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Daria the Untold Tale Part 2

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Here's it is -- Part 2. Thanks for your patience and encouragement!

As I bragged somewhat inaccurately in the part one of this piece, I made the first attempt at drawing Daria. That's not strictly speaking true. What I did was make the first attempt after all parties had weighed in with what they thought her image should be. A few attempts had been made previously to come up with a design at J.J. Sedelmaier's studio where B&B Season 1 was animated, Both J.J. and Tom Warburton (Sedelmaier employee and later creator of Codename: Kids Next Door) have told me that pretty much everybody at the studio gave it a try. But the designs failed to satisfy Mike Judge or MTV.

Animation professionals often criticized the designs in Beavis & Butt-Head. They reacted to Mike's crude line style or his naïve approach to anatomy. What they failed to realize was that Mike injected "character" into the character designs in a way that was sorely lacking in the work of many cartoon designers. As a result his characters, through their iconic appearance and his great voice acting, came to life in a way that their characters often did not. The drawings are memorable and, since Mike is a keen observer of human nature, they are also the subtle embodiment of social commentary. In other words, Mike's work had set a high bar for any designer wanting to contribute to his projects.

2014-07-22-DariaCollage.jpg
left to right: my Daria, Bill Peckmann's, Lindy Regan

Now I'm not much of an artist and several recent night courses at Art Center and UCLA Extension have not really improved the situation. But that has not dissuaded me from giving it a try when the opportunity arises. One of the first times I watched Mike Judge's Beavis & Butt-Head short "Frog Baseball," I paused my VCR on a frame of Butt-Head in an extreme pose and copied it onto the front of a three-ring binder I was using. Mike later told me that when he saw this drawing on the front of my binder, he had for the first time the sense that others would be able to draw his characters. His saying this gave me the confidence to continue to draw in front of Mike. So when it came to the need for a design for Daria, I dove right in.

There on the 40th floor where several of us we're gathered to discuss the series, I drew a version of Daria on a paper plate left over from a lunch meeting. It was not completely unlike the current Daria -- similar shape to the face, a different approach to the nose using a side-line instead of an underline and no glasses. It was a version somewhat inspired by my girlfriend senior year of high school, a smart but shy teenager with a sarcastic wit named Lindy Regan. Having some underlying human inspiration for a character drawing I believe automatically makes the character more convincing. Mike Judge told me that he usually has a real life reference for his characters. That approach definitely worked on Beavis and King of the Hill .

Anyway, at the end of our meeting, J.J. Sedelmaier took my sketch, ran it through the copier, made a few adjustments and brought it back to his studio in White Plains. My sketch of Daria is shown here. Next to it is the one done by a freelance illustrator J.J. hired by the name of Bill Peckman who was given my drawing. Mike re-drew Bill's sketch with his own line style. That's the version seen in Beavis & Butt-Head and the way she remained until she got a makeover for her own series a couple of years later.

So how do we get from this point to Daria having her own show? Daria, as Mike has pointed out, was the one person who wasn't awful to Beavis and Butt-Head. In some early episodes of the series she was there to provide moments of sympathy for the misunderstood duo. But once the series was a hit, I think Mike and the writing team lost interest in the character. She doesn't appear much after the first couple of seasons, replaced by other female characters like Cassandra (also voiced by the voice of Daria, Tracy Grandstaff) and Kimberly. Daria wasn't a character that Mike had in his original shorts. She was added during series pre-production in response to an MTV directive and phased out once the show was a hit.

Meanwhile Mike sold the King of The Hill series to Fox and we got into production on the movie Beavis & Butt-Head Do America. Everybody was pretty damn busy.

Amidst all this at MTV we were struggling with this assignment to create an animated show for girls. It hit me we already had what we needed. I suggested to MTV Executive VP and B&B Executive Producer Abby Terkuhle that we should consider Daria for a show of her own. He liked the idea and encouraged me to bring it up with Mike and hope to get his blessing. I called Mike and said the network wants a female-oriented series. What would he think if we spun off Daria to her own series? Mike said "It's okay with me as long as I don't have to do anything."

By this point Mike was not living in New York anymore, having moved to Austin Texas, and was up to his ears with both Beavis and King. So a Daria project without Mike made perfect sense to me. With what I thought was Mike's blessing, I assembled a writer's meeting to discuss how to approach creating a show around Daria that would appeal to boys and girls but with a particular emphasis on bringing in the female audience B&B lacked.

We convened a meeting of the writers handy at MTV who were there working on Beavis & Butt-Head and asked a few general questions. I posed the first. Should she live in Highland where Beavis & Butt-Head is set? Everyone's reaction in the room was an unequivocal no. We need to move her to a new town, the thinking was, and give her a new circle of friends, parents and teachers. Especially without Mike's involvement, it was clear we needed to invent our own world for Daria to inhabit, a world where the rules of B&B did not rule the writers' room. We gave her a sister Quinn "the popular girl" opposite to Daria, and a best friend Jane who was intended to be a little less negative than her sarcastic and judgmental pal. Kevin and Brittany and Daria's parents were among the other early cast members.

By this point in our pilot season, having produced four other girl-oriented pilots (including one called Dracworld that was about 10 years ahead of the vampire craze), we had very little money left for development. I think we had around $25,000. So we determined we should do the Daria pilot as an animatic. That's a sort of "motion comic" produced by creating a "radio play" version of the piece and then syncing up to that storyboard panels that show the basic visuals for each scene.

For the job of producing the pilot and guiding the art process I chose producer Susie Lewis. For several seasons of Beavis & Butt-Head, Susie, a veteran MTV producer, had held down the job of choosing and editing the music videos that the duo watched and overseeing the writing and recording of their comments. Susie knew the MTV audience well and was totally tuned in to teenage style. She jumped in fully to the job of producing Daria, working with the writers and designers and the animation director Yvette Kaplan, making sure every detail resonated. She also chose the network music that defined the musical style of Daria the series.

With only a little bit of cash we knew we needed a great script and a strong voice cast. Beavis & Butt-Head writers Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil (who went on from B&B and Daria to Frasier, News Radio and later How I Met Your Mother and Hot in Cleveland) wrote the pilot script. Our terrific Daria, voice actress and MTV on-air promo staffer Tracy Grandstaff, recorded the pilot and continued on to the new series, along with a great supporting cast of non-union New York actors.

Meanwhile our studio art department had some work to do. My brief to them was that we had to come up with a look for the characters and production design that would be as appealing to girls as the Beavis look was to boys. So we experimented with several rounds of different line styles for the characters. The versions from B&B staffers Karen Disher and Willy Hartland came the closest and a combination of their styles soon defined the line-look of the show. (Karen went on to direct on the series and its three TV movies and was most recently head of story on Rio.) To distinguish the background look from Beavis & Butt-Head, art director Karen Hydendahl came up with a clean cel paint approach. Karen Disher, Edward Artinian and others came up with the needed character designs.

An idea I had ended up having a long-term impact. I noticed that MTV's Real World used the music from MTV music videos throughout its episodes. This made for a great audience connection. MTV generally construed that it could use any music accepted for its air as scoring on its shows because of its "clip rights." This was also the basis for the use of the video clips in B&B. This right however did not include clearance for sale into syndication or tape or DVD. Since that limitation was not an immediate concern, I tried this approach on Daria. As a result it was not until the series could be cleared or re-scored that the episodes could ever reach the after market. So for years until recently the series has been unavailable for purchase. But when I attended our first focus group and a girl said "I love the scene with that Alanis Morissette song," (it was a dialog scene in a pizza shop), I knew the approach was working and we stuck with it. A teen soap featuring an outspoken female, relationship stories and a score consisting of relevant hits of the day was born.

Beavis Supervising Director Yvette Kaplan directed the Daria pilot and did a great job getting humor and personality into a piece which was basically made up of slightly animated scene layouts. Apparently when she showed it to Mike Judge he was not impressed and, as he has lately said in his Vice Magazine interview, he was angry about it. He said he thought a couple of MTV executives wanted to prove they could do something without him. Well, since by that time Mike had moved the main focus of his attention to King of the Hill and B&B was nearing an end, and since Mike had told me point blank he didn't want to work on Daria, it was clear that if those MTV executives wanted to keep animation at MTV alive, we needed to make something new and great.

I can honestly say I was oblivious at the time to the fact the Mike was displeased with the show we developed. He claims to have never watched it to this day, although I believe he was shown the pilot. There can be no doubt that what we came up with was original, had terrific writing and resonated with its audience. In focus groups the Daria pilot did very well with junior high kids and they became the core of the audience.

When Daria succeeded with focus groups and was given a green light, we needed to put together its permanent team. I suggested that MTV promo writer and early Beavis writer Glenn Eichler be made the show-runner. Glenn is a terrific writer who has gone on to several seasons of The Colbert Report. Glenn loved the series My So-Called Life, then showing in reruns on MTV. It became a key reference for our series. Glenn had a real feel for writing Daria's speeches and structuring the stories. Susie Lewis, who had produced the pilot, had a great eye for teen style. This would bring to Daria an authenticity in the physical portrayal of all its characters. Both Glenn and Susie had a great sense of these characters. So the two together developed a wonderful working relationship and became the creative leads on the series. They did a good job developing the show to its full incarnation and bringing to it a sense of character arc that took it through several seasons and full-length made-for-TV features.

One hiccup occurred when pressure arose to replace the voice of Daria with another actress with more voice-acting experience. But I knew that Tracy Grandstaff was the voice of Daria. I hired her a voice coach that she didn't need and stuck my neck way out to keep Tracy on the show and thankfully succeeded. However, it was my last political success at MTV and after a season and a half, fearing that the political tide was turning at MTV and animation was on its way out, I left the network and changed coasts. Sure enough, animation at MTV only lasted three or four more years and the house that MTV's Beavis & Butt-Head built was dismantled and trashed. Daria employed many of the crew of B&B for some time after the latter ended its run at MTV. Eric Fogel's hit Celebrity Deathmatch revived the MTV male-skewing animation brand for a while. MTV has never again had an animation success on the scale of those three shows.

As for Daria herself, she just won't go away. Daria connected with a thread in the zeitgeist that has remained a part of modern teen life in the ensuing decades. Generations of smart outsider females have grown up referencing the character and the show as a major life influence. The body of work stands the test of time. The process of her birth may seem serendipitous, but there was a driving force behind it -- a vision that became an assignment that resulted in a creative process that led to a birth.