Ben Savage on Boy Meets World, Girl Meets World, and the Meaning of Life

Photo: Jeff Brown for Vulture

There’s something powerful about an actor like Ben Savage, who ages with his fan base: We watched him play a middle-school and high-school student on Boy Meets World while we were middle-school and high-school students, and now we watch him as a 30-something on Girl Meets World when we are 30-somethings. There’s a comfort in his surrogacy, as he has moved from the one primarily learning lessons to the one teaching them (though he still learns a few). When the news came out that the Disney Channel was making a Boy Meets World sequel called Girl Meets World, young adults born between 1984 and 1991 or so were cautiously super-excited. However, over the course of its first season, any doubts were washed away. Beyond being super-popular with the kids the show was targeting, BMW fans were really impressed by the new show’s execution. With the second season of Girl Meets World premiering tonight, Vulture spoke with Savage about how his character has grown between the two series, Girl Meets World’s surprisingly heady season two, and the meaning of life.

What’s it like so many years later to talk to full-grown adults like me who are obsessed with what you did as a kid?
It’s flattering. It’s exciting. What really means a lot to me is when people come up to me — and it happens a lot — and say, “I grew up on Boy Meets World, and it means so much to me, and I like that I’m now able to watch Girl Meets World with my kid because it’s like passing the torch between generations.” That’s what we set out to do. We were aiming to teach the lessons of Boy Meets World in an updated context to a younger audience.

Even when we’ve written about it, people have just appreciated that it was being talked about seriously.
They’re very protective of the show. That was one of the things that we got a blowback from initially. It was like, “Oh, it’s on Disney Channel, it’s gonna be ruined!” We’re halfway through our second season — if [only] the fans knew how hard the writers work not only to replicate Boy Meets World but also to tell these new stories in a different context.

I’m so protective of the Boy Meets World legacy. I’m a creature of habit, and superstitious. I even listen to the same music every day that I listened to then (Third Eye Blind, Counting Crows, Tori Amos). So, the two people that I said I wanted back on the show were the original studio teacher who taught Boy Meets World — he taught all seven years of Boy Meets World; he’s now the studio teacher for the girls on the show — and then our script supervisor, Kathy Giangregorio, who was our script supervisor all seven years of Boy Meets World. I was like, “I want to look out and see Kathy, just like we did on Boy Meets World. It’s the most calming presence in the world.” And then it’s all of our old writers, it’s all of our old producers. It’s this incredibly surreal, nostalgic feeling.

Was there a moment in season one where it was like, yeah, this works?
Yeah, it took a while, and I’ll be the first to admit it. There were a lot of high expectations, and there’s no way that the pilot of a brand-new show could live up to the hype of seven seasons plus 15 years [of] buildup. So our first season was a transitional season. Second season, we’re bringing back a lot of old characters from Boy Meets World, and it’s kind of a nod to the Boy Meets World audience, like, “It’s okay to come back and join us.” And we’re tying up a lot of loose ends that people had lingering questions about for years. We just had Mr. Turner on. He was in a car accident his last episode of Boy Meets World, and we never explained what happened. We took 17 years, but we found him.

You’ve talked about how over time the writers started writing Cory to be like you. I always joke that around season three, Cory became obviously very Jewish.
Yeah, and an old man. Well, our writers are old Jews.

So when you started with Girl Meets World, did you have to catch them up on who you were as an adult?
Yeah, it took time for me to solidify the character. Is he [a] goofy, funny dad? Is he [a] passionate dad? Is he [a] serious dad? What is he? Is he Mr. Feeny? And the writers were like, “Is Ben this? Is Ben this?” We’ve done now about 35 episodes, so I know more. Cory is a very passionate teacher, but he’s fun and easygoing. He’s a very passionate father and I believe that he really cares about his kids. But then you bring back the old Boy Meets World characters and he immediately reverts to being 17, 18 again. That can be said of most adults, which is that they’re trying to be these adults, but as soon as they see their old friends from high school come around …

The first episode of season two doesn’t just talk about death, which shows have talked about in the past, but mortality and our relative insignificance in the universe. No one does that!
Yeah! We just did a show, “Girl Meets Belief,” which wrapped on Tuesday, about the existence of God and what that determines in terms of how you make your decisions in life, and whether that’s important. Cory delivers this whole speech about a prism and how you think nothing’s there, but if you hold up a prism, you can see the colors of the rainbow. It tells us that God is there. It just shows up in different ways. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. When you look through that wall, you don’t know what’s behind there, but there are people behind there. I’m telling you, it’s deep stuff. It’s deep stuff for me, and I’m 34 years old.

In those ways, do you feel like there are ways in which this show is better?
Well, I don’t know if it’s better, but I’m appreciating the story lines more. Also, I believe that the writers and the producers and the cast are very aware of the expectations we have on our show and the hype, whereas with Boy Meets World, we were in a bit of a bubble. There was no internet. We weren’t aware of the ripples.

So Mr. Feeny is coming back?

So am I to assume he’s playing an Obi-Wan–style ghost?

We were the ones who propagated the he’s-a-ghost theory.
Yes, you were. But it worked.

[Spoiler alert: We discuss when Mr. Feeny comes back and what he does. It’s not too specific, but still. We will let you know when it’s over.]

Well, you saw “Girl Meets Gravity,” so you know he’s alive. It was just a moment because people were worried that Feeny was dead. He’s not dead, he appears two episodes in.

So, that was because of that ghost thing?
Well, I think the plan was always to use Bill [Daniels, the actor who plays Feeny] as much as he was willing to participate. We also see him two more episodes later, in “Girl Meets Pluto,” when we actually go back to Feeny’s yard to rediscover something.

[Spoiler alert over!]

Photo: Jeff Brown for Vulture

What does the idea of meeting the world mean to you?
I’d say for me personally, I can just give my honest opinion, it’s about growing and adapting to the world around you. It’s a complicated, weird, chaotic, stressful, unique, and fascinating world, and we’re all meeting it every day.

Cory needed to grow and learn and dream and try to do good. But the truth is, you never stop learning what the world is because you never know. Although, in “Girl Meets Secret of Life,” which airs I think [epispde] two or three, we teach [what] the secret of life is.

Do you know what the secret of life is?

Umm …
I am sorry for doing that. I hate when people do that to me. Anyways, it is: People change people. Your whole life is determined by the people who surround you, and how they guide you is what affects you, and it shouldn’t, but it does. That’s where your happiness comes from, that’s where your love and strength comes from.

I wanted to ask you about what I think is the best Boy Meets World episode, “Heartbreak Cory.”
The ski lodge episode?

Yeah, the ski lodge episode.
You know, these things are done in a little bubble and we aren’t aware of the ripple effect that they’ll have. Like when you are writing a story, for example, you’re writing a story that you are thinking about and you try really hard, and you push send, and then you move on to the next story, and then 15 years later, someone says, “Do you realize when you were writing that story …” and you’re like, “Well, I was committed to that story, but I didn’t know the ramifications.” That is how it was. We are doing this show, there are lines, we are making the jokes, and like, yeah, there is a kissing thing, but that was the job that week, and then we pushed send and moved on to the next episode. I remember the episode, of course. I remember every episode vividly.

That’s interesting. I think the younger version of me would be bummed, like, “Oh no, he doesn’t remember how important it was,” but now I totally get it. As a creative person, you’re doing it because you like creating things.
You’re not sitting there patting yourself on the back. I was talking to Michael Jacobs [Boys Meets World and Girl Meets World co-creator], and I said, “Are you happy?” and he was like, “If I’m happy, there’s no more show.” Because writers, creative people, are tortured by the constant need to create. So you say to anyone, “Don’t you feel good? You clenched your career, you won an Oscar. What’s next?”

You shouldn’t be doing it to win an Oscar; you should be doing it to do it.
That’s why the people who win Oscars win Oscars, and the people that want to win Oscars don’t. (Occasionally, one will slip through.) Like I know a kid who really, really wants to be successful in Hollywood. But that’s his problem: He wants to be a famous, important person in Hollywood. He has no passion for anything other than to be at parties and rub elbows with celebrities. “I want to be famous” is not gonna work. “I want to tell a great story,” “I want to make people laugh,” “I want to do fart jokes” — at least that’s something.

So, you have Girl Meets World. Do you think this is your Before Sunrise, that eventually this will have its seven-year run and in another 15 years after that, you’ll be playing the grandfather in Cyborg Meets World?
I don’t know. I get nervous if I start to think like that because I’m just in the moment. We’ll take this ride for as long as it goes, and we’ll see what comes next. I definitely want to continue directing, I want to continue producing. I really do like working in the vehicle of kids television, because there was a phase of sitcom TV which was just snark. And I hate snark. It doesn’t inspire people. I want to make TV that makes people laugh. Networks were trying to be edgy, and it wasn’t good. It didn’t work. People — networks and everyone — have to just accept themselves for who they are, and then they can be great.

Photo: Jeff Brown for Vulture
Ben Savage on Girl Meets World