From Meek Freaks and Geeks to Chic Winning Streak

For Research Writing we had to do a profile on someone or something, so naturally I decided to write it on one of my all time favorite shows, Freaks And Geeks.  The paper focuses on the show’s lasting impact on the world of comedy and where it’s major players have ended up.

Today the name Judd Apatow goes hand and hand with the term comedy, but in the fall of 1999 the name held no such power as the dreary but sweet pilot of Freaks and Geeks came and went with little fan fare.  The series aired twelve episodes before it was quietly cancelled.  At the time it seemed as if it was the end of the show’s legacy, but the series would go on to become one of the most defining cult classic TV shows once it’s 2004 release DVD, and launched the careers of over a dozen huge actors such as James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps, John Francis Daley, and many more.  Even Shia LaBeouf and Jason Schwartzman had brief appearances on the show at the start of their careers.  Freaks and Geeks is significant not just because it’s one of the greatest short-lived series created, but also as it became the building block for a large portion of modern comedy.

While the series aired to low ratings, its become one of the highest rated series critically, as over the years its been ranked the thirteenth best series in the past twenty-five years by Entertainment Weekly, third greatest series of the 2000s by Time, and fourth greatest of the 2000s by The A.V. Club.  These are merely a snippet of the acclaim the series has been given since it’s unfortunate demise.

Freaks and Geeks was a small-scale story about how big-scale high school feels when being a teen.  It follows the Weir siblings, Lindsey (Lina Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley), as they navigate their way through a Michigan high school in 1980.  The eldest, Lindsey, was once the perfect student and child, but after the death of her grandmother she realized she doesn’t have life as planned out as she once thought.  Lindsey then rebels by hanging out with a group of outcasts, or “freaks”, who spend their time smoking marijuana and listening to rock music.  The younger sibling Sam is new to the school and is struggling with the transition from middle school to high school.  He and his two best friends are the titular geeks, looked down as the lowest part of the high school social ladder.

The series was created by comedian and filmmaker Paul Feig upon the realization that high school shows never seemed to resemble anything like his experiences.  High school series were always overly glamorous, filled with beautiful people with beautiful problems; all centering on the popular and wealthy.  Feig set out to change that by making a series that presented what high school was really about: survival.  In the show bible (a document that contains every detail about a series) for Freaks and Geeks he writes in the introduction:

“It’s about avoiding getting beaten up or humiliated or in trouble or even drawing attention to yourself if you can help it. Because for most of us, attention only brought persecution.”

Feig decided to have his high school series focus on two of the least represented social circles, the “freaks” and the “geeks”.  The freaks were burnouts that didn’t really care about anything other than music and smoking outside on the patio. And the geeks were those who had neither looks nor brains, but instead bonded through unconventional interests.  As a self professed geek, Feig claimed most of the plots within the show came from his or one of the writer’s real experiences in high school to give it a feeling of authenticity.  This became one of the show’s main goals: to be funny and authentic at the same time.  Plots ranged from the silly like Sam’s attempt to be “stylish” by wearing a Parisian night suit to the serious such as Neil discovering his father is cheating.  It’s this mix of both heart and humor that would become the core of the Apatow comedies.

Judd Apatow is a famous director, writer, and producer whose early credits include Heavyweights, The Ben Stiller Show, and The Larry Sanders Show.  But today he’s far better known as the director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People.  While Feig was the creator of Freaks and Geeks, Apatow was the lead executive producer and brought his character driven humor to the series.  While he’s done other notable projects before Freaks and Geeks, this is the work that’s credited as creating the Apatow gang due to the all-star cast that appeared on the show that would follow him throughout the rest of his career.

The three biggest stars to come out of Freaks and Geeks are no doubt James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen.  James Franco was the lead “freak” on the series, but now he’s on the fast track to taking over the world as a blockbuster movie star as seen in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, an Academy Award nominee for best actor, a host of the Academy Awards, a painter, a poet, an author of short stories, a filmmaker, a pilot, and a Broadway actor.  He recieved his undergraduate degree in English at UCLA, and after he simultaneously attended Columbia for a MFA in writing, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for film, Brooklyn College for fiction writing, and took poetry courses at Warren Wilson College.  Now he’s going for an English Ph.D. at Yale, while also attending Rhode Island School of Design.  All of this can be credited to his break through in the acting world, which began with Freaks and Geeks.

Jason Segel is more narrow focused with his plans, but is no less ambitious with his projects.  Segel was at one point supposed to be Apatow’s lead guy, as the role of the main character on Undeclared, a sort of follow-up to Freaks and Geeks that featured different characters but many of the same actors and a similar sense of humor, was written for him but the job was given to actor Jay Baruchel when the network turned the casting of Segel down, though he still appeared on the show as a heavily featured reoccurring character.  Like Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared was cancelled early in its first season leaving Segel to search for a new job, but this time outside of the Apatow community.  His next major role would come on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  While not a runaway success at first, it eventually became quite popular.  The show is now in it’s sixth season and has been renewed for at least two more.  How I Met Your Mother has provided Segel with a steady job, but his real fame comes from starring in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshal.  Segel co-wrote the movie with the director Nicholas Stoller, who got his main start as a writer on Undeclared.  Inspired by how Feig and Apatow wrote Freaks and Geeks, much of the movie is based off of Segel’s experiences with breakups, having once actually been broken up with when fully naked, as seen in the film.  Segel even wrote the Dracula puppet musical that’s preformed at the end of the movie years earlier before his acting career took off.  His love of puppets would lead to him pitching a new Muppets movie to Disney, which he co-wrote with Stoller and is starring in, with a release on Thanksgiving 2011.  Segel is now one of the most sought after comedic actors, appearing in more and more films each year.

Seth Rogen is the third major actor in the Apatow army and while he now appears to be at the head of it, he was once actually on the sidelines as out of all the main cast members on Freaks and Geeks Rogen was given the least to do.  He was typically placed in the fringes of scenes, there to only make a few jokes and appear cynical.  As the show went on he was given more of a role, as his natural improvisation talents soon impressed Apatow.  Rogen was a main cast member on Undeclared, and also worked as a writer on the series.  After the show’s short-run he continued working with Apatow, being a producer and star in many of his films.  2007 was the year of Rogen as he starred in both Knocked Up and Superbad, which he also co-wrote.  Today Rogen is a major motion picture star who often has more power than even the director himself, as he had final say on much of The Green Hornet over the acclaimed director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

In the long run of television Freaks and Geeks seems like a drop in a bucket without even a complete first season, yet without it, comedy would be in a completely different state.  Even comedies that seem unrelated to the series have some form of root in the show. Without Freaks and Geeks Apatow might not have made The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which means Steve Carrel might never have become a movie star and the US version of The Office (which Paul Feig is a frequent director on) may never have become a successful hit without any star power to back it up.  One could argue Carrel’s success would have occurred anyways as he starred in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy the year before Virgin, but that too was an Apatow production.

Freaks and Geeks was created to portray the outcasts these people were throughout their childhoods, yet through its creation the “freaks” and “geeks” of yesterday became the popular kids of today.  The show brought together a rare collection of so many talented writers and actors that even the minor characters in the background went on to become huge movie stars.  While its run was short, eighteen episodes were all Freaks and Geeks needed to be cemented as not only one of the best series to grace television, but also one of the most influential.

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