When it debuted in the fall of 1999, to critical acclaim and a passionate (but relatively small) following, Freaks and Geeks might’ve been mistaken for any number of TV series set at a suburban high school. But The Wonder Years it was not: Created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow, and starring then-newcomers Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps, Martin Starr (as well a raft of now-recognizable guest stars, from Ben Foster to Lizzy Caplan), Freaks and Geeks, as a farm team for film and TV talent, might be the most influential TV series of the century so far.
As Brent Hodge shows in his terrific new film about the making of the series, Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary, it’s also one of the finest: Its tale of life under the bleachers and in the AV room at the fictional William McKinley High circa 1980 captured the essence of adolescence as no TV program had before, or has since. Paste caught up with Feig, who appears in the documentary) by phone before the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, in April. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Paste: How did it come about that you became involved in the documentary—and wanted to participate. Because there are people who would say, “I’ve move don to new things.”
Paul Feig: Brent reached out to me, because A&E was doing this series on pop culture and cultural touchstones, and they wanted to do an episode about our show. You’re right—I’ve talked about it a lot over the last 20 years now, and it sort of felt like we’ve said everything. But Brent was really enthusiastic about it, and I really liked this Chris Farley film that he did [the documentary I Am Chris Farley, released in 2015]. He said they wanted to do a deeper dive, get in there and talk to everybody, and had ideas for how to shoot it that sounded really cool, and so I thought, “Let’s do it.”
When I showed up to do my interview, I was really surprised. It was out at some house—I forget where it was, Hollywood somewhere—and I was like, “Why are we doing it at this house?” I get there, and he’d picked this location dressed up exactly like Sam Weir’s bedroom, and I was like, “Wow, this is really cool.” What I found out was, he was doing all these interviews where he recreated all these old set from our show. The minute I saw that, I was like, “I’m so glad that I went along with this.” You could tell that he had a real passion and love of the show.
Paste: One thing I’m curious about is whether you had any sense at the time, or even in the immediate aftermath of its cancelation, that it would take on such an afterlife. This is also i the era before you even had a streaming afterlife. You might get a DVD release, but it wasn’t like now, where every show has this long tail for people who didn’t see it the first time around.
Feig: Honestly, there wasn’t even a DVD release for shows at that time. I’ve always been obsessed with the British model, because I’ve been going to Britain for decades now, and you could always go into a record store and get videotapes of all their series. Six episodes of Steptoe and Son or Are You Being Served? I always thought, “That’s the way to do it, because I can catch up with all these shows that I heard were so great.” But when we did Freaks and Geeks, that wasn’t available to us. Everything was about being on television, A) because that’s the only way we were going to get the show saved—somebody’s got to pay for us to make the show—and B) that’s the only place that anybody could consume it.
Once we got canceled, it was just that feeling of, “Oh, crap, we did this thing, and now no one’s going to get to see it anymore.” It was one of these things where I just kept hearing—after we got canceled, “Oh, you worked on Freaks and Geeks? I heard that was really good!” That doesn’t get you anything other than more meetings to try to set up another show. [Laughs Look, when you make something you hope that it has a life beyond itself, and you pour your heart and soul into it—I’d be lying if I didn’t say, at the time, I was hoping this would be something that would last forever and be important to people for a long time. But that’s the way you go into every project. And thinking the only way that could happen would be if this was a show that went 10 seasons and went into syndication, so people could see it over and over again. So when you get canceled, it’s just heartbreaking, because you’re like, “Well, now nobody gets to see this ever again.”
I’m absolutely thrilled that it finally happened, but it took a while, because people weren’t putting episodes on DVD, and then they just started to like a year or two after us, but then they wanted to do it in a way where they didn’t have to clear music. So even though we were getting interest from places that wanted to put it out, nobody wanted to pay for the music, and then we would have had to revert to this sort of generic music we had Mike Andrews do to cover our songs in case we lost the rights. He did a great job—it’s just that music, the songs, are characters in the show. When I watched the episodes without the real music in it, they just weren’t playing, so I refused to let them out until Shout! Factory came forward four years later and said they wanted to pay for the rights.
Paste: One of the things that Jason [Segel] and Seth [Rogen] gesture at in their interviews toward the end of the film is that part of what makes Freaks and Geeks special is the fact that it only lasted one season—so that it never encountered that issue of tiring out the viewer or losing its way. I wonder what you make of that.
Feig: It’s definitely something that you can consume in just a few sittings—it’s not this thing that just overwhelms you with a ton of seasons. That said, there’s shows that I watch that have seasons and seasons of stuff that I go through. But I do think it made us this kind of, I hate to say “cult” thing, but made us this… oddity, you know? It getting canceled early also gave us a lot of people who were defenders carrying the torch for us, beyond what we were doing. Obviously, I was desperate for anybody to see it. We really had loyal, vocal fans when we were on. We were one of the first shows to have a big online presence. We had a website that had a message board that was a real community for fans, and it was very active and we were very active on the message boards. I was constantly interacting with fans on the message boards and putting up content. The people who were proselytizing about us, [the cancelation] gave them a mission, I think, to go out and sing the praises of it.
And we got amazing reviews. If it was today, they would’ve given us another season, I think. Just because they would have seen, there was a chance for this thing to catch on in streaming and catch on in after-market and all that. It’s just that TV wasn’t structured that way at the time. It was really about dollars and cents, and the rating weren’t good.
Paste: It reminds me a little bit of the reception of The Wire. That may be a function of the fact that I recently reviewed a book about The Wire that talked about the way it took time for the culture at large to catch up with how great it was. And then once people did, it assumed this significance that, in the moment that it was airing, it didn’t have.
Feig: When The Wire was on, a few seasons in, I remember reading something that like—the ratings for that show were insane. 50,000 people would watch it or something. [In truth, The Wire’s fifth, final and lowest-rated season hovered around 1 million viewers per week.] That’s HBO, though. Our show, when we got canceled, our base number of viewers we had every week was 7 million viewers. But that, at the time, made us the lowest-rated show on NBC. Even though I get mad sometimes, it’s hard to [stay mad], because it was a business decision. We were an expensive show considering how much other shows cost, meaning that, right at the moment we were on, the game shows went through the roof. It was all about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which cost a fraction of what we cost to produce per week. We got canceled for a game show. We got canceled for a show called 21, which was a lot cheaper. It’s show business. I get it. We cost a lot of money, but it’s just a decision that I don’t think would be made today.
Paste: One of the things that I think Brent does a really good job of in the film is talking about how influential Freaks and Geeks was on the level of talent, between you, [executive producer] Judd [Apatow], and the cast. But as a critic, I also think that Freaks and Geeks has been equally influential in terms of how TV shows are structured. I’m wondering if there’s one thing you can pick out, watching TV now, where you say, “That feels reminiscent of what we were doing, back then.”
Feig: It’s sort of the thing that doomed us at the time, which was we weren’t a show about big victories. TV at the time was all about fantasy fulfillment, so it was all about people getting what they want at the end, and they’re living in beautiful places and everybody’s handsome and gorgeous and they’re all having romantic entanglements but at the end everything’s cool—so everything was always tied up in a neat bow. I remember [NBC] saying to Judd one time, “They need more victories,” and that’s just not how I wanted the show to be. For me, they had victories, because they got through the episode. [Laughs] Now, what I see in television is much more of a willingness to have real stories, and have real things happen to characters, and have uncomfortable, cringe-y things go on. Things don’t neatly tie up. The good thing that happens now in television that TV didn’t like to have was serialization of the storytelling. You had little threads that ran from episode to episode, but you really had to tie things up at the end, because the feeling was, “If somebody misses an episode, then they can never catch up.” In general, I think it’s just a willingness to embrace real characters and to let life play out in a non-fantasy fulfillment way. A way that people can relate to.
Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary airs Monday, July 16 at 9 p.m. on A&E.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.