“I Spent Four Years In Mourning”: Remembering ‘Freaks And Geeks’ With Paul Feig

Freaks and Geeks was the right show at the wrong time.

Freaks and Geeks Paul Feig Interview

Before Bridesmaids, Spy, and an attempt at rebooting Ghostbusters, writer and director Paul Feig is in a meeting with a lawyer.

Feig should be working on the TV show he created, Freaks and Geeks, but it’s a tense time. The meeting is about to be interrupted by an up-and-coming producer: Judd Apatow.

“I was in a lawyer’s office because my mother died two days before and I was sorting that out,” Feig tells me — he’s in Australia to promote his new film Last Christmas.

“It was this very weird thing, Judd called me and he was so upset, and I was just so emotionally drained, and it was one of those moments where you’re like, of course, what else can the universe do to me right now?”

Freaks and Geeks was the right show at the wrong time. The authentic high school dramedy, inspired by Feig’s own experiences as a teenager, pre-dated what would become the norm on TV for the decades that followed with shows like Friday Night Lights, Stranger Things, Veronica Mars, Girls, Master of None and Love.

The low-fi approach to capturing teenage life stood in contrast with the popular glossy, fast-paced teen series from the 90s like Beverly Hills 90201 and Dawson’s Creek.

Right Show At The Wrong Time

Freaks and Geeks was a flashpoint for Feig and Apatow.

Feig was a writer and performer, whose biggest credit was playing Mr. Eugene Pool on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Apatow was graduating from comedy writing to producing. Freaks and Geeks was a big break for the duo and the show’s young cast: Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Busy Phillips, Linda Cardellini, Martin Starr, Ben Foster, Lizzy Caplan, Ann Dowd, Rashida Jones, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Schwartzman.

They all did well for themselves.

Each time I ask Feig anything about the short lifespan of Freaks and Geeks (1999 – 2000) he sighs with the self-awareness of a guy who put his heart into something but got the worst luck.

“When you get cancelled and you haven’t even finished your first season — we only did 18 out of 22 shows — you’re like, it’s gone,” Feig says.

“I spent four years in mourning because it was a forgotten show.”

Last Christmas

Apatow once said that everything he’s done throughout his career has been out of revenge for the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks — and it’s true.

“If you look at everything I do, it’s all shades of Freaks and Geeks. It’s always about an underdog who can’t figure out their place in the world,” Feig says.

There’s a misfit at the centre of Last Christmas, Kate (Emilia Clarke), the employee of a specialty Christmas store in London with dreams of being a singer. Kate’s life is chaotic and she’s prone to bad decisions, but that changes when she meets Tom (Henry Golding) who encourages her to make small changes to her life.

Last Christmas is inspired by the music of George Michael, and co-scripted by Emma Thompson (who plays Kate’s mum). It lives on the same wavelength as Love Actually, the film that triggers a culture war each year between lovers and haters. I suggest to Feig that he needs to prepare an opening argument for Last Christmas in case it gives Love Actually a rest from the hot takes this year.

“I’m friendly with Richard [Curtis] and we’re both very positive guys. We like good natured things and we believe in people and I wanted to illustrate that in this film but not in a treacle-y way.

“That’s why I really responded to Emilia’s character, she’s not doing what you want her to do but she’s Scrooge, this is A Christmas Carol in a way — it’s just that women aren’t normally allowed to play the character who is always misbehaving.”

Early screenings of Last Christmas confirmed Feig’s suspicions about Kate.

“We had some test audiences that we just like ‘ohhhh’ because they had a problem with her being ‘unlikeable’,” Feig says.

“But she’s a three-dimensional character, you don’t have any problem when it’s Scrooge or when it’s Bill Murray, so why can’t it be Emilia Clarke doing this.”

The Ghostbusters Of It All

Feig overdosed on opinions about female characters, mostly online, after he directed the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, which outraged people the millisecond it was announced. The experience changed the way Feig viewed the internet.

“It didn’t change how I use the internet, it changed how I face the internet,” Feig says.

“I had such a good relationship with the internet before Ghostbusters. I had heard people get attacked by haters but I was like ‘I never have any of those’ … but when it happened en-masse it was an assault and it triggered all my memories of being bullied as a kid.

“You think ‘I thought I was safe from this’ but I am an adult and in my 50s: why is this happening to me?”

Going into Ghostbusters Feig knew people would have an issue with him touching a classic film, he totally understood why, but it was the broader hatred that wore him down the most.

“A lot of the time I was pretending this is hilarious but then I’m getting death threats, and it also showed me all these fucked up world views,” Feig says.

“Not everyone was against the women thing but there was enough there to go, God, there’s other guys out there who are having a real hard time with this in a way where you go, why is this such a problem for you?”

So, after working on a film with a gigantic budget based on beloved franchise, he’s back with a modest romantic comedy, but Feig’s old foe factors into the equation again: timing. It’s a volatile period for films that aren’t blockbusters, or part of shared cinematic universes. Feig is more than aware of the climate that greets Last Christmas.

“The word I always use at our company is: undeniable. What’s an undeniable idea. Because there’s plenty of things where you go ‘I can watch that when it comes out’ but what’s the idea that makes people go, ‘I gotta go to the theatre and see that opening weekend!’

“But it doesn’t have to be a $200 million movie. Case in point: Jordan Peele. Both his movies were undeniable … one cost $5 million the other was around $10-$15 million. So it’s up to us as filmmakers to give people a reason to go to the cinema.”

A Second Chance For Freaks And Geeks?

But even if a film or TV show flops on its initial release there’s always a second chance, which is what happened with Freaks and Geeks.

“When we were making the show, this was before they would put out shows on DVD … so you kinda go, what is our chance of living beyond this one airing we have or maybe the re-run,” says Feig.

“And the only thing you’d have is if you could keep going, if you had seasons and seasons and you’d get 100 episodes, and you get into syndication and then people would watch it, then you can go: now we’re part of culture.”

For years Feig truly believed Freaks and Geeks was non-existent in the pop culture landscape. He’d noticed people always gave it a shout out as the great one-season wonder but he doubted the show had a fanbase.

Feig’s outlook changed in 2004.

“When Shout Factory finally ponied up the dough to pay for the songs, it happened. We’d had offers before to put it out on DVD but then we’d have to take the music out and I could not do it, it was like killing one of the characters,” Feig says.

“So we do a signing at Tower Records in L.A. and there were huge crowds and the I was like, oh, maybe it does have a life beyond. Every day I am always amazed that people still care and watch it, it’s nice cause you never know when something is going to tap out or you’re going to feel old and antiquated.”

We’ve been talking about Freaks and Geeks for 20 years. You did good Mr. Feig.

Last Christmas is in cinemas 7 November 2019.

Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.