Daley remembers being “this strange kid who looked five years younger than he was,” which, paired with story lines akin to the real-life softball incident, lent a charming awkwardness that fueled the show. From creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow, the NBC series took place in a Detroit suburb in the early ’80s but spoke broadly to the American high school experience. Sam Weir (Daley) and his two friends — he didn’t need any more! — were the geeks. His older sister, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), tried to ditch her reputation as a star student by hanging out with slackers, or the “freaks.”
“Freaks and Geeks” is widely regarded as a cult classic and served as a career launchpad for several of its young stars; joining Daley and Cardellini were the little-known actors James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Samm Levine and Busy Philipps. Between its subtle but effective writing and a whole bunch of classic rock needle drops — many of which were actually written into the scripts — the show’s lasting influence on the high school genre is undeniable.
But it suffered from poor ratings after premiering in September 1999, largely due to the network’s inconsistent scheduling and creative differences with executives who, per Apatow, wanted the teens to be granted “more victories.” The writers pushed back in an effort to preserve the show’s authenticity, and it was canceled after only a dozen episodes had aired.
Those episodes — plus six more that rounded out the one-season wonder — are newly available to stream on Hulu after the long-winded process of securing licensing rights to the original soundtrack. In honor of the show being introduced to a new generation of viewers, The Washington Post chatted with the cast and creators of “Freaks and Geeks” about their beloved misfit drama.
Q: Take me back to this time in your life. What did “Freaks and Geeks” mean to you?
PAUL FEIG, creator: It was the accumulation of many, many years of watching high school shows and movies and just feeling so alienated by them because they always tended to be about the cool kids or just people who were so cool with adult things like dating and sex and all that. I would watch and go, that wasn’t anybody I knew. I only hung out with the immature people or the awkward ones, or the cool people I knew were all in drama club and were very artistic.
My friend Matt Reeves at the time had just created “Felicity” with J.J. [Abrams], and I saw the pilot and remember thinking, “That’s such a great way to do a show, an hour-long show … I’ll write a spec pilot with an hour-long show, just to do something.” I came up with the name “Freaks and Geeks” first. It needed to be about all my friends, and we were all nerds, and the only other people we related to were the burnouts, who we called freaks in our high school.
JUDD APATOW, executive producer: I had worked with Paul Feig on a movie I co-wrote called “Heavyweights,” and he was an actor in it. I asked him if he had any ideas for a TV show, and one day he just handed me the pilot for “Freaks and Geeks.” I was thrilled, it really spoke to me — I felt like I was both a freak and a geek at different times in high school. I fell in love with it from the moment I saw the title.
JOHN FRANCIS DALEY, who played Sam Weir: At the time I was making movies in my basement and plays and wanted the kids in my neighborhood to be involved, and nobody wanted to — which was completely understandable because I was hyperactive and probably a little bossy. I had been auditioning generally to no avail for Nickelodeon and Disney Channel type shows, where I was either too unconventional or untraditional to get any of those jobs.
SETH ROGEN, who played Ken Miller, one of the “freaks”: I was a high school kid in Vancouver. I was 16 in 1998. I would do standup comedy and smoke a lot of weed and confront the very real fact that I was probably going to fail out of high school relatively soon. I got an agent through doing standup comedy to try to audition for things because it seemed like I would need a job one day, and I was not going to get that through my academic path. “Freaks and Geeks” was the second audition.
Q: What do you remember about the auditioning process?
FEIG: I remember walking into NBC to have a meeting with them because we knew they were interested in it, and saying to Judd, “We’re going to fight to cast this the way we want to. We’re not going to hire a bunch of models,” making this amateur, first-time writer’s stand about something. I started that speech with all these executives and they were like, “No, we completely agree.”
[Casting director] Allison [Jones] brought in so many people. I remember Shia LaBeouf came in, reading for the role of Neal that Samm Levine got. He was quite a contender. He was this little kid who came in with red suspenders on and a tie. I thought he was funny and odd, but then we saw Samm Levine.
You have these epiphany moments. The biggest was Linda Cardellini. Lindsay was the only character in the show I created completely out of my own head. Everybody else was based on someone I knew, or an amalgamation. Lindsay is all about the sister I never had. When I was writing it, I had this image of a girl in my head. When Linda walked in, it was like, that’s the exact person.
SAMM LEVINE, who played Neal Schweiber, Sam’s friend: I originally auditioned for the role of Sam Weir. In the character breakdown on the audition sheet, it said he enjoys doing impressions with his friends and he’s a big comedy nerd, which was me to a T at the time. One of the things I did in my act was a terrible impression of William Shatner … When Judd Apatow saw that tape out on the West Coast, he wasn’t blown away by my read but loved the goofy Shatner thing and put me on the callback list because he wanted me to do that for Paul Feig, just to make him laugh. That was the only reason.
APATOW: The idea was, let’s just pick the right kids and have Paul rewrite the show to serve who they really are, as opposed to trying to force them to behave the way the character was originally written. I think that’s one of the reasons that worked out so well.
Paul might’ve had a sense he wanted a certain type of geeky kid, but when we met Samm Levine and he did impressions of William Shatner in the audition, he said, “I’m going to rejigger how this group works with this kid being a part of it.” We met Martin Starr, and the process would continue.
MARTIN STARR, who played Bill Haverchuck, Sam’s other friend: I was with my friend Kenny Tarantino — no relation to Quentin — and we were headed to the beach to hang out. On the way there, I had to stop and do this audition. I wasn’t putting any particular emphasis on it. I was more concerned about spending the day with my buddy, which was probably helpful because he was a funny dude. We were in high school, so we just laughed all the time and made jokes. I think that probably helped keep me loose.
DALEY: I almost didn’t even go to the audition because I was feeling very under the weather and probably had a fever. I think my understated delivery might have helped to ground my performance.
ROGEN: I first actually auditioned for Martin’s role. That was for the casting director, and then I was called back to read for Paul and Judd. [The monologue] I read, what’s funny is that it was clearly extrapolated upon in our brains and became something that was in “Pineapple Express.” I’m talking about how I grow weed in giant underground tunnels, and I want to blow it up if it seems like anybody’s going to come find my weed tunnels.
Q: What was it like to be on set, given how young many of the actors were?
APATOW: Because most of the people were very young, they really brought themselves to it. We would pay attention to how they got along on set and try to write it into the show. If there was tension between two actors, we might try to make them edgy with each other in the scene.
And whenever anyone showed an interest in understanding how the show was made or wanted to learn about writing or directing, we tried to be very open to letting them hang out and understand what we were doing … I remember James Franco asked if he could shadow the director for an entire episode, just to be on set the entire time. I’m glad that we encouraged them to think that one day they could be directors and writers, and almost all of them have.
ROGEN: It was interesting for me because I was actually the same age as the geeks, but with the freaks, because I’ve always looked the same age my entire life. I’ve always looked 36. There was some slightly adolescent drama playing out between the geeks at the time that was not quite as prevalent among the freaks. That being said, there was some conflict among the freaks, too. It was fun, it was great for me especially. I hated the school part of high school, and I liked the social part of high school. I was kind of getting the best of both worlds.
LEVINE: We were legitimate teenage kids, none of whom had really had extensive careers before the show. They treated us like creative equals, dare I say, from minute one. That’s the thing I take away the most after all this time, how good they were to us and how hard they fought for us.
STARR: As a whole, every week was great. It was so fun. I can’t express that enough, it was the best job. I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to do it a couple more times since. At the time, I had no idea how rare it was to be around a group of people who loved doing what they did, top to bottom.
I was a sponge taking in information, to be in an environment where I was around adults and treated with respect as a peer, though I very much didn’t deserve that in most ways. In particular I think [director] Jake Kasdan really made an impact on me in helping me grow up a bit. I was not terribly — professional might be the right word? Mostly I was tardy because I was still a child.
DALEY: A lot of the times when it was just the three of us geeks goofing around, we would improvise and play off each other’s real chemistry that we had. Our relationship was fraught on that show — we were either the best of friends or the worst of enemies over the course of even a day, because we were all these young, hormonal teen boys. It was something the creators tapped into.
I know there was a lot of weed smoking. I didn’t have anything to do with that. My dad was my guardian on set and I was the youngest, and I know they were probably a little scared of him.
BECKY ANN BAKER, who played Jean Weir, Sam and Lindsay’s mother: It’s funny, because I remember so well the parents that had to be on the set. Seth’s mom and I became great friends, and John Francis Daley’s dad and I. They were all my age, unlike the actors.
One time Linda and Busy and I can’t remember who else was with us — I remember the girls, of course — we went to some club in L.A. and watched Seth do his standup, which was amazing. He was like 15 or 16 years old, doing standup with very seasoned standup people in the room.
DAVE “GRUBER” ALLEN, who played Jeff Rosso, high school guidance counselor: I had just come off working in special ed — I was an education aide in Glendale, and I had substitute taught in that same school district, so for me to have that dynamic with high school-age kids was easy.
My best work was the hallway stare. The hallway gaze. That was my best acting.
Q: The show is notable for how many of its cast members went on to have massively successful careers. Were there any performances that really surprised you at the time?
APATOW: I feel like everybody had their moments and it’s hard to pull just one of them out of the whole experience, but there are really incredible moments between Linda and John Daley in the show. Paul’s idea was that you can show siblings who liked each other and you can show kids who liked their parents, and it wouldn’t mean that high school wasn’t hard and they wouldn’t have problems. It wasn’t about warring with your parents and warring with your siblings.
I was hopeful that everybody would thrive, and I’m so glad that they have. We definitely felt a lot of responsibility not to ruin their lives. A few people quit high school to do the show and then got their GEDs, and we were aware that getting this job was changing their life trajectory.
DALEY: There were no two actors in that show that were in any way alike … none of them [playing] archetypes of characters you’ve seen in the past, either. You’d think of a geek and you’d think of Steve Urkel, before “Freaks and Geeks.” So this was a real departure.
FEIG: I’ve done projects where I’m like, “This person is going to be huge,” and they never get a job again. You don’t quite know. The one thing I did know is that they were deeply talented beyond just as actors. They were all interested in what we were doing as writers, producers on the show.
They’d hang around a lot. I remember Seth Rogen was back with Judd and I, like, “My friend Evan and I, we wrote this script about two guys going to buy beer.” I was like, that’s sweet. You think, “Oh, good for you, 16-year-old kid who wrote this. Sounds like a goofy movie.” It was “Superbad.”
ROGEN: Jake Kasdan is the first person who helped me and Evan [Goldberg] with the script for “Superbad,” outside of my mom reading it. He was the first Hollywood person to read it and really sit down with me, give me notes and talk about what I wanted to do. He was really the first one to take the time to treat me like a screenwriter. It was very flattering and encouraging.
Q: Do you have a favorite episode?
DALEY: In terms of overall favorite episodes, I love “Looks and Books.” I love how vulnerable Sam was when he put on that Parisian nightsuit and hyped himself up to have the confidence to face the school, and you can just see on his face immediately that he made the worst choice ever.
APATOW: The one that comes to mind now is an episode we did called “The Little Things,” and we had a guest actress on it called Jessica Campbell, who was also in “Election.” She just passed away a couple of weeks ago. She played the girl who played the tuba in the school band, and it was about Seth Rogen’s first girlfriend. In the episode, she tells him she was born with ambiguous genitalia and the doctor had to pick which sex she was when she was born. At the time, we debated whether there was a way to do this thoughtfully, and looking back, her work is really brilliant and they were so sweet together. It’s an episode we’re all very proud of, and we’re all very sad about Jessica.
ROGEN: That was the first time I remember they were having a hard time cracking the scene, where she told me she was born with both male and female genitalia. I understand why it’s a hard scene to make natural. It was the first time I was put in a situation where the guardrails were lifted. Judd and Paul were, like, “Have the conversation. Imagine you are these people. Just literally forget that we are trying to be entertaining, forget all of that.” And that is largely what became the scene in the show.
FEIG: The pilot means so much to me because that was just the start of it all, and it’s so hard. How many times does someone say, “Watch this show, but you have to watch two [episodes] before you really get into it?” I’m proud of how well we did with that pilot. It got across the tone and the feel and the comedy, but also the seriousness. I wanted it to be a dramedy, although I’d call it more of a comma. We wanted it to be funny first, but then dramatic and real.
Q: “Freaks and Geeks” was held up because of music licensing rights, but it will feature the original soundtrack on Hulu. Do you have any favorite music from the show?
APATOW: At the time, there weren’t any shows that were using modern music and classic rock consistently as their soundtrack in the way Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese did in the movies. We thought it was really fun to pack the show with all that music, and what was funny was, all those bands were willing to license it to us because no one had ever asked them.
The only heartbreaking story is, Neil Young cleared us to use “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” for the end of the punk rock episode, but before the episode aired the series was canceled. So the question became, can we afford to use this song in an episode we didn’t even know would air? We replaced it with a version of Dean Martin singing “You’re Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You,” which was fine, but the Neil Young song was perfection. I swear to God, I think about it all the time.
FEIG: One of my favorite cues in the whole series was XTC’s “No Language in Our Lungs.” That was for that sequence where the geeks are failing in gym class at softball. That wasn’t actually scripted. I had put it on there and I remember everybody going, “It’s too sad, it makes the scene sad.” I was like, “Yes, that’s the point. This shouldn’t be a comedy scene. It should be a really sad scene about how we all feel … failing in gym class and being made to feel terrible about it.”
GRUBER: Because Paul Feig is a generous collaborator, he goes, “Hey, Gruber, you like to write. What if Mr. Rosso wrote the liner notes for the CD for the ‘Freaks and Geeks’ music?” And so I did. It was David Wild and Jake Kasdan who wrote the actual liner notes, but then in the voice of Mr. Rosso I wrote all these track-by-track commentaries on what it means to young people. A high school guidance counselor telling you about this music like that. And guess what? I learned you can win a Grammy for liner notes. I didn’t, though.
ROGEN: I was very much into rap when I was in high school. I was obsessed with Wu-Tang and A Tribe Called Quest, all these albums came out when I was turning 13, 14. And then the show made me get really into — there was the band episode where we were playing Cream, and “White Room” is in another episode. I remember loving that. We’re referencing Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Rush. I’m not, like, Daniel Day-Lewis, but I like having some sense of what … I’m talking about.
DALEY: I did The Who’s “Tommy” when I was 9, and I played young Tommy in the national tour. So I started to study The Who’s music, and that kind of opened the door to other music from the era … It’s frustrating for me because if the show had been successful at the time, I think that, too, would have opened up kids from my generation to a whole new world of music in the way that “Guardians of the Galaxy” did. So what we were missing was Groot, clearly.
Q: What’s something you learned or gained from working on the show that you return to now?
DALEY: I tend to draw from those experiences in everything I do, writing and directing. As a writer, I think just the sheer authenticity of the dialogue and being able to be really comedic without being super jokey, there’s a real distinction between those things.
ROGEN: I think Jon Kasdan, one of the writers, was a year or two older than I was. It didn’t seem drastically out of reach. They let me sit in on a few of the writers rooms, which as a 17-year-old was a wonderful environment to be in. I remember I would write scenes for the show — it’s funny because, I do think looking back, my high school experience was actually much more subversive than almost anyone who was writing for the show, and that is why “Superbad” is much more representative of my high school experience. It’s more outwardly explicit and drug-fueled than the things we were doing. I didn’t have as nuanced an emotional experience in high school.
Q: Many of the people involved in “Freaks and Geeks” have mentioned the writers having to push back on network executives’ suggestions in order to stick with Feig’s original vision for the show. Tell me about that.
APATOW: The idea of selling out the premise of it was something we were never going to do, even if we sank the ship. It was the only reason we were making the show, to do it in the way we always hoped someone would do it. We didn’t get a ton of notes, but the spirit of the notes [we did get] was, don’t make it sad, don’t make the kids suffer as much, give the kids more victories. And the intention of the show was to show how kids handle failure and difficult experiences, and how you get through those things with the support of your friends and family.
We sensed we were going to get canceled, and we thought it could happen at any moment. I remember I went to Las Vegas to see Rodney Dangerfield, and Paul Feig happened to be in Las Vegas at the same time. We were talking and we said, we should probably write a finale for this season that could also be a series finale … We really felt like we were making the show with a guillotine above our necks. Looking back, that’s one of the reasons the show was good.
LEVINE: It was our big mountain to climb: We have this great show nobody knows about. A handful of amazingly devoted fans knew, and when NBC canceled the show, they pooled their money together and bought a two-page ad in Variety telling NBC not to cancel the show. I still can’t believe they did this. These were regular people crowdfunding, 15 years before such a thing would be so commonplace online. I’ve always truly felt this show had the greatest fans of all time.
ROGEN: This interview is probably more promotion than I ever did for the show when it came out in the first place. It’s funny, retroactively, to be promoting something 20 years after the fact, especially when the whole problem the first time around was that nobody [cared] about it. Now it just won’t die. It’s like a zombie. People just like it so much that it thrusts itself from the grave.
Q: If you’d had more time with the characters, what would you have wanted to explore?
APATOW: As a fan, I always want to revisit characters. I’m all for anybody doing another season, no matter how many years later. But I think everyone’s instinct to not do that here has been correct.
Paul and I talked a lot about how the family would handle Lindsay coming back from traveling around to Grateful Dead shows and doing a lot of drugs. There’s a lot of talk about what families did when their kids had addiction problems back then, before we all understood some of the healthy ways to assist them in getting sober. We were also aware the kids were growing really fast and we thought it would change their relationships. We were kicking around ideas about what happens to the geeks when John Daley gets tall and incredibly handsome, and suddenly the popular kids want to hang out with him more. There were story lines about Bill’s mom marrying the gym teacher and him getting talked into being on the basketball team after he gets really tall and strong — because at the end of the series, Martin started getting bigger and suddenly he had guns.
STARR: What they had talked about was Bill veering off to be a jock, finding his way and being good at some sport, and there being a bit of a rift in the geek squad. Which would’ve been interesting.
DALEY: There was talk of [Sam] becoming a little more popular as he got taller and less gawky. But then again, I see pictures of myself when I was 15, 16 and it was definitely the worst phase of my life, from a physical standpoint. My nose was too big for my face, I was severely underweight, my hair was stupid. Everything about me was stupid at the time. A part of me is glad that wasn’t showcased.
Q: “Freaks and Geeks” didn’t last very long because it didn’t “find its audience,” as they say. But it has since become a cult favorite. Why do you think it continues to resonate?
STARR: It doesn’t pander. It’s honest from the beginning. The people they cast were of that age or close to it, and that’s unfortunately uncommon. These stories came from the lives of the writers themselves. I think everybody that brought it to life did it in such an honest way.
GRUBER: I think it’s super family-friendly. A person my age could watch it with a son or daughter and get a kick out of it. “Was it really like that?” Yeah, it kind of was. “Really?” Yes, they drove cars like that and they went to these places and they liked these bands. Ted Nugent? Blech. He’s the worst, by the way. It would have to be a cool family, by the way, but this is family viewing, man.
FEIG: I’m just pleased it’s one of those things that feels very complete and contained and just there as a little time capsule for people to enjoy. I started to feel so old when this announcement came out, I’ve been through this three times. Netflix had it on, ABC Family had it on at one point, someone else had it. I’m never not thrilled that it’s available for people to see, especially now with streaming and now that people are watching so much more because we’re still trapped inside.
ROGEN: I’m just grateful to have been a part of it. I look back, and I would’ve been in any show that cast me at the time. It is not with some discerning eye on my part that I wound up on a show that still somehow manages to be culturally relevant 20 years later.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.