The Coolest Kids in School: 20 Secrets From That One Season of Freaks and Geeks

One of the best shows ever to be unceremoniously canceled after 13 episodes premiered on Sept. 25, 1999

By Natalie Finn Sep 25, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Freaks and GeeksChris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Freaks and Geeks was unceremoniously canceled after one season. After less than one season, in fact.

But the legacy of the hour-long dramedy about high schoolers existing on the outskirts of fitting in lives on, far more than most shows that only have 18 episodes to their name.

For starters, it had a pedigree it didn't even know it had yet: created by Paul Feig, executive produced by Judd Apatow, starring Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps and Seth Rogen. (And that was just the Freaks!) The show was a treasure trove of gifted actors and certain comedic talents that Feig and Apatow cannily gathered in one place, but that for whatever reason, and despite widespread critical praise, didn't register with a big enough audience to last.

Retro '80s setting aside, Freaks and Geeks was simply ahead of its time. It's still unclear whether it's a frequently funny drama or a comedy studded with touching moments. High school can't help but be simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Today it would be a Netflix series, given room to breathe and acquire an audience—not exactly something broadcast networks were doing when the show first premiered on Sept. 25, 1999.

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But Freaks and Geeks has long since become a cult classic, regularly named to lists touting the best of the '90s, best teen shows, best high school shows, best one-season shows, etc.

And, it won't go without saying, the show was a life-changer for all involved.

Here are 20 secrets about the making of Freaks and Geeks and its short, beloved run:

1. The show's premiere episode, in which smart, kind, questioning and sometimes disillusioned 16-year-old Lindsay Weir (a 23-year-old Linda Cardellini) has a crisis of faith in pretty much everything after her grandmother dies was, in the producers' eyes, "a very daring existential idea," Judd Apatow told Vanity Fair for a Freaks and Geeks oral history in 2012. "I was always surprised that the network didn't notice that that's what our pilot was about."

2. A 13-year-old John Francis Daley was sick and "just focused on not throwing up" when he auditioned for the role of Lindsay's little brother, Sam Weir, he recalled to Vanity Fair.

3. Busy Philipps first auditioned for the part of Lindsay Weir and, in her 2018 memoir This Will Only Hurt a Little, she remembered regretting that she couldn't summon enough tears to suit the scene where Lindsay talks to Sam in the pilot about their grandmother dying. Immediately Paul Feig told her about another character they were writing into the show, Kim Kelly, and after one read-through, they wanted her.

 

"It's crazy, because at the time, it didn't seem like a decision that would change my life," Philipps wrote. "But of course, being on that particular show would eventually change everything. For all of us. And even beyond how successful everyone has become in the years since, it's just incredible to have been part of something that's turned into such a cultural touchstone and such an iconic high school show."

4. Busy and Linda already knew each other a bit, having both been students at Loyola Marymount University in L.A. Linda, however, was already well-known on campus as the girl who had left school to work full-time as an actress.

 

"She's the reason why I did Freaks and Geeks," Philipps said on HuffPost Live in 2014. "I wasn't sure if I should do it because my agents were telling me that I should hold out for a bigger part—I mean, it's crazy—that I should hold out for a bigger part on another pilot. And I ran into Linda at the airport, we were both picking up friends and taking them back to LMU, and she was like, 'I just got Lindsay, you have to be Kim! Like, it'll be so much fun!'" Cardellini, who'd already been on a bunch of TV shows, said she'd teach her the ropes.

 

"That conversation, at LAX, I remember it so clearly to this day, and I called my agent when I got back to my dorm room, and I was like, 'Yeah, I think I should do Freaks and Geeks."

5. James Franco, already the aspiring auteur of the group at 20, spent two weeks in Michigan to get into character as handsome teen slacker Daniel, who along with his girlfriend Kim and buddies Ken and Nick like to pretend they don't care about anything. "He was always the one that had a Camus novel, heavily dog-eared," Daley told Vanity Fair, "and his car was so full of junk that it looked like he lived out of it." And what did Franco do in the suburbs of Detroit? Went to Paul Feig's old high school, knowing the show was rooted in reality for Feig, to do research. "I maybe took myself too seriously when I was a young actor," Franco admitted.

6. Seth Rogen didn't arrive on set as the hilarious pothead teddy bear he eventually revealed himself to be. "He seemed like a mad, troublemaking Canadian lunatic who was quiet and angry and might kill you," Apatow recalled. So more Observe and Report than Knocked Up, originally.

 

Rogen also didn't share at first that he had dropped out of high school to come be on the show. "I told them I was doing correspondence school from Canada and just wrote Superbad all day," he said. But Rogen and Martin Starr, who played Bill Haverchuck, earned their diplomas with the help of on-set tutors.  

7. F&G scored some major guest stars and other before-they-were-famous major talent, including Ben Foster (as the sweet, special, Three's Company-championing Eli), Shia LaBeouf, Lizzy Caplan, Rashida Jones, Samaire Armstrong, Ann Dowd, Jason Schwartzman, David Krumholtz, Matt Czuchry, and Leslie Mann, who had married Apatow in 1997.

Apatow won an Emmy in 1993 a part of the writing team for another cult-classic, one-and-done favorite, The Ben Stiller Show, which he also co-created with Stiller and Jeff Kahn. Apatow, still best known in 1999 from his time as a producer and writer on the revered The Larry Sanders Show, was also a producer on Stiller's directorial debut, The Cable Guy—so they go way back. Hence, it made perfect sense when Stiller showed up as Agent Meara, a member of the Secret Service detail that comes with Vice President George H.W. Bush on his visit to McKinley High, and proceeds to ask groovy guidance counselor Mr. Russo for career advice.

8. Shooting one of many contentious scenes with James Franco, Philipps recalled Franco telling her to really slap him as hard as she could. "I slapped him repeatedly, so hard that his skin was turning bright red," she wrote in her book. "I felt really weird about doing it, but at the same time, he asked me to, so I went for it. I just wanted to be a good actor."

 

In 2012, Philipps told Vanity Fair that, because their characters were presumed to come from tough home lives, they were physically rough with each other, and when he would be aggressive with her, she'd give it right back. "We had a real intense thing when we worked together," she said. But in her 2018 book, she recalled Franco being particularly rude to her, which she insecurely attributed to him thinking that she wasn't a good actor. She wrote that, during a scene where their characters are pelted with water balloons, the director had told her to smack his chest and plead, "Dammit Daniel, do something!" But when she did, Franco shoved her and knocked her down, and screamed, "Don't ever touch me again!" Feig and Apatow told Franco he needed to apologize. Which he did, after watching the footage of what he did and admitting it "was pretty mean." Philipps accepted his apology, but in hindsight she chalked it up to a talented actor being able to charm forgiveness out of her. It was a "boys club," she wrote, so what could she expect? That was just the way it worked.

 

Franco, having been accused of sexual misconduct by five women earlier in the year, did not respond to Philipps' 2018 recollections. She reiterated on Instagram at the time, however, "James apologized. I accepted. And I still get to tell it because s--t happened to me." They've talked about it over the years, she also said during a Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter, and "at one point he apologized to me."

9. Paul Feig expressly told Busy Philipps and Linda Cardellini not to diet, that he had hired them "because of what we looked like," Philipps recalled in her book, "that we were perfect the way we were, and that he wanted to make sure we didn't feel any pressure to be thin from anyone, because that wasn't what they wanted."

 

Cardellini told Vanity Fair in 2012, "They didn't want us to look like people in other shows—which you don't really know how to take. It was comforting on one hand, and not so much on the other."

10. Yeah, Daley had a little bit of a crush on Cardellini because, as he astutely pointed out, "it's hard to not have a crush on her." He masked it by acting like an annoying little brother between scenes. "Linda and I spent a lot of time between scenes giving each other a hard time," he told VF.

 

11. Feig, Apatow and their fellow writers tried to borrow as many high school indignities from real life as they could. "We did our infamous two weeks with the writers locking ourselves in a room and telling personal stories," Feig told Vanity Fair. "…Weirder stuff happens to people in real life than it does on TV. It was a personal story for me and I wanted it to be personal for everybody else."

12. Indeed, Paul Feig had his version of a "Parisian night suit," the baby blue jumpsuit Sam wears to school one day, strutting his stuff for 3 seconds until he realizes that his peers just weren't ready for Sam rockin' a jumpsuit yet. "It was fun, on the show, recreating the most horrific moments of my past," Feig said.

13. Judd Apatow said he got the idea for Ken's girlfriend Amy to have "ambiguous genitalia" after hearing about it on The Howard Stern Show. He sat Rogen and Jessica Campbell, who played Amy, down together to improvise Rogen's real-life reaction to hearing that from a girlfriend, and wrote the scene based on their honest dialogue. "I'm not sure you could get away with those things on a show that isn't about to be canceled," Jake Kasdan, who directed five episodes and was a consulting producer on 15, told VF.

14. They felt mildly doomed from day one after NBC allotted them the 8 p.m. Saturday time slot. "I thought, if we can't beat the 10th season of Cops, we don't deserve to be on the air," Apatow cracked to VF. "And, of course, Cops kicked our ass." Their base audience was actually 7 million, an impressive turnout in 2019, if not in 1999, when Friends was still on and getting 20.7 million viewers a week.

15. So, they treated episode 13 like a series finale, in case they were canceled, but then NBC ordered five more. They found out they were officially canceled, however, on March 19, 2000, with three episodes still in post-production.

16. Feig and Apatow threw a 1980 prom-themed wrap party and everyone was told to dress accordingly, and they passed out personalized class rings to the cast. Cardellini wore her mom's prom dress and a beehive wig, while Philipps trotted out her own junior prom dress.

17. Cardellini was in a limo on her way to her first-ever appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman when she got the cancellation news from her publicist.

18. While Nick and Lindsey had a short, awkward relationship on the show, Segel and Cardellini dated in real life for several years. And, it was rumored that the real-life circumstances of their breakup inspired Segel's character's naked meltdown in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he wrote.

"I can't control what people think," Segel told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. "I was still very much a child [then], and this was more an amalgamation of a lot of different relationships and breakups I've had. People are bound to talk, but she was a great girlfriend."

19. Freaks and Geeks was nominated for three Emmys in two separate years, because its final episodes' air date missed the cut-off date for the 2000 Emmys. Feig was nominated in 2000 for writing for a comedy series for the pilot and again in 2001 for the finale, "Discos and Dragons," which didn't air--along with the other two episodes still in post when they were canceled until July 8, 2000.

 

That October, Fox Family (now Freeform) aired the two remaining episodes they made, which in the line of storytelling fit into the middle of the season, ahead of the finale when Lindsay pretends to be going to a college retreat but really meets up with Kim to follow the Grateful Dead

 

The show fittingly won for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series at the 2000 Emmys.

20. Segel, Rogen and Franco became members of the Apatow movie family (and Segel guest-starred as Carla Gallo's ridiculously over-the-top long-distance boyfriend in Undeclared, Apatow's second show in a row that was critically acclaimed and canceled after one season), and Apatow acknowledged to VF that he uses the Freaks and Geeks actors wherever he can, sometimes looking at their later characters as extensions of what he considers to be the first-ever roles they embodied for him.

 

The guys, anyway. He hasn't worked with Busy or Linda since.

"Everybody was so talented and nobody knew it yet," Cardellini, whose credits since have included ERMad MenBloodline, the Avengers movies and, most recently, Netflix's Dead to Me, told Vanity Fair.

Most of them—minus, most notably, Franco and Daley—reunited in April, 2015, at the TV Land Awards to accept the 15th Anniversary (of their finale) Award.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

As they took turns saying thanks, Segel reiterated that Freaks and Geeks changed his entire life, and Paul Feig expounded on the show's enduring legacy.

"We spent all of our time concentrating on the human emotions," he told Variety that night. "It wasn't about references to the '70s and the '80s, it was really about the human condition at that time of your life. I think those emotions are the same two thousand years ago as they are two thousand years from now. I think that's why it hasn't gotten dated."

A reunion would probably be impossible, though, Feig added. "I don't think I could afford the cast. They're all too big now."

"I think it's better left in its precious time capsule," Cardellini once told E! News. "It was a really wonderful precious moment in our lives and it's 18 episodes that I think we are all really proud of. And they live on forever."

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