Dan Rather or Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow, they’re not breaking the fourth wall to tell you the news. Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman — they’re not breaking the fourth wall. There’s a convention of being talked to on TV that is very comforting and very one to one. I think one of the great things about “Clarissa” is that it didn’t have the artifice that a vlog does. I mean I have nothing against creating new ways to talk to the camera. I’m always looking for something clever to do honestly. [Laughs.] But, it was nice that she didn’t have a convention of talking to the camera, she just did. It was like just talking to you at any time. I just think that was very liberating and satisfying.

Maybe there’s an element to it of giving her control of the narrative? Like she’s functioning as both narrator and protagonist.

I have all sots of reasons for having done it. Among the other reasons for having done it, I knew that having somebody charming talk to you, you would immediately fall in love with their character. So, it was kind of a quick way to make sure that worked. 

I read the Flavorwire interview you did, where you talked about the fact that you would never be able to get away with doing the pilot episode of “Clarissa” now, with her talking about murdering Ferguson. How hard has it been to see the rules regarding kids television get tougher over the years?

It’s just a drag. I still have plenty of rules to break and it would be fun to do it. There are so many issues you can deal with and do something new and unique, and I think a lot of times the networks are missing an opportunity because I think if you break new ground, you really would get a bigger audience and there would be a way to break through all the different things that are out there now. Who needs the same old thing? So, I think there are a lot of great things to do.

The truth is that we live in a different world and there’s no doubt about it. We have to accept that we live in a world that is more complex than it used to be, and I think to some degree, people are grieving for the old world that it used to be.

Missing the old ways, because they were simpler?

Or more comforting. Or we felt at ease with them. There have been some vast changes in the world. They’re not minor. They’re relatively earth-shaking. So, I think it takes a lot to grapple with it but every time that something like that happens, it’s a new opportunity. So, I don’t see it as a negative. I see it as a positive. I think we need to accept things as they are, and start creating new things.

“Being Audrey Hepburn” is available now as a novel and as an audio book.

READ MORE: How Cartoon Hangover and ‘Adventure Time’ Producer Fred Seibert Saved American Animation

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