Paul Feig walks us through Freaks And Geeks (Part 5 of 5)

Paul Feig walks us through Freaks And Geeks (Part 5 of 5)

Since its cancellation in 2000, the short-lived NBC series Freaks And Geeks has grown a considerable cult fan base for its realistic, sympathetic, and frequently gut-bustingly funny portrayal of two groups of high-school outsiders in 1980 suburban Michigan. The A.V. Club recently asked series creator Paul Feig to relive the writing and stories behind every one of Freaks And Geeks’ 18 episodes. Following parts one, twothree, and four, this section covers episodes 16 through 18, beginning with “Smooching And Mooching” and concluding with the series finale, “Discos And Dragons.” 


“Smooching And Mooching” (July 8, 2000)
Cindy Sanders tells Bill she has a crush on Sam and wants him to ask her out, which leads to her and the geeks attending a makeout party. After Nick’s dad sells his prized 27-piece drum set, he spends the night at the Weirs’ house, to Lindsay’s chagrin.  

The A.V. Club: You said earlier that you wanted both Sam’s infatuation with Cindy Sanders and Lindsay and Nick’s on-and-off relationship to be ongoing things, but you kind of crammed them both into this episode.

Paul Feig: Very much so. Never so much as with Sam and Cindy. Basically, with the order, we had one episode to get them together, and one episode to break them apart. But it was fun. I was excited to get them together, because I thought it’d be really fun to see how that plays out, and just how you’re kind of overwhelmed by that. This is another one where we had really fun music cues that we couldn’t afford, so we couldn’t use them. I mean, Mike Andrews did great replacement stuff for them. I actually kind of like his score better. But the one I was always sad we’d lost was, when he’s taking the long walk to ask Cindy out, it was a Bachman-Turner Overdrive song. [Laughs.] But that’s neither here nor there. 

The interesting thing about this episode was, it was originally supposed to be something different. This was supposed to be about the school field trip for the freaks. It was a crazy episode. My buddy Steve Bannos—he played Mr. Kowchevski, the math teacher—came up with this: They go on this field trip and the bus breaks down, and Kim takes over the bus. It’s on the DVD—it’s an Easter egg. That script exists as an Easter egg somewhere on the DVD. I could never tell you where, because I don’t know. I don’t even know how to access the Easter eggs. I don’t even know if people do that anymore. [Laughs.] It was almost like a Lord Of The Flies-type thing, where Kim Kelly kind of freaks out and takes over everybody. But then decided it might be a little too crazy. 

And then the freak story… I really enjoyed putting that episode together, because I was a drummer, too, and so we got to kind of play around a lot with that. You know, another attempt to show the home life of the kids. We had alluded in “I’m With The Band” to the fact that he had a hard-ass dad who was probably going to make him join the Army, and we kind of let that slide. We wanted to do a little more with that. And also, we always just never lost our appetite for making Nick kind of creepy. [Laughs.]

AVC: Like the scene where he talks to Lindsay while wearing the tiny underwear.

PF: Yes, exactly. I’ve always loved Jason [Segel], but the minute he agreed to do that—because I was like, “You’ve got to do this,” and I remember when we wrote it, saying he’s going to be in these tiny underwear, and it was like, “He’ll never do that.” But he said, “Oh, sure.” [Laughs.] He’s my hero. He will do anything.

AVC: Harold also gets to be kind of a “cool dad” for once, teaching Nick about Gene Krupa.

PF: Yeah, exactly, and again, you know, trying to humanize these people, and trying to show that everybody was cool in their past, or had a past. They weren’t always a parent; they weren’t always old. It’s finding the most fun way to illustrate that. But yeah, the Gene Krupa, and turning him on to various things. It was a sweet episode.

AVC: This is the episode where Bill makes out with Vicki the cheerleader.

PF: Yeah, Seven Minutes In Heaven.

AVC: It’s kind of odd, but also really sweet.

PF: Yeah. We knew we didn’t want to have this situation in which, you know, love was in the air. A tinderbox of kissing, if you will. [Laughs.] But also, I did like that episode, because it was really important to me to show—you know, Freaks And Geeks was a reaction to these teen shows, where everybody was having sex, and everybody was so cool with having sex and all that. It was like, in my experience, we were all just terrified of it, and not comfortable around girls, and all that. So to me, this was the one to really play that out. We’re showing like, “No, there’s kids who are cool with it, and there are guys that are completely awkward about it.” I remember just laughing my head off when I was writing that debate about, “If she sticks her tongue too far down your throat, what if you throw up?” You know, that weird obsession. Because that’s a thing I always had: “Well, what if this? What if that?” It was just fun to play that out, and I felt like I had not seen that done before. It’s much more fun to explore people’s fears about sex than their coolness with sex, or their prowess at sex, and just kind of carry that all the way through with the episode. We just thought it was the funniest thing in the world, no matter what, whenever Neal spins the bottle and it points at Bill. [Laughs.] We just took great pleasure in that gag, and Shaun Weiss is so funny, “Just kiss him and get it over with!” Yeah, that brought up recollections of it. I go like, “Hey, that stuff was really funny!” I remember that was a real important episode for us, to us.

“The Little Things” (July 8, 2000)
Ken’s girlfriend Amy reveals to him that she was born with both male and female genitalia, leading Ken to question both their relationship and his sexuality. Sam experiences a similar relationship crisis as he discovers Cindy is not the girl he thought she was. Meanwhile, Lindsay and Mr. Rosso struggle with their reactions to an esteemed visitor to McKinley High: Vice President George Bush (and his Secret Service agent, played by Ben Stiller).

AVC: You say in the DVD liner notes that everyone was scared of this episode.

PF: Yeah. Basically… I wasn’t even there. I was off supervising the set, and I had heard that—we were all sitting around and just got on this laughing jag, because it was like, “We’ve got to get Ken a girlfriend. What would be the funniest thing that could happen if Ken got a girlfriend?” The joke was, “She has a dick.” I think it was said just as a joke, and then Judd [Apatow] and Mike [White] got obsessed with trying to make it happen. And there was, like, an uprising, and the writers were like, “Oh, you’re joking, right?” I’m like, “No, we’ve got to do this!” People really got upset, like we were totally going to jump the shark—not that we knew what “jump the shark” was back then. I’ve always been up for a challenge, so I remember them coming to me, going, “Nobody wants to do this,” and all the writers were complaining to me, and Judd was like, “I don’t know, I think it’d be funny.” I remember just saying to Judd, “Let’s do it.” I love a challenge like that. You know, try to figure out a realistic way to do something crazy. Not that it’s crazy, but it’s kind of crazy. 

But then it just fed into what we always wanted to do, which is to tell stories about outsiders, and ambiguous genitalia is a good outsider thing—you know, something people don’t talk about. But it was very hard to execute, because Jon Kasdan wrote the draft, and he did a really good job, but it was coming up slightly dramatic. It was just very, very hard to get the balance right on that. I think the big breakthrough came when Judd basically pulled Seth [Rogen] and Jessica [Campbell] into his office, and they sat there and improvised her telling him that she has this… condition. [Laughs.] And that kind of started everything for Seth and for Judd. Out of this improv came this great scene, and it was kind of a new way to look at problem-solving and honesty, and get things feeling more real. And it was the beginnings of all that, with the way a lot of us work now, with doing more improv and using the improv process during the writing stage and all that. So that was kind of the big breakthrough on it, of going like, “Wow! This actually can work. This is interesting. They may have an interesting take on this.” And it’s fun to hear how real people would deal awkwardly with this stuff.

AVC: There’s also that great scene of Ken trying to figure out if he’s gay by listening to different records.

PF: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Which we love. You’ve got to figure it’s going to spin you into some kind of crisis, and that’s the crisis we settled on. And then we took great joy in finding out that Mr. Kowchevski is gay. We always liked when he’d get fucked over by Mr. Rosso’s sincerity. [The scene in question is a deleted scene on the DVD edition. —ed.] So then Rosso said something that he’s not really gay, and it just made us laugh. But Steve Bannos was very funny in that scene. He did a great job. 

AVC: Speaking of Rosso, the stress of Vice President Bush coming to speak at McKinley allows us to see some cracks in his perpetually upbeat attitude.

PF: Yeah, exactly. That was kind of inspired by when I lived back in Michigan, I remember Gerald Ford coming to speak at our local mall when he was running for re-election, and how it kind of set a lot of teachers in our school off. Then it was just kind of fun to play with that, that Bush was coming in, and it all just blew up. When I was in college in ’82 at USC, and Bush came to speak at the college, and it was such a conservative college, they like welcomed him like a hero and had the marching band out and covered the library in a giant American flag. And then when Mondale came to speak, they like, stuck him in front of a Tommy Trojan statue, and the frat guys booed him off the stage. They wouldn’t let him talk, and he just had to, like, stand in front of a card table. So all my liberal rage went into overdrive. [Laughs.] It was fun grafting that all into Mr. Rosso. Then it was Judd who asked Ben [Stiller] to come on and play the Secret Service agent. It was so much fun, just all these outtakes on the DVD of his therapy session with Mr. Rosso. An endless seven minutes of Mr. Rosso trying to counsel him into doing things with his life. [Laughs.] It’s really insane.

What I remember most about that episode is that’s the last one we shot. We’d end certain scenes and go like, “Hey, that’s a wrap for the geeks,” or, “That’s a wrap for this character.” It was really getting real, and kind of sinking in how we were probably going to be done forever. The last shot we ever did was where the Weirs show up in the hallway and find Lindsay, and that was the last scene we ever shot. I remember coming out, and we thanked everybody, and I was just a disaster. [Laughs.] I was just completely falling apart, crying. And then so was Linda Cardellini. There’s this photo I love of the two of us just completely red-eyed, trying to smile at the camera, pose, and just a mess. [Laughs.] But yeah, it was fun. It was one of those episodes that felt like the last day of school or something.

AVC: This is also the episode when Sam realizes that Cindy Sanders is a nightmare. You said before that Cindy was kind of inspired by your high-school crush, or at least Sam’s dream of her was. Was the reality of Cindy Sanders inspired by anyone in particular?

PF: No. Again, once you cast the people, you start to use their personalities, and Natasha [Melnick] was just so funny that way. She was always kind of bubbly and sunny, and the way she talked, that’s exactly how she spoke. So you very quickly start writing to their personalities. She really was like Cindy Sanders; she was such a sweetheart, and just so nice. So it was actually very difficult for us to turn her, because we really had to invent stuff, because she’s not, as far as I know, super-Republican or anything. That’s the funniest way to kind of disillusion yourself with somebody: generally weird shit they believe in is more fun than behavior, like, “Oh, now she’s a bitch or whatever.” It was just more fun, that horrifying, “Oh my God, you have these old-fashioned views on the world.” The other thing for Judd and I, one of the most personal things in that, was the fact that he would take a girl to see The Jerk, and she wouldn’t think it’s funny. For both of us, that’s like, the limit. [Laughs.]

AVC: It’s such a “geek” type of behavior, losing affection or respect for someone because they don’t like this movie or this music, or whatever.

PF: Oh, totally. Part of that was kind of based on my cousin and I, who were best friends—my cousin Phillip—we went to see the movie Tommy, and we were just obsessed. We thought it was the greatest thing we ever saw. We were so excited, we saw it twice. And then we dragged his older sister, my cousin, to see it, so excited, and she just sat there. I remember halfway through, she was like, “This is the worst movie I have ever seen in my life.” I remember that horror of like, [gasps] “She doesn’t like it!” Then it was like, “Are we crazy? Is she crazy? Do we hate her now? Is she right?” So I always remember the power of where you’re like, “Everything’s great,” then all of a sudden you realize somebody hates something you love. So we had great fun in doing that. I actually had to use Jake Kasdan’s connections to get Steve Martin to give us the rights to show that clip in the show. So Steve Martin approved that clip!

But the [original] opening, I remember when we were writing that, just thinking how funny that would be, of just this long, uncomfortable thing of making Sam sing to Cindy. [Laughs.] It was as uncomfortable on the set as it plays in the show. You know, “Sing to me, Sam.” [Laughs.] They’re having dinner with Cindy, with the parents, and then she wants to go hang out in Sam’s room, and she wants to make out all the time, which in your parents’ house, that’s the most horrifying thing. But basically, she goes, “Do you remember the first time we met? The first time we danced to ‘Come Sail Away’?” She goes, “Dance with me, Sam.” There’s dancing but no music, and then she goes, “Sing it, Sam,” and she makes him sing “Come Sail Away.” [Laughs.] Is that still in there?

AVC: Not in the final version. 

PF: I’m sure it’s in the deleted scenes. Because if that never got released to the public, that’s a real tragedy, because it was so funny and so awkward, and then little John Daley plays it perfectly. I think we probably cut it out because it was way too long. Oh no, it is in [the DVD deleted scenes]. It’s called “Our Creepiest Moment.” [Laughs.] Again, we were reveling in—anything that makes our audience cringe, and our cast cringe, is the thing we’ll always do.

AVC: And that was the most cringe-worthy moment of them all, you’d say?

PF: Yeah, it was really bad. Because John Daley like, [singing softly] “I’m sailing away.” She’s like, “Sing it loud!” And you know your parents are right outside the door. [Laughs.] That’s something we had a lot of fun with: She likes to make out all the time, so where’s the most inappropriate place you’d want to do it? In your house, with your parents there. But yeah, we had fun making her have all of these Republican views. [High-pitched voice.] “People are just looking for a handout.” [Laughs.]


“Discos And Dragons” (July 8, 2000)
In the series finale, Lindsay discovers Nick has been dating Sara (Lizzy Caplan), who’s introduced him to the world of disco dancing. Daniel is also in unfamiliar territory when he’s assigned to the AV club as punishment and is unexpectedly drawn into the geeks’ Dungeons & Dragons game. Lindsay is invited to a prestigious summer program at University Of Michigan, but her plans are sidetracked by her newfound love of The Grateful Dead.

PF: The interesting thing about that is, there’s a scene in there where Sam doesn’t want to play Dungeons & Dragons and Neal goes, “What, just because you broke up with Cindy Sanders, you’re too cool for us?” That was before we really knew what we were going to do, but I remember we wrote two alternate lines, basically going, “We play this out and he breaks up with her, let’s have a line where he says he broke up with her.” And then I think the other alt was like, “Oh, now that you’re dating Cindy, you’re too cool for us?” We shot that before the last four episodes we did. 

What I remember most on that episode was, I had to write it over Christmas vacation. We’d write stuff down on the board that we wanted to do, and I remember we always had up there, “Lindsay becomes a Deadhead,” we wrote “Nick gets into disco” and [“Dungeons & Dragons”]. So it was kind of like, “Okay, those things are up for grabs. They’re not going to get used in any other episodes.” So I remember just going, “I’m going to just write all of those in this last episode,” and kind of not knowing how to do it. So I really struggled for a while trying to figure it out, and then got it close, and then we went to Vegas over Christmas vacation, and Judd was there with Quentin Tarantino, and it was just crazy. I think Adam Sandler was there. Carl Weathers. We had this weird group we were all hanging out with, and I remember like sitting in one of the big hotels with Judd, going through the outline, trying to figure stuff out. And then sitting in a bathtub—by myself—in this hotel with all these Grateful Dead books, reading up on the Grateful Dead, and going through their lyrics and stuff. That episode, a lot of it got written in Las Vegas, for whatever reason.

AVC: Lizzy Caplan was in the background from the very beginning, the pilot episode, and she turns up here and there, but she ends up being a big factor in the finale. Did you intentionally, from the beginning, populate McKinley with these bit players intending specifically to incorporate them, or was it more of a result of getting to know the actors and writing for them?

PF: It was a little bit of both. We found people we liked. Lizzy is a perfect example of that. I just loved her from her audition, but she wasn’t quite right for any of the roles, really, because she wasn’t tough enough to be Kim, but she wasn’t Lindsay. But it was kind of like, “Let’s just keep her around.” Yeah, she pops up in the pilot and then she pops up in the second one, because she’s the one that gets Lindsay out of class. We just liked her, and when we like people, we keep on bringing them back. I just remember very distinctively when I started writing, going like, “It has to be Lizzy. Lizzy has to be the disco girl.”

AVC: You see her and Nick talking in an early episode, like you’re laying the groundwork.

PF: Yeah, I had very purposely laid that, and it’s in that second one especially when she gets Nick out of class. She’s like, “Hey Nick.” He’s like “Thanks, Sara.” She’s flirty with him. So yeah, the groundwork was definitely laid. She always felt more of kind of like a burnout girl, because she’s one of the ones that’s with Eli, and laughing at him a little bit. So I remember thinking, “Are we going to buy that she’s now this disco girl?” But again, it fell into that thing of, “You know what, over the course of the year, she got enamored with disco and changed her personality.” And she’s so good in that—just that heartbreak. She’s so good that it’s even heartbreaking to write that scene, like, “I sat behind you, I stared at you, and I never had the nerve to talk.” She has such low self-esteem, she’s kind of a sad, tragic character to me on that one, because she likes him so much. We like the parallels of she becomes his Nick, you know? The Nick to his Lindsay.

AVC: Regarding the Grateful Dead thing, did you find it at all odd that with her aversion to drugs, Lindsay would wind up getting really into the Dead? Not that one necessarily requires the other, but there’s a strong association.

PF: It was the hardest thing to figure out how to do, because we wanted to, but yeah, you go, “This is a weird leap for her to make.” But again, I always loved the challenge of “Okay, how can we do it realistically?” To me, it was all about the power of how you can get seduced by music.

AVC: Yeah, like that long scene of her really, really listening to their album.

PF: Yeah, exactly, which was the mellower version of when I first discovered punk rock. You know, just sitting in my room and playing the Ramones album over and over and over again, and just like, you just feel your personality start to change, and your goals, and the way you look at life just start to change by hearing this music. Because it’s something you hadn’t ever been exposed to. It’s so not what your worldview is, and what you’ve heard or been allowed to hear, but you hear it and you’re like, “Where did this come from? I can’t believe there’s people that think a different way.” Especially when you grow up in a small town, you just get used to there being not that many points of view that you were exposed to. You know, hearing about it from Mr. Rosso immediately makes it not cool, but then getting that validation of the cool kind of hippies in the school saying like, “Hey, that is cool,” so then it kind of opens her up to it. I’m really proud of that scene. I remember putting it together, and then Judd goes, “This could be a really great scene, or it could be the most cringe-y, laughable thing anybody’s ever seen in their life.” [Laughs.] It worked just because Linda’s so good. She just really was so sincere.

AVC: So many times in the show, we’ve seen characters trying on a new identity and it not fitting for one reason or another. But this is so organic.

PF: Again, just totally our theme of trying to become other people, you’re trying to do other things, and yeah, it just felt right. It totally is an interesting episode, because it’s not our funniest episode, by any stretch of the imagination. [Laughs.] It gets fairly dark, or takes itself seriously in spots, but in ways I like. That’s why I’m kind of proud of it. Again, it’s not the funniest episode, but I just think dramatically, it all comes together. Even Mike’s music cues are very kind of down and introspective.

AVC: But that fits the tone of a series finale.

PF: No, totally. Because also I knew this was probably going to be the last episode, so I wanted to have this gravitas. To me, the whole thing was, this episode, I wanted to put everybody in a different place. That was the goal. So I wanted Daniel to kind of be with the geeks, and then I wanted the geeks to kind of go, “Hey, maybe we’re cool because we’re with him,” and for Kim and Daniel to break up. You know, it was really important for me to have that happen and then have Daniel kind of go into this new place, and then obviously Lindsay’s giant thing. So everybody ended up in a different place. 

I have to laugh, because over the years, people always go like, “Oh it’s too bad you didn’t have the last episode, because I wish I could have seen what happened to everybody, and finish up.” And I’m so happy with that last episode. I have no regrets. To me, we said goodbye to all the characters. They would have been different the next year, and then the year after that, they would have been different again. So just the fact that we sent them all off in different directions is very extreme. And just seeing Lindsay driving off in that van is just… I still get choked up every now and then. That’s the only episode I’ve seen kind of more recently, and it still gets me.

Even Ken gets in a different place. He defeats the disco, you know? [Laughs.] Finding out that it was going to close. And again, that whole disco story is extremely personal to me, because I did exactly that. There was a teen disco in our local bowling alley, and that became my place I went every weekend. I just became obsessed with it, and dancing, and disco dancing. And that contest—I really did enter that contest. Horrible. It was exactly like Nick. I mean, that is exactly what happened. I had really fancied that I was quite a good dancer, so I was kind of like, “How could I not win this? Because I’m very impressive out on the floor.” So getting out there by yourself, and everybody’s standing around the dance floor on the outer wall—you know, there was like a wall that surrounds the dance floor—watching you dance. I danced to “Disco Inferno,” and thought I did a great job. It’s the kind of thing where people are staring at you and you’re like, “Hey, I think they really dig what I’m doing.” And they’re probably staring at you like, “Oh, what a fucking retard.” But then the guy that got up after me did magic tricks. He danced and did magic tricks. And it was kind of like, “Wait a minute”—because I was a magician! It was like, “Nobody told me you were allowed to do magic,” which is a line he actually says. So yeah, that is literally torn from the pages of my childhood.


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