This Case Explains It All

In the spring of 1991, even before SNICK existed, Nickelodeon premiered its first live-action show with a female lead. It starred (a fairly unknown) Melissa Joan Hart, and became a massive cable success, paving the way for many shows like it to follow. 

Clarissa Explains It All followed the lives of the Darling family, told from the perspective of young teenager, Clarissa. Tackling subjects like crushes, grades, and annoying siblings, the series struck a chord with young viewers and their families, and would go on to headline the SNICK line-up. 

So, if you’re wondering how this show came to be, don’t worry, we’re here to explain it all for you! 

THE FIRST FEMALE-LED SITCOM FOR NICKELODEON

  • Created by Mitchell Kriegman, Clarissa Explains it All was a multi-camera sitcom filmed in Nickelodeon Studios. Every episode, Clarissa addresses the camera in a very honest and charismatic way, catching us up on her current life issues. 
    • In TV, this is often known as breaking the fourth wall. But, Kriegman didn’t see it this way. In an interview with Vulture, he said that he doesn’t feel like there really is a fourth wall in TV, and Clarissa wasn’t talking to a camera, she was talking to us. We were meant to feel as if we were in the room with her, like a friend and not an audience. 
    • Kriegman had a major hand in 90’s Nickelodeon, having worked on Doug, Ren and Stimpy, and Rocko’s Modern Life. He also created the 2000’s Nick Jr TV show, Bear in the Big Blue House
  • When he pitched Clarissa to the network, he had been a writer for SNL, and helped develop two shows on the Comedy Network. He got the idea for this new sitcom from the other shows he had helped produce. Sadly no one seemed interested in it at the Comedy Network so he brought the idea to Nickelodeon. 
    • At the time, Geraldine Laybourne was the head of Nickelodeon, and was working to lead the network into its golden era. She was a bit of an iconoclast herself, and wanted to try things that adults were telling her wouldn’t work with kids. She also was interested in building a network that appealed to kids more than toy companies or parents.
    • So, when Kriegman pitched the show, she gave it a chance. There was only one sitcom on Nickelodeon at the time, Hey Dude, but this new show would have a completely different style. Laybourne also gave Kriegman access to the studies that she was looking at as a guide to creating the show, and that was when he decided that his lead needed to be female.
  • Kriegman said, “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.”
    • At the time, TV networks seemed to struggle with creating realistic teen girl characters. Many teen girl characters at the time were unrealistic or just not relatable. Of course there were exceptions, but it seemed to be an issue across the board. 
    • Kriegman’s goal was to create a character that personified Nickelodeon and what the channel stood for. He read teen magazines and consulted his wife who was an editor for Seventeen Magazine for help with portraying a modern teen girl. 
    • He knew it was important to have a character that young girls could look up to and identify with, but that boys would enjoy watching too. The result was Clarissa Darling, an outspoken teen that defied labels. She wasn’t exactly girly,and she wasn’t really a tomboy. Clarissa was a girl that enjoyed fashion and programming her own computer games. She had a best friend that was a boy, but he wasn’t a boyfriend. The topics of the show were things that were universal to kids, not something that would appeal to either gender specifically. 
  • On March 23rd, 1991, the world met Clarissa: a bright blonde girl in mis-matched clothes and black squares painted over her pink papered walls. The show opened with her introducing herself and immediately expressing that she hated her own name. That was, in part, why Mitchell Kriegman chose Clarissa Darling as her name. He knew it was a name that the audience could believe she hated–and Darling was lifted straight from Peter Pan. 
    • Clarissa was a hit! Here was a girl that, at first glance, would fit into the basic stereotypes of a young teen girl–and then she subverted them almost instantly. 
  • At first, producers did not like Clarissa  because they thought she was rude for doing things like speaking her mind and talking back to her parents. Kriegman defended the show’s portrayal of Clarissa, saying that producers wouldn’t have issues with these snarky comments or jokes if they came from a lead male. This is an issue that still carries on today, though shows like Clarissa Explains It All really helped show young girls that it’s okay to speak your mind–but don’t be disrespectful. Clarissa got in trouble in the show, just like any teen girl. Portraying a lead teen character that never gets grounded would be laughable, so of course Clarissa messes up every once in a while.
  • Kriegman rounded out the cast of characters by creating Sam, Clarissa’s neighbor and best friend who appears in her window at any given time. 
    • He also added Ferguson, Clarissa’s annoying younger brother. 
    • In the same Vulture article that we referenced before, Kriegman said, “Clarissa was going to be this wildly creative person. It stood to reason that Ferguson was going to be this “stick.” A really rigid stick of a person who was extremely competitive. And that made perfect sense from a character/show point of view, more than anything else. Ferguson had to be something utterly contrasting to her. I wanted that red-headed obnoxious little kid.”

THEME SONG

  • The iconic theme song for the show was created by Rachel Sweet, someone that Mitchell Kriegman had worked with in the past. In fact, he had even worked on a parody show where Sweet would explain things! (Sound familiar?) So, it was only fitting that she collaborated with him again and gave him the intro to Clarissa. 
    • If you’re unfamiliar with the catchy earworm, it consisted of a lot of Nah-nah’s with interjected Way Cool! and All right! All right! throughout.
    • Sweet said “I didn’t want to do the typical sitcom theme song where it kind of tells a story or tries to convey what the show is about. I just wanted it to be something fun to listen to. Like ear candy. I had been recording for many years and was very into 60’s pop, and girl group stuff like the Shondells and Ronettes.”
  • But, the theme song was more than its music, it had great visuals as well! It introduces each character without saying who they are, but the audience immediately gets the idea. 
  • If you’re a 90’s Nick fan you might also notice the similarities between this opening and the opening of Doug! Both characters write on the screen in some capacity, and the other characters are introduced through action instead of words. Doug came out several months later in 1991, and Kriegman worked on that show as well.
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ON SCREEN GRAPHICS 

  • Today, we take screen graphics for granted. They’re much simpler to create. Obviously it still takes skill and a flair for design but there are a lot more programs to help with this.
  • But, when they were filming Clarissa Explains it all, they had to hire a news graphics artist. His name was Don St. Mars and he had to use a specific computer called the Quantel Paintbox, which at the time cost about $150,000.
  • Don St. Mars created these designs that appeared on screen as Clarissa talked, and sometimes wrote. The designs had to appear as though Clarissa created them with her style but also look a tad better than what she would actually create to keep the aesthetic of the show. 
Notice the lock on her shoe!
Notice the lock on her shoe!

WHAT MADE CLARISSA, CLARISSA?

FASHION!

  • One of the most unique things about this show is Clarissa’s fashion. Her outfits never matched. They were always a cool conglomerate of patterns and textures. Mitchell Kriegman even said that they could tell the show was popular because kids started to dress like Clarissa!
  • The two geniuses behind these looks were Lisa Lederer and Bruce Marshall.
    • If Melissa Joan Hart was uncomfortable in anything they would change it for her. Although not a fashionista herself, Melissa enjoyed the outfits overall, saying that they made her just feel like a kid. They chose outfits that were not sexy or too tight. She didn’t even have to wear heels! She personally loved the combat boots.
      • She revealed in an interview with Elle magazine that she kept every single piece that she wore for the show and has it all in a theater closet in her basement. She is also very possessive of it because her sister tried on the blue combat boots with a  Betsey Johnson top and she told her she couldn’t take it. 
    • There were also episode plots centered on Clarissa’s fashion and need to express herself. In one episode, for school picture day, Clarissa argues with her parents about what she can wear. It turns out at the end of the episode, Clarissa has started a trend and she’s horrified to find that she came to school dressed just like everyone else.
      • Some of Clarissa’s style choices and antics were inspired by Mitchell Kleigman’s days as an artist–Clarissa is a creative character just like him.
    • A special little Easter Egg for everyone is that Melissa Joan Hart liked to wear a key lock on one of her shoes and so they let her do that in the show too. So if you look closely there should be one in every episode on one of her shoes! 
    • Also, while you’re watching the show, look for the color purple. Kriegman arbitrarily eliminated the color purple from the set and clothing. Of course, he couldn’t completely eliminate the color, and you can see it in patterns every once in a while. 

VIDEO GAMES

  • We’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: video games are not just for boys. But, it was and is still a commonly held belief that video games are more of a “guy” thing. Clarissa subverted that expectation once again by not only playing video games, but by coding her own games to play. 
  • Tim Burns is responsible for the video games that Clarissa creates within the show.

RELATIONSHIPS

  • Sibling Rivalry wasn’t just there for plot reasons, it was deeply ingrained in the framework of the show. Kriegman intentionally created siblings that were different in every way, and he wanted their fighting to be always present, a fact of life that never had to be explained. When Clarissa walked in the room and insulted her brother, and he gave a nasty reply, it felt like an authentic portrayal of the kid experience.
    • This was another groundbreaking part of the show, and it made sense because kids don’t have fully developed emotions yet–and sometimes–they really feel like they hate each other. 
  • One of the most ground-breaking parts of the show was the relationship between Sam and Clarissa. It’s a common TV and movie trope that the boy and girl best friends will one day become romantically involved. But their relationship was totally innocent. Sam never even knocked, Clarissa always knew when he was coming up by the sound of his ladder hitting the window. 
    • There is one episode where Sam and Clarissa explore romantic feelings, but it ultimately ends with them realizing that they are just friends and it never comes up again. 

STARRING:

  • Today shows contain a lot of diversity but unfortunately this was not always the case in the early 90’s. Clarissa, while being an amazing way to expand on the life of a female teenager, does fall short in this aspect.  
  • Melissa Joan Hart as Clarissa Darling
    • Clarissa is the main star of course that explains her life to us.
      • In the show bible that Mitchell Kriegman wrote for Clarissa Explains it All, he described the main character as “The Ferris Bueller of Girldom.” 
    • Melissa Joan Hart was also auditioning for a character on Blossom at the same time she auditioned as Clarissa. She decided that Clarissa was the right character for her, but Kriegman still had to choose between Melissa and another girl. Kreigman later said that the other girl really had the coolness of Clarissa, but Melissa lit up the screen so much with her personality, he decided she was the one to go with.
    • She started with small parts in things like commercials and shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark. Clarissa Explains It All was her first starring role on TV. She is also well known now for her role as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Melissa and Joey.
  • Jason Zimbler as Ferguson Darling
    • Ferguson is Clarissa’s annoying and tattle tale little brother.
    • Jason Zimbler started his own theater company in 2007 and has worked for HBO as a software designer since 2009.
  • Elizabeth Hess as Janet Darling
    • Janet is her loving mother who likes to cook healthy food and save the planet.
    • Elizabeth Hess has had small roles on other shows like All My Children and Law and Order.
  • Joe O’Connor as Marshall Darling
    • Marshall is her loving father who usually refers to her lovingly as “sport.” He is an architect that designs strange buildings for houses and companies. 
    • Joe O’Connor has been on a lot of different things including Friends, Melrose Place, and Blue Bloods. 
  • Sean O’Neal as Sam Anders
    • Sam is Clarissa’s best friend, and was described by Kriegman to be a “Tip of the Iceberg” character (everything he says has a backstory that doesn’t get explored.)
    • Sean O’Neal wasn’t the first person chosen for Sam, as another actor played the character in the pilot episode. During his final audition, Kriegman asked Sean to leave and come back with his hair messed up. Sean did as he was told, and when he returned to the audition, Kriegman told him he got the part. 
    • He has acted in a couple roles since the show, but is still most well-known for playing Sam 

FAMOUS GUEST STARS:

  • James Van Der Beek known for Dawson’s Creek
    • Melissa Joan Hart’s first on screen kiss was James Van Der Beek and she didn’t want to kiss him! She said she was more into the dark haired “skater dudes” like Pauly Shore and Johnny Depp. They had given her head shots of boys and asked her who she would be ok kissing and she remembers pointing to his and saying that she didn’t want to kiss him, but… it ended up being him anyway.
  • Michelle Trachtenberg known for Pete & Pete, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Gossip Girl
    • She guest stars as a young girl that can be a handful that Clarissa babysits.
  • Megyn Price for many roles on sitcoms like Rules of Engagement
    • She plays Lisa Welsh, Clarissa’s cousin.

FUN FACTS:

  • A lot of fans remember Elvis the Alligator, Clarissa’s pet, but he didn’t last past the first season because he was too boring to cut to. So, in the show Clarissa says that he “grew longer than his size in the catalog” and had to go.
    • Kriegman has also said that he got the idea for the alligator from a college girlfriend who had a kiddie pool with turtles. 
  • The series ended with her wanting to be a journalist, and there was a planned sequel series that would follow her on a news internship.
  • In 1994 Melissa Joan Hart recorded an introduction for a recording of Peter and the Wolf recorded by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She did this intro as Clarissa Darling.
  • The show had some incredible writing talent, including Suzanne Collins who would write The Hunger Games trilogy! Some of the other writers worked on such shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Friends,” “Daria,” “The Simpsons,” “Roseanne,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and many more. 

CONTINUATIONS AND REBOOTS 

  • As Melissa Joan Hart got older the show naturally ended. Although there was the possibility of doing a continuation titled Clarissa Now, it never came to be. The creator Mitchell Kriegman wanted to continue Clarissa’s story into the teen years. However Nickelodeon did not agree with everything Kriegman wanted for the show. He was surprised to find that they hired a new writer and took out most of what he wanted in the show. Nickelodeon’s reasoning was that audiences supposedly did not like talking to the camera and fantasies. It caused Mitchell Kriegman to ask “What did you buy? Why did you do this?” 
  • In 2015 the creator Mitchell Kriegman wrote a novel called Things I Can’t Explain, that continued Clarissa’s story as a young adult in her 20’s trying to figure out life. 
  • In 2018 it was revealed that Nickelodeon was in talks with both Mitchell Kriegman and Melissa Joan Hart for a Clarissa reboot. The early reports said that Clarissa would be the mother of the family much like Topanga and Corey were for the Disney sequel Girl Meets World from 2014.
    • When asked about Clarissa being rebooted Melissa Joan Hart said, “I like the way we left Sabrina. I think Sabrina ended on a really great note, and I don’t think you want to go back and explore that. At the same time, I think Clarissa ended on a note that could be explored again, because it didn’t really have an ending — it sort of ended.”
    • In 2019 Melissa Joan Hart revealed to US Weekly that the production on the reboot has stalled. She was not able to give any details but instead said that it is up to the writers, producers, and network.

In a lot of ways, Clarissa Explains it All was a game-changer. It spoke to young girls in a way that no other kids show had before. Of course, shows like Blossom did a lot for young female representation, but this show broke so many molds, even just within the sitcom format. 

Clarissa Explains it All was a trailblazer. It’s a show that’s made a lasting mark on American pop culture, whether we realize it or not.  And, if you watched the show, you don’t need anyone to explain why. 


SOURCES:

Reboot Sources:

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