Clarissa Is Coming Back To Explain It All, AGAIN

being-audrey-coverPhoto: Courtesy of St. Martin's Griffin.
We’re used to hearing that shows like Glee broke the mold for representing teens on TV. While we agree that Ryan Murphy’s song-and-dance-palooza finally placed many taboo topics of adolescence on a network show, writers and creators have been pushing boundaries for decades. Mitchell Kriegman is one such innovator. You may not know his name, but you know his work. He created Clarissa Explains It All, served as an executive story editor on Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, and Doug, and was a writer and filmmaker for Saturday Night Live.
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While his work is mostly known through the medium of television, Kriegman also dabbles in prose. He recently wrote his first novel, Being Audrey Hepburn. It’s an engaging tale of Lisbeth, a 19-year-old from New Jersey who aspires to reinvent herself like her idol, Audrey Hepburn. We chatted with Kriegman about all things Audrey, how the teens are talking, and (of course), Clarissa Darling and her present-day exploits. Read on for some major Clarissa intel.
What inspired you to write a novel involving Audrey Hepburn?
“Audrey is loved by women of every age — not just because of her movies, style, and good deeds, but because she invented herself! Certainly, she knew how to work with Givenchy, Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards, and others to create an image, but most of all, she knew what was good for her. She knew her faults and assets and what gave her a great look. She created her own persona at a time when movie actresses — especially stars — were dictated to and created by movie studios, directors, and costume designers. Audrey Hepburn was the first contemporary movie star and icon that was in charge of her own image."
You’re pretty down with how teens talk these days.
“Ever since Clarissa Explains It All, I’ve been in love with the way everyday people create language and new words for how they see the world. It’s one of the most creative things that people do all the time, and teens do it more… Writing Being Audrey Hepburn, I even had rules for the way every character texted — even texting can be personal.”
What message do you hope readers take away from the book?
“That no matter what your circumstances, you can become who you want to be by trusting your intelligence and creativity. I also like the line from Lisbeth’s grandmother that says, ‘Sometimes, good things aren’t always so great, and bad things often turn out to be good for you.’”
The novel deals with a lot of serious issues — cancer, juvenile delinquency, lying about one's identity. How did you keep the tone optimistic?
"The story started as a kind of fairy tale, with longing, and the thing about fairy tales is that there’s always something troubling and dark inside them. If they didn’t have that darker aspect, there wouldn’t be any power to them. It’s all how the characters handle adversity and success. Success can be just as dark or darker than tragedy. I also think Lisbeth’s friend Jess keeps her on an even keel. I love Jess."
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Speaking of Jess, would you have wanted to have a gay character on Clarissa Explains It All if Nickelodeon would have allowed it?
“It would have been really interesting to do so. Teenagers weren’t so quick to define themselves as gay in those days, so it would have been pretty startling and maybe unbelievable at the time. Hey, just having a girl as the lead in a sitcom was unheard of. And, a girl who dressed as eclectically as Clarissa, with a boy regularly climbing in her window day or night? Not to mention that she painted over her nice pink wallpaper with a checkerboard of black car paint. I was pushing the envelope for those days.
“But, here’s my bigger truth: I’ve always wanted to have more inclusive diversity in my shows, and it’s a struggle with networks and studios. Boys aren’t done right in television or film, either. Besides Linklater’s Boyhood and some English shows like Skins and The Inbetweeners, boys are pushed to be either macho or gay, and that’s not the way it is. I’m reminded of Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging.’”
clarissaexlpainsitall-articlePhoto: Courtesy of Nickelodeon.
Why do you think there’s so much nostalgia for shows like Clarissa?
“Well, one thing is that Clarissa was an original — it wasn’t another show with a girl lead, and she wasn’t about becoming a pop star or famous. We took risks, changed the sitcom form, challenged the audience, the network, and conventional wisdom. We weren’t trying to be just like all the other popular shows, so the show stands out as an original experience. It had a ton of jokes and attitude in it that you understood more as you grew up, so it sustained. I’m flattered to say that even Lena Dunham (I’m a big fan) has cited Clarissa Explains It All as her favorite show growing up."
It also feels like it comes from a simpler, less-judgmental time.
“I believe that when we watch television at any age over six, we presume it’s guilty until proven innocent. Meaning that we expect the shows we watch to suck until they prove that they’re better than that. And, when they are better, we remember them.”
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Would you ever reunite the cast for a Clarissa movie?
"That’s like saying we could pull the original SNL cast together again. I’m afraid that ship has sailed. Besides, any reunion is totally out of my control. I did recently get to see Sam (Sean O’Neil) and Ferguson (Jason Zimbler) again. I’m in touch with Melissa [Joan Hart] and Clarissa’s mom, Elizabeth Hess. Everyone seems to be doing just fine with life as it is, and they're appreciative of all the great times we had."
What do you think Clarissa, Sam, and Ferguson are up to now? And, is it true you’re working on a Clarissa book?
"I just turned in a draft of my novel, Things I Can’t Explain. The book is slated to come out next fall, and I’m very much looking forward to it. It’s a complete reimagining of the world, the characters, and the idea behind the character. Clarissa is in her late 20s, and now she’s gone from knowing it all at 14 to feeling like she’s starting over in her 20s. She’s like a lot of people that age these days, especially with student debt and the job market as it is. The government should forgive students' debt — or vastly reduce it. It’s holding back the economy and a generation of people who sometimes have to make bad decisions because of it.
“The book is a chance to see Clarissa push the envelope again and do everything she’s never done before. She’s got a great group of girlfriends now, and guys (new ones) that she likes. It particularly describes the unexpected evolution of Sam and Clarissa.
“Everyone’s in there — even Clifford Spleenhurfer, a new take on Elvis, and lots of other new stuff. A wilder-than-expected Ferguson, I hope. It’s definitely a comedy in Clarissa’s unique voice, which I love writing. But, I think she gets her ass kicked, too.”
Um, preordered.
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