by John Wenzel on May 7, 2010
Somewhere in the laidback mess of apathy that was the late 1990s, a TV show emerged that was — and in many ways still is — the antithesis of most teen programs.
“Daria,” MTV’s cult animated series that ran from 1997 to 2002, was an improbable show, to say the least. A spin-off of the willfully gross, mindless “Beavis and Butt-head,” “Daria” was led by the smart, sarcastic high school student Daria Morgendorffer, whose world was populated with friends (Jane), family (parents Jake and Helen, sister Quinn) and various archetypical American teenage characters (jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, etc.).
Though not a ratings champ during its initial run, the show’s sharp sensibility and evolving characters attracted a devoted cult following who would eventually demand — via a 50,000-strong online petition — the show’s release on DVD . That release, however, was complicated by the huge amount of licensed music in the original series that needed to be replaced with cheaper, more generic background songs. (The same problem also prevented MTV’s “The State” from DVD release for many years).
But fans can rejoice: On Tuesday, March 11, MTV will finally release all five seasons of the “Daria” plus both “Daria” movies and various special features on DVD.
In advance of that, we spoke separately with voice actors Tracy Grandstaff (who played Daria) and Wendy Hoopes (who played Jane, Quinn and Helen) via phone this week about the release, why it took so long and what the show would look like if it were airing today.
John Wenzel: How does it feel to have all the episodes finally out like this?
Tracy Grandstaff: I gotta say it is. When you’re in it you don’t always appreciate how great it is because it’s sort of… you’re just doing your thing. But now that there’s this huge span of time and there’s this resurgence of it, seeing it and re-watching some of the episodes has been amazing. It’s given me a good excuse to give them fresh eyes, almost to the point where I was like, “Wow, I don’t even remember that script or that huge soliloquy I just laid out there. You get to revisit something you blocked out as a dream because it happened so long ago, but what I’ve always loved about “Daria” is the fans who have kept it alive.
Wendy Hoopes: It’s pretty great because I’ve had people over the years ask me how they can watch it. It’s a little after the fact because it’s been years since we finished, but it’s also nice to be able to tell my friends now that it’s out. They were running it on Noggin (now part of the Nick Jr. network) for awhile, which was more of a teenager/kid’s station.
Does anyone ever recognize your voice from the show?
TG: It’s sort of an ideal thing to be a voice-over person. You don’t get recognized and you have the anonymity factor, but when people do the math and make the connection it’s pretty funny. I don’t look like Daria and I’m not Janeane Garofalo (laughs). But it just amazes me that even though the show was sort of dark how many fans it has. It’s even in Spanish. Seriously — I just got back from Mexico where I was in this town Tulem, population 3,000 in the middle of millions of acres of Mayan jungle. There were only four of us in this little group, and they asked where we worked, then one of my friends outed me to the tour guide. She was like, “Yeah, she did the voice of Daria,” and then (the tour guide) pulled over the van and freaked out and was like, “Oh my God, we have that in Mexico!” So you never know who’s a fan and who’s not.
Do you think the show’s long absence will hurt DVD sales?
WH: Hopefully it’ll still have a little bit of shelf life. I think it’s different than something like “The State,” because those were live people and we see them doing other things now and they still have a fan base. Whereas “Daria” was an animated show and you either remember it or you don’t. You either saw it, or it was your favorite thing, or whatever. But I do think they took advantage of younger audiences with it playing on Noggin, so maybe now those audiences will be excited about it on DVD.
So you don’t think people who used to watch it have forgotten about it?
WH: I do think it’s better to release something closer to its departure date than later, but it also could be sort of a new life for it. I think this release came in part because of the success of “The State” release. And I’m sure financially it was lucrative for them to have it playing on Noggin or whatever. I know someone who works over at MTV who had mentioned to me they wanted to do this a few years ago, but were having problems with licensing and weren’t sure they had all scratch tracks to separate the music from the VO (voice-over tracks), which is critical.
TG: It’s almost a shame that the music couldn’t be licensed because it was so good and so well selected. But they’ve done a great job replacing it with some facsimiles. There’s this nostalgic kind of quality watching something like “Singles” or “Reality Bites.” The music selections from “Singles” is basically the grunge scene from the early ‘90s and I would be so sad if they replaced it. But by changing it even makes the show that much more evergreen. Although none of the characters on “Daria” are texting or using cell phones.
MTV could go George Lucas on it and digitally add them in…
TG: Oh God.
Did the writers or creators (Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn) ever talk to the voice actors for character ideas?
WH: There was never a direct sort of, “Hey, sit down with these writers and talk to them.” I experienced writers who would occasionally in the first or second season sit in and listen to the voice recording, or the animators would occasionally come by and they certainly used our voices in terms of how they animated the show. Like, if Quinn was moving her hand in some way it was originally affected through a sound I was making, or even a physical gesture I made in the recording. And for my own purposes I was like, “Wow, there’s sort of an uncanny element in some motions.” I could really see myself in Helen or Quinn.
Who were both much perkier than Daria’s laconic friend Jane…
WH: My individual person is more sort of Jane-esque probably, and I think they felt I was integral to the story lines because of how I was approaching the characters. When we did the pilot I worked a lot with (co-creator) Susie to kind of come up with the voices. She and I had just met that first day and she said, “Go a little bit here, and go a little bit there,” and I just found myself moving into these different sounds that became these characters. So it was very collaborative in that sense, which was great, but much of the sentiment, the tone of “Daria” came out of Glenn and Susie’s experiences high school.
Would a show like this get made today, given all the vapid, teen-oriented stuff on TV that equates wealth and status with happiness? Not that that’s necessarily anything new.
TG: I don’t know if you were pitching “Daria” today if it would fly. That’s a really good question. Probably not on MTV, and maybe it would have to be a little more optimistic and happy, like “Glee.” An animated version of that might fly. An interesting thing I heard in a research presentation recently (Grandstaff is currently vice president of On-Air Creative at Comedy Central) is that networks need to realize what matters to this generation is that their vote counts. So I wonder if it would be some kind of viral or digital tie-in that would give the show to life in a whole different way.
WH: I don’t watch any of the CW shows (“Gossip Girl,” etc.), but I know it’s all about being popular and pretty and part of the system and all those things that matter to Quinn. I wouldn’t say those shows on the whole are trying to relate any kind of social agenda aside from that. But I think maybe that was one of the things that was too bad about when “Daria” did end. I believe the creators wanted to end on a high note instead of having it peter out. These characters weren’t remaining in high school — they grew like a year for every two years on the air — and they weren’t sure where it would go if it continued past high school.
Were they concerned maybe the characters would become muddied and have less distinctive voices?
WH: Probably. I just wish it had remained on the air because personally I feel like there isn’t enough of what it was putting out there… I mean, cable’s doing a lot of great TV, but I don’t know that aside from “Family Guy” that networks are doing a lot with animation. There’s nothing about real people living in a real world and going to high school. “Family Guy” has a talking dog.
Well, “Daria” is ostensibly about being a teenager in the slacker-iffic ’90s, but it’s ultimately about being a teenager in general — the feeling of being an outsider, dealing with low esteem, making fun of people who talk about low self esteem, hiding vulnerability with sarcasm, that kind of thing. Looking back on it, does it feel like it’s a product of its time?
TG: I think the fans who were into it at the time kind of get that the show’s evergreen. College, high school… they’re not all that different these days then they were (ten years ago). Technologies change, but faces, attitudes and groups pretty much stay the same. There’s a reason why there’s labels for these categories of little tribes of people who hang out together in high school.
WH: I think it became a product of the time because it was created during the time and airing then, but I certainly believe that a lot of the applications came from the experiences of the writers — who were definitely not teenagers then — and their own experiences in high school. Certainly Glenn and Susie’s experiences, and Glenn was in his 40s at the time.
I know that I identified with some of the voices in the show more than many shows airing at the time. It doesn’t seem like it’s quite as cool to be smart these days as it was in the ’90s.
TG: I would argue that is wasn’t just that Daria was super smart, it that’s she was saying what every outsider kid was wishing they could say and she could articulate. And Jane… they had a shared perspective, but they had an incredibly different take on the same thing. They were always in line with their positions but had different ways of speaking to something. Jane was a little bit lighter, not as intense about it as Daria, and that kind of chemistry still exists and that’s where the appeal is.
WH: Glenn said to me once that he felt like Daria in high school, so I think the sentimentality behind the show was coming from different periods and not just the ’90s. But certainly (there was) the application of the ‘90s to it.
It definitely feels like a different era than when I first watched it. My fiance was saying the other day that if the show were made today, Quinn would be the protagonist, and even though Daria would still be in it, she’d be really pretty.
TG: If you pitched “Daria” today not only would they be better looking, they would be vampire Darias. It would definitely be a different sort of show. But as it is, it’s a healthy program. If you’re feeling alone and nobody gets you and you’re getting attacked by texts by alleged BFFs at school and you feel like nobody understands you, here’s this program that all of a sudden validates your perspective. I don’t think it’s gotten any easier to go through high school. I think people have gotten better about putting on a good front… but you don’t always want to go along with the crowd. And “Daria” addresses that. It’s not a complicated animated show, but it does speak to how you can have a real story and get to the heart of character — and it can be animated and there doesn’t have to be zombies and aliens and explosions. It’s like a “My So-Called Life,” or “Gossip Girl,” but intentionally funny and in 2D animated form.
WH: I think part of it is that “Daria” aired when it was really ripe for animation. It was just “The Simpsons” on and I don’t think “King of the Hill” had started yet… maybe “Futurama.” But we hit when animation was getting like a preview of a high point, and as Hollywood and TV will do, they go “Ah! Animation is the new hot thing!” So every network had a new animated series that debuted a year or two later after “Daria” came on, and a lot of them didn’t have that life because they didn’t strike the same chord or hit at the right time. It was a good comedic soap in that sense. I hope the DVD will have a good little life to it.
Do you have children, and if so would you show them “Daria”?
TG: My daughter’s almost 6 and I was showing her clips on YouTube a few months ago. She was hilarious because she immediately got that I was Daria, but she REALLY wanted to see the clips with Quinn (laughs). And she said, “Mommy, you’re the smart one.” I at least appreciated that she identified that!
John Wenzel is the editor Get Real Denver, co-editor of the Reverb music blog and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press. He also maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles.