Let’s just say it: Daria probably influenced a whole generation of teenagers more than their own parents. MTV’s animated series about a deeply sarcastic girl surviving high school, her meddling parents, her imbecilic peers, and her own misanthropy ran from 1997-2002, and was a cult hit for a generation of outcasts–or, as Daria nemeses the Fashion Club called them, “brains.”
Eight years after it went off the MTV airwaves, only to be quickly replaced by a grim parade of reality shows even “Sick Sad World” couldn’t have portended, the complete series (and its two made-for-TV movies) was released on DVD today. We talked with Tracy Grandstaff, series writer and monotone voice of Daria Morgendorffer herself; now a Vice President at Comedy Central, her voice isn’t as deadpan as her famous four-eyed doppleganger, but her thoughts on teenage keg parties do not disappoint.
Daria started as a character on Beavis and Butthead. How did that turn into a spin-off show of her own?
Well, I think at the time she was probably – this is ridiculous – she was probably the smartest female voice on MTV at that time. You know, I’m not dismissing Kennedy and the other brilliant VJs that they had on the air, but she was one sarcastic, Sarah Gilbert, Darlene-from-Roseanne-type of voice that was being missed on air. So I think just to offset a lot of this Spring Break coverage that was going on. Judy McGrath who was the president at the time, said it might be beneficial to research and find out if Daria’s popular enough to do a real spin-off. It was in the same spirit of My So-Called Life which had been on MTV but had just recently run its course. It was so popular on the network that they repeated and repeated the limited episodes that they had.
Which was only one season, right?
Yeah, and it was like the most popular, cult-y show ever, with everybody loving Jordan Catalano, you know? Just ’cause he was so dreamy. And you know, I think Daria was really the answer to a lack of that voice being, not just on MTV but across the board, not well represented out there.
So it only lasted one season and Daria lasted five seasons. What do you think contributed to Daria’s success?
Probably the brilliant voice behind Daria. Nah, it was probably that the stories were completely relatable. Not that My So-Called Life wasn’t, but I think that even guys liked Daria. They could relate to the humor. I think there was a female fan base that other shows on the network weren’t attracting. The music was pretty hot, you know–the music was really well-selected, I think that kind of drove it too. And you know, it was kind of a sleeper hit, it just kept delivering numbers. So I don’t know if it got people in a comfort zone or they just liked its style, but it definitely hit a chord. I guess it was just easy for the audience to relate to more than anything.
Was Trent based on Jordan Catalano, come to think of it? Because now that you mention it?
Actually maybe, right? Jared Leto would be completely honored, I’m sure to think that Trent was based on him. [laughs]
So when you did spin-off Daria from Beavis and Butthead, you had to create a whole new universe of characters. What were the inspirations behind them?
That really was, primarily, the [main writer] Glenn Eichler’s brain going at it. Glenn is, you know, a forty-something guy living in New Jersey, and he’s a dad, but he’s got this extremely sarcastic sense of humor, and he really is Daria. He is the core of Daria, and I think he really pulled upon his suburban world for inspiration. He said, ‘Let’s make this Anywhere, USA.’ We’ve got a husband who’s kind of emasculated, a mother who’s a powerful, strong woman, a sister who’s obsessed with fashion…
A cheerleader inspired by nightmares.
Thank you, I like that, a cheerleader that is our worst nightmare, exactly. A stupid quarterback…I mean there are some that are a little clichéd, but they exist at every school, and he was really smart about kind of forming it out. Plus, I think the chemistry between Jane and Daria is kind of a driving force behind the whole show. They just have a way of independently having a shared vision, but a different take on things that was pretty cool.
Yeah, one was more analytical and one was more artistic.
But they generally arrived at the same conclusion and dated the same guy.
And dated the same guy for a little bit there, yeah.
So what led you to make her voice as infamously deadpan as it was?
I think its derived a lot from, I’ve said this before too, a little Janeane Garofalo, I have to give her credit; it was sort of a poor man’s Janeane Garofalo that MTV couldn’t afford at the time, and Sarah Gilbert from Roseanne, and then definitely my own experience. Just under my breath comments that I would be constantly making in junior high and high school all along the way, you know, the snarky remarks where you think you’re the only one whose bullshit detector is functioning at any given time.
So you had a little bit of Daria in you in high school?
Oh completely, the only difference being that I was nice enough to float around and get along with everybody. But underneath it all there was a subtext, a constant running dialogue that was very dark.
I enjoyed how The Fashion Club rarely changed their outfits.
[laughing] Was there a fashion club at your school?
No, no we just called them cheerleaders. It was suburban Northern California, so yeah.
Oh my god, right, you were definitely subjected to it.
Why did it take so long to release the series on DVD, eight years after it went off the air? I know some of that was music licensing issues.
I think that is exactly the reason. From what I gather, the licensing the music was a bit of a nightmare, because they couldn’t get the rights to most of the stuff. So they had to go episode by episode and replace most of the tracks, which was tedious and just labor intensive. I think that was exactly why it took eight years.
So why do you think Daria still has the cult following to allow a DVD release eight years after it went off the air?
I guess I would hope that nostalgically–I don’t know if that’s a word–that people who liked her at the time really want to relive some of those classic episodes that they find so funny. I also think that it’s attracting a new audience because, basically, high school hasn’t changed since I was in it, since you were in it, since the kids going through it–the technology’s changed but the situations haven’t and the cliques haven’t. It’s all pretty similar. The mean girls are meaner now, so it seems. Like Jesus, it’s pretty horrible out there right now.
Well they have whole new media avenues to be horrible.
They took it to a whole new level of mean, yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s a little less forgiving out there too. if you make a mistake, it’s texted throughout your whole little viral community the next hour, let alone…You know, there are a lot of things, big mistakes you make in high school, that you were really lucky people didn’t have a flip camera phone around to capture. So the landscape has really changed in terms of technology, but the situations really haven’t.
So I think that that’s maybe she’s still got legs and she’s still going to attract an audience that feels a little bit on the outside and a little bit like they could use someone in their corner that champions their perspective and personality. And a lot of time it is those kids who are feeling completely out of sorts in school, but once they get out of prison, they will really blossom and find themselves and come into their own.
So what is your favorite episode of the show and why?
I think my favorite, well… it’s kind of obvious probably, but there are a couple. One is definitely when Jane and Daria crash the party at Brittany’s house and you know, even Jane ends up in a laundry room making out with some strange dude, Daria’s just standing in a corner going [in Daria monotone] ‘It’s the soul train. Beep, beep, get on board.’ I just think she’s so freaking funny in that episode cause it reminds me of being at those parties and going, ‘Oh you’ve got to be kidding me, look how ridiculous everybody’s acting.’ And then the other, the outstanding one that was most humiliating to actually do was the musical, because I am not a singer, I am completely tone-deaf and I can’t believe they talked me into doing it. So the fact that it exists is hilarious to me.