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Daria the Untold Tale Part 1

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This is the story of how Beavis and Butt-Head's earliest female friend came into being and eventually became the star of her own animated series and a part of the zeitgeist of growing up. It's a long story, so I am going to tell it in 2 parts.

I was hired by MTV a month or two after the network purchased Beavis & Butt-Head from Mike Judge and contracted with him to supervise an animated series based on the property. As the show's day-to-day producer, I watched Mike develop from a talented maker of personal films into a confident director who would go on to create shows like King of the Hill and his latest, HBO series Silicon Valley as well as brilliant feature films like cult favorites Office Space and Idiocrasy.

Back in '93 I was there in our shared office when Mike's future manager Michael Rotenberg first walked in and shook his hand and took him off to a fancy lunch. When I dropped Mike off at one of his first big meetings with West Coast studio executives, he borrowed my sunglasses so he could make a hipper entrance. When looking to trade in the cowboy boots of the recent Texas transplant, he chose to purchase a pair of the same tie-shoes I wore, picked up at nearby Manhattan shop. These were among the early steps in Mike's transformation from talented amateur to Letterman's honored guest.

For a couple of years Mike and I were together almost every weekday and often on the weekend when the family would come over to my house in Westchester for a swim. We jammed on guitars and recorded some of the early B&B musical tracks together. I voiced female characters when we couldn't afford talent. Together with the MTV promo writing staff we went through the pain of enlarging on Mike's original B&B shorts and birthing an animated series. Understaffed, overworked, underpaid and to some extent actually running scared, we went about inventing what would be not just a popular but also a very controversial show. It was nerve-racking! But I would not trade away the experience I had of being at ground zero of a cultural phenomenon. The show became a hit and eventually we put together a first-class writing team, many of whom went on to successful Hollywood careers, and we launched a great animation brand at MTV Animation, built around the house style that started with B&B.

So that's a bit of my Beavis story. But what about Daria? Where did she come from?

Beavis & Butt-Head was big news in 1993 and cemented the relationship between MTV and its mid-teen male audience. But Daria was not part of the original property that Mike brought to MTV. Moreover the idea in 1995 of spinning Daria off from Beavis & Butt-Head as a series was never about extending the Beavis brand. What it was about was this: MTV had succeeded in developing a strong audience of mid-teen boy through the success of Beavis & Butt-Head. Now the network wanted to do the same with girls.

Where did Daria come from? She came from a vision of a different MTV future, championed by former President of the network Judy McGrath, one where girls were a bigger part of the audience. Here's how it went down. Those of us working in the animation area at that time were given this assignment: develop a girl hit! In 1995 we produced 5 series pilots with girl lead characters, including the following:

Laura Levine's Missy the Two-Headed Girl - She was two attitudes rolled into one being... and the host of her own variety show! The concept's creator Laura Levine was famous both as a Rolling Stone photographer who had shot many of rock's aristocracy and also as an illustrator and painter. MTV Networks head Tom Freston collected her outsider art portraits-on-wood of people like Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Bessie Smith. Tom suggested to MTV exec Abby Terkuhle that Laura might be the source of a good idea for a female-centered animated show. Laura also went to Harvard and was friends with some of the writing staff of the top sitcoms on air. So we knew good writers would eventually be attracted to the series. But for all its positives, this was not the show that went forward!

Heather McAdam's Cartoon Girl -- Kooky observations about the world as seen through the eyes of a wonderful cartoonist with a much too grown-up perspective for MTV. The adults at the network loved the show and Heather.

Heather was a cartoonist friend of Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. I met her through Matt when I approached him about working on a PBS series right before the Simpsons series went to air. Knowing he was going to be very busy for the near future, he referred me to Lynda Barry, another favorite alternative cartoonist from the northwest. Lynda was also too busy. But her manager referred me to Heather. As it turns out, we didn't do the PBS project together, but five years later Heather created a great pilot for MTV. For a real treat, check out her great annual country musician calendar. But in spite of these bonafides, this was not the show that went forward!

Stephen Holman's pilot Sneeze Louise, starred a great comedic actress and the wife (at the time) of Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, Nancye Ferguson. The show was about a girl named Louise who was allergic to bullshit and sneezed a gigantic, earth-shattering sneeze whenever she smelled it. The magic of this piece was in the art of Stephen Holman. Check out this link for some of the brightest, most charmingly sexy and original illustrations and paintings ever to make their way into the animation world. Stephen is a brilliant performer and artist with a range of style and media at his command and continues to make great art and develop great properties. But...

An additional property called Dracworld, created by Andy Ruben, was a vampire series that was way ahead of its time. It featured edgy female characters, designed by Chris Prynoski, now owner of Hollywood's awesome studio Titmouse Animation. It was a last minute addition drawn from MTV's West Coast development slate. We created and tested an inexpensive animatic pilot of the property.

All four of these ideas were put before focus groups and none tested well.

Daria was the central character of the remaining pilot -- a series called simply Daria. Here's how it came about.

Due to the success of Beavis & Butt-Head, Daria had a following and a great recognizable voice, that of Tracy Grandstaff, at the time a budding writer in MTV's On-Air Promo Department and the voice of MTV's daily calendar of upcoming shows. She went on to become head of On-Air Creative at Comedy Central and now has a very important job at NBC Universal. But before I tell the story of the series, let's look back to how Daria the character was invented.

In the fall of 1991 MTV Network's President Judy McGrath had a couple of problems with the developing series Beavis & Butt-Head. She observed that the show lacked a single smart teen in the cast and there were no females. This could have been a real problem. But the smart folks in MTV's on-air promo department who were incubating the series came up with the slick notion of combining the two into one by adding a smart girl to the show.

Daria was minted with the idea in mind that she should be a mixture of Janeane Garofalo, newly popular at the time after her run on The Ben Stiller Show, and Sara Gilbert's Darlene Connor character from Roseanne. Her last name "Morgendorffer" was the maiden name of MTV writer David Felton's mom and a perfect fit. And of course without the name "Daria," there would never have been a "Diarrhea, cha cha cha."

One little thing I have to tell you about Daria is that I drew her first. Mike Judge was not at that time, by his own account, comfortable drawing female characters. He got the hang of it when creating the core King of the Hill cast but during the early days of Beavis, Mike was keen on avoiding the task. So we had a character but no drawing. One day we were having a meeting on the 40th floor of 1515 Broadway where Mike and I had been set up in a shared office. JJ Sedelmaier came by. His studio was about to start animating the first season and we had a lot of work ahead to get the character cast in shape.

What should Daria look like? It was Mike who suggested referencing Darlene from Roseanne. Pretty but plain was the goal. Mike feared he would make her ugly. I mentioned that my way to draw a female was to keep the features as simple as possible. I then lightly sketched the first version of Daria of which all subsequent drawings were revisions.

In part 2 of this piece, I will tell more of the story of the creation of the original Daria character in 1992 and her subsequent successful reinvention as the star of her own teen soap in 1995.

END OF PART 1