In the very first episode, Clarissa plots to murder her little brother, Ferguson. After you meet him, you’ll want to murder him, too.
Back in my day, Nickelodeon was fucked up.
That is the conclusion I keep drawing whenever I encounter beloved childhood Nick shows as an adult. Rocko’s Modern Life is exceptionally dirty (click here for evidence). Notice the sign in Rocko’s cubicle, the, *ahem* cubicle where he works as a sex phone operator. Does anyone remember the Nickelodeon variety show Roundhouse? I distinctly remember my mother forbidding us to watch the show again after they sang a song called “Sex Education.” The thinly veiled subtext is “sex education makes teenagers horny.” So it’s a kinda dirty song that has a weirdly sex-negative conservative-ish subtext. Uh, okay, Nickelodeon.
And hey, remember Clarissa Explains it All? Starring a pre-Sabrina the Teenage Witch, pre-straight-to-DVD Christian propaganda films, pre-teen Melissa Joan Hart. I remember this sitcom as a “Parents Just Don’t Understand” show about a quirky girl with funky ’90s style and a fun theme song (na na na na na, allright, allright!). Like many ’90s tweens (though we weren’t called tweens then), Clarissa holds a special scrunchie-shaped space in my heart. So when my buddy Travis mentioned he had it on DVD, I of course insisted that we drop everything and watch it.
The pilot was … a lot. I’m not quite sure where to start on how delightfully weird this show is. Like how it turns out Clarissa is kind of a murderous psychopath. Also, her outfits are amaaaaaaaazing. In the pilot, she pairs acid-washed high-waisted jeans with an oversized button-up and a sharp denim vest. Clarissa loves They Might Be Giants and candy, so she has a lot in common with my thirty-one-year-old self. I’m impressed with Melissa Joan Hart’s performance; she is really talented. She was a tour de force as Clarissa, and I’m bummed she now only makes crappy Christian movies.
But back to the murderous psychopath thing. The pilot is called “Clarissa’s Revenge” and centers around her actually trying to murder her little brother Ferguson. This plot begins when her bestie Sam climbs up a ladder into Clarissa’s bedroom — you know, the way we all visited our friends in the ’90s. He’s there to deliver a straightjacket for Clarissa to use on Ferguson. Sam insults Ferguson by calling him a “dorkhead creep who they should grind up for puppy puke.” How would that work? Grind him up and feed them to puppies then make them puke? Or was puppy puke something readily available in stores in the early ’90s and my parents weren’t hip enough to buy it?
So why does she want to kill Ferguson? Well, he brought in his sister’s training bra for show & tell at school, and Clarissa was humiliated. Wow, I don’t miss adolescence. I should mention that Ferguson is known to say things like “There’s an important National Geographic documentary I’d like to watch, I thought I might take some notes and write an extra report for class” and “Gee Dad, I’d love to play some basketball but I think at this stage of my development, it’s important to build a strong foundation in the applied anthropological sciences.” Yeah, I would kill this kid too.
So what’s her grand plan for murdering her brother? Duh, balloons. Clarissa asks Sam how many cubic feet of helium you need to lift 76 pounds. Sam replies, “Let’s see, you can take the amount of helium in the GoodYear blimp, divide that by…” but then Clarissa cuts him off and we don’t get to see the end of his equation. I want to know the equation! I always hated how my fifth grade math teacher insisted we memorize the amount of helium in the GoodYear blimp. She drilled it into us over and over, and it felt so unnecessary. But she was right: it could come in handy one day when you’re trying to murder your brother.
Clarissa explains her plan through “a little animated simulation I worked up.” This show does not get enough credit for what it did for women in the computer science field. Her plan starts out perfectly: she locks her brother in the closet, which somehow magically traps him in the straightjacket. Unfortunately, while waiting for Ferguson with the balloons, Sam is blown away. He’s injured but he lives, and so does Ferguson. Clarissa gives up on her “Fergucide” plan because she now has a video of Ferguson waking up with his first pimple. My brothers used to torture me with itching powder and pretending to kill my guinea pig, but at least they never actually tried to murder me.
So that’s the entire plot of the first episode: attempted murder. It’s a nail-biting seventeen minutes. This show seems to operate on a budget of about $100. Sam’s “black eye” is a perfect under-eye rectangle seemingly drawn on in Sharpie. Clarissa lives in what is essentially a life-sized cardboard dollhouse. I guess they blew their funding on her cool outfits and that live alligator.
The dated ’90s references filled me with so much glee. Here’s a list of my favorites:
- Clarissa’s idea of health food is “tofu pancakes.”
- She ordered her “security alligator” from a catalogue. Remember catalogues?!
- Her mom wears fabulous mom jeans and a snazzy vest with cherry and leaf decals.
- Computers are magic: Clarissa forges a doctor’s note on her “new doctor sports medical diagnostics software.”
- Clarissa wishes her name were Madonna. Impressively, that reference is still topical. Congrats on your longevity, Madonna.
So how does it hold up? This show is weirder and darker than I remembered. I don’t think it would resonate with kids today because of its neon ’90s graphics and dated references. But it’s definitely worth a rewatch if you liked it as a kid. I recommend getting stoned for your viewing.
Ash Fisher is a comedian, actor and writer. She is not a comedienne, an actress, or a writeress. She runs the hit show “Man Haters” every fourth Thursday in Oakland, CA. Follow her at ashfisherhaha.com, @ashfisherhaha and manhaters.org.