The One Thing You Didn't Know About 'Clarissa Explains It All'
I'm an unabashed, loud-n'-proud Melissa Joan Hart addict, so it was a thrill to come across some new information about everyone's favorite Nickelodeon show. You guys: the one surprising Clarissa Explains It All fact is all about the show's creator's past. And it makes everyone's favorite early Nick show even that much cooler.
Way back when, creator Mitchell Kriegman worked on other shows you'll definitely know. Amongst them is the comedy feast that is Saturday Night Live. You'd imagine that for a comedy enthusiast, it doesn't get any better than working on Saturday Night Live. But in fact, in a 2014 AV Club interview Kriegman revealed that he actually found working on Clarissa Explains It All both more creatively fulfilling and way more fun than working on SNL. That's right, making Clarissa Explains It All was more fun than getting celebs to do wacky impressions of other celebs.
While it might sound strange for a writer to move between a popular mainstream adult comedy show and a kids show, Kriegman explains this was typical of most TV writers' careers at the time, stating that "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."
But what's cool to me here is that Kriegman found working on Clarissa Explains It All such a superior experience to working on Saturday Night Live, which feels like the pinnacle of most comedy writers' careers. To do him justice, his experience at Saturday Night Live sounds awful enough for pretty much any other project to count as an improvement. He describes how he 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" and how his distinctive brand of comedy led to great reviews but him becoming "non grata" in the office. It's hardly surprising that in Kriegman's 2015 LA Times interview, he recalls how he absolutely embraced his being cut from the show, describing himself as being "very happy to be fired — what's the right word for that? — gloriously fired from SNL."
Kriegman reveals in the AC Club interview above that the boundaries for kids shows were far less strict and what the makers of the show were willing to allow was more experimental. It's easy to see why someone coming from a kind of arty background might find kids' programming more fun to work in when he explains:
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.
On reflection, this makes so much sense. If you work on a long-established show, you'd be working within the boundaries of other people's expectations. Kriegman wasn't just a writer on Clarissa Explains It All, but the show's creator – meaning he got to produce something original and fresh and there were no preconceived notions of what it had to be like. Plus, for all the snobbery people might have about kids' TV, as you'll know if you've watched Clarissa Explains It All, Kriegman got to put into use all the stuff he learned while pitching experimental adult comedy to Comedy Central, when he...
"...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."
Aren't these the very same features that make Clarissa Explains It All so memorable? I don't know if you remember the opening to the pilot episode, but there was nothing like it — it opens on Clarissa addressing the audience in a chatty, engaging way, as if we've known each other for years, while simultaneously brushing her teeth. It felt every bit as arresting and original as Holden Caufield's opening to classic teen novel The Catcher In The Rye, where he starts the novel mid-flow, addressing the reader. Clarissa does something similar here, but with her toothbrush in her mouth. It's both boldly realistic (gurgling toothpaste) and postmodern (breaking the fourth wall) all at once.
So if you've watched and rewatched Clarissa Explains It All a zillion times and are looking for a fresh way to rewatch it, can I make a suggestion? Line up Kriegman's three big Saturday Night Live sketches first ("The Dancing Man," "Heart To Heart," and "Someone Is Hiding In My Apartment") and intersperse them with your favorite Clarissa episodes and then ask yourself this: which show would you rather have worked on? I think we all know the answer to this already, right?
Images: Nickoloden (2); Giphy