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Q&A: ‘Clarissa Explains It All’ creator Mitchell Kriegman talks old show and new novel

In 1991, Mitchell Kriegman created a kids’ sitcom called “Clarissa Explains It All” that helped bring in what’s now considered the classic age of Nickelodeon; it also launched the career of Melissa Joan Hart, later of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and the the ABC Family sitcom “Melissa and Joey,” which retired in August after a four-year run.

The series concerned Clarissa Darling (Hart), a smart, independent, unconventional normal teenage girl; her out-to-rule-the-world kid brother, Ferguson (Jason Zimbler); her somewhat oddball and sometimes exasperating parents; and her best friend Sam (Sean O’Neal), who had a habit of entering her second-story room through the window. (Most everything took place in the house.)

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The show itself had a tone at once confidential and surreal; Clarissa repeatedly addressed herself to the audience, filling out the story with explanatory graphics, news updates and fantasy digressions. It felt more modern than many adult series, and although its original run ended in 1994, it’s been a Nickelodeon perennial; it currently airs, alongside other ‘90s favorites, in the late-night NickTeen programming block “The Splat.”

Now, Kriegman has brought her into the present, not to the screen but on the page. (A CBS pilot for a show that would have seen Clarissa into young adulthood and a career in journalism never made it to air.) “Things I Can’t Explain,” her creator’s second novel after his 2014 “Being Audrey Hepburn,” finds her living in New York, picking herself up from the debris of the collapsing newspaper business, and thinking grown-up thoughts in her familiar way. And, like the show, the novel is full of charts and drawings and lists and digressions.

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Although, in real-time figuring, Clarissa would be closing in on 40 now, in the novel, she’s still in her 20s.

“By the time the show was done we had already dealt with her in her teens,” Kriegman told me recently, over lunch in Burbank. “Jumping to her being 30 was a pretty big leap -- you’re going to have to tell everything in flashback; it’s just untenable. And the next thing you want to know about her is what happened in her twenties, and if you’re going to do that, you’re not going to write it as a period piece, so you ‘re going to write it in a way that really engages the present, in a Lena Dunham world; she’s not Lena Dunham by any means, but she’s in that world.”

Kriegman’s varied career has included a stint as a performer and video artist on “Saturday Night Live”; produced “The Higgins Boys and Gruber” and “The Sweet Life” (with Rachel Sweet, who later created the “Clarissa” theme, which you can listen to on a 13-minute loop here) for Comedy Channel, later Comedy Central. He also served as a story editor on Nick’s “Ren & Stimpy,” “Rugrats” and “Doug” and created “Bear in the Big Blue Henson” (via the Jim Henson Company) and “The Book of Pooh” for the Disney Channel and “It’s a Big, Big World” for PBS.

When did you first think you wanted to be a writer?

Mitchell Kriegman: I always wanted to be a writer. From the age of making a list. I wanted to be a writer, a songwriter, performer, writer. Yeah, forever.

What did you do to further that aim?

Well, basically I found a lot of people who told me I shouldn’t write and I would never be a writer.

And they were your teachers?

My teachers, my parents. Everybody from my 10th grade high school teacher to Bernard Malamud, no less, at Bennington College, said I had no talent as a writer. And [novelist] Stephen Becker was another Bennington teacher who said I had no natural ability as a writer. In fact, they felt I was so hopeless and it would be so detrimental to my well-being, that they put me on probation unless I found some other kind of direction. I had a story in the New Yorker, finally; [writer-editor] Veronica Geng asked me, “Who do you have to thank for writing?” And I said, “I have nobody to thank, but I have a lot of people to blame.”

What was the story?

It was called “The Best Me Possible” [the New Yorker, Oct. 19, 1987]. It ran the same day the stock market crashed.

At some point you turned from writing prose to writing for television.

I was discouraged on some level [about writing], but I still wanted to be a storyteller. I was in Soho when the first video cameras were around, and I got the idea that by telling stories to the camera, maybe I’d overcome this kind of terrible block I didn’t feel like I really had and be a better storyteller. And so that became a kind of performance art/video artist thing that was very successful -- I got grants, I showed at the Kitchen.

Michael O’Donoghue put two pieces that I did in [the 1979 compilation film] “Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video,” and then I got hired on “Saturday Night Live,” which was ridiculous and a nightmare. I was there the season that they refused even to give to the Library of Congress, I think. I had this amazing contract to write and make videos and perform as a featured performer; but I was very happy to be fired -- what’s the right word for that? -- gloriously fired from “SNL.”

I’d always been writing. I wrote for the National Lampoon. You know, in New York City, the way it works is it’s comedy and kids, if you’re a writer. I guess there’s Broadway too; somebody like John Weidman, who wrote for “Sesame Street” and Broadway and for the Lampoon. So that was the circuit. I got hired at the startup of Comedy Channel, before it became Comedy Central, and I was producing “The Higgins Boys and Gruber” and the Rachel Sweet show.

Then I got a development at Nickelodeon; I wanted to create a sitcom, and Gerry [network head Geraldine Laybourne] was extremely cool to work for. She gave me all the data -- it was the beginning of looking for an audience from advertising terms, and she was very sophisticated. I used that to develop “Clarissa.”

It was really the dawn of Nickelodeon.

They were just starting to have original programming. Gerry chose the fairly radical position for the moment that we are the kids, we are the audience -- we’re not the toy companies. Her mandate was, one, to do something that kids will love but you like, and, two, to explode kids TV. It wasn’t OK to come up with an OK cartoon; you had to come up with a cartoon that was going to shake up the kids’ world. That was her brand and the Nickelodeon brand, and they should stay closer to that in general.

What did the data tell you?

What the data did was to give me a path toward figuring out a character that would best identify the network and that the audience could identify with. For a variety of reasons, I decided that a girl would be better than a guy. I felt they wouldn’t let a guy be smart enough, sensitive enough and different enough. I’ve had a lot of real experience with programmers having problems with boys being articulate, still to this day. “Clarissa” was a kid’s story more than a girl’s story, and that orientation was really effective with their audience.

And the fact that I had her talk directly to the audience -- you know people say “breaking the fourth wall.” I don’t believe there’s a fourth wall in TV unless you put it there. Because when Rachel Maddow does the news she’s not breaking the fourth wall, when Jimmy Fallon does “The Tonight Show,” he’s not breaking the fourth wall; there’s a normal quality to it. That’s what Clarissa did; she’d talk to you as a friend, and a lot of people felt she was their friend. And this is Melissa Joan Hart, too, Melissa lightened up the frame and had an easy sense of, “I know you, you know me, we’re together here.”

How many people did you look at for the part?

We looked at a lot of people, but it came down to really two. There was one girl who was more like Clarissa in the sense that she might actually be one of those girls who was so out there and making it work. And then there was Melissa who could take the weirdest offbeat idea, an intellectual idea, and deliver it in this light, kind of normal way. I thought, “Wow.” Among the many deficiencies in my not becoming a famous performance artist was that I didn’t have that light quality this 14-year-old girl had. I could put in her mouth everything I’d done as a performance artist, and she didn’t seem weird; she just seemed funny and interesting, quirky. Beyond that, she had an extraordinary ability to do that part. She was in every scene of that show; she memorized all of her lines and probably the lines of everybody else. Sometimes she didn’t know exactly what she was saying, but she was so good, you believed she did.

And she was the same age as the character. And that was also unusual, because, you know, most “teen” actors came from that valley of 30-year-olds with great bodies and finely honed sexual instincts. And she didn’t have that.

There’s a good deal of fashion in both your books, with characters described in terms of what designers they’re wearing.

“Being Audrey Hepburn” was very fashion dependent because it was about a girl trying on the Givenchy dress from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” That book depended on everybody being described in terms of clothes. Now, “Clarissa” was a big clothes thing from the beginning; one of the first ways we knew the show was a hit is that girls started dressing like her, and the revolutionary part, if it can be called that, of her dress was that she was anti-coordination, she was like, “Make it up yourself, use what’s in your closet. Don’t buy something new, you make your own statement. You can make a mistake; you can put something together that clashes and that’s OK.” And we would hear from executives that kids were dressing like Clarissa right away.

When you wrote “Audrey Hepburn,” had you already considered writing about Clarissa?

As I was writing the Audrey Hepburn book, I thought, “Oh wow, I could do Clarissa.” Because I never wanted the show to end. It never went down in the ratings; I didn’t see why we weren’t going to grow up with her. She was somebody who could carry a show for many, many years. And I really felt like there was a lot we didn’t get to find out. So this was a way for me to do it.

But even successful kids’ shows have a relatively short lifespan.

Yeah, I call it the “Logan’s Run” of child celebrity. They literally said she’s too old for the network. But that doesn’t mean there’s not some place to go with it.

I mean, if you really look at what a YA novel is, middle-grade fiction novels, and what a teen sitcom on Disney is right now, why aren’t these sitcoms on the level of YA fiction? There’s an artificial young-ing down [of character] that becomes intolerable I think for any smart actress. I don’t know why Netflix, with its reevaluation of form, isn’t doing a teen story that’s serial, that deals with issues that are more contemporary.

Of course, that Disney Channel formula -- that aspirational thing of “Everybody’s a Star” -- does work, which is why they keep doing it again and again.

That’s a big problem. What I loved about “Clarissa,” and I think one reason why it endures, she wasn’t trying to be a star in the world; she was trying to be a star in her life. The word “star” would have been anathema to her; she’d roll her eyes. She was a person. I don’t know why it’s got to be aspirational to be an actor or a singer; it’s a kind of odd idea. They’re never aspiring to be a scientist or a teacher. I just find that to be a short cut to an idea of aspirational; it’s not really, truly aspiration.

When you wrote your books, did you or your publisher have a specific audience in mind?

You have to understand the kind of paradox of publishing categories these days -- if Salinger wrote “Catcher in the Rye” today it would be a YA book because he has a young protagonist. Any book with a young protagonist is considered YA. “Audrey” was in theory Young Adult, but a large audience for that book is adult women of a generation who would know about Audrey. Younger readers read the book as a fantasy -- that you can dress and pass as wealthy just by the clothes you’re wearing seems like a fantasy. Older women know that’s totally true. The Clarissa book is an adult book, even though it alludes to a younger property. Both are really written as adult books but have a lot of very youthful elements to them. It’s what they call “new adult”; that’s the new category. But here’s the other paradox -- this is from a [2012] Publishers Weekly survey -- 55% of people who buy YA books are adults. So YA is just popular fiction with a young protagonist.

There’s this silly idea I dealt with on “Clarissa” in terms of boys and girls that applies to age as well. It was a GI Joe/Barbie world at the time: All the toys for girls were over here and all the toys for boys were over there. That drove children’s TV for sure; the belief was that a girl couldn’t attract an audience in a sitcom, that boys would never watch a girl. I contended that boys and girls can identify with each other, especially if they’re dealing with kid issues they all have a stake in. Boys want to know what girls are thinking; girls want to know what boys are thinking.

And the same thing is true of age; we all think about what it was like to be young. We’re all reliving the high school music we liked, the high school relationships we had -- or living them down. And young people can identify with old people too. It’s all possible. These categories are really the categories of gatekeepers, and for the audience and the creators that’s not the deal; the more disruptive things get, the more they’ll find each other regardless of these categories.

I was way out of the demographic for “Clarissa Explains It All” but really loved it -- that period of Nickelodeon, with “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” was really inventive and bold.

“Ren and Stimpy”? “Saturday Night Live”? Which one is more sophisticated? “Saturday Night Live” doesn’t hold a candle to “Ren and Stimpy.”

I sold a pilot to CBS of “Clarissa,” and I had written five drafts of the script, I had built the set, I had cast everybody. And suddenly the network decided not to have me as the writer and to get rid of all the talking to the camera, all the graphics and all the fantasies. And when I asked why, I was told, “You can get away with that postmodern crap on kids’ TV, but you can’t do that for adults.” Well, I would contend if anything adult TV is moving closer to the trends of children’s TV that were established then.

What were the challenges when it came to updating the character and translating the show to the page?

There was a huge tonal challenge, because the sitcom’s this goofy, funny kind of broad -- you know, a giant spool of wire in her room, a motorcycle in her room. And I couldn’t forsake that tone but it somehow had to make a transition to a literary genre. And the second thing was her voice because her voice, which was unique in the early ‘90s, became part of the zeitgeist; characters on “Friends” talk in that warm, snarky way she did. A lot of other writers had their versions of that kind of voice. And so I had to get all the other versions out of my head and get back to the original.

There was a funny moment where I had already sold the book but hadn’t finished writing it, and my editor announced it was happening -- so many people wrote about what they thought should be in it. And some things I hadn’t really planned on writing about I realized were really important; even something like Elvis, her pet crocodile, was a big deal. It was like crowd-sourcing my novel. It may upset some of those fans because it’s different from what they wanted; but in the end, everybody’s in a really interesting good place. Clarissa has become way more soulful. She’s resilient. She was like Bugs Bunny before -- she never lost, she always won.

Certainly there’s a lot of personal stuff in there, but I’m writing for people; I know what this audience has been through. They’ve been through the recession; they have too many loans they can’t pay. You can be in your 20s and have been excellent at everything you’ve done to prepare for a profession like writing for a newspaper -- and moments later your profession is gone, your training isn’t directly applicable elsewhere. In the last episode of the series, I had Clarissa go to an internship at this fictitious paper; and [in the novel] she finally got a beat, and the newspaper folded. Now you’ve got a chance to really show what she’s made of: How does she adapt? And some people don’t; some people crawl into a shell and disappear. And obviously Clarissa won’t; that’s not who she is. But she’s part of this generation.

Reading the book, it’s easy to hear it spoken in Melissa Hart’s voice.

Well, that’s the voice I write; I probably hear it too.

Has she read the book?

She’s read at least some of it. I talked with her about it and there were a few little things I adjusted because she had a sense of them I hadn’t quite thought of. I wrote a TV series that some people truly feel is theirs, and I try to respect that. I have a vision I hope is big enough -- it’s not a problem, I like input.

The reason why to me TV and novels are the highest form of narrative right now is that they are character-driven. Sure, there are plenty of high-concept shows out there, but not one is a concept you haven’t heard before. If the show is working or the book is working, it’s because the character is, because the only thing we’re surprised by, I think, is character. We’re not surprised by story. We’re not surprised by concept; we’ve seen them all. But people still are scary -- that person you know goes crazy or somebody rises to an occasion you thought never would. That still is the most compelling engagement to me.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd


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