It’s been 25 years since witty, fourth-wall-breaking Clarissa Darling first na-na-na-na-na’d onto television screens, with her cool clothes, pet alligator Elvis, and a bedroom many a ‘90s kid envied. Starring Melissa Joan Hart as the titular teen, Clarissa Explains It All premiered March 3, 1991 on Nickelodeon and ran for five seasons, following Clarissa as she navigated the various aspects of teenage life: school, boys, her family (obnoxious younger brother Ferguson and all her nicknames for him included), and more.
Hart went on to other memorable roles (like Sabrina the Teenage Witch) after Clarissa ended in 1994, but the Thomas Tupper High student remains among her best-known and beloved characters. Smart and sarcastic with a wild imagination and style to match, Clarissa has lived on through reruns and that can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head theme song. A 2015 novel by Clarissa Explains It All creator Mitchell Kriegman, Things I Can’t Explain, even imagined the character as an adult, living in New York City in her 20s.
Ahead of Clarissa’s quarter-century anniversary on Thursday, Hart chatted with EW about her memories of making the show, what she saved from the set, and what Clarissa would explain to all of us today.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you think back now on making Clarissa Explains It All and playing Clarissa, what comes to mind?
MELISSA JOAN HART: Oh, I love it. I have nothing but fond memories of both Clarissa and Sabrina. People ask which one’s my favorite; it’s like picking between your children. I had wonderful times on both of them, and with Clarissa I was going through a lot of the same things that Clarissa was, of course, because we were the same age. So, to have her to look up to, to infuse her with my personality, but then also in return to have her be another voice for me when you’re going through junior high and high school when it’s all very tricky and you’re navigating friendships and style and conformity, and to be able to have her as sort of a guiding light of, like “Well, if she doesn’t conform then why should I?” or “She doesn’t do this, so why should I be embarrassed of it?” or “She wears Doc Martins, so I’ll wear Doc Martins,” that kind of thing. I don’t know where she began and where I ended, but I felt we were very much two little kindred spirits that were helping each other along the way.
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I loved how unabashedly different she was.
When I first started the show I was growing up in Long Island but spending a lot of time in Manhattan auditioning, and then at the beginning of the show in the first season my parents got divorced and I moved to Manhattan, so she had — even though I think she was supposed to be from Ohio — a very Manhattan vibe to her: very East Village, a little bit of an early grunge era, really crazy wild style, crazy room, crazy friends and family. She just had a wild little life and I feel like I sort of had the same thing going on — I have a very big family full of dynamic personalities, and I had a really eclectic sense of style, I was very much a tomboy but also kind of girly, so it was a real mix, a fusion of those kinds of things. She and I were so similar — it was such fun to play her.
Clarissa definitely had one of the best teen bedrooms on television. Did you save anything from the set?
I saved a lot of props. I think I got all the necklaces, but I don’t think I still have any of those. I used to hang them in my bedroom in Manhattan. I had my room very much like hers — mine was peace signs all over the place, each wall had a different funky thing hanging on it, not necessarily hubcaps in black checkers, but I had painted footsteps on the ceiling and a giant Earth flower on the wall with all my favorite quotes people would write in Sharpie on my wall; all great movie quotes and song quotes. But from the set, there was one scene where we were at a gas station I think she was dreaming about having a car — so I have a sign that said “Clarissa Gas.” And I kept a lot of the clothes, a lot of the Betsy Johnson pieces mainly.
Do you have favorite episodes or memorable moments from filming?
It’s hard because back then you didn’t live-tweet the show so unless you were home on that particular day and night — there wasn’t TiVo, there was basically VHS recording. Nobody was recording it for me — now, of course I have them. I never really watched them back; I think watching them back would be almost like re-reading your diary or watching your home videos for an extensive length of time. But it’s so weird because I remember everything from my perspective — what was going on in my life and on the set. We had long, long, long hours, and when we weren’t on set we were at school. Trying to memorize those lines was tedious work, that took me days, and all the while I’m also doing high school homework, I’m trying to learn French and Latin, trigonometry.
Some of the best moments were — so Monday and Tuesday we would rehearse and go to school, Wednesdays we would shoot what were called EPKs, which were the little snippets, the little dream sequences that would happen every week, the things where Clarissa would all of the sudden be in an episode of Star Trek or Joan of Arc being burned at the stake, or all those different fun little elements we added to every episode, so Wednesday was spent shooting those pieces and going to school when we weren’t. And then Thursday and Friday were full-on taping days so I was on the set 12 hours, and then Sundays we would start again; we got Saturday off and then Sunday we would start again with school and table reads, and we would read our scripts, do our wardrobe fittings, and go to school.
Did you realize during at the time the show was a hit?
I don’t think I did at the time. I did as far as ratings went and I did as far as Nickelodeon was concerned, but their audience at the time was just kids watching game shows — they had these teen dramas, and we were the first comedy, and of course they had the animated shows. I was a bit embarrassed at first because I was on a kids’ network: Here I am, 16, and everyone’s like, “Oh, you’re from that show!” Nobody could ever say the name of the show — and they still can’t, like, “That’s, uh, Carissa Tells Everything, right?” — and I’d be a little embarrassed, like, “Oh, you know that? You watch Nickelodeon? Oh, okay.” Then I’d judge them. [Laughs].
Do people still approach you now about Clarissa, and Sabrina too?
All the time. I think it’s pretty split, really. But what’s funny about my Clarissa fans is that they think they’re a secret society — they all do the same exact thing, like, “Well, I remember you from Clarissa.” Everybody thinks that everyone knows me from Sabrina, and I get all these people like “But I remember…” They think they go much further back with me, which is great and awesome, I love it. But it’s so funny because every Clarissa fan is the same way about the information when they share it with me. It’s so cute.
I wonder if that has anything to do with her breaking the fourth wall so often, like she was speaking right to them.
I think the showrunner stole that from [Ferris Bueller’s Day Off]. It was a big thing for him to want to do what Ferris Bueller had done.
There are all these beloved shows coming back now in new forms, like Fuller House. Is there any possibility Clarissa could do the same?
I just had a meeting with my agents where we were discussing the possibility of that, but that’s really up to Nickelodeon; I think they still hold the cards for that. It would depend on what the deal was, and it would depend on the situation and the character, like how is she used, who’s going to write it, because it’s got to be done right; if you do it wrong it’s just a bummer. It can’t just be slopped together because some fans might watch it.
But with the right idea, in the right forum?
I’d be open to it. I don’t want to say no, but at the same time I’m not too thrilled about the idea; as with any reboot, it has to really be done right. I think with Fuller House, they’ve taken a great approach with it. I’ll never say never, but it would have to be a very interesting scenario.
Clarissa Explains It All creator Mitchell Kriegman wrote a novel, Things I Can’t Explain, that imagined Clarissa in her 20s in New York. Is that how you imagined things going for her? Have you ever thought about it?
I had thought about it, but not as extensively as the writer did, obviously. I am still answering questions about who she was, so in that way I guess I’m still stuck in the past with her. For me, the book is a big step forward as far as his take on how she grew up, and I told him that I think some of the things in there I would have done very differently. But it’s his character, and he has been thinking about it for much longer than I have.
Clarissa’s an adult now. What do you think she’d tell kids in high school about facing life today?
I would hope she would be pretty proud of the adult she became, but also growing up the way she did and being such a free-thinker and tough girl and standing on her own. She was smart and she was sassy, and hopefully that served her well. Hopefully she would have a lot of advice to give people to sort of live out their teen years the way she did. And that’s the thing about the [Things I Can’t Explain] — obviously the book has to have a conflict and it has to have her having inner struggle, so I think I have a hard time with that, thinking that she wouldn’t be more put together than she is as an adult as far as with the book.
Settle one last burning Clarissa question for me: Sam (Sean O’Neal) coming in and out through the window. How were the Darling parents okay with this?
They never knew — the door was closed! The door was always closed. The parents were hippies — free love, everybody’s cool, you know. And as parents they didn’t do what parents do today, like helicopter parenting where they analyze and overwatch and basically put a GPS on their kids. I think they were cool and laid-back about that; they knew that they were friends, and still young enough to not have … as she got older they probably should have at one point been like “Hey, maybe not anymore.”
Melissa Joan Hart will be seen next in God’s Not Dead 2, out April 1.