'97s create next MTV hit 'Clone High USA'

by Jenna Krumminga | 1/20/03 6:00am

"When you're 16, some nights seem to last forever," a narrator intones as a traumatized Joan of Arc watches her crush, Abe Lincoln, hook up with Cleopatra. Cue Paula Cole theme song, a flood of tears, a long shot of Gandhi sitting in a rowboat, and along with them, all the trauma and drama of the "Dawson's Creek" set.

Welcome to "Clone High USA," a new series created by Dartmouth alumni Chris Miller '97 and Philip Lord '97 and set to premiere on MTV tonight at 10:30 p.m. The show's premise is that 16 years ago, a secret government agency extracted DNA from history's most prominent figures and created infant clones.

Fast-forward a decade and a half and countless prepubescent traumas ahead, and you're left with some angsty, pimply teenage clones who not only have to live up to the legacy of some of the most famous people in the entire world, but even worse, have to live through high school.

"So, Joan of Arc! How's life?" young Abe Lincoln asks his friend on the first day of school. "Still sucks wild doggy ass," comes the reply. Such is the dilemma-ridden and emotionally overwrought world of Abe, Joan and clone friends who run the gamut from Caesar to JFK.

Rife with spoofs of teen melodramas like "Dawson's Creek" and "Beverly Hills: 90210," "Clone High USA" pokes fun at adolescents and at the media market geared toward them.

"Teenagers get so upset about things that don't matter," Lord explained. "They're overly dramatic about everything." Hence Joan of Arc's tragic outlook on life.

"Clone High" is heavy on stereotypically woeful teens like tormented Joan, lonely Abe Lincoln and hyperactive Gandhi, which is what makes the show so different from the other animated comedies to which it is being compared: namely "Beavis and Butt-head" and "South Park."

Confident in the distinctiveness of their creation, Miller and Lord don't seem to mind the inevitable comparisons.

"Yeah, we're the next 'South Park'! Yeah, we made the next wildly successful show! To be like 'South Park' means to be rich!" they joke.

"It's hard to be crasser or cruder than 'South Park,' so we're not gonna try to out-South-Park 'South Park.' We're going in a different direction. Our characters are more well-defined. Our show is based on a much more individualistic theme."

While the show definitely has its fair share of immaturity ("We're not afraid of sex and poopy jokes!" Miller and Lord promise), it is the spirit behind the show -- its desire to show its viewers the absurdity of their own narcissism -- that makes it unique among other satirical cartoons.

That spirit has impressed a lot of people. The two 20-somethings were able to recruit writers from "The Simpsons" and "South Park," and "Clone High" boasts a voice cast of mostly SNL and Mad TV stars, featuring appearances by a host of young stars, including Jack Black, Mandy Moore, Tom Green, John Stamos and Marilyn Manson. Not bad for two guys whose college film professor had to call them in the morning to get them out of bed.

The two have been working together for the past five years on a variety of projects, from making Sunday morning cartoons at Disney ("They were too racy!") to developing adult sitcoms as Touchstone ("They were bad!"). But it all started right here at the Big Green, where Phil and Chris first met.

Their freshman film professor, David Ehrlich, paired them together randomly in their first animation class, and the rest, as they say in Hollywood, is history.

At first, they animated separately but were always physically in the same room, Ehrlich remembered.

"Chris had a great sense of character and story, while Phil was more of a graphic artist with a great sense of perspective. They would help each other out," he said.

This "helping out" marked the beginnings of a great and brilliant collaboration: the two started winning awards as early as their sophomore year. In 1997, Phil won first prize at the New England Film Festival for his "Man Bites Breakfast," and Chris' "Sleazy the Wonder Squirrel" was selected for Germany's Stuttgart Animation Festival.

Despite the fact that Phil was an Art History major and Chris was a Government major, the two worked religiously on their animation. Chris continued developing the cartoon characters he had created in high school, "The Hasidic Hamster" and "Sleazy the Squirrel," and even drew his own daily strip in The Dartmouth.

He and Phil "were ALWAYS drawing together," laughed Ehrlich. "They just have a lot of fun. And they make people around them have fun."

But despite all the fun they had here, Chris and Phil saw much room for improvement. "Clone High," in fact, is somewhat inspired by Dartmouth.

"You may have noticed that at Dartmouth people take themselves really seriously and think that everything they do is really important. We wanted to make fun of the Dartmouth microcosm that people seem to think is the entire world," Miller explained.

Microcosm though it may be, in a way it was Dartmouth that got Miller and Lord where they are today.

"We were pretty lucky, actually," they admitted. "There was this article about Chris in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine talking about how great he is. Michael Eisner's son happened to be going to Dartmouth at the time, so [Eisner] got a copy of the magazine in the mail, saw the article about Chris and passed it along to those below him and then below again until somehow Chris got a job at Disney," Lord explained.

It's just like Chris and Phil to brush off their accomplishments with a bit of sarcastic wit. Talking to them, you'd never guess they are the creators of mega-power MTV and production company Nelvana's new love child; you're too busy cracking up at their last joke.

Unassumingly clever and, by all accounts, lots of fun, Chris Miller and Phil Lord make the perfect animation duo, seemingly primed for success.

"And hey, I have curly hair," Lord said, in reference to a comparison between him and Matt Stone, one of the creators of the controversial but extremely popular "South Park."

"Actually, can you write that we hate South Park?" Chris and Matt begged. "We want to start a Blitzwar! 'South Park' versus 'Clone High!'"

"Clone High" may not be for everyone. In fact, Miller and Lord have a very specific audience in mind.

"If you like ice cream and bags of money, then you'll like 'Clone High,'" the creators promised. "If you like things that are good, you'll like our show."