Clarissa Explains It All creator Mitchell Kriegman on Nickelodeon and Audrey Hepburn

Clarissa Explains It All creator Mitchell Kriegman on Nickelodeon and Audrey Hepburn

As the creator of Clarissa Explains It All, Mitchell Kriegman long ago cemented his place in the hearts and minds of early-’90s Nickelodeon viewers. But Kriegman has done much more than create Clarissa, including writing on Saturday Night Live and serving as the executive story editor on Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Doug, and Rocko’s Modern Life. His latest project is Being Audrey Hepburn, a YA novel about a spunky budding social climber due out later this fall on St. Martin’s Press. The A.V. Club talked to him about his novel, that Clarissa Explains It All book, and what exactly happened with CBS’ ill-fated Clarissa Now pilot.

The A.V. Club: First off, why a book and why this book?

Mitchell Kriegman: I actually started out as a short-story writer and wanted to write novels from the get-go. This is an idea I had way back when I was doing Clarissa Explains It All like 20 years ago. There was a moment where Melissa [Joan Hart] could have played this part and done this story. There was an episode of Clarissa where she became Jade, which was this sort of alter ego who was a play on where Melissa came from in Long Island. Jade was a Long Island girl that was sort of goth. On all the episodes we did, we tried to keep her from falling into a Long Island accent, which I’m sure she doesn’t do anymore, but she did. In that episode, we encouraged her to be this Long Island girl. It’s this whole idea of a transformation and a girl who is becoming somebody else. I felt that was a really cool idea.

I thought a lot about this idea of somebody creatively transforming themselves. And why a novel is because I think that, right now, the way the world has turned, the novel is once again a really contemporary form. It’s popular fiction and popular culture now. Instead of being an esoteric thing like it was maybe 10 years ago, novels are as current as TV or film. Everybody was supposed to have stopped reading by now, but it didn’t happen. And novels share a lot with TV because movies are the most stultifying form right now—to me: They’re an hour and a half to two hours, they’re finite, there’s a structure that you expect everything to happen in, and then it’s over. And all the big stuff has to happen at the end, so characters don’t change and develop very much anymore. TV has broken out as being this sort of novelistic form that goes over long periods of time and evolves, and change in characters happens. Novels are also that way, still. I really wanted the chance to develop a character over a longer period of time and story.

AVC: But with YA or chick lit, it still seems like there are some prerequisites: She has to have a romance. You have to talk about clothes. Do you still feel like you have that freedom, even in that format?

MK: See, the thing is, I write popular genre. I create genre in what I do, or at least partake of it. What I’m interested in doing is that thing, but also having other layers underneath it. There’s the whole meta-layer of Audrey Hepburn in the book, and there’s tons of stuff about her in the book, what she did and who she was and how this character relates to her. I think it’s still worth delivering a lot of the things that readers are looking for from a book like this. And I think romance is cool. I like that.

Everybody has expectations coming to a story. You have to satisfy them to some degree—or play off them. I think this book is squarely in the genre, and it was meant to be, but it has other aspects to it that are a little more inventive than a regular novel of this kind.

That’s what happened to me with Clarissa, too. Because when I did Clarissa, as innovative as it was at the time, a lot of people just said, “Oh, it’s a sitcom with a girl.” One of the things I’ve been deeply satisfied about is that, over time, people looked at Clarissa more deeply. I didn’t require that, and it wasn’t what you were told you should do as a viewer when you were watching Clarissa. First blush, coming out, it seems like pretty straightforward popular culture, but I hope it has some resonance over time.

AVC: A lot of Nickelodeon shows have aged well, including Clarissa. It seems like something the network—or the show’s creators—was particularly thoughtful about.

MK: The goal was to create a resonance underneath it. The truth is that, if you had known my career before Clarissa, it was very heavy. I had done a lot of performance and video art. Even the novel and the short stories I wrote at the time were kind of heavy. And I found two things: One is that audiences didn’t receive what I wanted and accept what I wanted to communicate as well when it was heavy. It was more easily received when it was lighthearted and felt breezy. Two is that I was still heavy even when I wasn’t being heavy. Like anybody else, your interests and your thoughts and your themes are there anyway, but they’re just not pounding anybody on the head.

AVC: Being Audrey Hepburn does seem a little more realistic than other YA novels, even ones not based in a dystopian future.

MK: There are a lot of ideas in there, things like a dress being almost like a superhero costume. There is this thing women have about putting on a dress or what it means to design a dress or having dresses and taking on a character. It reminds me a little bit of Being There with Peter Sellers. Even the whole thing about Audrey Hepburn as a myth—or her kind of accepted story, her origins, and what happened to her and everything—is like that, to me. Maybe this is over-intellectual, and I’m totally guilty of that, probably.

In college, I actually studied Don Quixote, which is about a guy who believes everything he reads about chivalry and then believes that everything that is happening to him is a page out of a knight’s adventure. That’s why he can say to the barber that he’s really his page and why he can say that the bowl is really a helmet. So, I played with the idea that this girl reinterprets the world after this fortuitous exchange of clothing as she’s entered the myth of Audrey Hepburn and plays that out in ways that are good and bad and different.

AVC: You were talking about how you were doing performance art, but you ended up as a writer on an ill-fated season of Saturday Night Live and then got into children’s TV. How did your career make that arc?

MK: In New York at the time, there were two kinds of entertainment writing that you could do: comedy and kids. There was Saturday Night Live on one side and Sesame Street on the other. A lot of writers worked on both at the time. People migrated back and forth between the two. I had actually done Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video with Michael O’Donoghue in a very small way. Then I found myself in the goofy, messed-up version of Saturday Night Live that I was in. I was pretty quick to get out of it.

AVC: Everyone was.

MK: I was actually very proud to get fired from that job. It’s one of the crowning achievements in my career.

AVC: How did you get fired? Did you intentionally try to get the ax?

MK: No, I didn’t try. I tried to do what I did, which was automatically fated to get me fired. I had actually gotten these great reviews, which the producer [Jean Doumanian] just hated me for. She would take everybody in the office and read the reviews out loud, and then get to this thing that Tom Shales wrote about me, where he said I was like a scholar among morons or something like that. And everybody would turn to me and go, “Well, I didn’t think anybody laughed at that,” or, “I didn’t think that was funny.” It was a comedy lynching. I was coming from performance art and video art, and I wanted to do more of the Guido Sarducci kind of live comedy thing that Letterman ended up doing. So I became persona non grata there pretty quickly. I had that classic office thing that you don’t think of happening at comedy shows, where nobody would talk to me for, like, a couple of weeks. So I knew the fix I was in. And then I got fired during “Weekend Update,” which I thought was perfect.

AVC: You got fired during the show?

MK: Yeah, during the show, during “Weekend Update.” Listen: I didn’t solicit it, but I was willing to accept it if it meant I got out of there.

AVC: And then you went to Disney’s Mouseterpiece Theater.

MK: I did Mouseterpiece Theater and I did a bunch of shows on what was the Comedy Channel before it was Comedy Central. I had done a Rachel Sweet series and a Higgins Boys And Gruber series, and those guys ended up running Saturday Night Live, which is funny. Steve Higgins is the head writer, and he’s brilliant.

AVC: He’s also on The Tonight Show.

MK: Yeah, he’s on Fallon, too. He’s everywhere. And Andrew Steele was there, and he runs Funny Or Die. There were just so many brilliant people I worked with over there.

While I was working there, I got a development deal that ended up becoming Clarissa Explains It All at Nick. I had cut together a version of Higgins Boys And Gruber that completely became my template for Clarissa.

I’m sure you don’t know this, because nobody cares, but on the Comedy Channel at that time, they were doing these unwieldy three-hour shows. They were a bunch of stand-up videos with wrap-arounds. Higgins Boys And Gruber was brilliant. Steve and Dave [Higgins] and Gruber [David Allen] were all brilliant, and Andrew Steele and Kenny Skirball and all these great writers wrote these pieces that were a continuous story if you actually watched three hours—which nobody did—and they were brilliant. They were like some weird play on hosting a show and a sitcom. I tried to sell the network on doing the world’s cheapest sitcom with them at Comedy Channel at the time by cutting together these things with a little bit of adjustment. And nobody got it. Nobody wanted to do it. It was completely forgotten.

But, in doing that, I learned how to create a sitcom and I learned a bunch of new rules about sitcoms that I could create, like talking to the camera the way a host does, short scenes and jumping time, and all sorts of wacky stuff. It was really great for me. That’s the transition moment.

So my first work was all in kids and comedy. They’re very close in a lot of ways. The thing about Saturday Night Live versus writing Clarissa or working on Ren & Stimpy is, first of all, Ren & Stimpy is way wilder and weirder and more interesting than Saturday Night Live. Let’s be honest about that. Especially when it came out. Secondly, the jokes—especially in the post-original days of Saturday Night Live—were very kind of hack, kind of parody, kind of typical trigger kind of comedy. They weren’t really willing to accept something that was out there.

I had wanted to do “Who’s Watching Tonight” for SNL. I wanted to find someone that was actually watching the show while the show was going on, and I had lots of goofy ideas like that. The kids ideas that we were doing—and at Nickelodeon where you were creating something completely original at the time, exploding the genres of kids’ TV, which is what Nickelodeon did with Gerry Laybourne—that was way more challenging, exciting, and creative than working on a show that was trying to find out how to recapture its original magic like Saturday Night Live. That’s why I made that transition.

AVC: Did you have an office at Nickelodeon?

MK: I don’t know. Did I have an office? Wow. What a question. I had offices down in Florida where we were shooting. They must have given me an office. I forget. But I did Rocko, Ren & Stimpy, Doug, and Rugrats while I was doing Clarissa, so I was definitely somewhere.

AVC: How did you do all that at one time?

MK: First of all, I really thrive at having more than one project at a time. In fact, if I have one, I will chew it up and ruin it. If I have just one project, I bring way too much crazy, obsessive energy to it and it isn’t good. Whereas if I have three or four projects, I can bounce around between. I can bring a lot of energy to them constantly, and I thrive on that. That’s the main reason.

The other is that there were a lot of other people working on those animated series besides me. Linda Simensky was working on those and [The Adventures Of Pete & Pete’s] Will McRobb was eventually working on them—Michelle Jabloner-Weiss—there were a lot of people. And they weren’t being created by me. It’s always been this thing in my career where I work on my own stuff and I work on other people’s stuff, and I really like that. It keeps me objective, and it keeps me thinking.

AVC: I don’t know what an executive story editor does. Can you explain what you were doing on something like Rocko’s? Were you in the writers’ room, or how did that work out?

MK: It changed as the division of Nick animation matured. I had more direct involvement in the beginning, and then I started becoming more of a story editor for Nick. I wasn’t the hands-on story editor for any of those shows—those were really created by people like Paul Germain and Joe Ansolabehere. I was the Nick voice in helping shape them. It was more of a development position and then, eventually, it was script by script. A lot of times they didn’t like me, to be honest about it, because I was the intrusive voice of the network to some degree. My role was to keep the series going as a series and keep it true to delivering that. And sometimes I was wrong, too.

The best example of me being wrong—and I’m sure there are a lot—but my favorite example of being wrong is that there was a storyboard for Rugrats where they wanted point-of-view inside Chucky’s mouth. Or inside Phil and Lil’s mouth—I forget whose mouth it was. I thought, that’s just not possible. It’s not rational. There’s no point-of-view in classic history that’s done from inside somebody’s mouth. There’s no inside-mouth point-of-view. So I was completely voicing that opinion that you can’t do that. They did it anyway, obviously. And I was wrong. It was a brilliant idea. I just hadn’t realized how far the world had come with the idea of point-of-view. It blew my mind when I realized they were right.

AVC: Kids can also accept a lot more weirdness than adults in terms of stuff like that.

MK: The bottom line is that adults will accept it, too. They just don’t get a chance to because people have this idea of what adults do and what kids do. I’m not saying there’s not a difference in their media. But Clarissa—and this goes to the heart of the ill-fated Clarissa pilot for CBS—I wrote three drafts, cast the show, built the set, and was well on my way on the Clarissa pilot for CBS. She talked to camera, she had fantasies, all sorts of stuff happened, and it had the same kind of vibe that Clarissa Explains It All had. And then suddenly they changed their mind. They turned me into a showrunning zombie. They took the show and they gave it to somebody else and they cut out all that stuff. I said, “Why do you want to cut out all the stuff that made the show original?” And they said, “Network audiences don’t like that postmodern crap. You can’t get away with that—talking to the camera and having fantasies on network.” I won’t say the name of the executive that said it. I was like, “What? Why wouldn’t anybody take that?” It’s just a way of telling stories and having fun visually. They took all that stuff out, they tried to normalize the pilot in a pretty boring way, and meanwhile, you look at TV today, and it’s filled with all that stuff.

AVC: Why did they pick up the show if they wanted to totally change it?

MK: That’s one of those classic showbiz questions. You never know. I was stuck working on it, knowing that it wasn’t… I was just trying to deliver it and stay alive. It was one of those situations.

AVC: Are you still working on the Clarissa book?

MK: I’m turning it in this week, and I’m so excited. It’s a complete re-imagining. I feel like I’ve got a much broader canvas to create something, and to do it in novel form where it requires real storytelling and real character development, and you can’t just get away with a bunch of TV and film tricks—I’m really excited about it. Clarissa at 26—it’s really become something. We’ll see what audiences and readers think, but I really hope that it’s a complete re-imagining. It’s the same thing you were asking in the beginning: Why a novel?

AVC: Why a Clarissa novel?

MK: It’s a really vital form to do this stuff in, and it’s not all the sitcom tricks or predictable structures, even though it’s in a genre. I think it’s a really exciting way to reinvent Clarissa, obviously. But I also think it’s a great form to tell stories in, and people bring a different kind of attention to it.

To me, YA is pop fiction. I think John Green said it on the Colbert show. Colbert asked him, “So, this is a YA novel? That means it’s a novel that you read.” And John Green said it’s popular fiction. Dickens wrote popular fiction. It doesn’t need to be pretentious. That’s why anybody can read it. These stories have young protagonists, obviously, but if J.D. Salinger wrote Catcher In The Rye today, it would be marketed as YA. How wacky is that?

AVC: You created Clarissa and you know the character better than anyone else in that sense. Are you worried about readers’ reactions? They’ve been living with her in their minds for 20-odd years.

MK: I would say I was determined to succeed at that, meaning that was something to be solved. I had to figure out how to satisfy a lot of things and weave together a lot of issues. I want to be consistent with her history. I want people’s expectations to be both satisfied and even upset, a little bit. I want to be true to what I had in mind, and I really wanted to see her grow up in a lot of ways.

I don’t know if you knew this, but the publisher announced the book before I had finished. He just announced that we were going to do it. And everybody all over the place, online, started writing about what they thought the book should be. Like, what should happen with Sam and Clarissa, what should happen with Ferguson, what they think happened. I had already handed in an outline, and suddenly the Internet was crowdsourcing my novel in a way. I was hearing all these ideas and realizing, “Oh, people care about that and people care about this and somebody had an idea like that and that’s not what I want to do but it’s sort of like this other idea…” I got this huge input from—maybe not everybody, but from people who were passionate about the show. I got to reconfigure my storyline and reabsorb what mattered to people and what was interesting into my idea. It really informed what I was doing a lot. A ton.

AVC: That’s a big issue in nostalgic endeavors like this book or something like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. How do you reintroduce something or someone in a way that might be true to the character but that isn’t true to the way people remember that character?

MK: The reason I was doing it is that it was unfinished. I always felt like it was truncated for reasons that had nothing to do creatively with the property or the success. It never went down in ratings. It was never unsuccessful, that show. It ran forever.

AVC: Did it just end because Melissa Joan Hart was done?

MK: No, because Nickelodeon had an arbitrary belief in those days that she was too old for the network. That was the conventional wisdom. I was like, “Well, then, put her on a new network!” Put her on Snick or whatever. In those days, they believed that Nick stopped here and MTV started here. It was early-day thinking over there. That’s why they didn’t do clothes and they didn’t do merchandise, really, for Clarissa at all. I think a board game was the biggest thing that they did.

AVC: It was a really confusing board game.

MK: It was a very successful board game at the time! But I don’t know who plays board games.

Anyway, in terms of satisfying audiences, it’s more about creating something new. That’s what I’m hoping happens with the book. I feel really good about it. I think people are going to love it.

AVC: If you’re saying she’s 26 now, that’s not really true to the timeline.

MK: No, and I’m not trying to be true to the timeline. That’s a battle I’m not going to fight. The whole “how old this person would be,” or “that person when they were really this age,” and all that—I’m not doing that. I picked the most interesting—creatively—age for her, and what would be the most engaging way to write her. That’s really what I did on that.

AVC: That’s a good age for her, because it’s almost like what would have happened with Clarissa the show. Or like what happens in Girls26-year-old women have stuff to figure out.

MK: And she lives in that Girls world, that kind of New York.

AVC: So you’re saying it’s super raunchy?

MK: Well, she overlaps that world. It’s also contemporary, and that’s what the main character in Being Audrey is doing, too, but from a completely outside-the-glass-looking-in perspective.

AVC: Do you have to do research for stuff like this? Do you have to figure out designer names and what a 26-year-old New Yorker is into now?

MK: I do tons and tons of research, and I get advice from really smart people. My biggest source of advice on all this stuff you just mentioned—like fashion and stuff like that—was the costume designer for Clarissa Explains It All, Lisa Lederer. She completely educated me again and again about what I was looking for and what I was trying to understand.

But I always did this, because when I did Clarissa, there wasn’t an Internet that you could search, which sounds completely caveman-like. What I did in those days was I bought tons of magazines, and the woman that I was married to at the time was an editor at Seventeen. And then Sassy came out. There were a lot of niche magazines coming out in those days, which was the closest kind of research thing I could get. So I’ve always done that to get the voice. Part of the trick isn’t to capture what’s trendy right now. It’s more about catching this spirit of it and imagining how somebody on a personal basis would refer to things. Does that make sense?

AVC: Can you give me an example?

MK: It’s more about inventing slang for that person than using the slang that everybody else is using. So there’s one moment in the book where she says, “It would be Argumengeddon”—some combination of “argument” and “Armageddon”—between her and her mom. It’s her made-up word. So it’s not like, “Oh, that’s something that everybody says” and, “Oh, she’s one of those girls that says everything everybody says.” It’s more like she’s a smart girl who uses the language in the way people use language in her world as opposed to spitting back the same old stuff. You’re trying to capture that idea, anyway.

I also do a lot of research on the clothing stuff. I knew there were two places where I knew I could get torn apart on Being Audrey. One was the clothing—where I really did a lot of work and got a lot of help from Lisa and some other people.

Then the other was the Audrey stuff that I went over again and again and again because I know there are so many Audrey Hepburn fans and her life is legend. There are so many aspects of her that are studied and known by people online. I really tried to both benefit from what everybody says online about Audrey on all the fan sites and serious appreciation sites and also tried to make sure I was being authentic to her. But my take on Audrey Hepburn is that she is what they call “the Pygmalion effect.” Truthfully, everything I’ve ever done, has to do with this: It’s about people living in situations they may or may not love—and they usually do not—who create the idea of what they could be and try to become it. That’s like Cinderella, but they have a specific name for it. It’s where you strive to become someone that you really want to be despite your conditions. Sometimes you create yourself out of whole cloth. Another term for it is the “creative transformation of self.” You decide that you’re going to be different than where you came from. A lot of times, people don’t come from such great places, so it’s a powerful thing to do. And that’s what I’m really interested in writing about a lot. It’s defining yourself instead of being defined by everybody around you.

AVC: So when is this Clarissa book going to come out?

MK: There isn’t an actual pub date, but probably a year from now.

AVC: Oh my God, what a long process.

MK: Yeah but, you know, TV doesn’t happen overnight, either. It’s funny: I find that the rhythm isn’t all that different. I just don’t have so many people to talk to all the time while I’m doing it. And St. Martin’s is really a great publisher.

AVC: Do you talk to anybody from the show besides Lisa Lederer?

MK: Occasionally I see or hear from Melissa, but not very often. I attended the thing at the 92nd Y about “Slimed!” and I saw Jason [Zimbler, who played Ferguson] and the guy that played Sam.

AVC: Sean O’Neal.

MK: Sean O’Neal! That was really cool. I enjoyed that. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. I don’t really see many other people from the show, but it’s been great to hear about everybody. I keep hearing about everybody in one form or another now.

AVC: It seems like there’s a resurgence of interest in this sort of stuff. People are giving it the respect it deserves.

MK: There are two things I want to say. One is that I’ve had this great experience, which I’m very grateful for. I occasionally do lectures at UCSB, and I get 300, 400 kids who all grew up with the show or the shows that I’ve done, and that’s everything from Bear In The Big Blue House to Clarissa. The Bear audience is just about the same age that the old Nick audience was at one point. And so I get this huge gratitude and interest from this crowd that’s pretty much 23 to 35. Once they hit 40, they’re out of the demo entirely.

AVC: Exactly. I’m 33, but I work with some people who are 36, 37, 40. And they have no idea what was on Nickelodeon.

MK: It’s totally wild. People 40 to my age are completely without any idea of what I do. It’s hilarious. Whereas when I go talk to people 35 to 23 or so, they’re my people. They know everything I’ve done. They get it when I talk about stuff. They get my sensibility. To have people be 14 and 12 and 10 when they watched my work originally and now be 30 and 35 and articulate as adults talking about my work is really awesome. It’s hugely satisfying that something you did 20 years ago is thought about that way.

I have to say one of the pinnacles for me was when The A.V. Club took apart the “No TV” episode, which was absolutely my favorite episode that I wrote. What was amazing about it—and this is sort of what we were talking about earlier in the conversation about how it seems on the surface to be very kind of genre or light and breezy. But underneath, there’s other stuff—that people who were, like, 12 and 14, were remembering what they thought when they saw it, discussing what they realize now—what they felt or what they were reacting to, intellectualizing to some degree about what it meant and what its significance was and all the retro, contemporary issues related to all that. I mean it was really, like, wow! What else would you want as a creator than to have the audience that grew up with your work as a kid dissect it as adults? It’s been really great.

When I do these lectures, I say, “I was writing for you when you were 14 and I’m still writing for you now.” So many times, I will pitch an idea—it’s just starting to change now, where some producers or editors are younger—the people who are in charge go, “Oh, I don’t really get it that well, I don’t really know,” and then they’ll show it to their 19- to 25-year-old intern or assistant or development exec, and they go bonkers over it. They’re like, “Wow! That’s so great!” Even the Audrey book, people were initially like, “Do people still know Audrey Hepburn?” Of course they do, but if you’re much older, you think that’s in the past, nobody knows that. You don’t see all the contemporary pictures of Anne Hathaway and Natalie Portman and Carey Mulligan and everybody dressing up as Audrey, and even Lily Collins, who does the best Audrey Hepburn. People are still aware of that.


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