How I Got Kicked Out of High School
Judd Apatow has worked as a writer and producer on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” and Fox’s sketch comedy “The Ben Stiller Show.” He received multiple Emmy nominations for the former and won an Emmy for the latter, albeit several months after the show was canceled. Apatow was a script doctor on “The Wedding Singer” and “Liar Liar.” His film credits include “Celtic Pride” and “Heavyweights.” Apatow also produced the Jim Carrey comedy “The Cable Guy” but was denied credit for his rewrite of the film by the Writers Guild of America.
For the last year or so, the NBC drama series “Freaks and Geeks,” set in a high school circa 1980, has occupied his time. Apatow was executive producer of the show, whose core cast included sophomore Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother Sam (John Daley), a geek freshman whose pals include Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr).
Garry Shandling looks white as a ghost. I’ve just been brought to my room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after having back surgery. He is visiting me. I ask Garry what’s the matter. He says they just took a dead man out of the room next to mine. What is going on? How did I get here? I was happy and healthy a year and a half ago. Oh, now I remember--I developed and ran a show for network television. Wait, it’s all coming back to me. Thank God I kept that diary.
Oct. 16, 1998
I am in New York writing a pilot for the Fox network called “Sick in the Head.” It’s about a very young therapist with no life experience. The president of Fox, Peter Roth, is a great guy. He loves the show. Got a call from my old friend Paul Feig today. He said he wrote a television pilot and he’s sending it to me. There is nothing worse than reading your friends’ scripts. They are always terrible. Then I’m stuck trying to think of something nice to say. “Hey, it’s really . . . good that you wrote this. The only way to become a better writer is to write, write, write.” I’ll just tell him I’m busy with my pilot and give him some notes.
I can’t believe it, Paul’s script is great. It’s called “Freaks and Geeks” and it’s about a brother and sister in Michigan in 1980. The boy is a geek, the girl is a burnout. It’s very real and funny. It would be so nice to see a high school show on television that doesn’t star a bunch of models like all of those shows on the WB. I told Paul it was “pretty good” so he wouldn’t get cocky and show it to anybody else, then I sent it to DreamWorks. I’m sure they’ll buy it.
Bad news. My manager told me that Peter Roth is going to be fired and Doug Herzog from Comedy Central will replace him at Fox. Nevertheless, I had to talk with Peter on the phone today about “Sick in the Head.” It felt like a scene from “GoodFellas” where everyone knows a guy is about to be killed but they eat dinner with him anyway. Fortunately, Doug Herzog is a good guy. He’s buddies with my manager, so this could turn out to be a good thing.
We sent “Freaks and Geeks” to all the networks. Scott Sassa and Don Ohlmeyer at NBC both love it. Rob Dwek, a VP at Fox, told me they were passing because, “Who wants to watch a show about a bunch of losers?” I told him they are “underdogs” and he probably didn’t like the script because he was one of the guys who used to beat up those kids. He laughed without denying it.
Jan. 20, 1999
NBC green-lit the “Freaks and Geeks” pilot. We taped “Sick in the Head.” It could not have gone better. Doug Herzog loved it. I pressed him for a midseason order, but he said, “Judd, it went well, but it was the first pilot taping I have ever been to so I have nothing to judge it against.” He is the president of the Fox network.
Paul, our director Jake Kasdan and myself are working on the rewrite of “Freaks and Geeks.” We are very tough on the script. I have never seen anyone in as much pain as Paul as we go through this process. Regardless, his revision pages are hilarious. He is too naive about television to be a hackneyed writer. He claims to have never seen “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Casting. We hold sessions around the U.S. and Canada searching for “normal"-looking kids. TV has become so looks-obsessed that this choice is actually considered original. “Friends” made TV executives believe that funny people can be gorgeous, too. That show is the exception. Most beautiful people never develop a funny bone as a defense mechanism because good looks and breasts usually are enough. I long for the days when Jack Klugman was the biggest comedy star in America.
Scott Sassa approved all of our casting. We were ready for a fight, but he really gets the show. We are having a perfect experience with NBC.
Garth Ancier, the president of the WB network, has been hired as the new president of programming for NBC. We heard he saw the show and didn’t “get it.” He tells me he went to private school in Connecticut and doesn’t relate to the blue-collar, Midwestern public school setting. Then over the weekend he showed it to some friends who went bananas for it, so now he is on board. My lower back is beginning to give me some trouble. I need to call the chiropractor.
Rumor has it that our show is going to be picked up. They are talking about putting us on either Sunday or Wednesday nights. Just as long as we don’t get put on Saturday nights at 8 o’clock, the death slot.
NBC has ordered 13 episodes of “Freaks and Geeks.” It will air on Saturday nights at 8 o’clock. I think we can do well there. A lot of people in their 30s who have young kids will be home, and that is our target audience. NBC says they will nurture us, and that it is a good slot because there is less pressure to deliver ratings. Besides, we are up against the one-hundredth year of “Cops” and “Early Edition.” How can we not do well?
“Sick in the Head” didn’t get picked up. When I asked Doug Herzog why he didn’t order my show, he said, “Nobody here loved it.” I got kinda mad and said, “Well, if you picked up anything good I wouldn’t feel so bad.” He said, “Judd, 90% of everything fails. Don’t worry, I’ll probably be fired in a year anyway.”
At the network announcements Paul introduced himself to Garth, who declared, “Deliver the goods or you’ll wind up like this guy.” Then he pointed to a man standing next to him. They both laughed. Paul didn’t know who “that guy” was, but it scared the hell out of him.
Writing with the staff has begun. Our dream is to make a show about high school that feels like it was written by Garry Shandling or James Brooks. We spend every day sharing the highs and lows of our high school experiences. Paul is a bottomless pit of geek stories. He tells us about being afraid to take showers in gym class, about wearing a denim jumpsuit to school because the guy at the store in the mall told him it would make him look cool, and about his fear of French kissing. He has enough stories for 30 seasons.
Shooting has begun. Can’t wait to get on the air. NBC has informed us that they are going to put us on in mid-September and then take us off for three or four weeks for baseball and then relaunch us in October. There was some discussion about whether or not it would be more effective to just start in October and not have an interruption, but they say it’s good because we’ll get two big launches and promos on the World Series. Sounds good to me.
The reviews came in. Every single review was a rave. It’s weird. Time magazine called us “the best fall drama aimed at any demographic.” Rolling Stone called us “stunningly funny and moving.” At lunch, Paul read the reviews to the cast and crew. Everyone cheered. This is fun!
The first show aired last night. The ratings were very strong. Eleven share. Scott Sassa called me at home to congratulate me. There is already talk about moving us. For the first time in my life I feel like I am part of something that might really take off.
The second show aired last night. Our ratings dropped like a rock from last week. They say it’s partly because our lead-in in several major markets was the low-rated “Latino Heritage Awards.” The promo people think they made a mistake switching from “review-driven” ads to an ad which told the story of the show. NBC tells us not to worry. They are still excited. Being on Saturday really does take off the pressure. Well, we’re off till after the World Series.
We returned to the air last night. Eight share. We are in big trouble. To hear the ratings you have to call this recording at NBC. The woman who records the voice is supposedly emotionless as she reads off the overnight numbers, but she always sounds disappointed when she says, “ ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ 8 share.” I feel like I’m letting her down.
Scott Sassa calls and tells me that he is taking “Freaks and Geeks” off during November sweeps, and then moving it to Mondays at 8 starting in January. This is a big opportunity for us. He says they will give us a major relaunch. Our main competition is the new Jennifer Love Hewitt show and “7th Heaven” on the WB. We could do well there.
I’m a little worried about being off the air for eight weeks but Scott says a major relaunch will solve that. The only catch is that we are almost finished shooting our original 13 episodes. We need NBC to pick up the back nine episodes so we don’t have to shut down. Scott says he’ll think about it.
Garth Ancier takes me out to lunch to discuss creative issues concerning “Freaks and Geeks.” He would like the kids to have more victories. I tell him that the point of the program is to show how our characters survive the obstacles of high school with their compassion and senses of humor intact. Surviving is a victory. I say, “I just want the work to be truthful.” He replies, “Why do you want it to be truthful, it’s TV?” I ask him about NBC’s upcoming “Y2K” disaster movie. “Are you worried that the film might contribute to a panic on New Year’s?” He jokes, “I hope there is a panic. That would mean somebody watched the show.”
Scott decides to pick up more episodes. One more episode. It is the shortest back-end order in television history. It feels strange because they are giving us this amazing opportunity on Monday nights, but they seem to have no faith that we can succeed. I’m starting to think they really like the show and don’t have the heart to kill it. My back really hurts when I drive.
Jan. 1, 2000
The year-end reviews came in. Time magazine said we were the best series on network television. Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide put us on their top 10 lists. Hopefully that type of press reminds NBC that we are the type of show that deserves time to find its audience. I haven’t heard them say the word “nurture” in quite a while.
Tonight’s our first airing on Monday night. Scott Sassa says if we get an 8 share, his shoe size, he will order four more new episodes. I’ve never heard a man so vocal about his shoe size being an 8. It’s hard to complain when someone sets the bar so low. I was feeling good about our chances, but ABC moved “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” against us. That show is like an assassin. I hope people get bored with it before it kills every good show on TV.
They are not getting bored with it. It got over a 20 share. We did an 8 share, exactly. Scott made good on his word and ordered four more. I’m sure he wishes he had bigger feet. I’d be excited about next week but we are going up against Dick Clark’s “American Music Awards.” How are we supposed to grab viewers when our show opens with a group of geeks discussing deadly peanut allergies and their show opens with Britney Spears revealing her belly?
Today I found myself wondering if I should create a really smart, hilarious show that just happens to be about hot models.
Our best episode, the one about the geeks finally getting a chance to pick sides in gym class, is preempted in several major markets due to the tragic Alaska Airlines crash. Our time slot is filled with local news coverage of the crash, which consists solely of a single shot of a pitch-dark ocean. Next week our competition is the Mary Tyler Moore reunion movie. NBC says it is a different audience but Paul thinks everyone will watch just to see what they look like. My chiropractor says if my back doesn’t feel better soon I should see a doctor.
Paul was right. Mary held us down while Rhoda kneed us in the face. America loves reunions, no matter how awful. It reminded me of “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” and those “Honeymooners” episodes they shot when they were all over 70. I must admit I flipped over during our commercials and had a hard time switching back. I tell Paul that we should assume there is no second season and that we should focus on making the shows great because they will be on cable forever. We hold back none of our good ideas for next year.
Garth calls. He tells us he’s taking us off the air for February sweeps. “You don’t want to go up against all those event shows.” We will disappear for four weeks and then relaunch for the third time. Garth promises us he’ll let the final eight episodes run straight through till May. If we could just be on for a few months without interruption, I know our ratings would improve.
We return next week, but NBC isn’t running many promos. Leno did a joke a few weeks ago where he said we were canceled and now I think America believes it. I send Scott a note, but it is hard to demand more promo time when you are the lowest-rated show on the network. Scott tells my manager they are putting all their promo muscle behind their three new shows: “Daddio” and “God, the Devil and Bob.” They are very excited about “Daddio.”
We only received 2 minutes and 10 seconds of prime-time promo this past week. “God, the Devil and Bob” received over 11 minutes. We get our asses handed to us by a film called “Satan’s School for Girls” starring Shannen Doherty.
The Museum of Television & Radio honored us as part of the William Paley Festival. We were one of only three new shows selected. The other two were “The West Wing” and “Once and Again.” During the Q&A; someone asks whether or not the show is too dark. I reply, “Sometimes I think that’s true, but last week on ‘ER’ someone stabbed Kellie Martin in the face and America loved it.” It was fun meeting our fans. If we do not get a second season it was a great way for our cast to remember their experience with our show. I pray none of them wind up on “E! True Hollywood Story.”
Paul Feig’s mother passes away. She was very healthy. It is a complete surprise.
It’s over. We were on last night, we received an 8 share, and we were canceled by noon. It’s such a shocker because they paid for six episodes that they are choosing not to air. How can that make financial sense? We were only on 12 out of 26 weeks. After I hear the news, Garth calls. I am half-crying, half-screaming as I rant at him for 10 minutes. He listens calmly. He’s very apologetic. He’s clearly made hundreds of cancellation calls in his life and does it very well. By the end of the call, he has turned me around to the point where I am asking him if he’s mad at me. I have to call Paul and tell him the news. He is at a meeting working out his late mother’s financial affairs. It is a bad week. I finished the day seeing a back doctor about my injured disc. He says I’ll need surgery over the summer and gives me 40 Vicodins. I feel like Chevy Chase.
Paul’s mom’s funeral was today. All of the NBC executives who truly cared about the show and did the day-to-day work attended. It was a nice gesture, but I must admit it felt good to see them cry. It was especially sad because our cast of kids was there and they didn’t just lose a show, they lost a home. We grieved for Paul’s mom, and because the show is about Paul’s family, we grieved for the show. Paul’s eulogy was heartfelt, very moving and often hilarious. It’s been an honor working with Paul. He truly is one of the most talented people in town. The worst part about a show ending is that many of your intimate relationships end as well. I will miss Paul the most.
Scott Sassa calls. He says he was a big fan of the show, but should have canceled us in January. I am grateful to them for allowing us to make “Freaks and Geeks” without any creative interference. If there wasn’t so much chaos in network television with viewer erosion and the Web coming over the hill, maybe they would have let us hang in there a little longer. Regardless, I do not consider our show merely 18 episodes long. I feel like I made 18 really good movies. Unfortunately there is no way to see them right now.
The worst part of this experience is being replaced by “Dateline,” a show I find truly evil. It is the prediction of Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant film “Network” come to terrifying fruition. These entertainment programs milk human tragedies such as Columbine for all they’re worth while wearing the disguise of a news show. They think we don’t notice that their show is basically a new version of “A Current Affair,” because Jane Pauley is cute and Stone Phillips wears nice sweaters. At least we tried to put something positive into the world.
“Daddio” is a big hit.
“God, the Devil and Bob” is canceled.
Doug Herzog “resigned” last week.
“Dateline” fills our spot with an episode about flammable mattresses. With almost no promo, they receive an 11 share.
I am sitting in my hospital room after spending five hours in post-op listening to people moan as they wake up after their operations. They kept telling me my room wasn’t clean yet. Apparently Cedars isn’t much different than the Hyatt Hotel. It is hard to find closure. I did the best work I’ve ever done. I received the best reviews I’ve ever received. It was the lowest-rated show on NBC. Did it fail because of scheduling? Did it fail because we went out of our way to not be like all the other “successful” teen shows? I don’t know. All I do know is I’m glad I’m not the dead guy they rolled out of the room next to me.
I think I’ll take the summer off and see if I can convince Paul to develop a new show for next season. I hope this article doesn’t make NBC too mad to work with me. Well . . . that guy at ABC seems nice.