Judd Apatow and Paul Feig talk 'Freaks and Geeks'
Image credit: Chris Haston/NBC[/caption]
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.
I hate to ask you to pick from among your children, but I’m going to do it anyway. What is your favorite Freaks and Geeks episode?
APATOW: It’s impossible, but I think that finale that Paul wrote and directed was a perfect ending to the storyline, and everything the show did well was done perfectly in that episode. It spreads the wealth, you really go deep with every character, and it says everything that we wanted to say. And it is also really funny, and makes you cry hard at the end. I cry every single time. I cry the second you hear the first chord of the Grateful Dead song. I think that’s probably the best one.
FEIG: I love “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers.” There’s a special place in my heart for that one because I was off doing the finale, because we did them out of order. So that was one I had nothing to do with. I remember coming back from directing with that haze and sitting in the editing room watching the “Lady L” sequence and Seth smashing the guitar. It was just so funny to me that this thing had happened, so I have a real soft spot for that one. But I suppose I also have a soft spot for “Looks and Books.” That one makes me laugh the most, weirdly.
Are there any episodes where you wish you’d done something differently?
APATOW: We had the ability to do reshoots during the shoot, so when we didn’t like something we would actually do reshoots like it was a movie. One reshoot that we did that was funny was, I think it was for the Halloween episode, we wound up with a funnier opening and we came up with this idea that all the geeks are sitting around making the most disgusting thing they could ever make in a blender and seeing if Bill will drink it for money. So some of our best moments came out of feeling like we had a weakness.
So the Arrested Development group is getting back together to produce some new episodes and a movie. Any thought of reuniting the Freaks and the Geeks for a movie update, or is that too difficult considering the era the show took place in and how different it would have to be now?
FEIG: I find it scary. I mean it could be great, but if it’s anything less than great, then it just waters down the memory of the rest of the show. For some reason that becomes the last thing you’ve done, and I always feel like if you don’t get it right it erases the memory of what came before it. But I don’t know. If we came up with a great idea, who knows?
APATOW: I love the question mark at the end of the series, so I never want to know more than that. It is the reason why you don’t want to find out what happened, like when they got off the bus in The Graduate.
FEIG: That’s so true.
APATOW: That’s the main reason why it doesn’t feel interesting to do. But whenever we see any of the actors together, they have just such ridiculous chemistry that you could tell you could put them in any situation and they would be really interesting to watch, and sparks would fly. So there’s a chance I’m just completely wrong.
I got a few words for you guys: Jeff Rosso spin-off!
FEIG: Well, there you go. That’s the gold!
APATOW: I do think there will certainly never be a project that we’re more proud of than Freaks and Geeks. When Freaks and Geeks ended, in a lot of ways it freed me creatively because I thought, no matter what else happens, I was a part of Freaks and Geeks. And I always thought, I don’t think I’ll ever surpass this, my magical moment. Which I use as motivation to take a lot of risks in my career. And that hasn’t changed. As the years go by, I don’t even feel like I worked on the show. I feel like a separation from the show because I’m such a fan of it now. I can’t even believe I was there.
Follow Dalton on Twitter: @DaltonRoss