It's been nearly 20 years since "Clarissa Explains It All" signed off Nickelodeon, but the pre-adolescent blonde at the center of the series (played by Melissa Joan Hart) who had a penchant for mismatched men's style shirts with bike shorts, hating on her redheaded little brother, and letting her best friend use a ladder to get into her bedroom, has never left the hearts and minds of many children of the '90s.
The series, which aired for five seasons on Nickelodeon from 1991-1994, was a candid, yet quirky depiction of tweenhood. Mitchell Kriegman, the creator of "Clarissa Explains It All," tried to continue her story as a young woman with a 1995 CBS pilot, titled "Clarissa Now." The spinoff brought the character to New York City, where she was a young journalist working at a newspaper, but sadly, Clarissa Darling's story was cut short.
Now, 18 years after the pilot wasn't picked up to series, Kriegman is reconnecting fans with Clarissa, who's now in her mid-'20s, with an upcoming novel called "Things I Can’t Explain," tentatively slated for a fall 2014 release.
Below, Kreigman opens up to The Huffington Post about where Clarissa and the Darlings are now, what really happened with that "Clarissa" pilot, another missed spinoff opportunity, the Nirvana-inspired "Clarissa" album that wasn't, the clothes, that alligator and much more.
How did the idea for the book come about?
Well, I've been thinking about it for ages just because the show was always unfinished business to me because Clarissa kept on growing and why wouldn't you want to know what happened to her? I found [the end] to be just kind of an absurd stop. The show never went down in ratings. The show never lost its audience.
And I felt frustrated when we did the CBS pilot because I got sort of taken out of that and even though I cast it and I designed it in a lot of ways, I didn't really get to realize it. So since I've been writing novels, which is relatively recent, that's when it really dawned on me.
The other thing is, I've had this amazing experience that I'm extremely thankful for -- that happens everywhere, including the ski lift -- that anytime I talk to anybody from 23-35, they are so thrilled to hear about "Clarissa." It literally makes my day every time I talk to someone who loves the show and I just find it to be incredibly satisfying. It's the thing that transcends all the difficulties of the business and all the difficulties of creating something and making it live. We're sitting here, well into 2013 and the fact that it's fondly thought of, it's just great.
But basically, it's always been on my mind. I've always wanted to find a new way to get back involved with her life.
Why a book versus a TV reboot or a movie?
The novel, for me, is just the most genuine way to do it because if you did it as another TV series, not only are there hurdles because of the business and everything, but it's such a different play, especially to that audience that's grown up on so much media. To do it as a novel, we all know it takes something to write a book. [Laughs.] And it means that you're really going to explore it and you're really going to see what she's like.
Is the book going to continue where the "Clarissa Now" pilot left off?
There are a couple things I'd love to correct from the original report. One is that she's probably a little bit older than 23 -- she's sort of quarter-life, mid-'20s. I'm trying to keep it general a little bit.
And what I wanted to do was not to ignore that CBS pilot, even though it wasn't necessarily what I had envisioned. I wanted to absorb that as part of her life. Journalism isn't the focus of this book at all. It's really about her romance and love life and point of view on the world and catching up with her. She's looking for work just like everybody else -- I say she's on the "unenjoyment" line -- and she has some skills from having been a journalist. She kind of got to the point where she would have had a career as a journalist if journalism had been what it was. The paper that she worked for went away and she had to start over again. I think it's so interesting that a lot of people have to do that at 25. I mean, how wild is that? They've gone to college, they've found a good job and then they went away? So that's where I put her really. The only reason why I mention journalism is because I'd rather absorb what people know [from the pilot] than deny it.
The centerpiece of this whole thing is really a guy. She's finishing a relationship in this book and starting a new one. It's what happens when the cute guy that she used to see at the coffee shop every day suddenly becomes somebody that she's talking to and involved with, all by these quirky, goofy, kooky, oddball, Clarissa kind of maneuvers. It's almost by coincidence so it's almost like she just takes a leap.
So I'm guessing she's not with Sam [Sean O'Neal]?
You'll see Sam, although if there's another guy, there's another focus. Not everybody is the focus of the book, but the old characters make appearances. It's fun!
How much will the rest of the Darlings come into play?
Clarissa is really involved with her family, even at her quarter-life. I think kids still are, but she always was managing her parents, you know? Mom [Elizabeth Hess] and Dad [Joe O'Connor] are huge factors [in the book], Ferguson [Jason Zimbler] definitely is a factor and there's a lot of other characters too. You know what there is? There's a bunch of girlfriends, which I'm really looking forward to.
Going back to the "Clarissa Now" pilot, what went wrong?
I think it was too early for the show to be true to its form. It was a funny situation because I had written a lot of drafts, I had cast it, I had started building the set and everything and I just think they weren't ready -- which is really funny when you look at "Modern Family" and everything else out there -- but they weren't ready for her to talk to the camera and have fantasies. And I was like, "Well, what do you mean? That's how she expresses herself! That's how this show cuts itself above other shows!" And there was one exec that said something that I'll never forget. He said, "Network audiences can't handle that postmodern sensibility." And look at everything on TV now. That's so not true. [Laughs.]
"Clarissa" was one of the first shows on Nickelodeon geared towards tweens and with a male and female friendship at its center. The show definitely broke a lot of rules. Was it hard for you to get the green light?
Well, there are two big things that were different about the world at the time. The number one thing from the environment at Nickelodeon was Geri Laybourne was there and she deserves just an enormous amount of credit. Our job at Nickelodeon in those days was to break the mold. Our job was to explode the genre of kids' TV. So you could fail and do a show that maybe didn't work for the audience, but you couldn't fail to take a risk. You had to do something different. It was really defined in those days as the anti-Disney, as opposed to being somewhat of a shadow of Disney now. You have to understand, I'm not a guy that's good at doing the same old thing. I'm really good at breaking the mold. [Laughs.] So I loved it -- it was a perfect environment for me.
The next big challenge was that the conventional wisdom was that boys won't watch a girl lead -- it was the Barbie/G.I. Joe days and everybody from the toy industry to the TV industry to the cartoon industry, everybody believed that if you did a girl lead, you'd never succeed. And I methodically figured out how to do it. It was the first tween and the first main female character -- I think Mayim Bialik [on "Blossom"] came around that time too -- but basically, there wasn't a girl lead that really ran the show and was as empowered as Clarissa was. Part of the idea was that 50 percent of our audience was boys. Fifty percent of our fan letters from the very beginning were from boys and that friendship [between Sam and Clarissa] -- kids were dying to see a friendship between the sexes. In the real world, that was not that far-fetched, but on TV it was. Everything from how the opening was cut, the color scheme of the show, I modeled everything so that boys and girls would watch the show and that it would be equal.
They did have a little bit of trouble wrapping their heads around a guy writing a 14-year-old girl, but there's a great tradition of men writing great female characters. So that was a hurdle a little bit and then, the other issue was, at one point, I wanted Clarissa to be able to stand up to a bully and to be ready to physically fight a bully. Now, the way the story went, she didn't end up having to fight the guy -- in fact, he ended up falling in love with her.
But the way it was set up until the third act, was, "This guy's picking on my brother. I don't like my brother, but I don't want anybody picking on my brother!" [Laughs.] She called him out and was practicing to fight him and was ready to do it. At first, they were really worried about it, but then again, if you really look at it in the broad terms, they completely supported me. I have no complaints about Nickelodeon. They really gave me the opportunity and supported me.
Besides that episode, what others stand out to you?
You know which one I love that people don't usually talk about is "Ferguson Explains It All." I thought that was the beginning of another series if they were ready for it. It was ahead of its time! But I felt like Ferguson could be Dexter, the cartoon character [from "Dexter's Laboratory"]. He's a crazy, brainy guy who will take ridiculous risks because he doesn't know better. So that one I loved a lot and that was a special one. I loved the last one a lot where she was Murphy Brown. I loved "Cool Dad" and all the parodies in that one. I loved "Brain Drain," which was the game show, and ["Alter Ego,"] the one with James Van Der Beek.
We have to talk about the clothes. Did do you work really closely with the costume designer on perfecting Clarissa's look?
First of all, the name of the costume designer is Lisa Lederer. She's brilliant. I've totally stayed in touch with her. In fact, when I started writing this book, we sat down and talked about what Clarissa would be wearing now and I've already pulled a whole bunch of jpegs of clothes [she used to wear]. It's so wacky and she couldn't keep being so whacked out -- otherwise, she's a lunatic.
But when Lisa came in, she was just the coolest person in the world -- way cooler than all of us. I actually had one arbitrary rule that there was no purple allowed and we tried to use as much green and blue -- which goes back to that girl/boy thing -- as we could. I would say that [the wardrobe is] mostly Lisa, but my wife at the time was an editor for Seventeen so I definitely had some resources from her in terms of what kids were wearing. But I would definitely have to say that it was my idea to have the clothing be out there and creative that way, but I didn't design it -- Lisa did. She was just brilliant. She deserves all the credit.
One of the first things that we heard when we started the show was that a famous ABC executive, Stu Bloomberg, his daughter came downstairs and she was dressed in this completely create-your-own kind of way -- the precedent for it was really Annie Hall to some degree -- and it looked incredibly wacky to him. And he said to her, "What are you doing? What are you wearing?" And his daughter said, "I'm dressed like Clarissa!" [Laughs.]
And her room too was just incredible!
Yes! I had the set designers design a normal bedroom and then I started whacky-ing it out. When I told them I wanted black and white checkerboard on the wall with hub caps, there were people who thought I was into Satan worship. Everything in her room is totally cool and wild. Everything was planned and everything was about expressing her. It was the ultimate expression of a character.
And "Clarissa" probably had the most exotic pet we'd ever seen on TV with Elvis.
Well, at the time, I had a girlfriend that had a baby pool and she had tadpoles and all sorts of creatures in it and she was a very creative woman -- she was an artist. I thought, "Oh! Maybe Clarissa would do that." It didn't survive because it became just too difficult to keep that in the story all the time so Elvis had to go away. He didn't get flushed down the toilet, I promise. I had lots of funny ideas for him, but we couldn't make it work.
What went into deciding on the theme song?
The genius behind the theme song is Rachel Sweet, but again, it's a lot like Lisa Lederer and the clothes. I had produced a TV series that Rachel Sweet was the host of and the star of called "The Sweet Life" on Comedy Channel, which didn't last very long, but I knew she was brilliant and in a lot of ways, she was the adult Clarissa at the time so I just wanted Rachel to do the coolest thing she could do and she created the coolest song. It's incredible!
We created an album called "Clarissa and the Straightjackets" and it was done like a garage band with Rachel and Tony Battaglia, who had co-written the theme with her, and we produced it for Sony Wonder. It was such a good album and this was before they let kids' shows do albums. They got upset that it wasn't kiddie enough. It was in the days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam so there were long cuts. I actually did produce it, but I took my name off of it because it was such a drag. They reduced everything to three-minute songs and they dumbed it down because they were worried it wasn't enough of a kids show record.
Would you want to do a follow-up book or would you want this book to be adapted into a movie or something like that?
Well, we'll see. I mean everybody always wants the most of their property and when you create something, you want it to go as far and wide as it can. It's certainly going to be written in a way that could continue -- Clarissa's still alive at the end, I promise. [Laughs.]
"Things I Can’t Explain" is tentatively slated for a fall 2014 release.
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