An Oral History of the Nerdier Half of Freaks and Geeks

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Freaks and Geeks is arguably one of the most authentic television shows about the American high-school experience — the social ineptitude, the awkwardness, the struggle to figure out who you are and where you fit in. But most histories of the show focus on the so-called cool kids, the ones who were almost defiantly confident about who they were. Perhaps it’s because, like Lindsay Weir, we gravitate toward people who seem to have it all figured it out, even if it’s just an act. Perhaps it’s because James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel became famous faster. Whatever the reason, the geeks have been underserved — and their time is now. Martin Starr is a regular on Silicon Valley, John Francis Daley had his directorial debut with Vacation, and Samm Levine just reprised his role from Wet Hot American Summer in the Netflix prequel. So without further ado, the show’s creator and cast take a look back at what it was really like behind the scenes for the geek squad.

On casting …

Paul Feig: I told my wife, “I want to write a pilot. I have an idea based on when I was in high school. It’s about the nerds and the burnouts, and it’s called Freaks and Geeks.” She high-fived me. And then I wrote it in two weeks, and I gave it to my wife, and she said, “You’ve got to send this to Judd [Apatow].” Within 12 hours, he said, “I love it. I want to do this.” We sold it to NBC, who said, “We love it. We want to make this.”

John Francis Daley: Sam Weir’s story line kind of followed what Paul Feig went through at that age, which was pretty brutal!

Feig: Sam Weir is who I was in high school. Bill Haverchuck is part of who I was. Neal Schweiber is part of who I was. Lindsay Weir is who I was in my 30s, writing the show. But they are also parts of Judd and our other writers, too. You start to graft aspects of your personality in there.

Daley: The writers would get together and basically talk about all the worst things that happened to them in their childhoods — parents breaking up, being bullied, all these embarrassing stories. One that never made it into the show is that Paul dressed up in his mom’s clothes, and then all of a sudden, the neighbors came to his door and told him that his mom or dad was in a terrible car accident. So he ran to the scene, completely forgetting that he was wearing a dress! His mom saw him wearing her clothes, and it became even more of an issue than the car accident itself.

Feig: Bill Haverchuck was fashioned on this one friend of mine, part of my geeky group, and it was never quite known if he was in special ed or not. Nobody could define him. We had a moment in the pilot, and it got cut out, where people kept saying Bill was “retarded.” And he was like, “I’m not retarded!” And then we had Eli walk by and he’d be like, “He is. I’m not.”

Daley: I was kind of the odd man out. The odd child out? I was 14, and I was the only one who didn’t have body hair.

Feig: I was this tall gangly kid, so I was trying to find some tall gangly kid to play Sam Weir. Then when John Francis Daley came in, he looked so little, but he was so funny, and I realized, we gotta cast him because, for high school, some people come in and they look like babies, and some kids come in and they look like they’re in their 20s.

Martin Starr: Bill Haverchuck was originally written as a short, chubby kid. There was another person who was going up for the part, who was short and chubby, so I totally thought I wasn’t going to get it.

Feig: There’s this kind of religious moment you have when someone walks in the room and is right for the part. When Martin Starr came in, there was no question in my mind that he was Bill. He reminded me so much of the kid that I based the character on. He was so funny, and he took it to this whole other level.

Apatow: I have to say, the first time I saw Martin on tape, I wasn’t sure. And then I saw him in person, and thought, “This guy’s incredible.”  

Starr: It was the first time I had ever tested for anything, and Paul Feig made it so comfortable for us. He made sure the whole room was lit. Sometimes they have it backlit, so you can’t see the people in the back of the room, and it feels like you’re going to be interrogated.

Feig: What’s great about Martin Starr is people think he’s that character, but he would go into Bill mode — slow down, go kind of slack-jawed, all that. He came in as a great actor.

Apatow: It was really a creation and Martin understood it, but I think he was doing a character more than anyone else.

Samm Levine: Of the three geeks, Martin was definitely doing the most acting. Which isn’t to say we weren’t acting, but I just didn’t have to stretch very far as an actor to reach the apex of Neal.

Starr: I saw Bill Haverchuck as thoughtful and kind and scared and genuine. I mean, those aren’t different from the ways I saw myself at certain times, either, but it’s from a different perspective. I had just done a lot of my own internal work, and made distinct choices in how to carry myself, where he walked from, where he talked from, how he moved, how his speech was affected, what was important to him. But it was easy, because their writing system ended up being built around the characters we created.

Levine: There’s the way the characters were written in the pilot, before anyone was cast, and then that changed, after Judd and Paul and Jake Kasdan cast all the child actors. They really, really wrote to our strengths, and it seemed a more authentic outcome. Neal was written as kind of a short, fat kid with a bowl haircut and an underbite. But when I came in, they thought, “Eh, let’s make him the whiny Jewish kid.”

On body image …

Levine: We shot at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, and at one point, everybody gets these notices that the studio gym is now available to us if we’d like to use it. So James Franco says to his fellow freaks, “You guys, we should really start hitting that gym.” And Seth [Rogen] and Jason [Segel] could not have been less interested.

Seth Rogen: We did not work out. No. [Laughs] We would never do that.

Levine: Martin Starr, on the other hand, was very interested. So he started working out every day with James, and he started to put on muscle weight.

Starr: I think I had aspirations of being a strongman. Which is ridiculous when I think back on it!

Feig: He was getting these giant guns, big arms. We were like, “Martin, you can’t look like a bodybuilder.”

Starr: They asked me to stop working out.

Levine: But then of course he continued to work out.

Starr: James and I went for, I don’t know, about a month? We didn’t go that much.

Feig: The problem was that we had to cover up his muscles when we did the Bionic Woman scene.

Starr: I’m supposed to just have a bra on, and so they got really self-conscious. They thought it was a misrepresentation of the character.  

Levine: So when we went to shoot “I’m With the Band,” the episode where Sam Weir doesn’t want to shower in gym class, you see these three geeks getting ready for showering, and they had Martin wear a robe! And as punishment for defying them and continuing to work out, not only was he wearing a robe, he was wearing a lady’s robe.

Feig: We just did that because we thought it was funny that he would wear a bathrobe. We liked the idea of how these boys — who are inherently old men in their own way — comport themselves in the locker room.  

On love …

Daley: Any girl we got to do a scene with, we all fell in love with her at some point or another. I recall there being a lot of tension between the geeks over the girls. Constantly. There was a girl both Martin and Samm liked, and I guess Samm said something to her that was embarrassing to Martin, so Martin resented Samm for certain things, Samm resented Martin for certain things. I resented them both for being able to drive. There were a lot of civil wars going on.

Levine: I don’t think Bill getting his first kiss was Martin’s first kiss, but I do know that Sam getting kissed was John’s first kiss.

Daley: I had kissed a girl before that. I dared a girl to kiss me, and then she did, and I felt like I had uncovered this goldmine of possibility. So I just started daring girls to kiss me! And for some reason, they would! It’s not the most romantic way to have a first kiss, but it was certainly good enough for me at the time. It would be more romantic to say that my first kiss on camera was my actual first kiss, but it’s unfortunately not the case. It was my first onscreen erection, though! [Laughs] Um, yes. I was a very energetic kid in every possible way. Whatever happened, that was completely out of my control!  

Levine: When you’re 14 and you get to kiss Natasha Melnick [who played Cindy], it would be weird if you didn’t [have a physical response].

Starr: I remember being in the writers’ room, trying to influence someone there that it should be me and JoAnna Garcia [who played Vicki] for the “Seven Minutes in Heaven” scene.  

Apatow: I assumed they had a crush on any actress who came on the show, but we didn’t know about that specific crush.

Starr: I think they had already decided it would be us, so it was just fun for them to hear me beg.  

Apatow: We did like how your reputation is based on your looks, and the idea of putting Bill in a dark room with a girl would make her see how sweet and funny he was.

Levine: So they wrote this great scene in which Martin gets to make out with JoAnna. But of course, it was clearly written and sternly directed, “You are not allowed to kiss back.” So it’s just poor JoAnna having to forcibly make out with a scared Bill.

Starr: I also had a vicious cold that day. I was blowing my nose after every take. You couldn’t imagine a more embarrassing scenario for a kid who was actually making out with a huge crush of his. 

Levine: Hey, it’s a lot more action than Neal ever saw! Paul said that if the show had gone on for 20 years, Neal never would have kissed anyone. The best Neal ever got was making out with his puppet, Morty.  

On off-camera time with the freaks …

James Franco: We had a lot of downtime, and a lot of creative energy, so Martin and I started writing a screenplay. I think it was like a dark, high-school-based short film, with a character who went crazy one way or another. I think he committed suicide or something.

Starr: It was about a kid who goes to school, kills a bunch of people, kills his girlfriend, then kills himself. We’d walk over to this 24-hour coffee shop two blocks from me, and we’d write until 2 a.m., and then he’d try to bequeath unto me his knowledge of life and women and everything else I was curious about. He clearly had a better handle on it than I did. We also talked about going to clubs and beating the shit out of people we deemed assholes. Maybe he was going along with what I felt, but I feel we both had a genuine hatred for what was popular in culture at the time. We were in a dark place, apparently. And we’d sit and write this probably terrible script together while we were drunk. It’s in a box here somewhere.

Franco: This was in the days before cell-phone cameras, or even consumer cameras that could shoot quality video. So we never ended up making it. If it were today, we’d probably shoot it and put it on YouTube.

Linda Cardellini: John Francis Daley would take a video camera, and in between scenes, he would make little movies. We’d tell him one day, he was going to have to put us in his movies.

Daley: I couldn’t afford a camera, so I borrowed one from one of the writers of Freaks and Geeks. I stole it from him any chance I could get and made these silly movies. I used the Freaks and Geeks cast to the limits of their patience, and if I couldn’t get the cast, I would have the stand-ins be the stars of these horror movies, Westerns, pretty much anything I could think of on the spot.

Levine: They were mostly unscripted, or loosely scripted. I guess it was kind of like episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

On what could have been …

Starr: Because of the decisions I was making off-camera, they had plans gearing toward Bill becoming a jock in the second season. They kind of talked about the potential of splitting us up as a threesome and the geeks parting ways, to some degree, and me fitting in with a different crowd.

Apatow: We wanted to show what would happen when Bill’s mom married his gym teacher, to have this stepdad pushing Bill into athletics. The show was going to have to change, because John Daley was getting taller, and it was also going to become about how these nerdy kids stay together when they’re changing in different ways.

Levine: Obviously, I’m sad. I wish we could have shot all that stuff. I think it would have been as amazing as the stuff we did get to do. But on the other hand, it’s like, “Eh, maybe it’s better this way. It can be left up to everyone’s imaginations.”

Feig: Fan fiction.

Daley: I wanted a chance to get the three geeks from Freaks and Geeks back together. I was writing and directing the Vacation reboot, and it was going to be [a scene in that film]: the Griswalds stop at this Burning Man–type festival, and Samm Levine and Martin Starr are two of the festivalgoers, stoned out of their minds. We got Deborah McGuire, the costume designer on Freaks and Geeks, to put them in outrageous outfits.

Levine: All it said in the script for my character was that he wears a vest of seashells. Sure enough, they had made an outdoor men’s vest that was covered in seashells. We weren’t really playing it stoned or drunk or drugged-out that much. We were just … relaxed.   

Daley: The thing with movies — they’re always changing. Unfortunately, one of the casualties was that there was no justifiable way to bring the geeks into it after all. This Burning Man sequence didn’t feel right for the story.

Levine: So it’s on the cutting-room floor. I’m bummed, and so is John, but if this crazy sequence isn’t a part of it, it can live on the DVD.

Daley: It had nothing to do with the geeks, obviously. So a proper reunion will have to be in the next movie I direct!

Levine: Somebody asked on Twitter about bringing back the show: “They’re bringing back Twin Peaks. How about Freaks and Geeks?” And I think Judd Apatow’s answer was, “Only if Freaks and Geeks lives within the world of Twin Peaks.”

With additional reporting by Diane Gordon, Kelly Marino, Heather Schwedel, Valentina Valentini, and Kara Warner.