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What DARIA Means to the Show’s Creators 20 Years Later

What DARIA Means to the Show’s Creators 20 Years Later

The very first time the world saw Daria Morgendorffer belatedly, barely move an arm for an incoming volleyball during her show’s opening sequence, the unmistakable teen showed the world she was too smart for its trivial games.

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Twenty years ago this week, Daria premiered on MTV, upending expectations of what an animated series could be with relatable teen angst, biting wit, and an earworm theme song that plays like a slick taunt. Over the course of five seasons and two TV movies, the deeply sarcastic heroine at the show’s center won the hearts of a generation that connected to her protective cynicism, yet quietly aspired to share her fundamental idealism. The whip-smart misfit became an icon of non-conformity and defiant self-confidence. And as fans grew up, we carried Daria and the rest of the Lawndale crew–Jane, Trent, Quinn, and even Brittany–in our hearts as childhood friends.

To look back on the legacy of Daria, Nerdist reached out to the show’s co-creators Susie Lewis and Glenn Eichler, as well as Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge. And as we spoke, a strange sensation arose that we weren’t talking about a cartoon character; rather, we were updating each other about a real girl who has grown right along with us over these past two decades.

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Before she had a show of her own, Daria was conceived as a supporting character on MTV’s wildly popular Beavis and Butt-Head. As the show developed, MTV executive Judy McGrath suggested the addition of a female peer could help give the show a fresh perspective. Judge liked the idea of a shrewd character who could act as an audience surrogate.”We wanted her to be somebody who obviously points out that [Beavis and Butt-Head] are stupid,” Judge explains, “but who is tolerant and a little bit amused by them, and fucks with them. Also maybe she’s a little bit of a rebel herself, and obviously smarter than them.”

“We wanted her to be somebody who obviously points out that Beavis and Butt-Head are stupid, but who is tolerant.”Mike Judge

In creating Daria’s original look, Judge took some style cues cartoonist Lynda Barry (“like Lynda Barry if she was in high school”). Then he tapped MTV promo writer Tracy Grandstaff–with her stoic, flatline delivery–to be the voice of the acerbic teen. The character was an instant hit with fans, and the success of Beavis and Butt-Head encouraged MTV’s fledgling animation department to create new shows (The Head, The Maxx, Aeon Flux) including a Daria’s own spinoff. While was Judge busy with his new Fox series King the Hill, the network tapped two members of his MTV team to develop Daria without him, something that still rankles a bit.

During that era, Lewis was a video producer on Beavis and Butt-Head, and Eichler a writer for the show. Together they showed MTV executives a preliminary five-minute animatic with sketches of characters who would inhabit Daria’s suburban hellhole, Lawndale. Lewis recalls the response from focus group testing with sustained surprise after all these years. “Everybody loved her. They totally related to her. It was very surprising. We didn’t expect it. We didn’t think it was bad; we just didn’t expect such a strong reaction.”

Daria also rose to prominence during a high tide of shows showcasing talented young women. “We were starting to see a lot more female characters that were pretty strong,” Lewis notes. “Like Sarah Gilbert on Roseanne; My So-Called Life, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer were going on at the time too. So, Daria kind of fit into all that.” Like Darlene, Angela, and Buffy, Daria was an outspoken girl, who despite being a loner at school, exuded a confidence that made her a natural role model to precocious teens. Daria’s searing wit meant she always had the perfect jab to puncture the pomposity of her peers: when her self-involved sister Quinn showed off a fake tattoo, Daria quipped, “Oh, look you got a tattoo to match your personality.” Daria had the supernatural power of the final word, a nearly impossible feat in the power vacuum of high school.

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And just as Darlene had David, Angela had Rayanne, and Buffy had the Scoobies, Daria had her freakin’ friend to the end in Jane Lane, who shared her weary worldview but was less cerebral, more impulsive. Jane often pushed Daria to give herself a break. It was okay to give in try contact lenses or to make a dumb mistake to impress a guy, like when Daria pierced her belly button because Trent said it would be “hot.” And for Jane, Daria was the voice of reason, reminding her that wishing a selfish jock would get his comeuppance didn’t make her responsible for his death (“The Misery Chick”), or that being able to fit in doesn’t invalidate your individuality (“The F Word”). The shallowness and stupidity of Lawndale High and its popularity game were not only bearable when the friends were together, but also kind of fun. These misanthropic misfits became each other’s family, proving to eccentric teens that high school needn’t be a solitary experience, or a bad omen about adulthood.

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However, Eichler and Lewis could not have anticipated the girls being the role models they’ve become. “They resonate with people,” says Eichler, who is now a staff writer on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “But that certainly wasn’t by design.” At the time, the pair was mostly focused on successfully exploring its titular character, and MTV trusted them to do it, awarding an enormous amount of creative control.

“The fact that MTV gave us no hassles or pressure in terms of the content or the attitude or anything like that was fantastic.” Eichler says. “As the years roll by, I just appreciate that more.”

“The world of adult millennials is a lot like she pictured her own world. It’s not the wonderful place they promised us.” – Glenn Eichler

“It was never like we had to go in and pitch a show,” Lewis marvels. “I try to go back and think what that’d might have been like, and it would go something like,’We want to do a show about a 15-year-old girl who hates everyone.’ And I think they’d have been like, ‘No. Thanks.'”

Still, for all the excitement at the network, the budget for the show was lean. So when it came time to compose a theme song for Daria, Lewis did what became routine: she turned to friends, eager for MTV exposure. In this case, Lewis asked production manager Cindy Brolsma if the band she played cello in would be interested. And so her all-female band Splendora wrote and recorded “You’re Standing On My Neck,” turning a phrase suggested by Eichler into the now-iconic chorus. Channeling the blasé disdain of Hole, the group created an anthem for smirking, smart-alec teens everywhere.

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As the new millennium approached, Daria grew increasingly popular. Eichler recounts how the first TV movie, Is It Fall Yet?, was born out of MTV’s intention to tack on three more episodes to the fourth season to quench ravenous thirst. And when it came time to wrap the show in 2002, MTV gave a fans one last farewell with a second movie, Is It College Yet?, which saw the Lawndale High seniors graduating and moving on. But fans refused to say goodbye. Through Daria, Jane and the rest of the Lawndale High gang, they’d seen a reflection of their own struggles with self-esteem, understanding their parents as people, and standing up to the hypocrisies of the adult world, be they corporate sponsorship in schools or the two-facedness of “polite” conversation. As fans entered adulthood, we carried moments of the show with us as light that helped us grow, even in the face of dark moments. Beyond the show rerunning on MTV, the teen-focused network The N, and LOGO, Daria had immense staying power.

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Years after the show’s finale, Lewis is stunned to see think pieces and memes featuring Daria characters. As recently as January’s Women’s March, Lewis spotted a protest poster featuring the bespectacled role model. “That blew my mind!” Lewis says. “That girl wasn’t even born when Daria was out. So either she found it on her own or her parents told her about it. And that’s just like, Wow! It’s great. Kids are still finding it. It’s still relevant.”

“Glenn and I had a great relationship. I always felt it was very similar to Daria and Jane’s.” – Susie Lewis

Amazed that her show is still so beloved, Lewis admits, “I didn’t set out to be talking about it 20 years later, either. It was one of those things where the stars aligned. Glenn and I had a really great relationship. He respected what I did; I respected what he did. I was really passionate about the music and some of the characters. He was really passionate about Daria’s voice. I always felt that our relationship was very similar to Daria and Jane’s.” Like the snarky teens, Lewis and Eichler understood each other, and knew how to push each other to take on new challenges, like arcs that featured Daria and Jane fighting, the introduction of Daria’s first boyfriend, and the ambitious musical episode, “Daria!”

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Given that fans have held onto these characters for so long, it is only natural to wonder where Daria would be now. And this curiosity is certainly not above the creators. “I’ve always wondered about her,” Lewis says, noting she and Glenn have talked to MTV throughout the years about such a project. “I think she’d probably work on a late-night talk show, similar to what Glenn is doing. She’d be a writer.”

“I kind of picture her and Jane in New York,” she muses. “I see them both there. I see Jane still doing her art work, and still very happy to be a struggling artist. Maybe she’s sold a few pieces, and she has enough money to have a decent place in New York. But she’s still struggling. I don’t think they’d live together as roommates or anything, but I think that could also be pretty interesting. Maybe Daria is super successful financially and maybe Jane isn’t. [I wonder] how would that affect their relationship, if at all.”

“The truth and a lie are not sort of the same thing” – Daria

“I always wanted to explore how she’d be getting along with everyone,” Lewis ruminates further. “Because there’s so much corporate community culture that matters. For me, sometimes it’s hard to fit into that. And I wonder if that would happen with Daria as well. It doesn’t have anything to do with if she’d be doing a great job or not. She’s going to do a great job. She’s going to be a brilliant writer. She’s going to be really successful. But how she gets along, and how much that gets in her way would be interesting to explore.”

Eichler also sees a grown Daria as “a youngish professional in a city, exploring the challenges that millennials explore today.” He concludes, “The world of adult millennials is a lot like she pictured her own world, in that nobody really wins, everybody kind of loses. And it’s not the wonderful place they promised us, and we’re not the wonderful successes they said that we’d be. I would probably have her in that milieu right now.”

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Looking back at Daria’s graduation speech from the finale Is It College Yet?, you can sense Daria’s anticipation of that very future. Before her family, friends, and the rest of Lawndale High Daria delivers words that sounds as urgent as ever:

“Stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and a lie are not sort of the same thing. And there’s no aspect, no facet, no moment of life that can’t be improved with pizza.”

We raise our slices to you, Daria.

Images: MTV and Twitter

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