By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
After the pilot sold, the newly assembled writing staff sat in a room and shared teenage war stories; they brought out their old yearbooks and answered questionnaires -- Who was your first girlfriend? Who was the first girl you broke up with? Were you ever caught doing drugs?"It was like group therapy a lot of the time," says Paul. "Within the first two days you knew everything about every person on the staff. It was like, 'My god, that's the worst story I've ever heard, and we have to do it on the show.'" Paul took some pride in being the guy with the most embarrassing stories: the denim-jumpsuit incident, for example (as re-created in the episode "Looks and Books"). He was picked on by bullies because he was tall but wouldn't fight back, was slaughtered in dodge ball, feared showering in gym. He was afraid of girls and all they implied. A reporter once asked him if his high school experience had really been all that horrible. "I like to think it was," he replied.
Paul and Judd have been friends since the mid-'80s, when Paul, who had just left USC film school, and Judd, who had just entered it, both found themselves spending time at the Ranch, a "piece of shit" house in the Valley that was a hangout for standup comics, including Dave "Gruber" Allen, who would later play Mr. Rosso, Freaks and Geeks' not-quite-ex-hippie guidance counselor. Like Sam Weir and his friends, for whom The Jerk and Caddyshackrepresent the perfection of the cinematic arts, both had been teenage comedy geeks. Paul, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens ("the biggest small town in Michigan"), was at age 13 so into Steve Martin that he bought a white suit and a microphone "and every night would come home, put on my white suit, put on the Let's Get Smallalbum and pantomime the entire thing into the microphone, for like two years straight. I actually built the arrow, learned how to play the banjo. It was very sad." At 15 he began doing his own material at a Detroit comedy club that most nights operated as a biker bar; his parents had to go along in order for him to get in. After leaving USC, he worked for several years as a standup, then moved into sitcoms (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Jackie Thomas Show) and small roles in films. (One, the surprisingly smart Disney summer-camp film Heavyweights, was executive-produced and co-written by Apatow.)
As a teenager on Long Island, Judd also found himself through comedy. "You're writing and directing, and you are the show, and nobody has any power over you," he says. "Especially when you're a lonely kid, it's a way to have a giant group of strangers be nice to you -- though you have to go through so much abuse to finally get to where you learn how to get them to like you." He had a show on his high school radio station for which he interviewed dozens of professional comedians, including Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, John Candy and Garry Shandling (with whom he'd later work on Larry Sanders, and on whose It's Garry Shandling's Show Paul Feig for one season had a recurring role). "That was an incredible education, because they would tell me, 'It'll take you this many years to develop your character, this is how you do open-mike nights, here's how you write a joke.' So I had this game plan in my head: I'm 17 -- if I do comedy for 10 years I'll hit when I'm 27 -- and I came out here and tried to execute the plan. What I didn't know was I wasn't that good at it." And so he retired, though not before sharing an HBO young-comedians special with Ray Romano and Janeane Garofalo, and became a writer, and then a producer. When he got his deal at DreamWorks, he let Feig, whom he'd always thought of as "hilarious and one of the good guys," know that he was looking for material, and in October 1998 Paul sent him the script he'd written in those Midwest motel rooms.
SHOOTING ON THE SERIES BEGAN IN AUGUST OF 1999; by mid-September the first reviews were in, and they were all excellent. Time called Freaks and Geeks "the best fall drama aimed at any demographic," Rolling Stonethought it "stunningly funny and moving" and Talk "a minor vérité masterpiece." The September 25 premiere did well enough -- better demographically than any NBC premiere had done in that spot since 1991 -- that the word hitwas tentatively applied, but the next week was not nearly so well attended, and after that the clouds of doom never really dispersed. In another context -- on the WB, say, or on HBO, the show would have been, even on a bad week, accounted a success -- The Sopranos' audience was not significantly bigger -- but NBC's bottom line is notched higher, and Freaks and Geekshad the distinction of being its lowest-rated show. And yet the signals from the network were always mixed. A time change in January from Saturday night to Monday seemed like a vote of confidence, and Apatow was able to get NBC to okay more episodes at midseason. But they only ordered four out of a possible "back nine," and that didn't seem like confidence at all.