Daria Morgendorffer was a smart, misanthropic outsider, trying to deal with the various trials and tribulations of teenaged life in the suburban sprawl of Lawndale. However, this is not where Daria began. Her beginning happened on a little show called Beavis and Butt-head.
It’s part of the legend of Daria that its central character was introduced on Beavis and Butt-head at the request of Abby Terkuhle, the founder of MTV Animation. Terkuhle wanted a smart, female foil for the two doofuses at the center of Beavis and Butt-head. TV writers Chris Marcil and Sam Johnson, who would write the pilot and write periodic episodes through the show’s run, were in that meeting. So was Glenn Eichler, who would go on to be one of the main forces behind Daria as an executive producer and, arguably, the show’s most important writer. The idea of a Daria spinoff was built in this meeting, and Marcil and Johnson went off to work on a pilot for the show.
A couple of things were clear from the start. Mike Judge, who created Beavis & Butt-Head, wouldn’t be involved.With that in mind, and with occasional insight from the very busy Eichler, Marcil and Johnson worked on trying to figure out how to make a Daria pilot. “I remember when we were talking about it we were like, ‘Oh, this is Frasier.’ You’re taking the smartest character from this goofy world and you’re trying to do a show that’s true to that character, not so much true to the world it’s from,” said Marcil. “We can’t say this is just like Beavis and Butt-head because the audience will see how phony it is and reject it.”
Marcil and Johnson continued working on the pilot, getting insight from Eichler along the way, who suggested such changes like turning a brother character into a sister ( who would become Quinn). Eventually, Marcil and Johnson would finish the pilot, entitled “Sealed with a Kick.” It never aired, but it was the first step in the process of bringing Daria to MTV. However, Marcil and Johnson wouldn’t be a part of that. “Our contract with MTV was coming to a close and virtually everyone we knew in New York had gone out to Los Angeles to work in sitcoms, where the money was. And so we were doing the same thing,” said Marcil, who remains partners with Johnson and whose subsequent credits include work on Frasier, NewsRadio, How I Might Your Mother, and Hot in Cleveland.
Marcil and Johnson would write a handful of episodes through the run of the show, but it was Eichler, along with Susie Lewis who served as producer and co-creator, who would end up controlling the trajectory Daria took. Eichler wrote the first episode of the show to air, “Esteemsters.” “Glenn and I had a lot of shared attitudes and opinions about life in general, so being able to use Daria and Jane to communicate was quite rewarding,” Lewis said. “We found out quickly, the majority of our audience had similar feelings and points of view as ours.” Eichler added, “The themes were hypocrisy, alienation and loneliness… luckily for us, those are big themes in popular music too.”
There are many elements of Daria that really made it stand out and connect with its audience. It was dry and snarky, but it had heart. It created indelible characters, such as Daria and her best friend Jane Lane. But even the eccentrics and buffoons on the periphery of the show, the ones that caused Daria so much exasperation, had depth and emotional lives.
Music was a also contributed greatly to Daria‘s identity and, at the time, to the identity of MTV. “At MTV we had access to all this great free music, so of course that made a huge positive impact on how much music we used,” Eichler said. Lewis said they endeavored to find obscure music and “not something you would normally hear on pop radio. We made a big effort to include music, as this show, along with Beavis and Butt-head, was one of the few shows that was not based on music and MTV really wanted to stay true to music at the time.”
Music can be a very valuable tool in storytelling. Music can set a mood, augment emotions, and really helps take things to another level. If it sounds dope, so much the better, and the music on Daria was, indeed, often quite dope sounding. Lewis had honed her song selection chops on Beavis and Butt-head, where one of her responsibilities was choosing the music videos that the two would watch and comment on. It’s clear, when talking to her, how much she enjoyed the process of finding songs for the show. “Getting music was never a problem for MTV at that time. They were dying to get on MTV,” said Marcil.
Given this abundance of choice, Daria was filled to the brim with music cues.
Commercial breaks bumpers featured songs, songs played throughout episodes, both of the diegetic and non-diegetic variety, and every episode ended with a song playing over the end credits, accompanied by images of characters from the show in various costumes and contortions. Most episodes featured double-digit music cues. Needless to say, choosing songs for Daria was not a simple task. Lewis, through it all, remained undeterred. “It was a lot of fun and incredibly satisfying — finding those music cues and especially those lyrics, whether they worked comedically or dramatically, they were always there to be discovered,” said Lewis, “Once the perfect lyric was found, it felt like the finishing touch needed for the episode.”
The show used all sorts of different songs, although, primarily, they stuck with the alternative sound that hewed closely to the ethos of the show. “Since so much of me was part of Daria and Jane, I decided they would like the same kind of music that I liked,” said Lewis, who lists Nine Inch Nails, Bauhaus, and Love and Rockets as some of her favorite bands. Other times, songs were used to try and capture the zeitgeist, which explains how a song like New Radicals “You Get What You Give” ended up on the show. On occasion, a song would serve as a plot point, such as “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper, which features prominently in “Legends of the Mall.” In the end, though, Lewis was always looking for lyrics that would work perfectly for an episode, or for a scene. The fact that the music was usually quite good was a nice bonus.
The music may not have been for MTV’s “traditional” audience. However, for the sarcastic, disaffected teens who likely related to Daria, it was perfect. It was a show for the kids who didn’t want to tune into Total Request Live. You could watch Daria and hear Sonic Youth or Radiohead or Cake.
The show was branded from the moment Splendora’s “You’re Standing on My Neck” began in the opening credits. “My recollection is that we already knew and liked Splendora’s music because one of our producers, Cindy Brolsma, was actually in Splendora as their cellist,” said Eichler.“We asked them if they’d like to write and record a theme song and gave Janet Wygal some suggestions for lyrics they might want to incorporate, like ‘Excuse me’ and ‘You’re standing on my neck,’ and they took it from there.”
Any discussion of music on Daria has to include Mystik Spiral, the band fronted by Jane’s brother Trent. (Eichler says he has a vague memory of performing bass on the Mystik Spiral song “Freakin Friends,” due to budgetary constraints.) Daria also had a crush on Trent, which helped shape the music of Mystik Spiral. “Having a crush on Trent was something she could not control — she knew it was silly, but she couldn’t help herself. After all, he wasn’t the brightest bulb, so what would they ever talk about?” said Lewis. “So his songs and his lyrics had to be even more ridiculous with no depth or intellect to them.” While Lewis handled music selection for the show, it was Eichler who shouldered the load as Mystik Spiral’s lyricist. “If we were going to include an excerpt of a Spiral song, which was usually just one or two verses, I liked to write the lyrics myself just because it was fun,” he said.
Mystik Spiral is not the only band to appear in Daria, though. In “Depth Takes a Holiday,” living holiday manifestations hang out in Lawndale with Trent. Eventually, Daria gets them to go back to Holiday Island, where they get a gig at the Holiday Island High School Prom. It’s all completely insane and, evidently, is considered by many to be the worst Daria episode. “I don’t know if it is, I think Glenn told me it was. But I would believe it because it was crazy, it was so crazy. I may have to go back and look at it but it was such a weird peyote-like episode,” Marcil said.
Then, there’s the musical episode. While Daria’s musical legacy is mostly related to all the alt rock songs that appeared in episodes, they also paid homage to the Hollywood musical with “Daria!” the season-three opener. “I have always been a huge fan of musicals and when I had the idea for the show, everyone thought I was nuts,” said Lewis. The episode would be handled by Eichler and Peter Elwell, the latter handling the lyrics. Lewis considers it one of her two favorite episodes, the other being “Misery Chick,” which was also written by Eichler. “I remember reading it and being so moved, that I had barely a note to give. I think that was a first draft deal because it was so perfect,” she said.
Daria wrapped up beautifully in 2001 with Is it College Yet? But, like most shows these days, its life did not end there. The show now lives on in DVDs, iTunes and online streaming platforms. But music rights are tricky logistically, and they are expensive. So if you watch the show on DVD or stream it, there’s an important element missing: the music. The music, which was such a vital part of the show, which Lewis pored over so painstakingly, is all but entirely gone. While “You’re Standing on My Neck” still plays over the credits, the songs playing throughout the episode are replaced with generic music. A real piece of the show is missing now. Having the chance to watch Daria with the original music is almost an archeological act at this point. The show isn’t the same, and it can never be the same. Incidental music can’t pack the same impact. It can’t bring the same emotion, or the same humor. In a way, Daria isn’t really Daria anymore, except in our memories.
You might think the people who worked on the show would be upset by this, but they remain positive about the whole experience. “I’m too musically illiterate for me to notice that,” Marcil said. “For me it’s the execution of the comedy. While Lewis misses the soundtrack, “nothing can be taken away from outstanding writing, story, and characters.” Eichler had a few more complaints than those two, but not necessarily about the music situation. “I recently started viewing the DVD set after not having watched the show for over a decade, and there are the rare moments here and there when I think, ‘Wow, that music is jarringly generic.’ But for the most part it seems fine. And to me, watching an uninterrupted, unedited 22-minute DVD episode of Daria with the replacement music is a much better experience – and fairer to the show — than watching it on, say, Logo or The N with the original music in. Because on those networks the show is jarringly, destructively edited to squeeze in even more ads, or to meet standards and practices guidelines. And the audio is compressed so brutally that the whole episode sounds like it was recorded in a tin can. So I’m cool with the replacement music – it’s certainly preferable than not being able to see the show at all.”
While music was important to Daria, at the heart of the show was Daria and her deadpan quips. The show was built on the strength on its characters, humor and occasional, well-considered glimpses of heart. The music helped solidify all this. It’s unfortunate that there are kids now who can’t watch Daria as it was meant to be seen, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get something out of the show. “Daria is timeless. There will always be people that feel like outcasts,” said Lewis. That’s why the show can find new fans, but also keeps its old fans—those who do remember when Camper Van Beethoven played as Daria and Jane walked through the mall. There’s a reason parody videos starring Aubrey Plaza have been made (even though she makes a better Jane than Daria) and why Katy Perry dressed as Jane for Halloween years ago.
“We wanted to be super smart, which can often be isolating in high school. But we also wanted to communicate that this was not a bad quality. And we wanted to appeal to girls,” said Lewis. For Marcil, it was the fact that Daria embodied his favorite thing about a character. “You can’t really defeat her,” he said. Eichler credits MTV, in part, for the quality of Daria, and not for the reason you might think. “The most important way that being on MTV impacted the show was not about the music. It was the fact that MTV gave us total creative freedom,” he said, “That was an astounding luxury. I really don’t think Daria would have been the same show anywhere else.” Eichler also calls the lasting legacy of Daria “gratifying,” before adding, “I think people respond to the show because we tried to be as honest as we could… also I think Mr. DeMartino’s bulging eye is the kind of quality television that transcends generational differences.”
Lewis was asked if there was a particular music cue from the show that particularly resonated with her. “It has to be the credit roll music for Episode 113, “Misery Chick.” Just a great example of finding the perfect song to the perfect episode. It was ‘Pearl’ by one of my favorite bands, Love & Rockets. Some of the lyrics were—
This is no ordinary girl
I ain’t got no jaded feeling
This is no ordinary girl
She jokes as she stares at the ceiling…
These lyrics, along with the overall feeling of the song seemed to fit perfectly with a lot of the tone of Daria. And since they were one of my favorite bands in my most favorite episode, this stands out as particularly moving.”
This recollection from Lewis perfectly encapsulates what the music meant to Daria, and also what Daria means to people. Few shows were as smart and diligent in their music choices. That’s what makes it particularly unfortunate that this show lost so much of its music in the move to DVD. Other shows could suffer that fate without it really hurting anything. Daria can’t, because the music, while secondary, is also vital. However, even in its current state, Daria remains a wonderful, funny, and often emotionally affecting show that reflects the effort and passion of the people who made it. The show may not sound the same, and that will always be disappointment, but it will always feel like Daria. They can’t take that away.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.