If someone called me up and said I had to go back to high school, I would tell them no. If the person persisted, perhaps by offering a lot of money or assuring me there was no way I could get out of it, I would turn to Daria Morgendorffer, the impassively cynical animated character who suffered through five seasons and two movies' worth of high school on MTV, for wisdom. "High school sucks," she told her class in a speech at graduation. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd have started advanced placement classes in pre-school so I could go from eighth grade straight to college."
Daria debuted in 1997 as a spinoff series starring the Beavis and Butt-head "misery chick" character Daria Morgendorffer, whom producers created as a "smart female who could serve as the foil" to Beavis and Butt-Head's booger-y doofusness. As one of the smartest, most compelling female characters on TV at the time (and ever), Daria has connected with viewers far beyond the grungy brains of Generation X. Although the series ended in 2002, ongoing nostalgia for the 90s has extended the deadpan teen's appeal to, of course, Tumblr, as well as MTV Classic, a channel the network launched earlier this year.
While Daria's round glasses and combat boots would be recognizable anywhere, it was really her voice that represented her. Dry, monotone, and oozing with sarcasm, Daria owed the most essential aspect of her character to Tracy Grandstaff, a writer at MTV who stumbled into the gig by virtue of being the only woman around at the time. As Daria, Grandstaff made discontent accessible, even likable. Although she has long moved on from the role—she went on to work for Comedy Central and is currently the senior vice president of original production at NBC—she says she still marvels at the impact Daria has on girls around the world (including her own 12-year-old daughter). We caught up with her over the phone (she sounds a little like Daria, but not completely) to talk about what it was like to work on the show and why she thinks it still resonates.
BROADLY: How did you get into voice acting?
Tracy Grandstaff: The acting thing is something that I always feel embarrassed about. I grew up with a father who was a theater producer at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and I was obsessed with going to the theater on my days off from school, even going to class with him—voice and diction, directing, acting. I was so fascinated, and disenfranchised with the high school experience, that it felt more appropriate to hang out in college classes with these cool, actor-type people who were like nothing else I had ever seen before.
By hanging out in these college classes and going to rehearsal and seeing these people doing their life's work, I realized: Holy God, this is a hard job. There is no way I should go into this. My redirect on that was to look at things like Saturday Night Live and David Letterman's show and think, That's a cool place I would love to land someday. By freshman year of college I had my own radio show, took a lot of communication classes, and ended up being on-camera talent. A friend and I also created a college radio show called The Love Squad, which would basically, on Monday mornings, report what was going on on campus and play really bad music and use aliases and talk about campus gossip. It was kind of hilarious.
So you had experience performing, but you didn't ever say to yourself, "I'm going to be an actress, or a voice actress."
I never really got acting experience because I was way too intimidated and never felt worthy. The closest I ever came was being part of some improv groups and doing some sketch comedy stuff. Never any formal training. I can't claim that I was amazing like Tina Fey or Amy Poehler and did UCB and had all this Northwestern talent. I feel like I was dumb—I was so close to Chicago, and I should have just gone to Chicago. But I didn't even know that was going on.
How did you end up at MTV?
I came in as a writer and wound up on the pilot of The Real World as sort of an experiment. Through that experience I got to know the development head and wound up in development for a while, answering phones, and through that got hired over to work out of on-air promotion. This is a very long and boring story.
And then did they just ask you to be on Beavis and Butt-Head?
Basically, Mike Judge created "Frog Baseball" [the pilot episode of Beavis and Butt-Head] and sent it in, like a homemade video. No one had any idea what this thing was, but they really liked Mike Judge and thought there was something there, so they got us writers to sit around and flesh it out.
The beauty of MTV back in the day was that it had no money. Everything was done really cheap. I was one of a few writers, and the only female writer, on staff. When it came to voicing characters, Mike Judge did most of them, and whatever female characters he didn't want to do—they threw me in the booth because I was on the writing staff, and they didn't really have to pay me. I did Cassandra, who was this poetry chick; I did these rock chicks at a concert; I did Stewart's mom, which was my favorite character because she's based on all of my Midwestern aunts and uncles. I'm a pretty monotone voice, and I think that's why I landed Daria. (And the fact that our personalities are similar.) When she went to series, they did get me an acting coach to make sure I could handle some of the bigger monologues.
In 2013, Funny or Die made a fake trailer for "Daria: the Movie" starring Aubrey Plaza.
You don't really get her motivation—you never totally feel like you know why she is the way she is. Would you say that's true?
Yes and no. Her motivation is that she is so smart, it's almost like she's in her head more than she's in her body—she almost knows too much for her own good. The world around her is so transparent. Because she has this giant bullshit detector, it made her almost more self-conscious. That's the curse of being a teenager, not comfortable in her own skin, in a way. She did exactly what I did in high school. You cover up, you wear big baggy clothes, be a tomboy. You don't want to be looked at in a way—in a way that's like showy or draws attention to yourself. But insecure at the same time, [for example] when it came to stuff that all those trappings of what makes cheerleaders cheerleaders and the joy that is the high school experience for the 10 percent of the population that really had a good experience and the other 90 percent of us were like 'ugh, get me out of prison.' So why I think she was popular was that 90 [percent] and probably—I would have to do the research if my statistics are accurate—it only seemed like 10 percent of people were really enjoying themselves. Are you around high schoolers much now?
No, not at all.
My husband is a band director at a high school in California. I go to the Friday night games and I hang out with the kids and students. I know the same dynamic exists and I know the pressures are different and social media has changed the game entirely from when I was in high school—I know they're still teasing and bullying. But the kids seem so much more evolved when it comes to knowing themselves or caring as much.
Now it's cool to be an outcast. Daria was always the coolest person on that show, and although she does have some predecessors, you didn't really see that kind of character getting an authoritative voice in mainstream culture until the 90s. So maybe it's easier to be a misfit because people have seen it represented all throughout their childhoods, right?
I think you're right. This generation of parents has decided to make their kids, no matter how they look or feel, be OK with being a weirdo, with being a nerd, with being different in general.
And if people don't like you at your high school, you can make friends online.
There's a place out here called the Echo Park Film Center. They do little film festivals, and recently they did an anti-social, embracing-VHS-culture night where they showed Ghost World and a couple Daria episodes. A few of us from Daria showed up, and there was one girl who wanted to Periscope the whole thing. She was this hardcore fan. Being a two-dimensional character is brilliant—you're not really recognized—but she knew our names from the credits. She goes, "I'm going to Periscope this tonight, and I know that at least three of my friends from Australia [will love it]. I've never met these friends, but they're my best friends. I really met a lot of people from Daria." Daria is how she's connected to people she hasn't even met before but is one thousand percent sure are her best friends. She has a sense of belonging. It blows me away.
The show ran from 1997 to 2002. Why did it end?
It was coming out of the 90s, and I think it kind of ran its course. It was after Y2K. It was after 9/11. I had moved on at that point—I was working at Comedy Central. My first year at Comedy Central, I would duck out to do sessions at lunchtime. They were also downsizing MTV animation, and I don't know how ratings were to be honest. I wasn't really privy to that side of it. But I do remember being surprised after season four. Like, wait, what? We've got picked up?
You have a daughter, who's 12. Has she seen Daria? What does she think?
I feel like kind of a horrible person, but she discovered Daria on her own, online. She got kinda binge-watchy about it—which is hilarious—and then she went as Daria for Halloween, I think three years ago. She's got the glasses. She had a Daria-themed birthday party.
Did she make you perform at it?
We showed the cartoon a lot. She's more extroverted and upbeat than Daria was, but I love having Daria as a tool for a kid who is a tweenager and definitely holds her own and wants to be her own person out here in LA. You're flooded with possibilities and choices when you're trying to find who you are. I really like that there's a show out there. She's also discovered Gilmore Girls. I had never really watched it, but Lorelai and Rory have a Daria slant. They're way more optimistic, more upbeat, but there's an honesty and a candor that's familiar, and I think that's why [my daughter] really likes it. Shows like this help prompt conversations about what kind of person you want to be, what kind of human being, what kind of people you are surrounded by, that kind of stuff. It's very difficult to find shows like this to expose your impressionable daughter to. I'm trying to keep her away from Kardashian viewing.
So you're anti-Kardashian.
I'm super anti-Kardashian. I'm thinking Freaks and Geeks next. Maybe My So-Called Life.