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It's been almost 21 years since his one-and-done cult classic aired its 18th and final episode, but the decorated filmmaker is still pushing the beloved series, hoping it will continue to find new audiences, which Freaks now has another chance of doing as it premieres for the first time on digital platforms for purchase.
Created by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and exec-produced by Apatow, Freaks and Geeks followed the Weir siblings, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley), as they navigated their Michigan high school in the early '80s — and their distinctive friend groups. The show served as a launching pad for the entire main cast: Cardellini (ER, Dead to Me), Daley (Horrible Bosses and Spider-Man: Homecoming co-writer), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, Superbad), Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Martin Starr (Party Down, Silicon Valley), Busy Philipps (Dawson's Creek, Girls5eva), Samm Levine (Inglorious Basterds, Drunk History), and James Franco (Spider-Man, The Disaster Artist).
"I think that everybody tried to write and perform and direct from their heart," says Apatow. "A lot of what the show is about is that life is hard and things don't always work out, but you'll get through it with the love of your friends and your family, and that is very meaningful to people. So I'll always be proud of it. And it's everybody's origin story!"
EW chatted with Apatow about being unsurprised by the success of his actors, turning down an offer to make a second season, and the upcoming full circle moment for the show.
Chris Haston/NBC The cast of 'Freaks and Geeks.'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We're more than 20 years removed from this show being one season and done. Considering that, how shocked are you that you're still talking about Freaks and Geeks?
JUDD APATOW: Yeah, I always hoped that it would be like some independent rock album a certain group of people liked a lot. That's how I rationalized its lack of mainstream success at the time. "Let's just hope it can be like My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello, something that holds up." So it's amazing that people are still watching it. I think the way that Paul Feig and [director] Jake Kasdan conceived the look is part of that, because we wanted it to feel like it was made in 1980. And it does, so it doesn't seem to age.
Do you think that is why it's still connecting with people and finding a new audience? It's even more impressive because the show took a bit longer to get on streaming and it never seemed to get that one big Netflix or Hulu push. It's just been a consistent thing for the last 20 years.
It's always drifted in and out. It showed up on DVD and then it was on different channels and different streamers, it just hovers around. But now with the digital release, people can own it for the first time and they don't have to wonder who's broadcasting it at any particular moment. Especially since not everybody still has their DVD player. So all of those people who went out and bought this DVD yearbook we created a long time ago can finally dump their DVD player, if they feel the need. I'm holding onto mine, but I understand if they let it go.
It seems like it's always been one step at a time with the show. Like there was this big push to get it on DVD, and then a push to get it on streaming, and then this push to get it on digital platforms. Was it frustrating at times over the years that it took so long to have it fully available? The big holdup had long been the music, right?
The only part that was ever scary was the idea that if we couldn't clear the music, either we would be in a position where the music would have to change, which we really didn't want to do, or that we would clear it and the show would just disappear and never be heard from again, because we didn't have the rights to it anymore. I heard that they resolved all those issues forever now. When the show went on the air, people didn't put a lot of modern or rock music into our television shows. If you were watching Quincy or Knots Landing, they didn't have a lot of music by the Grateful Dead and The Who on them. So the production company only got the rights to the music for seven years because it was such an experiment to have so much. That's something we've had to catch up on with all of our contracts.
You recently revealed that there was an offer from MTV to make a second season after the cancelation at NBC, but you and Paul turned it down because it would have been for a much lower budget than you previously had. How tough a call was that at the time? Any regret there?
It wasn't a hard call because it was significantly less than what we were shooting it for. And we had agreed that we were never going to do anything that might ruin the show. The idea of having it return in some substandard way was too scary. We were always aware that what was happening was a little bit of a creative miracle. We didn't really even understand why things were falling into place so well, but we were also aware that if we made any wrong moves, it would all crumble. So that's why we have never done more episodes and why we didn't want to continue back to that, especially after we saw the final episode, which Paul wrote and directed; it was clear that he had captured something very unique and special. And if we did anything else, it would probably be way worse than what he just accomplished.
Let's imagine that Freaks and Geeks was never made in 1999, and instead you were making it today. Obviously the landscape of television is unrecognizable compared to then. Like there's no way you'd be airing on NBC, or that you would have been canceled after just one season, as we've seen the power of the "cult show" in recent years. So how different do you things would have been?
The show always had the feel of an independent movie. And there really wasn't a place for that on network television at the time and the big sea-change in television was just beginning. So we didn't really fit in, and part of why we didn't fit in was parts of the show were very realistic; some of it was sad and melancholy. Now people love that and they respond to very emotional programming, but back then, most of it was escapism. So talking about the sadness of a young, nerdish person was not what most people were seeing on their screens in those days. But that's what Paul cared most about, representing a certain type of young person that he hadn't seen [on TV] before.
Throughout your career you've specialized in helping develop and spotlight young talent, whether it was giving the big screen breakouts to Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, or Amy Schumer. But are even you still amazed at how literally everyone from this main cast, who were all essentially kids, went on to do notable things?
It is very strange, but I have to say that we thought all of these people were so talented, so it doesn't surprise us because they were all doing such remarkable work every day. So it would've been weirder to think that they couldn't do it again than to think that it's shocking that they are doing it. I'm very proud of the fact that we encouraged everyone to stretch their wings and try to write and direct and produce. And so many of them have done that and have taken the reins of their careers in some very innovative and challenging work.
I mean, isn't John currently directing a Dungeons & Dragons movie? That's literally the perfect trajectory for Sam Weir.
The whole thing ends when John's Dungeons & Dragons movie comes out, because the circle will have been closed. If someone made an infographic of all of the different projects that everybody on the show has made — and it's a lot of great work — we're just proud of what everyone has chosen to do. They all seem to have very high standards and they're trying to do projects they are proud of. People aren't just working, they're working on great stuff.
NBC The 'Discos and Dragons' episode of 'Freaks and Geeks.'
You passed on doing a second season back in the day, and I'm guessing we won't ever see more Freaks and Geeks at this point, but do you ever find yourself sitting around and just randomly wondering what these characters' lives ended up being like?
I haven't had that conversation with Paul since back then, but I think we thought some of them would have succeeded and become the Bill Gates or the Steve Jobs of their day and others would have wound up in prison. It certainly would be a grab bag.
That seems about right. Back in 2012, you and Paul were talking Freaks and Geeks with EW — I assume it was for a previous round of "hey, the show is available here now" — and you said, "There will certainly never be a project that we're more proud of." You've done so much in your career, both before and after Freaks and Geeks, so why will this one always hold that extra special place in your heart?
I think that everybody tried to write and perform and direct from their heart. People really gave it up to the show. It went to the bone, and it's meaningful to people because everybody associated with the show shared who they were and tried to inject it into these characters and these stories. And as a result, people connect in a very deep way. A lot of what the show is about is that life is hard and things don't always work out, but you'll get through it with the love of your friends and your family, and that is very meaningful to people. So I'll always be proud of it. And it's everybody's origin story!
No matter, you're always going to share that first time. Well, Judd, I'm glad we got a chance to reflect on the show, and I'm sure we'll do it again whenever some other technology is invented and Freaks and Geeks becomes available on there.
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Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.