TFT Exclusive: Bridesmaids Director Paul Feig in Conversation with Mike Sacks
Mike Sacks–a veteran humor writer with stacks of funny appearances in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair–plays with an early Apatow-ian trope, interviewing his favorite comedic minds, in the recent book And Here’s the Kicker. In this TFT exclusive excerpt Sacks goes one-on-one with writer-director Paul Feig (Freaks & Geeks, Bridesmaids), and the results are sometimes awkwardly eye-opening in the great way (like Feig’s writing about suburban childhoods) and inspiring for anyone interested in making stories and Hollywood success out of his or her memories.
Life, especially before the age of twenty-one, is filled with mortifying and embarrassing moments. And while most of us would just as soon forget them, Paul Feig has been writing down his bad memories and welcoming—even encouraging—the world to laugh.
Feig’s body of work, which ranges from TV shows to humor books, has been described by Relevant magazine as its own genre—that of the “masochistic memoir.” It’s sometimes painful to read his stories, because Feig never sugarcoats his past or spins even the worst personal humiliation into a tidy lesson. As frequently as you cringe at the unspeakable horrors Feig has endured, and it can happen frequently, you still find yourself laughing. If he has accomplished nothing else, he’s proved a universal truth about human nature: Tragedy is when something bad happens to you; comedy is when something bad happens to somebody else. Or, as Mel Brooks so eloquently put it, “Tragedy is when I get a hangnail. Comedy is when someone falls into an open manhole and dies.”
Feig began writing down his life stories in the eighties, when he was fresh out of USC film school with few prospects in Hollywood. Broke and out of ideas, he signed on as a contestant for Dick Clark’s $25,000 Pyramid game show and earned enough ($29,000) to support himself while he launched his stand-up career. After six months on the comedy-club circuit, he had generated so much material—much of it about his awkward high-school years—that he decided to write a memoir, which he tentatively titled School. The project was subsequently shelved.
Then, in 1999, thanks to a short-lived but critically beloved TV show called Freaks and Geeks, Feig became, if not famous, at least more well-known than he had been during his stand-up days. Although the show—about a group of teenagers (both cool and geeky) living in Michigan—was technically fiction, Feig has admitted that many of the story lines were at least partly autobiographical. There were the obvious similarities: the show was set in small-town Chippewa, Michigan, similar to Feig’s hometown of Mount Clemens, a Detroit suburb. But the parallels ran deeper than geography. All of the characters, particularly the “geeks,” were in some fashion composites of Feig’s younger self. And the plots were often based on his (and the other writers’) actual high-school experiences. When gawky nerd Bill Haverchuck (portrayed by Martin Starr) dressed up as the Bionic Woman for Halloween, it was inspired by Feig’s own experience with cross-dressing.
Freaks and Geeks was canceled after just twelve episodes (six were later seen on the ABC Family cable network and then, later, on DVD), but it continues to have a loyal cult following even today, with fan conventions and viewing parties held across the country. At a cast reunion at San Francisco’s Sketchfest in 2008, Linda Cardellini, who played brainy, unsettled, Lindsay Weir, admitted that she initially didn’t believe the show was anything but the product of a very active imagination. “Then you would look at Paul,” she told the website buzzsugar.com, “[and] you’d see the earnest look on his face and the sadness in his eyes, and you’d realize that most of this happened to [him].”
In 2000, a book editor and Freaks and Geeks fan from Random House recognized this same sadness, and Feig was soon a published author, with the 2002 memoir Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, and then, in 2005, Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin. Readers learned that Feig’s youth was, to put it diplomatically, hellish. Whether it was his classmates demonstrating how easily “Feig” turned into “fag,” or his first kiss with a girl who had just puked at a school dance, things never came simply for him. Even masturbation, the only dependable bright spot in even the most miserable teenage existence, was ruined after Feig heard a radio preacher warn that “each time you masturbate, God takes one day off of your life.”
Feig still occasionally writes for TV, but his main focus, as always, remains writing stories about his past. He’s working on another memoir, the third in his “trilogy of shame,” which will include, among others, an essay about his one-time day job as Ronald McDonald.
One can only assume that things don’t end so well for Ronald. – Mike Sacks
When I read memoirs, especially those written by humor writers or comedians, I often get the sense that much of it is fictionalized. When faced with a choice between going for the laugh or the truth, those writers usually choose the former. But I didn’t get that feeling with your books.
I’m very much a purist about memoirs and the truth in stories. As far as I’m concerned, a memoir story only gets its power when it’s true. At some point during a story, especially if it’s a funny one, a reader or viewer should be thinking, I can’t believe that happened. I can’t believe he or she did that. But if you’re ever thinking, No, that’s fake, then it just neuters the whole thing.
I mean, look—I can think of a lot of funnier endings for everything that’s ever happened to me in my life, but that’s not the point. Most of the experiences I’ve written about were just awful. They were painful and upsetting and horrible. And yet that’s the great thing about humor. You can take those experiences, and if you recount them in a funny way, and if they’re truthful and real, they will always become funnier.
That sounds like the sensibility of Freaks and Geeks.
Well, exactly. I’ve never considered myself to be a writer who’s great at making up stories and plots. What happens when you make up a story is that you tend to fall into this standard set of A leads to B leads to C. We’re all used to a standard trajectory for television and the movies; there’s a typical route that a writer can go in a story.
When we were doing Freaks and Geeks, we always wanted to avoid that typical route. Real-life experiences are rife with bad decision-making. And bad decision-making is, in a lot of ways, the key to comedy.
I go through such a rigorous process of not making up material in my memoirs that my wife gets mad. She yelled at me when she read my manuscript for the longer version of Superstud—the one that didn’t make the final cut. She told me that I didn’t have to be so honest, that I didn’t have to tell these stories exactly as they happened.
But if I did that, I might as well have written a novel.
Considering the stories you put into Superstud, I shudder to think what was left out.
[Laughs] Well, here’s one story I left out: When I was about nineteen or twenty, I went out on a date with this younger girl who was really cute. We went to this bar, and we were sitting in a booth talking. My date excused herself to go to the bathroom. The booth was close to the bathroom, and I could hear this girl urinating. And it sounded like a fire hose.
We actually wrote that scene into a Freaks and Geeks episode, but we ended up taking it out. It was one of the times when the Sam character was getting close to dating Cindy. They were on a date, and Cindy had to go to the ladies’ room, but it was out of order. So she went into the men’s room, with Sam standing guard outside the door. He heard her urinating, and it really upset him.
Your wife had a problem with that story making its way into Superstud, but not some of the other stories? Such as when you attempted to give yourself a blow job as a twenty-something and nearly broke your neck in the process?
Oh, that she will not talk about! When I first showed her that chapter, she said, “You absolutely cannot publish that! Just don’t!” So I thought, Yeah, maybe she’s right. I called my publisher and told her take it out, but the publisher said, “It’s too late. Sorry. That’s the sample chapter I sent out to all the booksellers.”
What was the reaction from your family and friends after they read that self-gratification scene?
I mean, that’s the risk you take. It was scary for me. Would readers relate to it? Or would I be the only person in history who’s ever done this? That’s the strange thing about being a writer. At first it’s just you and your computer, or you and your pen and paper. And no one is going to read it. You think, I’m just going to be honest. I’m just going to have this confession with myself. And you put it down. And then off the manuscript goes to the publisher, and there’s always that moment when you think, Oh my god! Now it’s out there. But if I think too much the other way, I wouldn’t put out half the stuff that I do.
I grew up in a religious family. My parents never talked about sex, even though this was a time when people were very sexually promiscuous—the seventies. In our house, that was obviously not the case. My father abhorred the whole sixties and seventies sexual freeness. It was not a comfortable topic. And to this day I don’t like talking about sex. But that’s why it’s fun to write about.
The way you depicted your parents in both of your books is refreshing. Most memoir writers are so negative when portraying their parents, but you seem to have a real affection for yours.
I think that holds true not just for memoir writers but for almost everyone in comedy. It’s clear that most comedians and humor writers hate their parents. I loved my parents, and we got along great. But that’s really just how I approach humor. I prefer the humor of optimism. I naturally go into a situation thinking everything is going to be okay and everything will be really good.
Is that a Midwestern sensibility?
I think so, but it’s hard to say. Maybe there is that sensibility from the Midwest—where you just hope and want for everything to turn out fine in the end.
What I do know is that people in the Midwest seem to be a little more emotionally honest—maybe their bullshit meter is higher. And I think that the Midwestern sense of humor is about honesty and realism.
When I first arrived in Hollywood and started writing comedy in the late eighties and early nineties, I found that executives would always react more positively to over-the-top characters. They preferred the nerds with the big glasses, who snorted and laughed really loud. And I hated that. It was fake and wrong.
Such as Revenge of the Nerds?
Yes, exactly. Those were the types of characters the executives were looking for. People always ask me, “Don’t you just love that movie?” I always think, Actually, no, I sort of hate that movie. It feels ridiculous.
The kind of comedy I don’t like is when the performers and writers are winking and basically saying, “I know this is stupid and you know this is stupid. I’m not really this dumb, but I’m playing as if I am.” And that’s fine, I suppose, but it’s dishonest and it’s kind of mean to the characters.
With that said, I don’t mind a broad comedy when I believe what’s going on and when the characters are authentic. That’s what we tried so hard to accomplish with Freaks and Geeks.
How did Freaks and Geeks come about?
I wrote the spec script in 1998 and showed it to Judd Apatow, who loved it. Judd had a deal with DreamWorks, which bought the script, and the executives loved it. DreamWorks sent it over to NBC, and they also loved it, to the point where they said, “Don’t change anything.” This is all unheard of, really. I was very lucky. This happens very infrequently.
At that point, when we had the go-ahead, we started thinking about the cast.
We wanted to avoid the typical beautiful actors you find in most high-school TV shows. We didn’t want models. We didn’t want characters who were going to take off their glasses and let their hair down and then, all of a sudden, they’re gorgeous.
Also, there was another element of casting that was very important to Judd and I: when you cast actors and actresses, especially in comedies, you often look for what you’ve envisioned in your head. So, when an actor comes in who’s just so weird and different and not at all what you envisioned, there might be a tendency to say, “No, I’m sorry. You aren’t what we had in mind.” But I think that’s wrong. More exciting things can happen when you take chances.
There were a few instances when we hired actors who were different from our original vision, and it just lent so much more substance to the show. We actually ended up including the actors’ personalities in their characters’ personalities.
Which characters in particular?
The actor who played Harris Trinsky [Stephen Lea Sheppard] is a good example. This was somebody we discovered in Canada, and we knew we had to add him to the cast. Seth Rogen, who played Ken Miller, we found in an open call in Vancouver. His character was barely in the pilot. Also, Jason Segel, who played Nick Andopolis—originally, his character was this little weaselly stoner. When Jason came in to audition, he was this big, strapping guy who was a basketball hero in real life. We later funneled that into the show.
The Sam Weir character was originally based on me. He was supposed to be a tall, gangly kid who was attacked by bullies smaller than him. That happened to me when I was in school. All of my bullies were two feet shorter than I was—it was just ridiculous. But when John Francis Daley, who played Sam, came in, he was just so real and so funny and so heartbreaking that it was not a problem to jettison that initial idea and change the bully aspect.
Once we started hanging out with the actors, the show started to write itself. We put a lot of real elements in, even specific moments. If two actors were mad at each other on the set, something similar would end up in the script. There was a moment during the shooting of the “Looks and Books” episode when Linda Cardellini, who played Lindsay, and James Franco, who played Daniel Desario, weren’t getting along. So we worked that into the scene where Lindsay screams at Daniel after she wrecks her parents’ car. It’s funny, and it’s real, and that’s what makes these characters seem like your friends.
To me, that’s really the difference between television and movies. I feel that movies are mostly about spectacle and huge stories. There are exceptions, but I find that that’s usually the case. On the other hand, TV is about assembling a group of friends that you visit and hang out with every week.
One of my favorite characters in TV history is Jim from Taxi. He’s a completely outrageous character, but you buy it because, as nuts as Jim is, there’s a humanity about him. He’s not winking and nodding. There’s this sense of, I’m a weird guy, but this is just who I am.
Freaks and Geeks is one of the most honest depictions of childhood and the teen years that I’ve ever seen—on television, anyway.
One of my pet peeves is when comedy writers write for kids and there’s this attitude of, “If I knew then what I know now.” That’s why you get all these portrayals of wisecracking kids who put down the bully and the bully goes running off. That’s all bullshit. That never happens—except in fiction.
It’s almost as if comedy writers, who were most likely geeks in high school, now want to spin or sugarcoat their experiences as teens. They didn’t get laid in high school, but they make sure their characters do.
That’s just it. I’ve never been ashamed of my childhood. But I think a lot of comedy writers are ashamed of their younger selves. And I think that’s why a lot of these people go into humor in the first place: the only thing you have to hide behind is comedy.
There’s a lot of anger there, too. I did stand-up for a few years, and a good number of comics I met were extremely angry people. They were not pleasant. That’s actually one of the things that drove me out of stand-up. I didn’t like going on the road, because you never knew if you were going to get stuck with a head-case or not. And I noticed one thing: comics love to be laughed with, but if people laugh at them, they fucking lose their shit.
I’ve seen more comics storm off the stage and yell at people, slam their mics down, and do weirder things than you could ever imagine. There’s a real insecurity that comes with being funny. You’re on a razor’s edge. Comedy is an attempt to control things, and it just so happens that you’re trying to control people through laughter. But laughter can go off the rails at any given point.
It all goes back to childhood. You can make the cheerleaders laugh, but if you say the wrong thing they’re going to laugh at you and not with you. This can happen very quickly. Horribly quickly. So all this weird anger and resentment builds up.
Another realistic element of Freaks and Geeks is that the kids actually sound like real kids.
That’s another thing that drives me crazy. I hate it when kids talk like adults; it drives me insane. I find that kids who actually talk like real kids are much funnier. The idea of even trying to jam adult thoughts and jokes into their mouths is just ridiculous.
This especially holds true with jokes. How many 15-year-olds are capable of coming up with jokes as sharp and as funny as those of a professional comedy writer?
Absolutely. There aren’t too many kids who can come up with a hilarious joke. The characters in Freaks and Geeks often make unfunny jokes that could have been easily fixed by the writers. But that, to me, is much more amusing. The Sam character is very much based on who I was as a kid and as a comedy fan. I did so many unsuccessful comedy routines for friends when I was young. I used to dress like Groucho, and all that.
When you’re a kid, your only refuge is through the comedy of successful people. All you do is quote lines from funny Hollywood movies.
What did Hollywood represent for you as a kid growing up outside Detroit?
It was like a magical fairyland for me. I thought every actor I saw on TV lived in a mansion and drove a Rolls-Royce. They were all rich and wore tuxedos all the time. When I first saw the reality of it, it just depressed the hell out of me. I first came out here in the early eighties. I drove onto Hollywood Boulevard, and the first thing that happened was that two hookers jumped onto the hood of my car. And I’ve never forgotten the shock that I felt with that.
Are you still friends with them?
I am, actually. They’re coming over for dinner tonight.
What were some of the jobs you worked when you first arrived in Hollywood?
I worked as a tour guide at Universal Studios. Many of us guides were these deluded actor wannabes who thought that we were going to be discovered. It was ridiculous.
I almost died because of that job. I was giving a tour, and a woman was dangling one of her clogs over the side of the tram, and the clog fell out just as we were passing the mechanized shark from Jaws. When I went to retrieve her shoe, I fell into the water and almost got sucked into the shark gears. I thought, I am going to die in front of this tour group—killed by a fake shark.
Probably not the most ideal way to leave this earth.
No, not at all. But it would have made for a hell of a story back in Detroit. Anyway, after that job, I went to USC film school, and when I graduated, I worked as a script reader for the producer Michael Phillips. He had produced The Sting and Taxi Driver. I was in charge of reading the scripts that were submitted to his office and passing along the ones I thought were good.
Actually, that experience was much more valuable than film school.
Film school was so theoretical, and there were so many rules that really fucked me up. There was one rule in particular they were always teaching, and it was right out of good old Syd Field’s book Screenplay. And it had to do with “theme.” The theme of the movie is always this leads to that. “Jealousy” leads to “downfall.” One thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to the end. Everything is set up in a logical, well-thought-out manner.
But I couldn’t do that; I was just unable to break down a movie that way. It messed me up for years. I couldn’t even get out of the gate, because I couldn’t make anything work. I would get hung up on semantics and minutiae. And because I’m such a rule-follower, when I first started out this killed me, because it was so theoretical.
Another thing I learned as a script reader was that 99.9 percent of the scripts that are written are basically terrible. This just blew my mind. It actually gave me a lot of confidence. I was reading scripts supposedly written by the best writers in the business, people who made a career of screenwriting, and I thought, If these are the best writers in the business, and they’re producing this shit, then I can do just as well—and hopefully better. It gave me the confidence to say, okay, this is not a mysterious kind of skill.
My whole life, I’ve always looked at things and thought they were more complicated than they really were. I would see writers portrayed on TV or in the movies, and they would sit down and they would type out a manuscript and it would turn out brilliant. That, for me, was how writing was supposed to be.
You thought that a writer had to produce a flawless piece of work quickly and easily?
Yes. A piece of writing had to come out perfectly or you were not a writer. Well, the process became a lot less mysterious to me after I read those scripts. It freed me up to write what I wanted.
Freaks and Geeks was only on the air for one season, 1999–2000, before it was canceled. In retrospect, would you have done anything differently that might have improved your chances of staying on the air longer?
When I created that show, I honestly thought, Who wouldn’t relate to something like this? Who wouldn’t want to see true stories from their past shown in a funny, realistic way? And maybe I didn’t bank on the fact that there were a lot of people who didn’t want to re-experience those years. But I found out pretty quickly.
Here’s a good example: I was talking with a TV critic when the show was on the air. We were discussing the episode “I’m With the Band”—this is when the Nick character auditions as a group’s drummer. Nick is terrible and embarrasses himself in front of Lindsay, the girl he wants to impress. And the critic said to me, “When Nick walked into that audition, I had to leave the room. I knew everything was going to go wrong, and I couldn’t deal with it.”
I remember when the movie Independence Day was coming out. I was sitting in a theater, and the preview for that movie came on. And it showed a huge spaceship blowing up the White House. I remember thinking, Well, this is going to be the biggest movie ever. It hit the pleasure center of the audience’s brains. The problem with Freaks and Geeks was that it didn’t hit that pleasure center. It played in the pain center.
How about the pleasurable-pain center? Can’t a comedy play in that part of the brain?
How many people enjoy that part of their brain?
A lot, I would think. The show eventually found a huge audience after it went off the air, particularly because of DVD.
There’s a large DVD audience, true. But in the grand scheme of things, that show was a blip on the radar. Hollywood is a numbers game. And that’s not to say that Hollywood doesn’t care about quality, but that they only want the quality when it’s going to bring in money. Nobody in Hollywood wants to do something that they’re proud of but that nobody is going to see.
For so many weeks, we were one of the lowest-rated shows on NBC, and we were not a cheap show. We were on Saturday night at eight. We got knocked off the air constantly. We were pre-empted for baseball playoffs. We were off the air for two months at one point. In the end, only twelve out of the eighteen episodes were ever shown during that first run. Later, all of the episodes were shown on the Fox Family cable network. And they’re now on the DVDs, of course.
Do you think the show could have found its audience if it had stayed on the air longer?
It never got to that point. The president of NBC at the time, Garth Ancier, hated the show. Absolutely hated it. Judd [Apatow] met with him once, and Garth was complaining about the “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” episode, in which Sam finally gets a date with Cindy Sanders and all she does is talk about this jock she has a crush on. And Garth dressed down Judd. He was like, okay, you have the hero. And he’s finally going on a date with the girl he loves. And she tells him that she’s in love with somebody else?
This just blew his mind—that it was taken to that level and then, worse, there would be no payoff. He wanted a victory at the end of each episode. My feeling was that there are no victories when you’re a geek. Actually, I take that back. There is a victory: you still have your friends, and you’ve gotten through the experience alive. That’s the biggest victory you can have in high school.
You really got away with some edgy material, especially for a show that aired prime time. I’m thinking in particular of “The Little Things” episode, in which the Ken Miller character learns that his girlfriend is a hermaphrodite.
For a show like Freaks and Geeks, you come up with a million ideas and every one of those ideas will fit somewhere in some episode. But you need the show to be grounded. When it’s grounded—when the characters are living, breathing, real people—then you, as a writer, can do practically anything with them. But you have to treat the characters and the ideas with respect. We’re not saying that this young woman is a Martian. We’re not saying that she’s half-donkey. There are hermaphrodites and transgender people out there in the world. So, what if one of these people—this living, breathing person—walked into our lives? What would happen? And if you face it that way, the only challenge is keeping it real.
Your natural instincts with an idea like that is to make fun of the situation. But I always prefer to defend the underdogs. I have great empathy for people like that—and that’s really why I have the hardest time writing about characters who are kind of cool and on top of their games.
But weren’t the “freak” characters, such as Daniel and Kim, at the top of their games and considered cool?
They were, but they were still outsiders. That was really my whole motivation for making Freaks and Geeks. In high school, I was afraid of the freaks. But I ended up befriending a few of them, and I found that they were on the periphery—just like I was as a geek. I realized, Oh, these people are just like me. They’re just going about it in a different way. The geeks used comedy and Dungeons & Dragons to hide, whereas the freaks used drugs and sex to hide. There were other differences, of course, but there was overlap, and both groups could talk the same language.
In other words, one high-school clique can bleed into the next, as opposed to The Breakfast Club–style cliques, which are so delineated?
Right, those are sort of caricatures. Real life doesn’t work like that.
The anchor of Freaks and Geeks, Lindsay, was very well-written, very well-defined. This is another aspect that one doesn’t find too often in television shows about high school—a very strong, exceedingly intelligent female character.
I feel closest to Lindsay. I wanted to create a character who saw the world of high school for what it was. So, what’s the best way to do that? It’s with a girl who is more mature and smarter than everyone else at the school. But I didn’t want this character to be wisecracking. I wanted a real character who was stranded. She’s sort of our tour guide, because we’ve all been stuck and stranded in high school.
We’ve all been in the jail that Lindsay now finds herself in. Some people liked that situation; some people didn’t. Some had varying degrees of resignation to it. Lindsay sees it for what it is, and that, for me, becomes the best type of character.
That’s interesting. It’s almost like the Peggy Sue character in Peggy Sue Got Married. Lindsay is both removed from and living through the experience at the same time.
Right. The big difference is that she’s still that age and she’s still susceptible to it. And that’s what I love. It’s that dichotomy of feeling above it all while, at the same time, getting drawn into it.
That’s why I love the “Looks and Books” episode, where Lindsay’s new friends convince her to take her father’s car, which then gets smashed. She thinks, I’m supposed to be the smartest out of all you people, and I turned into an idiot. And now I’m in the biggest trouble of my life, because I forgot who I was or who I think I am.
But at least Lindsay knows she’ll escape. For some characters, such as Nick, there is no escape. He realizes, even at this young an age, that he probably won’t be going to college and achieving the success that Lindsay likely will achieve. That’s a very melancholy theme for a prime-time show about teens.
That was a really important element for me, because I grew up in the Rust Belt and I saw people like that, these kids whose fathers were in, say, the auto industry. And there was a real sense from a lot of these kids that they had to go into the Army or into a factory and they wouldn’t be able to go to college. They knew, even at that age, that there was no escape. This is a serious matter, and to portray that realistically was very important to me.
Back when I was going to college, The Cosby Show was popular. And NBC would broadcast these public-service announcements. The Cosby kids would say things like, “Don’t do drugs, because you’ve got a lot to live for.” And I used to think, Well, okay—it’s easy to say that, but some people are sitting at home and aren’t from a rich family and might have no future. And here’s a kid actor making shitloads of money, and he’s telling everyone they have a lot to live for? It’s hypocrisy on the grandest scale. Seeing something like that was always a motivation for me to create something more realistic.
That was one of the things I dealt with in the “I’m With the Band” episode, where Nick auditions to become a drummer. Lindsay tells Nick, “You’ve got to follow your dreams! You can be anything you want to be!”
When I wrote that episode, it was my way of saying, “Actually, no. That’s nonsense. You might have that attitude, but that’s not the way the world works.”
In almost any other TV show, Nick would have performed wonderfully in the audition and then made the band.
And even if he didn’t make the band, they would have told him, “Hey, man. You’re really good!” There would have been a wink of encouragement in the end, and he would have walked out of that audition thinking, Yeah, maybe I can do this.
But that’s not interesting. And it’s also not funny in that heartbreaking way. The cruel side of me likes creating situations where people get buried deeper and deeper. I find that really amusing—the fact that Lindsay starts out encouraging Nick to follow his dreams and then ends up feeling sorry for him and making out with him and then getting stuck with this nightmare boyfriend, well . . . that’s real life to me.
You’ve said that good writing is when characters don’t always say what they feel. Would this be an instance of that?
Yeah. Lindsay doesn’t tell Nick how she really feels, because she wouldn’t in real life. You want characters to respond as they would in real life. They’re saying things quickly without thinking about them. But when you write, you can take months to finish a script. So everything the characters say has been so well-thought-out that it becomes almost perfect. But that’s just fake.
And sometimes characters don’t need to say anything at all. Just a look or an expression will do.
Some of the funniest jokes in Freaks and Geeks are just expressions. When Bill looks off to the side and makes a face, that’s the punch line. It’s not a Neal Simon–y kind of joke with clever wordplay. You don’t need that. You can get away with a lot by having just a simple expression. In the last episode, when Lindsay is getting on the bus and leaving her family for two weeks, supposedly to go to an academic retreat but really headed off to follow the Grateful Dead, what would she really say in that situation? When I was writing that scene, I thought, What would she say when she was looking back at her mother? Nothing much. You don’t want to break your mom’s heart, so you just smile and get on the bus.
How extensive and detailed were the backstories for each of the Freaks and Geeks characters?
I actually wrote a huge character bible, about eighty pages. That’s not to say we used all of these backstories, but it really helped me as a writer. If you create character background, there’s less chance of writing details that don’t feel germane to the character. Even if it’s something as specific as what clothes they wear and what music they listen to and what type of furniture they have at home, it becomes very, very helpful.
How much care went into the writing of each episode?
Tons. Tons! You know, there was a side of me that was relieved when we got canceled. I was just exhausted.
When you’re working on a television show, the pace is just nonstop. You work so hard to get an episode perfect, and when it’s done, you then have to deal with the next forty-five. [Laughs] It’s overwhelming. That’s why a lot of TV probably isn’t as good as it could be; there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
We did only eighteen episodes. I really don’t know how you do it season after season. To me, it sounds nearly impossible.
Did the writing change when you knew you were on the verge of being canceled?
The pace accelerated, because we had all these stories we wanted to do, and we didn’t have much time to do it. We wanted to have Sam date Cindy, and then for their relationship to slowly fall apart. But because we were going to be canceled, we had to push that story through very quickly. I feel that poor Cindy Sanders was completely kneecapped. We set her up as a straight girl, and then, in one episode, we turned her into a monster.
Fans of this show were very loyal, and a lot were quite upset when they weren’t able to learn what happened to these characters. They took it very personally.
Oh, yes. A lot of people were very upset. But my feeling is, Do you know what happened to 90 percent of the people you went to high school with? And do you want to know? Quite frankly, I don’t. I don’t want to hear a potentially sad story. I want to remember them as they were. Mystery is sometimes a good thing.
In a sense, that’s what I liked about the show ending so suddenly: loose ends are never tied up in real life.
But doesn’t life contain enough mystery and loose ends? And isn’t that what fiction provides: a tidy ending that you can’t always find in life?
I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been fun to have created a second season, but I’m happy with the way things ended, especially for the geeks. In the last episode, “Discos and Dragons,” the coolest guy at the school, Daniel, spends a night playing Dungeons & Dragons with the geeks, and he becomes a part of their world. I really liked that validation for the geeks.
But, yes, it would have been fun to have done something with the characters after they all returned from summer vacation. After summer, everyone comes back different. Some of my friends in high school were these super-nerds, just really awkward guys, and they would return from summer vacation as these enormous stoners, to the point where they never talked to me again.
Summer is the perfect time to re-invent yourself.
You find your vices. You get laid. You become cool. You go on a trip, and that changes your life.
It would have been fun to have a second season, because we were going to really play with that element and explore how some of these characters would have changed. We were going to have Bill Haverchuck [Martin Starr] become a basketball player. We were going to deal with little Sam Weir becoming really tall and handsome, which happened to John Francis Daley in real life. Where would he go? Would he stay with the geeks? Or would he start hanging out with the popular crowd?
I really wanted to have Kim [Busy Philipps] become pregnant. Neal [Samm Levine] was going to join swing choir. We were also planning on having Coach Fredricks marry Gloria Haverchuck, Bill’s mom. But, again, loose ends are never tied up. Even if Coach Fredricks did marry Bill’s mom, you know, the day after they got married they could easily have broken up.
Do you think Lindsay would have left town after graduating?
She would have definitely gone away. To me, Lindsay is such a free spirit. I’ve always joked that she would end up being a performance artist in the Village for about ten years, and then, after that, she’d become a lawyer.
From time to time, I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a show with Lindsay as an adult. And who knows? I talk to Linda all the time. It could still happen.
How would the writers have dealt with the characters if they had stuck around and graduated? Would you have shown the characters in college? Or working their jobs?
I’ve always said that this wasn’t a show about high school; this was a show about a small town. It was not going to be a show in which, six years later, everybody is still in high school. Every year would be a school year. And certain students would graduate, and we would have to deal with what jobs they were doing and who went to community college and who went away.
There are two books of Freaks and Geeks scripts, and with both you did something rare. Instead of publishing transcripts of the finished shows, you published the shooting scripts. I don’t know why more writers don’t do this. It’s much more interesting and informative to the readers, especially if they, themselves, want to write.
Publishing those shooting scripts was a reaction to Woody Allen’s Four Films. When that book came out, I rushed to the store and bought it. But when I saw that they were only transcriptions of his movies, I thought it was the biggest rip-off ever. There were literally lines in the book like, “Ah, ah, ah, I just, ah . . .” I was never happy with books like that. They never helped me as a writer.
There’s a very, very small group of people who are going to read a book of scripts. So it might as well be a textbook and show the readers what the process is truly like. The majority of the people reading a book like that are going to be people who want to write scripts. So let’s make it truthful.
Do you think you could create a show like this again? Or are there too many elements that have to come together to duplicate that type of magic?
I don’t buy that theory. If there’s any magic, it only exists to create a chemistry within a group of talented people—actors, writers, directors, producers—who are willing to work together and allow each of the others to do their best work. I personally don’t think that’s a hard mix to create again. It’s not always going to work, but I think it could work if enough talented people with a vision are willing to make it work.
At the end of the day, none of us is that different. Freaks, geeks, jocks, whoever. The events we experience as human beings are fairly similar. The circumstances are different, and the surroundings and the social strata are different. But, you know, insecurity is insecurity. And loneliness is loneliness. And the basic human circumstances are all the same. If you’re telling honest stories that are done in a special way, magic can definitely be duplicated.
I hope. [Laughs]
Excerpts from the Freaks and Geeks Series Bible
By Paul Feig
WHAT THEY LISTEN TO
Here are some of the bands that the freaks and geeks would be listening to in the Midwest in 1980 (the great thing is that, even though the groups divide pretty cleanly on what they listen to, there’s lots of spillover in what they like, partly because of their siblings and parents and partly just because they’re kids who are easily persuaded):
The Cars – geeks
Chicago – geeks
Asia – geeks, some freaks
Bee Gees – geeks
Black Sabbath – freaks
Blue Oyster Cult – freaks
Blood, Sweat & Tears – geeks
Bad Company – freaks
Eric Clapton – freaks, some geeks
Alice Cooper – freaks and geeks
Cheap Trick – freaks and geeks
Doobie Brothers – freaks and geeks
John Denver – geeks
Eagles – geeks, some freaks
ELO – geeks
Fleetwood Mac – geeks, freak girls
Foghat – freaks
Peter Frampton – freaks and geeks
Foreigner – freaks and geeks
Genesis – freaks
Jimi Hendrix – freaks
Iron Maiden – freaks
Elton John – geeks
Journey – freaks and geeks
Judas Priest – freaks
Kiss – geeks
John Lennon – freaks and geeks
Kenny Loggins – geeks
Lynard Skynard – freaks and farmers
Marshall Tucker Band – freaks and farmers, some geeks
Molly Hatchett – freaks and geeks
Meat Loaf – geeks
The Steve Miller Band – freaks and geeks
Van Morrisson – nobody
Moody Blues – geeks
Tom Petty – geeks, some freaks
Prince (early) – nobody
Rolling Stones – freaks for early stuff, geeks for “Some Girls”
Rush – freaks
Roxy Music – nobody who’d admit it
The Tubes – freaks and geeks
Santana – freaks and geeks
Carly Simon – teachers
Simon & Garfunkel – teachers
Patty Smith – “Creem” reading freaks
Bruce Springsteen – not very big in Midwest, some cooler geeks
The Police – freaks, a few geeks
Supertramp – geeks, some freaks
Jethro Tull – freaks
Queen – freaks and geeks
James Taylor – geeks, some freak girls
Jackson Brown – geeks, freaks who smoke lots of pot
Van Halen – freaks
War – geeks
Paul McCartney and Wings – geeks, some freaks
Crosby, Stills & Nash – teachers
Yes – freaks, some geeks
ZZ Top – freaks, some geeks
Frank Zappa – only the coolest of freaks
The Alan Partridge Project – geeks
Billy Joel – geeks
Bob Seger – geeks, some freaks
J. Geils Band – freaks for early stuff, geeks for “Centerfold” era
Ted Nugent – freaks
Led Zepplin – freaks
April Wine – freaks, some geeks, lots of Canadians
Triumph – mostly girl freaks
REO Speedwagon – geeks
Jeff Beck – cool freaks
Robin Trower – freaks
Three Dog Night – geeks
B-52s – Nobody
Devo – very cool geeks
Elvis Costello – moody geeks, some freaks
Talking Heads – some geeks, some freaks, mostly no one
The Romantics – geeks, a few freaks
Sex Pistols – no one knows about them
The Ramones – them either
Pablo Cruise – geeks
Gino Vanelli – girls from every group
David Bowie – freaks
Pat Benatar – geeks and freak girls
Billy Squire – freak girls
Boston – geeks
Golden Earring (Radar Love) – freaks
UFO – freaks
Deep Purple – freaks
Head East – a few freaks, a few geeks
Steely Dan – geeks, geeks, geeks
Aerosmith – freaks
The Knack – geeks
38 Special – freaks, some farmers
WHAT THEY WEAR
Overall note is that all the students will have about four or five outfits they will wear all the time. Pants can stay the same a lot of the time, shirts change daily (except for some poorer or kids). Even cool kids and rich kids shouldn’t have a lot of different changes. Bottom line, all these kids are blue collar or lower end white collar.
In general, the geeks try to dress well but just don’t quite pull it off. Maybe if they were better looking or cooler guys, their clothes would make them attractive. But on them, no matter what they wear, it somehow doesn’t work.
Overall look: Sam looks like a kid who cares about how he looks but only up to a point. He dresses more for comfort and his fashion sense is limited to knowing what other kids are wearing and then trying to approximate their look. He thinks he looks better than he does in his clothes (everything looks fine to him from head-on in the mirror but he doesn’t see that what he can’t see doesn’t really hang well). He’s not so much rumpled as the victim of poorly made clothes.
Shirts: Pullover Velour V-neck shirts with collar (a little baggy and ill-fitting), short sleeved knit pullover with zipper V-neck and collar (white stripe on edge of collar and sleeves), terrycloth pullover with 2 or 3 button V-neck and collar (shoulder pieces are darker color than rest of shirt, with a stripe on each upper arm), not usually tucked in
Pants: Brown, green, burgundy jeans, never denim blue jeans (until 2nd season), occasionally polyester slacks
Shoes: Tan suede earth shoe hybrids with rimpled soles (remember those things? The soles were shaped like 2 “w’s” and the whole shoe looked kinda pumped up like a loaf of bread — see Paul Feig for details), dark suede tennis shoes (occasionally)
Coat: Parka, faux-Members Only jacket (maybe), windbreaker with stripe or father’s sporting goods store logo embossed on back (cheap, low-end looking)
Accessories: Always a belt, sometimes with a large copper novelty belt buckle (like a train or Model T car or a tennis racket)
Overall look: Neal fancies himself a snappy dresser, but he’s got an old man’s fashion sense. Very conservative looking (imitating his father, who’s a scientist). He always tries to be neat and smoothed out.
Shirts: Solid color dress shirts, usually with light tan sweater vest, sometimes checked or small vertical stripes, always tucked in
Pants: Mostly dress slacks (a little too tight), khakis, never jeans
Shoes: Dark brown leather slip-on boat shoes, loafers
Coat: Corduroy parka (a jacket trying desperately to be stylish), shawl sweaters with belt
Accessories: Wide belt, one or two pens in pocket of dress shirt (no pocket protector!!!), calculator case on belt, lots of stuff in his pockets (mini-flashlights, pen knife, notepad, small gadgets) — Bottom line, Neal’s a nerd who’s trying to dress up
Overall look: Bill’s pretty much a mess. But not a sloppy guy. His family isn’t very well off but his mother tries to dress him nice. The result is a lot of clothes from the irregulars bin. He looks like a guy who leaves the house neat but immediately becomes unkempt. Bill is so unaware of his clothes that you get the feeling he doesn’t care what he wears.
Shirts: Plaid cowboy shirts, sweater vests (Bill tries to take his fashion cues off of Neal but it’s always off a bit), brightly printed button up shirts, pullover shirts that no one else would buy (different color swatches sown together, weird patterns patchworked into solid colors, stuff from the irregular bin)
Pants: Off brand jeans, rumpled khakis, occasionally vertically-striped pants
Shoes: Orthopedic black dress shoes (not jokey looking — just sensible looking shoes), suede gym shoes (Tom Wolf brand — see Paul Feig for explanation)
Coat: A beat-up, hand-me-down football/baseball jacket with the name of the school on it
WHAT THEY DRIVE
The Freaks: Chevy Novas, Ford Pintos, Chevy Camaros, Pontiac Trans Ams, Chevy Malibu (if you were lucky and could find one), souped up Dodge Darts
The Geeks: Plymouth Furys, any and all station wagons, old Corvairs, AMC Pacers (their moms’ cars), Dodge Darts, Dodge Dusters, an occasional VW bug
The Teachers: Chevy Monte Carlos, Mercury Cougars, Opels, station wagons, AMC Spirits, Ford Thunderbirds (not the cool old ones, but the really boring looking mid-70s ones), Dodge Coronets, an occasional old Cadillac
Notes: Almost every car is rusty. The road salt every winter makes most cars rust out all along the bottom of the doors and fenders. Most of the students cars are rusted right through, creating holes along the bottom.
The freaks cars are usually souped up. This means that there’s lots of added on gauges stuck to the dash boards, wide slick tires, the backs of the cars have been raised to be more dragster-like, and all their cars rumble loudly when they idle. A lot of them have large whip antennas sticking up, sometimes several.
Most of the geeks drive their parents’ cars. Hence, it usually looks like a grandma convention is in town when the geeks start pulling into the parking lot. Boxes of Kleenex are in most back windows and Union 76 balls are on top of a lot of antennas. . . .
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