15 years later, Clone High creators look back at their cult-classic cartoon
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very brightly, Roy.”
Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s words to Roy Batty in the original Blade Runner could just as well double as the motto of any TV aficionado looking back on the one-season wonders and gone-too-soon cult classics that litter the history of American television. But even among that strange and wonderful group of shows, Clone High has the distinction of being one of the very weirdest.
A comedic cartoon about teenaged clones of historical figures that only ran for 13 episodes on MTV before it was canceled under international political pressure, Clone High also launched the careers of geek gods Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street). Though the show was specifically rooted in the pop zeitgeist of the early-2000s, it also predicted many cultural trends that reign supreme today.
The titular high school contained almost every important historical figure, allowing the show to make quick gags about everyone from Marie Curie (whose radioactive DNA has left her clone badly deformed) to George Washington Carver (who takes the next step in peanut science and starts making living legumes). Even so, Clone High focused primarily on five main characters: gangly, awkward Abe Lincoln (Will Forte), passionate goth girl Joan of Arc (Nicole Sullivan), wannabe party animal Gandhi (Mike McDonald), beauty queen Cleopatra (Christa Miller), and horny rapscallion John F. Kennedy (Miller himself). Looking back on the show 15 years after its Nov. 2, 2002, premiere date, Lord and Miller remember that the initial Clone High pitch consisted mostly of that quintet.
“We just did a bunch of concept drawings about what JFK or Joan of Arc would be like. I don’t remember ever pitching a story,” Lord tells EW. “Chris would just say, ‘Ah, they date and stuff.’ And people would laugh and understand the show.”
For his part, Miller says Clone High helped teach the duo what they know about filmmaking.
“It was basically our film school,” Miller says. “We learned how to edit and how to do all that cinematic stuff on the fly. We keep ripping ourselves off from stuff we learned making that show. I feel like constantly when we’re talking about things, we’ll be like, ‘Oh, we did something sort of like this in Clone High.’ It comes up all the time. I think about our sense of timing, and how to execute a really highly emotional thing that also has an underlying comic idea behind it. We use that a lot.”
“Emotional” is perhaps the key word for Clone High. When the show launched, the most popular teen dramas were shows like Dawson’s Creek that dialed teen angst up to hysterical levels (surely anyone using the internet in 2017 is very familiar with James Van Der Beek’s crying face). Clone High satirized such histrionics, once introducing a clone of Spanish explorer Ponce de León and then immediately killing him off to make a “very special episode.” But at the same time, the emotional relationships between the main characters — Joan pining for Abe pining for Cleopatra pining for JFK — felt real. Surely any teenager in a high-pressure high school environment can relate to Gandhi’s struggle to live up to the impossible standard set by his original self.
“It’s ridiculous, but you’re still involved in the yearning of these characters and how deeply they feel things,” Lord says. “Even the school principal, Scudworth, is the most emotional person in the whole thing. I did the voice of that character, and I remember feeling emotional doing the bits even though they were so stupid. At one point he starts crying about how every time he goes to Subway, he forgets his Subway club card, and it drives him crazy. I really started relating to how frustrating that is, to feel like you never catch a break. I guess the discovery of Clone High is that emotionality in comedy can really help you win. It started out as the thing that was most annoying to us, and then became the thing we cared the most about. I think you see that in our other movies, like 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which has an equally insane premise. It’s the common thread.”
In addition to teaching themselves filmmaking techniques, Lord and Miller got help on Clone High from producer Bill Lawrence. Lawrence had valuable experience creating and running shows like Scrubs, which also struck a balance between wacky comedy and emotional depth. In fact, the Clone High writers would sometimes convene in the same empty hospital Scrubs used for filming.
“It was a huge empty building, so all the Clone High writers would just stay in the psych ward, which still makes us all laugh,” says Lawrence, while stressing that even with his help, Clone High was still mostly a Lord and Miller creation. “That way we could sneak them in on our eating budget and our sound-mixing budget and all that other stuff. It’s also why a lot of the Scrubs cast ended up being on the show, out of, ‘Hey, you guys are upstairs, wanna come downstairs and record this?’ It was really funny.”
Unfortunately, the magic was cut short. Perhaps fitting with the series’ strange energy, Clone High has one of the wackiest endings of all one-season shows. As Lawrence says, “It’s certainly my only show ever canceled by a symbolic hunger strike by members of the Indian parliament.”
After news of the show’s Gandhi depiction reached India, people reacted strongly. Though the show never aired in the country, Indians found out about it anyway on the internet, and many people, including politicians and officials, did not take kindly to the show’s portrayal of their national icon. They held hunger-strike protests and wanted to revoke MTV’s broadcasting license in India.
“I remember that I was vacation in Costa Rica with no access to the internet. I got to some eco-lodge where I got 15 minutes of internet access, and I went on and saw that there were protests and that MTV apologized. I was like, ‘Wow, I guess any publicity is good publicity?’” Miller says. “Instead they were like, ‘Oh no, we’re taking it off the air and scrubbing its existence from all of our websites and materials.’ I guess not all publicity is good publicity, as it turns out. It was a really crazy story, but they didn’t want us to talk about it at all. We were sort of gagged about it for years, about the protests in India, the whole thing. It was really crazy, I have to say.”
Reflecting back now, Lawrence admits the Gandhi character probably could have been handled better.
“The only thing I would do with a time machine is have one of the three of us, when we were doing Gandhi, go, ‘Hey, no one here really knows who Gandhi is, he’s such an iconic and almost deity-level person to a certain part of the world, maybe that should be a different guy if we’re going to have him obsessed with dry-humping and getting loaded,’” Lawrence says. “It might have been in our best interests to have that be someone other than Gandhi. But you know, we were just a bunch of dumb comedy writers.”
After such an ignominious end, Clone High seemed destined to fade into obscurity. Lord and Miller certainly felt that way — after all the blood, sweat, and tears they had poured into the show, Lord says it felt like “the stupidest waste of two years anybody could have.” Instead the show survived online, thanks to both a dedicated fanbase and the rise of YouTube, where this EW writer first discovered it. Full-length episodes lived on the video site, but it was also a perfect venue for the show’s absurd non-sequitur jokes, like, “I’ll get the beards.” At one point, a clip of Gandhi and George Washington Carver going, “Say whaaat?” inspired a bevy of parodies and remix videos.
“I think the timing of when YouTube came about, which was a year or two after that show got canceled, is the real reason it stuck around,” Miller says. “People could actually start finding weird stuff like that, that had been forgotten.”
Lawrence has a different view. Looking at the pop-culture landscape now, littered as it is with plenty of emotionally serious absurd cartoons like BoJack Horseman and Rick & Morty, it’s hard not to think that Clone High was just ahead of its time.
“I think Clone High not only can go toe-to-toe with shows, I think it is of that breed and a precursor,” Lawrence says. “We’re now in the age of these animated projects that are specific to a very small yet loyal and psychotic fanbase, and that’s how they thrive. That was Clone High to a T. What’s always amazing to me is, I created a bunch of TV shows. There’s a lot of good Scrubs fans on the internet, but I would tell you it’s amazing to me that neck-and-neck with them are the people who are psychotically passionate about Clone High, even though it was only on for 13 episodes. It always drives me insane. Phil and Chris think it’s cool it survives this way, but I’m annoyed that if it started now, with streaming and YouTube and everything else, it had such a binge-worthy short-attention-span theater with great little clips that would live everywhere on social media, I think it would be a monster for those guys. It’s the show we most often think about revisiting.”
Next time, on a very special Clone High …