On Sept. 25, 1999, NBC debuted a new dramatic comedy about high-schoolers in Michigan circa 1980. The series was equal parts heart and humor, showcasing the best and worst elements of the awkward years between adolescence and adulthood. It was fresh. It was funny. It was deeply personal. It also never had a chance. Freaks and Geeks was moved all over the NBC schedule. As if that was not confusing enough for audiences in the pre-DVR days, episodes also ran out of sequential order, upsetting any sort of linear narrative. The network cancelled the show after just 12 episodes (three more eps were burned off during the summer in a mini-marathon, while three more were shown the following fall on ABC Family).
Little did NBC realize that by cancelling Freaks and Geeks, it was jettisoning arguably the biggest collection of talent ever assembled on a single TV show. Actors like James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Busy Phillips, Linda Cardellini, and John Francis Daley went on to star in hits on both the big and small screen, while producers Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-old Virgin) and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) went on to become… well, Judd Apatow and Paul Feig!
With the entire series now streaming on Netflix beginning today, I chatted with Apatow and Feig to talk about the past, present, and future of Freaks and Geeks. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You both have obviously gone on to a lot of success since the show with big blockbuster films, but I always got the sense that Freaks and Geeks was a project really dear to both of your hearts.
PAUL FEIG: I think so. We made it a good dumping ground for all of our good and bad memories of our youth. So you can’t help but connect to it that way. And all the other writers had personal stories they put in, so it just made it a little more special I think.
I was one of the few who actually watched every episode when they aired in that original NBC run — at least the ones that NBC bothered to air. What was the problem in terms of getting more viewers? Was it the fact that the network kept moving it around on the schedule? Was it because some episodes ran out of order? Or was it just too unconventional for broadcast television?
JUDD APATOW: I was talking to someone from NBC recently who was involved in its cancellation, and he said that they realized that we were never going to adjust the show to make it more about victories and easy problems easily solved. We shot the finale several episodes before the end, so when they saw the episode where Lindsay gets in a van to go follow the Grateful Dead, they realized that they were not going to have any effect on us creatively, and so they decided to cancel us. It was scheduled very badly. We were on Saturday nights, when not a lot of kids are watching that type of show, and then when they moved us they moved us to a slot up against Who Wants to be a Millionaire at the height of the craze. So we never really got a shot to find our audience. Who knows if it ever would have happened. We were off the air 13 out of 26 weeks. So there wasn’t a lot of continuity.
FEIG: It felt like at that time in television, people weren’t looking for that tone, sadly. The irony is that we had like 7 million loyal viewers, which today would be a middling hit, but it was just game show mania, so people were not in the mood to watch that kind of thing. We got cancelled for a game show. We got replaced by Twenty One.
I remember when you were trying to get the DVD of the series out, but you said you wouldn’t do it unless you could clear all the music. How important a role did music play in this show? I keep thinking of the “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” episode with Bill Haverchuck finding solace through the power of grilled cheese and TV while the Who’s “I’m One” plays.
FEIG: We would write episodes to specific songs. So the music really was a character in it. And then Judd did “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers,” Judd took it to the next level of personalizing it to specific bands.
APATOW: When the show started, nobody used rock music as their score. It’s something we noticed when we started doing the show. Oh, nobody has ever put modern songs as the music. We were coming after the era of Dallas and Mannix — nobody was putting a Grateful Dead song as their score like Hal Ashby would in a movie. And as soon as we realized that, we freaked out and thought, Oh my God, this is wide open! Every great classic rock song has never been burnt out on 10 other shows. So every week we’d be like, Oh my God, the Who said we could use their music! Oh my God, we’re allowed to use any Van Halen song we want!
FEIG: Ted Nugent is on board!
APATOW: Since then it’s become very popular, but at the time it was thrilling. At one point we realized we could go to a band and ask them if we could use their music to score the entire show, so we had one show that was all Billy Joel songs, and one show that was all songs by the Who. And those were really fun weeks. To score an entire sequence to “Rosalita’s Eyes” was fun.
FEIG: The only one we couldn’t land was Judd’s Twitter follower now, Neil Young. He would not let us.
APATOW: Neil Young said yes, but we got cancelled. And so we had to decide — should we pay for this song even though the show may never air? And I decided not to because I didn’t think the show would ever go on the air. My biggest regret of the entire show was that I didn’t just pay for “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” which would have worked beautifully at the end of the punk episode.
FEIG: I put on the Dean Martin [“You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”] and then there was this whole conspiracy theory among the fans that NBC had put that song on there against our will. It was like no, we put it on. I mean, we wanted Neil Young, but short of him we went for Dean Martin.
NEXT PAGE: Apatow and Feig pick their favorite episode and discuss their thoughts on a possible Freaks and Geeks reunion movie.