Paul Feig walks us through Freaks And Geeks (Part 4 of 5)
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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, two, and three, this section covers episodes 12 through 15, beginning with “The Garage Door” and concluding with “Noshing And Moshing.”
“The Garage Door” (March 13, 2000)
After seeing Neal’s dad hugging a strange woman, Sam tells Neal, who finds an unfamiliar garage-door opener in his dad’s car and goes searching with the geeks for its owner. Ken admits he has a crush on “Tuba Girl,” Lindsay’s friend Amy from the marching band, prompting a freak-group outing to the Pink Floyd laser-light show.
Paul Feig: That came out of our brainstorming session when [Jeff] Judah told this horrendous story. We were just like, “Oh my God,” and then of course we said, “Ooh, that’s got to go in the show. We’ve got to use that.” The thing I remember about that one, it was fun to kind of start subverting Sam McMurray [who plays Neal’s dad]. That thing in the dentist’s office with that thing that holds Sam’s mouth open the whole time? Judd [Apatow] used to do that in his standup routine. He had one of those, and he would put it in onstage, and it was like one of his bits. I forget exactly what he did once he put it in, but he always got a big laugh out of all of us. So when we knew he was a dentist, I think that would justify, “Okay, we’ve got to use this thing.” [Laughs.] So that’s why that horrendous kind of interrogation scene happens.
The A.V. Club: It’s really funny, but it’s also really menacing.
PF: It’s really disturbing. I mean, it’d get to the point when we were shooting, I remember being down there and going, “I don’t know, this may be too much.” [Laughs.] I don’t remember if we did a take without that in. I have a feeling we might have. But yeah, it was just really fun to subvert them in that way, and that was a fun one to shoot. We would like when we got the three geeks together, and with the hour format, we could have them occasionally talk off-topic.
One thing I remember was when the three geeks were riding around on their bikes, they had put in the script that they wanted Supertramp’s “Take The Long Way Home” to be playing, but I had already planned on using it for the end of “Looks And Books.” And they were so mad at me, like, “No! It works way better for ours!” And so we were trying to figure out what to use there, and that’s how we ended up with The Cars’ “Let The Good Times Roll,” just because we thought it was funnier, more ironic. If it were up to [Gabe] Sachs and Judah, you’d be hearing Supertramp when those kids are riding around.
AVC: It’s like alternate-reality Freaks And Geeks.
PF: Yeah, it’s like mix and match your music. I’m telling you.
AVC: This is also the episode where we meet Tuba Girl, played by Jessica Campbell.
PF: Oh, that’s right. That was fun, because we were big fans of the movie Election, and she played the sister in that. We just thought she was so funny that we definitely wanted to get her in the show somehow. I think we wrote that part specifically for her.
AVC: It also allows us to see a softer side of Ken beyond his snide comments.
PF: Yeah, we thought we were underservicing Seth [Rogen] in the first half of the series, because he was so funny. He was just such the go-to guy for one-liners and things like that, but we were so focused on developing Nick and Daniel and their relationship with Lindsey that the Ken character was really getting short shrift, because we couldn’t figure out what to do with him, a little bit. But we knew we had this tremendous resource with him. He’s always in the episodes. The Halloween episode, he got added in at the very last minute. He wasn’t even supposed to be in that episode driving around with them, but we suddenly go, “We have to get him in there.” So I remember doing a quick rewrite, adding the line “You two are adorable,” and all that stuff. So I think part of this was a chance to really get to give him a story, both for him and I think for us, to make him more integral and viable to the show than we had in the past. I’m so glad we did, because obviously Seth has proven to have a pretty good career. [Laughs.]
But they were very fun together, and we liked her energy, because it was very different from what we had on the show. Everything she did was different—like the way she’d read lines, and the way she would talk, was a completely different energy, which we actually had fun with, and the guys had fun with. Their weirdness with her was kind of heightened, and they would use it on the set with their being thrown with how she would deliver lines. [Laughs.] Which makes it feel very real. So we liked that about her.
AVC: In the DVD notes, you say Judd wanted this to be the start of a long storyline about Neal’s parents getting divorced.
AVC: But then it’s kind of put to bed a couple episodes later. Was that because the writing was on the wall about the show’s cancellation?
PF: Yeah. We were setting up at that point things that we were going to play out over a number of seasons. One being Neal’s parents going through a divorce. One was going to be Bill’s mom starts dating Coach Fredricks, and how that affects his life. The other was going to be the slow coming around of Cindy Sanders to Sam. And then we were definitely in the period when we were making all of these where the writing was getting a little bigger on the wall every day, like, “We are just doing worse and worse and worse in the ratings.” [Laughs.] I mean, we were just consistently going down in the ratings. I know Judd writes about it in the DVD notes, when they called up and gave us one extra episode instead of the back nine we would normally get. We all just went into scramble mode and started saying, “Okay, we’ve got to play out these storylines we wanted to do, so that when we get canceled, we won’t go bummed out.” [Laughs.] There’s always moments you go like, “Well, if we do get picked up, then we’re just blowing through it all,” and it’s like “Oh, we’re clever, we’ll think of something.” [Laughs.]
But yeah, that was so important to Judd, because the weird but happily married parents was my life, and the divorced parents was his, so it was very important to us. We always wanted to tell the stories that we knew were the most honest, because we had lived through them. And it’s like a juxtaposition, and I think Judd always identified mostly with the Neal character, in that he was the one who was obsessed with comedy. We both were, but we kind of put more of Judd’s personality in Neal, and more of my personality was always in Sam. It seemed like the right thing to do to have Neal go through what Judd went through.
“Chokin’ And Tokin’” (March 20, 2000)
At Nick’s persuasion, Lindsay tries smoking pot, which doesn’t work the first time, but works too well when she tries again—right before she’s supposed to babysit. Luckily, Millie is there to help her through her ill-timed freak-out. Alan doesn’t believe Bill is deathly allergic to peanuts, so he sneaks one into Bill’s sandwich, sending him to the hospital.
AVC: Judd was the lead writer on this one. You seem to really identify with the geeks, which made me wonder if Judd tended to gravitate more toward the freaks’ storylines, especially given his subsequent pot-friendly film projects.
PF: It all kind of swirled around. It depended what they were going through. That episode, actually, he was in the middle of so much stuff that I said, “Let me write the first draft for you,” and I wrote the first draft, and then he took it and really liked it, and then he ended up changing a lot and kind of tailoring it more toward what he wanted to do with it. But I think the pot thing came out of… I think it was a group decision that we hadn’t really been dealing with drugs at all, other than we always had nods to the idea that Nick was stoned all the time. [Laughs.] But we never openly addressed it, just because of the network standards and all of that. We just all kind of felt like, “Now’s the time we’ve got to do it; we can’t beat around the bush.”
And that was the classic example of Judd just saying, “Okay, let’s just call the network guy right now—the Standards And Practices guy—and find out what can we do, what can’t we do?” We thought for sure you couldn’t show somebody rolling a joint, you couldn’t show somebody smoking a joint. And they kind of told us all the stuff we could do, and everything we could do, we ended up putting in. [Laughs.] You know, when she’s trying to roll it and she’s doing it in her bedroom? We were really surprised that we could do that, so we kind of leaped on that.
AVC: Was it like, you could do it, but you had to show the consequences of drug use?
PF: I remember thinking they were going to tell us we had to, and then I think we had to a little bit, but not as much as we thought we did.
AVC: One of the things that stands out about the “message” of this is that it doesn’t so much take a “Drugs are bad” stance as much as, “Eh, drugs aren’t that great.”
PF: Totally. It was also based on the fact that I remember these guys would come and lecture at our school, and they’d always have some horror story about somebody that smoked pot. Like, “A lot of people can get away with it, but some of you, it will affect in an insane way! It’ll make you go schizo, you know?” So it was a little bit of that. What if that stuff happened to her? She’s so afraid of it—she’s just not made for it.
We didn’t want to moralize at all. That’s the last thing we wanted to do. I remember when we got canceled and they did a big article about us in L.A. Weekly, one of the letters to the editor the next week was from this guy completely shitting on the show, like, “If anybody saw the last episode where they’re moralizing against pot, the show deserved to be canceled.” It was like, “Oh, you kind of missed the point, because we weren’t.” But you can’t do a show where she smokes and then she feels great and her life goes great. I think we were just really intrigued by what happens when the good girl smokes pot, because I never smoked pot. Then I remember once when I was in my teens, I did the thing that they made fun of Clinton about when he was first getting elected way back when, when he said, “I didn’t inhale,” and everybody always laughed about that. I completely know what he’s saying. I did the exact same thing.
AVC: It’s hard to inhale at first!
PF: Oh, totally. But I wanted to look cool, so I kind of like sucked it in really fast and blew it out. But you know, I had never done it before, so it did kind of get to me, and it was just a weird experience that I didn’t enjoy at all, because I got really paranoid, and it didn’t work. So that just all kind of swirled into the idea of what’s your first pot thing going to be. [Laughs.] Anytime we can make Lindsay’s life miserable.
AVC: The scene where she’s freaking out made an Inventory we did about hilarious on-screen drug freakouts.
PF: Oh, hooray. I love it.
AVC: I love that her first instinct is to go to the encyclopedia.
PF: [Laughs.] Yeah, I would have handled it like that, too. I had the Encyclopedia Britannica in my room, and like when things would go—I’d look shit up. It was the dumbest response to stuff. So that was all kind of thrown in there. Interesting casting thing on that is that the little kid Millie is babysitting—I don’t know if you watch the show Weeds—
AVC: Oh yeah, it’s Alexander Gould from Weeds—
PF: Exactly, which is pretty wild.
AVC: Sarah Hagan’s also really great in this episode; we get to see Millie being a good friend to Lindsay. You talk about characters being inspired by people from your life. Was Millie inspired by anyone in particular?
PF: When I first wrote the pilot, she was based on this girl in our school who was like a valedictorian, but she never talked to anybody. But I was just fascinated by her, because she was super-smart. I always thought she was cute, but in kind of a backward way, and occasionally I’d hear her talking to whatever few friends she had, and she always seemed kind of Millie-ish. So it was definitely based on that, but we really saw everybody for that role. It was always the role where you would see somebody for some other role and you’d go, “Well, she could be a good Millie.” So we had all these candidates for Millie, but when Sarah came in, I was in a casting session with Jake [Kasdan], and she just started talking, and we just looked at each other like, “Holy shit! She’s the real deal!” [Laughs.] But she was so much younger than Linda Cardellini, and we were kind of concerned: “Is it going to look crazy?” But fortunately, Linda looks so young, and again, what I’ve always liked is the melting pot of high school, where some people look like they’re 10 years old and other people look like they’re 25. So it all seemed to work.
But yeah, that role built so much from Sarah Hagan, who just inspired us so much with her odd energy. Again, it was always our favorite thing to put her in really weird situations, whether it’s the anti-drinking improv players from “Beers And Weirs,” or just trying to get her breaking out of things, which, “Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers” is where we really took her on an odyssey.
AVC: The geeks’ bully, Alan, gets a little bit of redemption in this episode, albeit by doing a terrible thing to Bill. Down the road, did you want to assimilate him into the geeks?
PF: No, we just wanted to humanize him. I’ve never been a fan of one-note characters, and he’d been so mean up to that point that it was like, “We’ve got to give him something.” But what we liked about it was just the begrudging humanity about him. He didn’t want to back down. It took the fear that he had killed somebody and that he was going to get in trouble for it for him to open up. And that felt honest to us, because all my bullies that he was based on—you know, God forbid that they should ever have a moment of humanity when I knew them—but I always got behind the thought that if somehow they had done something and I was about to die, they would probably freak out a little bit.
AVC: You’d hope so.
PF: Yeah, even just for self-preservation, you know? But yeah, we really enjoyed doing that, and also Judd’s beautiful wife, Leslie Mann, got to play the teacher. Oh, and Alan White’s dad is played by a good friend of mine, Brian Hartt, who was one of the original Kids In The Hall writers. He wrote on Kids In The Hall the whole time, and we just love Brian, and we go, “He kind of looks like Alan…” [Laughs.] And Brian’s such a funny actor, so he was great. Had to get him in there.
“Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers” (Aired Oct. 10, 2000, on Fox Family)
Lindsay and Kim accidentally run over Millie’s beloved dog, prompting a guilt-ridden Kim to invite the devastated (and newly eager to rebel) Millie to the Who concert Lindsay’s parents have forbidden her from attending. Bill discovers that his mom is dating Coach Fredricks, who awkwardly attempts to endear himself to Bill and the other geeks.
PF: Well, the thing about that was, in between the pot episode and this was when we did “Discos And Dragons,” because we kind of had hit the end of our run, and we got the one extra episode, and Judd said, “Write the finale, because we don’t know how long we’re going to go.” While they were prepping and getting that episode ready, I was just completely buried in doing the finale. So if there’s one episode I was almost completely not a part of, it was this one, because I was so buried. I remember “Lady L,” because I remember Judd telling Jason, “Write a song to her,” and he and Seth went off and wrote that on their own. And it was a chance for Judd to tell his most personal episode. I mean, he was obsessed with The Who when he was a kid, so he really wanted to make it the Who episode. And that whole Bill storyline. You know, Bill watching television, eating grilled cheese and laughing? That is torn from the pages of Judd’s life. So I do love that episode, because it’s so personal to Judd. I just remember seeing dailies coming in and being in the editing room, and being amazed at what they were producing on that.
AVC: I don’t know if you’ve ever read Alan Sepinwall’s episode recaps of Freaks And Geeks, but in the one for this episode, he says he thinks Bill and Millie are sort of parallel characters, in that they’re “generally the nicest, most sincere, least self-conscious kids on the show.”
AVC: Do you see those parallels? This is two episodes in a row that featured them prominently.
PF: Yeah, I do. I had a funny feeling we were always kind of angling toward possibly pairing them up at some point down the line. Just because they were sort of, in two very separate ways, the moral compass for both the groups. Millie can’t help but be nice. She doesn’t have it within her to be mean, whereas Bill still had a mean streak in him. You know, when he’s telling Neal that Groucho sucks and making fun of Neal all the time. So it was kind of “guy niceness” versus “girl niceness,” you know what I mean? Like I said earlier, it was too tempting to not try to subvert Millie in an episode. I enjoyed so much that we took Lindsay back to who she was, and it’s kind of like the yin and yang of, “Let’s take Millie the opposite way.” Because I had moments where I was like, “Maybe I should be more of a freak,” you know? I didn’t go that far, but at the same time, it’s like you try it, it doesn’t work, it’s not who you are, but it’s interesting to discover who you are in that way.
AVC: It goes back to that recurring theme of discovering or figuring out new identities for yourself.
PF: Exactly. Which you know, again, that is the most important thing in the high-school experience, that ever-changing personality you keep experimenting with.
AVC: Between the sex-ed chat with Sam in “Tests And Breasts,” letting Bill pick teams in “The Diary,” and now trying to endear himself to Bill and his friends, Coach Fredricks has become a more sympathetic character than he originally seemed in the pilot, when he’s laughing at the geeks while they get drilled with dodgeballs.
PF: [Laughs.] Right, right.
AVC: We talked earlier about how it was important for you to make the Weirs essentially good parents. Were you trying to do the same thing with the teachers?
PF: Yeah, again, we’d always skirt the line of them being caricatures, because we were trying to play them from the kids’ point of view, but at the same time, we hate that kind of thing. We were starting to drop the humanity in early, which is like when he gives them the sex-ed talk. You know, that’s as nice as Coach Fredricks can be. I had teachers like that, who even if you befriended them, it was like befriending an angry dog. Like, “Oh, he kind of said something semi-nice for a flash, and now he’s right back into his thing,” because they still don’t want to deal with the bullshit of the kids. It’s almost like you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. So that is that fun thing of at school, he flashes humanity occasionally, but I think what was interesting about this was, if he’s away from the school—when you run into a teacher in the store, or you meet them in a social setting, or they meet your parents—they’re completely different people. It was just a fun way to explore, “Okay, what’s he like outside of work? How would he deal with this situation of knowing the kid who he’s pretty sure doesn’t like him, he’s with his mom, and it’s that no-nonsense thing he’s doing, but he’s still kind of a jackass?” [Laughs.]
AVC: He’s a jock.
PF: Yeah, well, that’s exactly it. It’s also, for any of us, no matter what age, can we let our guard down? How do we balance? It’s always like my nightmare, where me and my wife like to throw parties and invite lots of different groups of our friends, and to me, it’s always a nightmare. Because these people kind of know me in this way, and these people know me in this way, and how do you reconcile the two personalities? It just seemed very interesting as far as, what’s a guy like when he’s in a romantic situation with a woman he’s into, vs. then he’s sort of got like an employee, basically, in his midst, and how do you reconcile those two things? It’s just like the movie Grease.[Laughs.] Can’t be too wimpy in front of your guy friends, but you can’t be too mean in front of your girl friends.
AVC: This show is like Grease in so many ways—
PF: Exactly. If there’s one headline to take away from this… that should not be it.
“Noshing And Moshing” (Aired Oct. 17, 2000, on Fox Family)
During a breakup with Kim, Daniel reinvents himself as a punk to impress a local punk girl. Neal copes with his father’s infidelity by throwing himself into his ventriloquism act, which he performs for the Schweibers’ mortified guests at a party.
PF: The funny thing on that one was, when Josh Weinstein was going to write it, it was a completely different story. It was going to be about going to a bar mitzvah, and he wrote it, and it was actually a very funny episode. I think if my memory serves me—I don’t know if it was Judd or if it was a network—it was just fears that a bar mitzvah was a little too specific for a network show; the fear that some people might not relate to it. I don’t know. It was very weird. I remember going, “Why are we changing this?” But in a way, we’re kind of glad we did, because it just focused everything more on this thing with the parents, and I think it also might have been a reaction to the fact that we did see the end approaching, and then Judd really wanted to play out the divorce. Again, we tried to figure out what’s the cringiest situation we could have, and I definitely think we found it. [Laughs.]
[Neal’s ventriloquism performance] is one of the most horrifying scenes. So uncomfortable. One of my favorite things in it is just that Joe Flaherty laughs the whole time. But again, that’s kind of the fun way to undercut it. [Laughs.] He just thinks Neal’s hilarious, and he’s also kind of drunk, too.
That’s the episode where the crew hated me, because people were so profoundly disturbed that I made Neal kiss the dummy. [Laughs.] I just remember it was the most uncomfortable—because I was just going, “Oh, this will be really funny,” and people were just glaring at me, and some people were talking about it afterward, like, “Oh, we don’t think that’s good.” I kind of became like a monster to people, briefly. I was like, “It’s so funny! It’s just so dumb!” Fortunately, it plays funnier than it did on the set. [Laughs.] It played very tense on the set. But then [Samm] Levine was hilarious, because he makes the eyes look at the camera. It’s so shticky—that’s deeper in the shtick than we’d usually go on the show. [Laughs.]
AVC: The idea that the dummy character is aware?
PF: Exactly, exactly. He can actually be aware of the camera for a second. Is that one that starts with…
AVC: With Bill doing the Rerun dance?
PF: Oh, good!
AVC: You’re credited with the song he’s dancing to.
PF: Yeah, I wrote and recorded that song. “Spacefunk,” I like to call it. Occasionally, these cold opens would kind of pop up—I’m trying to remember if that was a replacement one we did, because occasionally, we wouldn’t be happy with our cold open, you know, just like we were with the Halloween episode, the “I’ll eat anything for a dollar.” I cannot confirm this, but I have a funny feeling that was something we came up with at the last minute, because I remember saying, “I want him to do the Rerun dance,” and just being obsessed with making him do that. [Martin Starr] had never seen What’s Happening!!, so he didn’t know what it was. I had to teach it to him on the set. [Laughs.] And he made it his own.
But that song came from—I’ve been a musician my whole life, and I used to have a recording studio. My friend Betsy Beers produced this movie, 200 Cigarettes, and they needed some music cue when Dave Chappelle was driving this cab, and they needed some music that was just funk music he was listening to. So I recorded that for them, and they didn’t end up using it. They used some well-known song or something. So I just had that sitting around. We were always way over budget on our music clearance, so it was like, “Hey, I’ll give you this for free!” And we played it, and everybody just kind of ended up liking it. We used it again in “Discos And Dragons” because it was free. [Laughs.] That scene regularly makes me laugh.
AVC: There’s a recurring theme of characters studying themselves in the mirror. We talked about the one that was cut from “Tricks And Treats,” of Lindsay studying herself, then there’s Bill dressed as The Bionic Woman, and Sam trying on the Parisian nightsuit, and now in this one, Daniel dressing up as a punk. Is that an intentional motif, given this show’s focus on creating identity?
PF: Well, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve always enjoyed people studying themselves in the mirror, and I also enjoy those “walk and feel bad” shots. I like anything that isolates people and focuses them on themselves, or makes us focus on their faces as they’re going through something. I didn’t even think of it as a motif, it’s funny, but I find that I put that in things a lot, especially back then. It’s just a funny way to get people to relate to themselves. The Halloween one, where Neal’s putting on the mustache, “I’m going for Chaplin, and all I’m seeing is Hitler.” [Laughs.] That made me laugh. Yeah. I like it. I’ll take full credit for it. It sounds very smart.
AVC: You say in the DVD notes that the whole punk thing was James Franco’s idea, right?
PF: Yeah. After we did the pilot, he came in with a head full of steam, wanting to turn into a punk, and I was like, “That’s cool, but when I was in school, there weren’t a lot of punks around, so it would be a journey for you to become a punk.” He was cool with that. He said, “Let’s not do it right away,” but we wanted to do it. So it definitely felt like the kind of thing where we had to work our way into it, and have it come out of him kind of going through these problems.
That kind of music, it was hard to find that in Detroit. You could find it, and I finally got turned on to it, first from the Ramones by a French foreign-exchange student that was staying with my cousin for a year. He was the first one that ever played me Ramones, Sex Pistols, and all that. But then my friend—I was in a band later on—and he was the one that turned me on to the alternative station that was waiting down at the bottom of the dial. You really had to actively look for punk rock, because Detroit was so heavily into rock ’n’ roll. Ted Nugent and Zeppelin, you know, that kind of rock. So I wanted to say all that, because I really wanted it to feel authentic, like, you’d really have to look actively to find a punk and to find a punk club, especially in the small town. That’s why he has to go into Detroit, or it’s implied that he goes off into Detroit to go into that actual bar.
But the interesting thing about that episode is that ending was supposed to have Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as the end song, and we had it all clear. We had it, he had agreed to let us have it, and then at the last minute, he wouldn’t let us have it. And the irony was that when we showed these unaired ones at the Museum Of Television, we showed it with the Neil Young song on it. So people really got used to it, but then when the DVD came out and people saw it, I remember we had this really bad reaction from the fans—like, the angriest I had ever seen the fans—that we put the Dean Martin song [“You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You”] at the end. [Laughs.] Which was completely my idea. I remember all these conspiracy theories on the website by the fans, like, “I can’t believe the network pulled off that old song and put this Dean Martin song on, which doesn’t make any sense!” They really had these theories that the network had somehow gone around us and done this. It was like, “I hate to tell you guys… actually, that was us.” It wasn’t our favorite way to go. We definitely couldn’t get the one we wanted, so it was like “Okay, let’s just do something completely different,” and it felt kind of fun. But the sad thing was, when it had the Neil Young song, it was quite powerful… It just made it a much more touching ending, but now it’s kind of a slightly ironic ending. It shows you the power of music, you know? One song over another one can just completely change the tone of everything.