‘Daria’ 20 Years Later: Producers Behind MTV’s Iconic Cartoon Look Back

An appreciation of the late-'90s heroine Daria Morgendorffer — including the people that created her world, and the legacy she left behind

Daria 20th Anniversary
Courtesy of MTV

Even before I watched all of “Daria,” its heroine Daria Morgendorffer loomed large in my consciousness. At the turn of the millennium, MTV was saturated with Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC music videos — and obsessed with the nascent careers of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. I watched all of that, too. But she became one of the first characters I saw on television who seemed to feel the way I did about the world. The phrase I held onto was from “Esteemsters,” the “Daria” series premiere — “I don’t have low self-esteem. I have low esteem for everyone else.”

It’s been 20 years — and five seasons and two made-for-TV movies — since March 3, 1997, when “Daria” introduced us to the world of sarcastic and brilliant Daria Morgendorffer. The world has changed a little. But aside from a clunky phone or two, “Daria” feels more modern than ever.

A still from Mike Judge’s “Beavis and Butt-Head” featuring Daria Morgendorffer.

“Daria” didn’t just come from “Beavis” — the crew did, too. As Mike Judge’s two slackers became icons of a generation, they changed MTV. “MTV never had an animation department, and all of a sudden we were in an animation department,” says producer Susie Lewis, co-creator of “Daria,” who was producing the music video segments of “Beavis and Butt-Head” when word began to spread about spinning off Daria — a sketched out, minor character who the boys not-so-affectionately called “Diarrhea” — into her own show. At least partly, the reason was because MTV wanted to broaden its demographic.

To put it more bluntly: “MTV had no female viewers,” says showrunner and co-creator Glenn Eichler, who was writing on “Beavis and Butt-Head.” “I wouldn’t not use the word ‘desperate.’”

Now a writer for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Eichler has the kind of self-mocking deadpan that Daria herself has. Asked if he ever thought about how Daria might react to things now, he pauses and laughs. “No… I just react that way myself.”

Eichler liked animation, but had never worked on animation before shifting from writing promos for MTV to the “Beavis and Butt-Head” writers’ room. But the show he ended up writing for Daria had very little in common with “Beavis and Butt-Head.”

Eichler had no mandate from MTV to set the show in a complex world — indeed, compared to the other programming on MTV at the time, “Daria” was oddly continuous and considered. “It was just the way I thought,” he says. “I don’t think in very commercial terms, you know? ‘Dawson’s Creek’ was on at the same time we were on, and if I could think like those people, I’d have a much bigger house. But that’s OK.”

“It was a unique time,” Lewis says. “We never had to go in and pitch a show. I can’t even imagine going in and saying — we really wanna do this show about this sarcastic girl who’s smarter than everyone, and she doesn’t really like anybody.”

Eichler adds, “The thing that was so great about MTV in those days — and also so terrible — was that anything goes. Nobody was in charge. They had a lot of theories about branding, but zero theories about programming.” (The head of MTV animation at the time was Abby Terkuhle, now president of Aboriginal Entertainment. He was also an executive producer on “Daria.”)

The climate meant that both Eichler and Lewis could pursue what they wanted for “Daria.” There was no real mandate for the show; no promises had been made that needed to be kept.

Lewis — who describes herself as the Jane to Eichler’s Daria — had a vision for Daria’s spinoff that was quite different from Beavis and Butt-Head’s world. Where the boys’ show was a little tentatively lined and cartoonish, with a bleached-out palette, “Daria” was bold, geometric, and lined with firm, decisive strokes. It reflected Daria’s precise worldview, and opened up the viewer to her perspective.

Karen Disher, at the time a 24-year-old layout artist at “Beavis and Butt-Head,” came up with the style for the pilot (and later became the show’s supervising director). But Disher, now a story artist with Blue Sky, downplays her own contributions. “I guess it’s flatness by way of, stylistic choice, but also, uh, ability?” she says, laughing. The show copied several characters from pop culture at the time. Jane’s brother, the wannabe rocker Trent, was based on Dave Navarro and named after Trent Reznor. Disher’s take on Mr. DiMartino, the yelling teacher with the eye twitch, was based on Christopher Walken in “Pulp Fiction.” She drew him on her couch while watching the movie, pausing the VHS tape to get his every facial expression.

Disher credits Lewis with the show’s realistic animation — the notes that came back on early storyboards were all about uncomplicated camera angles and naturalistic posing, which isn’t exactly why animators get excited about cartooning. “It was very much a writing-driven show… Without Glenn and his writing, it wouldn’t matter. That was the show. You didn’t need crazy camera angles to make it good.”

The five-minute pilot was a hit with the focus group. “People latched onto her right away,” Lewis says. “We were all surprised. But I really believe it’s because she seemed like a real person. Even though she’s a cartoon… she was like, a real teenage girl.”

Each episode required a nine-month leadtime, from scripts to voice acting to storyboarding to overseas animation in Korea. Disher recounts with pride how the show went to the storyboard artists on literal cassette tapes, with an exposure sheet that she worked out with a literal stopwatch.

“Once we realized the show was doing well and was going to continue — it was like, ok maybe we should plan some kind of arc, or some kind of progress. but we never like, ran that by executives. We never presented it,” Lewis said.

“Like Daria, maybe at the time I didn’t realize how good I had it,” Eichler deadpans.

“And there is no aspect, no facet, no moment of life that can’t be improved with pizza. Thank you.”

What’s interesting about “Daria’s” seemingly scattershot creation — none of the three “Daria” vets I spoke to could remember who actually had the idea first to spin off Daria into her own show — is that the show is otherwise amazingly, brilliantly considered. The character was and is emblematic of that certain intellectual disaffection that young people have had for the world throughout history. But it’s easy to forget that outside of just what Daria herself said, “Daria” the show was a beautiful story engine. Daria’s family were loudmouth caricatures that belied a surprisingly humane and intimate set of dynamics; over five seasons, Daria’s relationships with her mother, Jane, and sister, Quinn, delicately grow and change until they are transformed. The two seasons where Jane and Daria both end up liking the same guy is both classically universal — the love triangle — and yet is rendered with a lot of sympathy and affection for these two specific characters. Daria is smart, but not omnipotent, and “Daria” puts her through the paces of the world, from understanding the complex history of home loans for black applicants to getting her belly button pierced because a cute guy dares her to. “Daria” was as oddly comfortable tackling the difficult decision of getting contacts as it was depicting the ravages of product placement; it was a show about teen girls, but never patronizing.

“One thing was very much a rule,” recalls Disher. “‘Daria’ was always written gender-neutral. Glenn was very specific about that. There are no [episodes] where they’re talking about their periods or having slumber parties.”

And delightfully, “Daria” paired classic high school storylines with some really weird episodes. As seemed to be requisite in the ‘90s, there’s actually a musical episode; there’s also an episode where Daria runs into the physical embodiments of a few rogue holidays. One episode takes place entirely in a dream. There was a surreal creativity to the show that allowed both for Daria’s parents to trip on “glitter berries” during a hike and for its recurring gag over the credits, where the familiar characters, whose costumes never changed, got weird and wonderful new get-ups for a few fleeting moments. And while the show was always primarily a comedy, in its final season, is when the show gets heavy — Daria fights with Tom about having sex, Quinn’s and her friend Stacey sidestep around eating disorders, Jane struggles with her relationship to her art, and Daria slowly realizes that her parents used to fight about her.

The title card for ‘Sick, Sad World,’ the tabloid show featured in every episode of ‘Daria’

Quite by accident, I watched all of “Daria” while trying to accept the results of the 2016 election. I had no idea the anniversary of the show was coming up; it just looked comforting — a callback to my mental state circa 2000, when a similar feeling of despair had me burned out.

It wasn’t just me. When I first contacted Lewis about this piece, she emailed me a photo from the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. It was of a teenage girl holding her own hand-drawn Daria, with a word bubble that read “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.” (Lewis was sent the photo by none other than Wendy Hoopes, a former voice actor for “Daria.”) When I first called Eichler, it happened to be Inauguration Day. “I don’t think [Daria] felt better about the world by the end” of the show, he told me. “But you picked a bad day to talk to me!”

“Daria” is not an overtly political show, but — especially for a show that debuted in 1997 — it tried to be inclusive and socially progressive, in a way that anticipated how rapidly millennials would embrace causes like gay marriage and Black Lives Matter. It was never explicitly stated that Lawndale was a cookie-cutter white-flight suburb, but it obviously was: The only two black kids at Lawndale, Jodie and Mac, were high-achieving and thoughtful, but awkwardly paraded around like props of diversity by high school administration. Jodie and Daria had a lot in common, but never quite became friends; Jodie was much more invested in success than Daria was, and one of Daria’s learning arcs in the show is understanding why Jodie might feel so much pressure to succeed.

And Daria herself isn’t allowed to smugly rest on her woke laurels, either. Some of the most interesting episodes of the show are when Daria has to process a new fact that challenges her worldview — such as, for example, discovering that she wants to indulge in her vanity enough to try contacts, or her realization while dating Tom that she does want him to remember their anniversary, even if it is dumb. She rapidly loses patience with everyone, including herself, with the moral superiority that teenagers are so good at.

Both Daria the character and “Daria” the show were consumed with what it meant to be different from a world that indifferent or even hostile. Anyone who didn’t fit in necessarily stuck out. In a political climate that felt much more hostile, all of a sudden, than it had been just a few short months ago — is it any wonder that Daria’s steadfast, daily persistence in being different felt like highly necessary inspiration, a regular reminder that not everyone is okay with the widely accepted norms of the world? “Daria” is about Daria’s attempt to be a better but still steadfast Daria — in a world that is frequently dumb, boring, not listening, or malfunctioning. A few months into the Trump Administration, I have a better word for what she seems to embody: Resistance. In a world that makes absolutely no sense (America; Lawndale High; the suburbs; the ‘90s), Daria and Jane are just two misfits trying to survive relatively unscathed. It’s everyone’s story.

Brittany, Daria, and Jane in “Fizz Ed”

While “Daria” was on-air, Eichler was a little skeptical of its reception. “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, you know — that show really got me through high school. And for the first 10-15 years they said that to me, i’d be like oh yeah, okay, sure. But now I’m starting to like hearing that,” he said, laughing. “I’m glad people liked it. And I’m glad they still like it. It makes me feel like the work was worth it.”

Eichler felt he was done with the story after the five seasons and two movies. “Not too long after the series ended, MTV animation imploded, so I don’t know if we would have even made it to a sixth year.”

Says Lewis: “I often think where she’d be today. I think she’d be a writer on a talk show, similar to Glenn, writing like political commentary. I do wonder — and this has no reflection on Glenn — I wonder how her navigation has been through her work life, and what kinds of success she’s had with her personality, and what kind of challenges. Because she is that person who doesn’t always fit in, but she is incredibly smart.”

“Somebody said something about this show on like a message board and it was my favorite thing I ever read about it — if it weren’t so funny, it would be unbearably sad,” Eichler says. “We were trying to process all those horrible things, in a lighthearted way. And let people exhale a little bit and say it’s not just me or thank god I’m not there anymore.”

“We were satirizing people, but I hope we were sympathetic.”