Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.
Before she could talk about her past, Melissa Joan Hart first had to discuss her present. On the day we recently spoke, Hart spent much of the morning doing publicity for her forthcoming Lifetime holiday movie, Mistletoe in Montana. She had just finished shooting that week, and Hart had several other interviews lined up to promote the film. It was a pretty busy time for Hart, but when she called, she was happy enough to discuss a different busy time in her life, a period she remembers fondly—even if she went through it as a teenager, and never expected so many other people to remember it fondly decades later.
“At the time, cable was so new,” Hart said about starring in Nickelodeon’s early-’90s teen comedy Clarissa Explains It All. “Nickelodeon was so new. And Nickelodeon was known as a game-show network. Double Dare and You Can’t Do That on Television were the two big shows that I watched.”
Clarissa debuted in 1991, and by the summer of 1992, it was the unofficial main event to the network’s popular Saturday night lineup known as SNICK, a two-hour block of targeted programming that kept tweens and teens entertained for more than a decade. But while Clarissa wrapped for good in 1994 after a total of 65 episodes, the show remained popular and gained a new audience when Nickelodeon began re-airing episodes in 2011. If everything old is new again in pop culture and fashion, Clarissa offered a timeless snapshot of the early- to mid-’90s on both fronts. I spoke with Hart about what it was like to make that show in that era—complete with fourth-wall breaking, dream sequences, pet alligators, and a best friend who preferred climbing in through her window rather than walking in through her door—and passed along some questions that my very excited Ringer teammates demanded I ask when they found out about this interview.
Thanks for doing this. How did the shoot go for the movie?
It was challenging. It was probably one of the most challenging movies I’ve been on, mainly because of the heat wave and the fires in Montana. We didn’t get to showcase the vistas and stuff we really wanted to see. And because of COVID we had a lot of restrictions and a lot of challenges in that department. So it was difficult. But we got it done and it was beautiful and I’m really proud of it.
How do you shoot a Christmas movie when there are fires and it’s summer?
It was rough. It was so hot. The biggest challenge was being dressed in the clothes and the heat. Places like Montana, and even when we shoot in Lake Tahoe, there’s no air conditioning. Those places aren’t built with air conditioning because it’s never supposed to get that hot. To be 97 and wearing flannel and jeans and Spanx and cowboy hats and boots and vests and jackets and neckties—it’s a lot. It was miserable to be wearing those clothes every day and take them off at lunchtime and then have to put them back on again. And for some reason in Montana it gets hotter and hotter until like 6 p.m. It’s not like most places where around 3 p.m. the temperature starts to drop. The hottest point is 6 p.m. and then it goes down. We would start at like 5 a.m. to get some of it done before the heat took over.
That really is Christmas in July.
The amount of sweat. I think I probably lost about 5 pounds of sweat.
Congrats? Merry Christmas? I’m not sure.
Thank you. Thank you.
So with Clarissa Explains It All, it’s still beloved. You were a teenager when you did the show and I was wondering if you had a sense then that you were creating something that would remain in the teen pop culture firmament for so long.
Yes and no. I don’t take a project unless I know I’m going to be proud of it. With Clarissa, it was interesting because I was the same age as Clarissa. As she was growing up, I was growing up. And we did have a lot of the same temperament, a lot of the same no-nonsense attitude. If a boy can do it, I can do it. I wasn’t as tech savvy. I did learn a lot from her. And vice versa. I put a lot of me into the character.
It was interesting to be on such a smart show. Those writers were brilliant. Those writers went on to show-run shows like Friends and The Office and write things like The Hunger Games. It was definitely a really talented group of writers. Doing the show, I knew it was special. I knew it was a smart character. I knew it was a little different. To be on it, especially as I got older, it felt like it was a little too kiddie for me. But I was never not proud of my work. But when people said they watched it later on, I was like, “Oh, that’s a kid’s network, isn’t it? Aren’t you a little old for that?” The show, it never really took off at the time they were shooting it. Not that many people had cable. Not that many people were watching Nickelodeon. And then it slowly started to build. It became really big in reruns. And then it kind of exponentially grew over the years and over the decades. It’s an interesting little phenomenon.
You mentioned the “If a boy can do it, I can do it” ethos. I believe you were the first female lead on the network, right?
I believe so. There had been the Lucys and the Mary Tyler Moores and the Laverne and Shirleys. But there weren’t a lot of shows at the time featuring young girls as the leads. I think there was My Two Dads. And Blossom came along kind of simultaneously. It was still pretty rare to see a girl lead a show without a boy. All the reports I saw were saying that it was groundbreaking and she’s the quintessential teen and all those things. I know the creator, Mitchell [Kriegman], did not want a blond for the part. That’s one of the things he was really against. And so he fought against me as long as he could until I finally won the battle.
Congrats on the victory. That worked out for everyone. The show was really of the era—especially the intro/theme song. It’s extremely ’90s.
People still remember it. It was definitely catchy, mainly because it didn’t have many words. Everyone could hum along to it. Rachel Sweet did a great job with it. The whole show was very of its time. It holds up in certain ways. Certainly other things are definitely pointing at it being the ’90s. Although you wouldn’t know it today, because it seems like the fashion has reentered society. As far as the computer graphics and things that have gotten a little stale, if you were to do it now, it would be very different. At the time, it was pretty fun. I still know kids who watch it now.
The fourth-wall breaking was also of the era. Now it feels like so many shows have done it but at the time …
… at the time it was only Ferris Bueller who had done it, right? That’s what the writers pulled it from. They wanted it to be a female Ferris Bueller in that way.
What about some of the topics you dealt with? Clarissa was a teenage girl, so there were pimples and boys and getting a driver’s license. There was one episode where you got away with shoplifting.
Dating the bully. A lot of it was sibling-rivalry based. Every episode was sibling rivalry, right? That was sort of the B story. And the imagination, the dream sequences. We were all on Star Trek. Or I’m Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Or I’m in prison. Or we’re in 15th-century Italy. Those were always the most fun to shoot. Otherwise, it seemed like I was either in the kitchen, living room, or bedroom. If I was in bedroom, I was hanging out with Sam. Or if I was in the living room or kitchen, Mom or Dad were there and maybe some crazy aunt came over.
Can we talk about the bedroom thing? The ladder—unconventional. Stairs and doors exist. I mentioned this to a coworker and he said “You idiot, stairs are for parents.”
I don’t know where he came up with that. I can imagine he just wanted a different way for someone to come in. What’s a different entrance we can use instead of everyone coming through the front door, everyone coming through that one door. You can’t surprise people with things. So Sam coming in and out of the window was brilliant. What’s funny is, that was a first-floor studio. So he was just laying down underneath the window. He’s laying on his back, and the ladder is hinged to the ground, and he’s laying it across his stomach. He’d wait there for two or three pages for me to do a monologue. And then he’d swing that ladder up, wait a few seconds, get on his hands and knees and slowly climb up the three rungs and just pretend he was actually coming up. Where he was really just laying right there. So I think it was actually pretty challenging.
Now that’s acting. You mentioned you threw a lot of yourself into the show. I read somewhere that They Might Be Giants was included because you liked them. What other parts of Clarissa were taken from Melissa?
There was an episode where I play the flute. On every show they’re like, “What are your talents? Can you dance? Can you sing? Can you play an instrument?” I can play the flute. So Clarissa ended up playing the flute. There were some things I learned from her. I got interested in boxing and I’ve kind of always done boxing as an exercise. There were things that really stood out to me, like the fact that she wanted to be Jane Pauley for a little while there. She wanted to be a reporter, a news anchor. And so she says “The Dow was up six points today.” And she goes “and who is this Dow Jones guy and why does she keep going up and down?” That was a legitimate question for me. What does this mean? I don’t know what this means.
When I told some of the staff that I was doing this interview with you, they were super excited. All of a sudden they had questions they wanted answered. Can we do some quick staff questions?
Great. They’ll be thrilled. First up: Was Elvis the Alligator real and was he legally allowed to be kept as a pet in the state where the show took place?
He was real. He only came in maybe once a month for maybe an hour to shoot. Usually we’d just use the same footage over and over again. When he was there, I wasn’t allowed to go near him because they were afraid I’d rip his teeth out—if he bit me and I pulled back I could rip his teeth out. I think he was a baby.
OK, so they were worried about the alligator getting hurt if you got bit? That feels upside down to me but I’ve never been on television. Next one: Which telestrator came first—Clarissa or the NFL?
The drawing on the screen? I actually think it was Clarissa.
You guys were trendsetters.
That’s interesting. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s funny, I wasn’t really aware of the NFL back then. They get very fancy with it now. Can you imagine what we could do on Clarissa today if we were to go back and do it?
You mentioned the ’90s clothing that’s come back around. The staff was very interested in the wardrobe and especially Sam’s fashion at the time and how the wardrobe was put together.
We had an amazing designer named Lisa Lederer, God rest her soul. She was brilliant. She was from the East Village in New York City and came with her funky, funky style and was able to put it together where I looked like a normal teenager. There was no sexpot stuff going on. There were no tight fashions. It was layer upon layer of different things you would never think to put together. Giant shirts with a red and white skirt with purple leggings and boots and a big bow in the hair, a big scrunchie or something. No two looks were ever alike. I’ve had a ton of people over my lifetime tell me they got into fashion because of Clarissa. That’s such a huge honor to hear.
What was it like working in Orlando during that era? There were a lot of boy bands and Disney kids roaming around and they wanted to know what kind of interaction you had with them.
I was so busy working, I rarely got to. We shared a hair and makeup team and we shared our tutors with the Mickey Mouse Club kids. Sometimes my tutors would feel a little bad that I was stuck with Sam and Ferguson only—Sean [O’Neal] and Jason [Zimbler]. And on my one day off—I got Saturdays off—if they were rehearsing they’d be like, “Come with us and see some other kids.” And I would get so excited. Or if someone like JoAnna Garcia was guest-starring on Clarissa, I would get so excited to be around other kids. So excited. I can’t even tell you. I would be thrilled to go see some other kids.
They also want to know about your social media and you being one of the first celebs to use the follow-back strategy.
I was working with a social media team at the time that was teaching me some ways to really get a lot of interaction. It’s funny because a lot of conspiracy theories came out of it. One time I started following people in Australia and everybody thought I was going to be on I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! They assumed if I was following everyone on Twitter, I must have a reason that I wanted to know all the politicians and athletes and I obviously was trying to get in good with these people. It’s funny how these theories came out of this stuff. It was a great way to do it at first. I run into people all the time who are like, “Oh my gosh, you follow me on Twitter.” But it got to be a little overwhelming. I follow, like, a couple hundred thousand people on Twitter now. It’s really hard. I can’t keep up with my feed. It kind of swamped it. But I don’t want to unfollow anyone. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, but I also can’t pay attention to it because it’s too busy.
I’m going to go follow you right after this. I should have followed you before this. That was bad journalism by me. But I’m looking forward to a re-follow. [Writer’s postscript: She was already following me!]
To be honest, most of my Twitter now is just stuff I post on Instagram. I’ve always been a scrapbooker, so I like Instagram because it’s photos. I cannot figure out Facebook.
I’m out on Facebook. I was an early anti-adopter of Facebook and I was proved right.
I can’t figure it out. I’m on it. I have to be on it. My sister helps me post stuff on there. I can’t figure out all the buttons and I don’t understand it. Instagram, I just post a picture and I put a caption and it’s like I’m scrapbooking. And then I link it to my Twitter.
I look forward to your scrapbooking in my Twitter feed. Last one for you—and I feel like I know the answer because I’ve read about it—but the staff wanted to know if you’d rather reboot Clarissa or Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
We had talked about Clarissa. We were in contract for it. Nickelodeon has changed the people over there a few times. Different people want to do it. Different people don’t. I think it would be the best one to reboot. Sabrina already had a kind of reboot with a new cast, a younger cast, more of a YA horror genre. And I think Sabrina we ended so perfectly. Clarissa just kind of ended. We could use another button on what happened to her. But with Sabrina, that ship has sailed.
You’re gonna need a new alligator. How long do they live?
I have no idea. But I doubt it’s still around.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.