Ready to feel old, 90s kids? Clarissa Explains It All, the teen sitcom that launched the career of Melissa Joan Hart, is turning 30 today.
Based around the Darling family, Clarissa immediately became fashion inspo to young girls everywhere – with us all dying to have a see-through phone in our bedroom, and a ladder by our window so our best friend can drop by.
She was the OG vlogger – talking directly to the audience through the camera to discuss the essential worries of a normal teen. How annoying her brother was, the struggles of learning how to drive, what it means to discover boys.
The series, created by Mitchell Kreigman, was groundbreaking in many ways – not least of which because, until that point, there had been few shows starring teen girls, aimed at teen audiences.
In fact, with the exception of Mayim Bialik comedy Blossom, which premiered less than two months before Clarissa did, it was unheard of.
Speaking exclusively to Metro.co.uk, Melissa, Mitchell, and producer Chris Gifford remember the series, and how it inadvertently shaped pop culture to what it is today.
‘I can’t believe it’s 30! I feel like I’m not even 30 yet, I don’t understand how the show could be,’ Melissa, now 44, told us.
‘There had been shows about women before, and it wasn’t the first female lead, but there was a big push at Nickelodeon behind the fact that it was one of the first kids’ shows to be centred around a female.
‘You go back to Mary Tyler Moore, I Love Lucy and some of the shows that were around females, but when you look at Clarissa, it was really sort of [unique].
‘Clarissa was one of these females that it wasn’t about her girlfriends, it was about her dreams or aspirations, her deep feelings behind things and just dealing with family politics.
‘I think that boys were finally okay with watching a girl, because she wasn’t talking about “girly” things. She’s smart and witty and has a best friend who’s a boy and problems with her brother and everybody can kind of relate to her.’
‘There was that feeling that girls would watch boys, but boys wouldn’t watch girls, and that was clearly not true,’ said Chris. ‘That was breaking down that barrier.’
Mitchell agreed, and said there was a lot of battling with network big wigs in order to get Clarissa to screen.
‘It was difficult,’ he said. ‘We were supposed to do something really corny – it was called Space Swap or something like that – where it was gonna be an alien daughter, a Disney kinda rip-off. So I was really glad we weren’t doing that.
‘I got to create something of my own and it just hit me that we just need a girl, and she needs to say what the hell is going on from her point of view – from the kids’ point of view and a girl point of view. Did I have hurdles? Yes I had hurdles.’
One of those hurdles, by his own admission, is the fact that he’s a man himself, writing about a teenage girl’s experience.
In order to counteract that, Mitchell ensured the writing team was made up largely of women – notably Alexa Junge, who went on to work as a producer for Friends, Neena Beber, who later helped create Daria, and Suzanne Collins, now best known as the author of The Hunger Games.
‘Our head writer for most of the shows was a woman,’ said Chris, who stresses the balance was an unusual one for television. ‘I think the writing staff was about half women, half men. It wasn’t a big writing staff.
‘The crew for the most part were men, maybe a couple of women. But back then the industry was primarily men, at least below the line.’
‘I had people who said, “well, what are you writing about a girl for?” which is in some ways a legit issue, especially these days,’ Mitchell added. ‘But I had lots of women working with me. It was almost an all women top staff, and my wife at the time was an editor for Seventeen, so I had some really great role models for her.’
Prior to accepting the job which would ultimately shape her career, Melissa actually auditioned for ‘rival’ series Blossom.
‘I had just done a Broadway play where I was doing a monologue on stage as a very brave preteen girl,’ she explained. ‘It just felt like the natural next step.
‘I heard later on that they did not want a blonde to play the part, and so that’s why they had to see me so many times, but at the same time I was auditioning for Blossom to play the role of Six.
‘I remember laying in bed at night and praying and just thinking, “let God’s will be done, because I don’t know what I want”. These are both were great opportunities and these are both great characters, these are both great shows. I’m not sure what I want to do.
‘I think the right path was chosen for me.’
‘There was some boy band at the time, and whether it was true or not she said she didn’t like them, and that made me like her,’ Mitchell laughed.
‘She said she liked They Might Be Giants which I thought was perfect.
‘In those days, child actors were very artificial. I really wanted an authentic kid that was the age of the character, and that wasn’t done at the time. 90210 were 30 year olds, with completely developed bodies and hypersexual. I was determined to find a natural kid.
‘Melissa lit up the screen, she made everything light. She was also a consummate performer at the age of 13. She ended up being in every single scene, and was so accomplished she knew everybody’s lines, in addition to hers. She was just golden.’
‘She’s amazing,’ added Chris. ‘We would give her a monologue the morning of, she would look it over and she’d do it in one take. It was astounding.
‘She was like a great athlete – like Michael Jordan. She just owned that part. She just did a beautiful job.’
As the new show lead, Melissa was the eldest child of the Darling family, with Elizabeth Hess, and Mad Men’s Joe O’Connor playing her long-suffering parents.
Jason Zimbler, who now works for HBO and as a university lecturer, played her young Republican, pain-in-the-neck brother, Ferguson.
Completing the main cast was Sean O’Neal, who played Clarissa’s best friend, Sam – the doting best friend who was a rare example of platonic male/female friendship on screen.
It was something that Mitchell says was largely deliberate, with the exception of one episode where Sam is considering asking Clarissa out.
‘Melissa lit up the screen, she made everything light… She was just golden.’
‘I think you had to give the audience a little bit,’ said Melissa. ‘Everybody kind of wanted to see that happen for a second, but really it was just a platonic friendship and it was a very safe friendship and one they could really rely on each other.
‘He wasn’t unlike a girlfriend for her, you know, he was someone she could confide in or she could tell her secrets and dreams too and without any judgement.
‘But I think in Mitchell’s mind he always wanted to kind of get them together.’
‘There was no sexual judgmental quality to this series, there was a non-gender bias and it felt like it was safe for someone, sex wasn’t being thrown at you,’ Mitchell said.
‘So maybe all those things sound safe, but the truth was I was really interested in things that were really the meat and potatoes of what it’s like to be a kid.’
While the Clarissa series ended in 1994, Mitchell has continued to revive the character in different ways – including 2015 novel Things I Can’t Explain, where the leading lady and her best friend actually did confront their feelings about each other after so many years.
There was also a reboot in the works at one point – which unceremoniously stalled just before shooting as the network didn’t appreciate Clarissa continuing to talk to camera.
‘I had written the script of her grown-up in this newsroom,’ Mitchell reveals. ‘I had an amazing cast, finally I had a diverse cast. I had talking to the camera still, and the graphs, and fantasies and graphics.
‘After writing it and building the set – which cost them at least £100,000 – and casting the whole thing, I get this phone call saying, “we’re gonna hire another writer to write the whole thing over again”.
‘I’m saying, “Why?” and they said “well we can’t have all that talking to camera”. Those graphics, those fantasies – that works on cable for kids but it won’t work for adults?
‘I have very high standards for talking to camera. Fleabag is really good. That’s why I wince whenever I see Fleabag.’
The character’s influence definitely lived on though – most notably in Chris’s next project, the kids TV juggernaut that is Dora The Explorer.
‘The way we direct Dora to camera, that was something I took [from Clarissa],’ he said. ‘The fact that boys would watch girls, even preschool shows struggle with that.
‘If you’re going to talk to the audience, you make sure it counts. You make a contract with the viewer that if you’re going to ask for their help, like Clarissa and Dora, they’re going to succeed. They’re not gonna fail.
‘When Clarissa would turn to camera, you knew this was going to be good. With Dora, the kids are like, “Okay, this is going to be good”. It’s either going to be funny, or it’s going to be surprising – it’s going to have some juice to it.
‘That was a key piece that resonated for me from Clarissa.’
Despite previous setbacks, Mitchell is now determined to one day revive Clarissa, and bring her up to date with a family of her own – and Melissa is on board.
‘Of all my series, I would love to go back to that one the most,’ she said. ‘I feel like there is a lot that was unsaid, and that there could be in continuation.
‘I feel like Sabrina we wrapped it up pretty nicely and I wouldn’t want to mess with the memory of that, but Clarissa is the one that I would go back to and see what happened.
‘I don’t know, we’ve flirted with the idea. Mitchell and I have come up with numerous different takes on it, and presented it to Nickelodeon, who was looking at it but then things kind of got lost.
‘It’s been years now since it’s been brought up so I don’t think it’s in the stars. But never say never. If it comes back around and it’s a great idea, then we’ll do it.’
‘Here’s what’s super cool right now is that we all talk to the camera,’ said Mitchell. ‘Think about what Clarissa was doing, she’d be in her room talking to camera, and we’d watch her as she did her stuff. You know, like her phone. She’d go to an earlier episode of her life, scrolling – she’d write on the screen, like TikTok and Snapchat.’
‘I’m planning on [reviving] it,’ he continued. ‘At this point, I think there’s so many reasons for the show to exist, and whether a girl or a boy or trans or multiracial, there’s still so many reasons for a kid to explain things in the world.
‘I think it will always be something important – to have a kid’s point of view, in a way that’s authentic.’
‘Here’s what I adore about the history of Clarissa, it was conscious to make it appeal to boys and girls, to be non-gender biased. I love that there are people of all kinds, who have come up to me and say “you made my childhood”. So many of them are different and unique and of different races and different backgrounds, male and female.
‘I recently talked to someone who’s trans and they said “wow I love Clarissa. Clarissa really made me comfortable with who I am”. So, tell me. Isn’t there a demand for that right now?
‘Wouldn’t that be a fantastic show that was fully of the moment that did what that show did and it’s time?
‘We need to do that again. We’ll probably always need to do that. But that’s me.’
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