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September 21, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s a picturesque may morning on a Southern California university campus. Birds are tweeting. Leafy trees rustle in the breeze. Students mill about the manicured lawns. ”You picked the perfect time to come here,” says Judd Apatow, cheerfully welcoming a visitor to the set of his new Fox college comedy, Undeclared. ”Today, we’re learning the subtle intricacies of bacon-fat throwing.”

Moments later, as guest star Samm Levine (the teenage Borscht Belt jokester from Apatow’s critically beloved 1999 NBC high school drama, Freaks and Geeks) strolls through a courtyard, he’s pelted by baggies filled with a colored-water-and-gelatin concoction that resembles pork drippings. Whap! Whapwhapwhap! Whap! ”You’re hitting me with fat???” Levine shouts on cue, while the offending pranksters raise their arms in triumph and chant, ”Ba-con fat! Ba-con fat!”

After the camera stops rolling, the porcine postmortem begins. ”That was gross,” shudders cast member Jay Baruchel, wiping off his hands. ”Coulda been a little messier,” says costar Timm Sharp. ”I gotta say, I’m a horrible thrower,” sighs Seth Rogen. ”This is the kind of scene you can film for three days because it never seems to land right,” observes Undeclared creator-executive producer Apatow. ”And now for the big debate: How many more clean shirts do we have?”

What? You were expecting a penetrating discourse on the works of Sir Francis Bacon? Sorry, folks, this is college—at least according to Apatow. Two seasons after Freaks and Geeks‘ artful exploration of underdog adolescence got a nasty ratings wedgie from the American public, the 33-year-old writer-producer returns to send up another youth subculture, a mysterious world teeming with beer bongs, mini-fridges, and skipped 8 a.m. seminars seminars. Undeclared is a wry, loose-vibed series about a motley mix of university freshmen living on the same dorm floor: nebbishy Steven (Baruchel), who’s double-majoring in awkward and lanky; his British lothario roommate, Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam); fashion-challenged weirdo Marshall (Sharp); acerbic entrepreneur Ron (Rogen); book-smart-yet-confused Lizzie (Carla Gallo); and hot-‘n’-panicked Rachel (Monica Keena). Think of it as Revenge of the Geeks. ”Freaks and Geeks was about a painful experience in a lot of people’s lives. But college is the reward for surviving high school, so it’s inherently funnier and more pleasant,” explains Apatow. ”In a sense, it’s a way to find out what happened to the geeks after high school, because the freaks aren’t going to get into college.”

Let’s hope no one’s cracked open a TV-history book: With the exception of A Different World, the dropout rate for university-set sitcoms is daunting. (Extra credit for those who remember Roomies, Delta House, and Co-Ed Fever.) Still, Apatow was eager to give it the old college try. So when Fox execs took him to lunch after Freaks folded, he unveiled his radical education plan: a laugh-track-free comedy depicting university life as it really is, through the eyes of a teenager (Baruchel) who leaves for school on the same day his parents split up. ”College has been a topic that people have touched on, but this felt substantively different,” says Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman. ”We thought in Judd’s hands that it could be a tremendous idea. He’s a comic storyteller with an emotional point of view and a different rhythm than other comedy writers.” Sums up Apatow, a respected Larry Sanders Show producer who also cocreated Fox’s 1992 Emmy-winning but quickly canned skitcom The Ben Stiller Show: ”They were signing on to the reputation of a man who’s never had a series go past 18 episodes.”

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