Monday, March 14, 2011

Freaks, Geeks, and a Night To Remember: a Recap of the UNDECLARED / FREAKS & GEEKS Event at Paley Fest!


- If you're a pop culture / TV nerd, there's really no better event than the annual Paley Fest, held each year in LA. The 'fest is a huge celebration of great TV shows past and present, consisting of a series of panel events where the cast and crew of the various featured series gather for screenings, Q&A's, discussion, etc. Most nights of the Paley Fest are dedicated to currently-airing series, although there are usually one or two nights that serve as reunions for / tributes to some of the most beloved shows in TV history. I've been to a few Paley Fest events, and they've been uniformly great. The main problem for most fans is that event tickets are very, very pricey (especially if you're not a Paley Center member), and also that, despite the high ticket prices, most of the higher-profile panels sell out ridiculously quickly. Luckily, the last two years I've gotten complimentary tix thanks to some work connections. Last year, I got to attend the CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM panel, which was amazing. The assemblage of talent onstage was amazing, and consisted of any number of hilarious people - many of whom, like Larry David, don't tend to do a lot of public appearances. This year, however, the event was a whole other level of awesome. Because this was no ordinary Paley Fest panel, but a special, one-night-only reunion of two of TV's best and most beloved cancelled-too-early series - UNDECLARED and FREAKS & GEEKS. Each produced by Judd Apatow, both shows featured stars who went on to become some of Hollywood's hottest comedy stars (and of course Apatow himself went on to become a high-profile director and prolific producer). Aside from all that though, both of these shows were and are stone-cold classics. Freaks & Geeks in particular is right up there as one of my all-time favorite shows. I was one of the few who watched it every week during its original run, and it was a hugely influential show on me. In fact, I'd go so far to say that along with The Simpsons and The X-Files, it was one of the shows that really made me want to work in TV in the first place. This was a show that was ahead of its time and, in all likelihood, too good for TV (at least the TV of 1999).

Now, I wasn't sure where we'd be sitting for the event. Last year we were towards the back of the mezzanine section of the Saban theater in Beverly Hills, so I thought perhaps we'd be in the same section this year. Turns out, we had reserved seats about five rows from the stage, front and center. It was pretty incredible - in the row right next to us was the Apatow family, including actress Leslie Mann. When the stars came out for the panels, we were right there. So that alone was amaing. The other big surprise was that our tickets came with backstage passes to the event's afterparty. I wasn't mentally prepared for that at all, so it was a little hard to process. Yes, I work in TV, but I still get starstruck mingling with people whose careers I've followed and admired for so long. But more on that later.

The UNDECLARED panel was up first, and it was introduced in hilarious fashion by Judd Apatow's young daughter, who nervously but entertainingly cracked some jokes to kickoff the evening. Before the cast came out, we all watched an episode of the show together in the theater, which was pretty awesome. I've revisted F&G a few times over the years, but I haven't really sat down and watched Undeclared since its original airing - during my sophomore year of college in 2001 / 2002. The episode that screened, "Eric Visits Again," was even funnier than I remembered it. Guest starring Jason Segel as the revenge-seeking boyfriend of main character Lizzie, the episode was packed to the brim with great dialogue and hilarious physical comedy. It was a lot of fun to revisit the show, which ran for only one season on FOX back in the day - one in a long list of victims of FOX's horrible scheduling and promotional practices in the early 00's. But man, was this show good. And as the talent onstage for the panel clearly demonstrated, the cast was an embarrasment of riches. From frequent guest stars like Segel and Amy Poehler (both on the panel) to star Jay Baruchel, from soon-to-be-bigtime directors like Greg Mottolla (Superbad) and Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard). Pretty incredible.

The banter during the panel was a lot of fun, with Segel and Poehler stealing the show. Segel talked up his movie-star credentials and had some playful disses of Baruchel, while Poehler gave some interesting insight into Judd Apatow's early TV history, recalling the never-picked-up pilot she did with him called North Hollywood. Seth Rogen was also very funny on the panel. Despite being one of the biggest stars out onstage, Rogen impressed with his slice-of-life stories and random pop-culture knowledge (at one point, the cast was trying to remember who sang the song "Bitch," since apparently it was popular while they were shooting the show - without missing a beat, Rogen recalled that it was Meredith Brooks).

An interesting theme throughout the night was seeing how so many of the old Apatow gang has gone on to huge stardom - Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Jay Baruchel have all blown up from the cast of Undeclared, for example. And yet, as is the way of things in showbiz, a lot of the cast members have struggled since their time in Undeclared or F&G. Some have had sort of journeyman careers over the last ten years, others have gone on to do stand-up or writing or producing, and others have either been on the fringes of showbiz or out of the business altogether. You have guys like Seth Rogen who have become huge, and someone like Carla Gallo, who's had mostly bit parts since Undeclared. And then there's someone like Kyle Gass of Tenacious D - a recurring guest star on the show - who, well, he's Kyle freaking Gass.

In any case, the panel was filled with great stories, lots of back-and-forth banter, some playful jabs at the various cast members, and a number of interesting insights into the show's history and production.

After a short intermission, it was time for the FREAKS & GEEKS portion of the event to begin. Judd Apatow's daughter again came onstage and said "Are you guys ready to see an episode of Freaks & Geeks?" (huge applause) "Or would you rather just watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County?".
Luckily, we ended up watching a classic episode of F&G - the season (and sadly, series) finale, in fact. Fans of the show will recall that in 2000, NBC chose to pull the show from its regular timeslot, and then burned off some of the remaining episodes in one Saturday night marathon. Only later did the now-defunct FOX Family Channel air the final four still-unaired episodes via syndication. The show's shoddy treatment from the network was pretty devastating at the time. Here was a show that was so above and beyond almost everything else on the air, and it was being treated like a red-headed step child. In retrospect, it doesn't sting as much if only because the show now works so well as a one-season-long storyline, easily digested on DVD. But still, to think that a show that good was treated so poorly by the network, and also that - come on, America! - it got such relatively low ratings ... well, it's crazy.

Like I said, I've rewatched F&G a bit, so seeing the finale again was like comfort food. Although, the added novelty of watching it with a theater full of huge fans was pretty awesome. It's funny because the finale isn't even an episode that I'd rank as one of the series' best, per se, but it still has so many memorable moments. Most notably is the plotline in which Daniel Desario joins the AV Club and, eventually joins the geeks for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. It's a hilarious and moving storyline, and the episode as a whole - while having a sort of rushed feel to it as it tries to wrap up a number of the seasons' ongoing character arcs - is still pretty damn good. As a whole, the show holds up amazingly well, even 10+ years later. There still are NOT many shows out there that depict teenagers with any sort of authenticity. And yet Freaks & Geeks, with its young and talented cast, its dead-on writing, and its blend of humor and pathos, just nails it.

As all of the show's stars gathered onstage, it was, again, pretty amazing to see the raw assemblage of talent and starpower. The only major star missing was James Franco, though he contributed a pretty great video greeting that poked fun at his Oscar hosting gig, as it costarred a photo of Anne Hathaway (Franco, apparently, doesn't go anywhere without her these days). Again though, it was kind of interesting to see the contrast between the guys like Seth Rogen and Jason Siegel who have blown up, the people like Busy Philipps and Samm Levine and Linda Cardellini -who have had steady work but never quite on the level of F&G, and then people like Natasha Melnik (who played geek-crush Cindy), who seemed a bit embarassed to admit that she'd done time waitressing since the show ended. It was also funny to see how some of the cast had aged (John Francis Daley, who starred as Sam Weir, had definitely grown up a lot since his days as a young teen on F&G), whereas some had barely aged at all (Samm Levine joked that he was the only cast member who could still play his old character in a remake). There was also just an interesting dynamic on stage - it really did feel like we were watching a true reunion. Seth Rogen and Jason Segel joked around like best buddies, whereas Rogen's reminiscing about his days rooming with Martin Starr had a nostalgic, "those were the days" quality (Judd Apatow joked that he used to refer to their ramshackle apartment as "the masturbatorium"). Many of the cast remarked how they had barely recognized the sleekly made-over Melnik. And then, one of the most fascinating characters onstage had to be Stephen Lea Sheppard, who played nerd-king Harris on the show. Clearly not far removed in real life from the character he played, Sheppard seems to have exited showbiz altogether post-F&G, retreating back to the wilds of Canada from the spotlight of Hollywood, and seemed sort of bemused just to be sitting on the same panel as so many of his old castmates who have since achieved stardom. There was an almost voyeuristic quality to all this, and there was a real, sincere feeling that we were peering in on a group of people who shared this crazy, singular moment in their lives and were now genuinely having the equivalent of a ten-year high school reunion. Busy Philipps even played the part of drunk-girl-who-can't-help-bringing-up-ancient-but-still-possibly-raw-history. Admitting that she was slightly inebriated, Philipps told stories about the absent James Franco with a mix of mocking humor and maybe a little soreness. Apparently, Franco was trying to be all method while shooting the show, and would take on the rough-edged Daniel Desario persona even between takes. One time Philipps put her hand on his shoulder or something, and Franco, immersed in his character, flipped out and yelled "don't touch me" and pushed her to the ground. Soon enough the set was in chaos, Cardellini was in her trailer crying, etc. Meanwhile, Samm Levine was the group historian, recounting the show's troubled broadcast history. And Apatow was sort of the doting father. Along with creator Paul Fieg, he clearly looked at this cast with a strong sense of pride and accomplishment. As Segel put it, Apatow felt a sense of resposibility for them. Afterall, many had dropped out of high school or college to be on the show, and Apatow then went out of his way to keep as many of the cast working as possible.

There were all kinds of great anecdotes at the panel, lots of hilarious banter, and again, many great insights into one of the truly seminal TV shows of the last 25 years. Martin Starr wrapped things up with some great thoughts about the experience of creating Freaks & Geeks, and he ended the panel on a poignant note when he talked about what it meant for him to be a part of it.
After the panel, we flashed our tickets to get into the backstage area for the afterparty. It was pretty awesome, on one hand - to be in a small room with so many big stars and actors who I grew up watching. It was a little awkward on the other hand, just because I had no real "in" to talk to any of them, and the only other random people I knew at the event were through work and had no particular ins either. It's always that strange mix at these sorts of things. You want to just be a fan and ask for a picture or autograph, but you also want to act like you belong there and play it cool. So yeah, suffice it to say I didn't have any big moment with any cast members, and also didn't have the nerve to bumrush Judd Apatow with a copy of one of my screenplays (probably a good thing). But hey, I still had that "look at me, Ma" feeling of hanging with the stars and being right there where the action was (of course, my actual parents had minimal reaction to all this - they don't know Seth Rogen from Paul Hogan). And man, if my 18 year old self had known that one day I'd be in a room with Linda Cardelini, well, my 18 year old self would have totally freaked. And hey, let's be honest ... my 28 year old self was semi-freaking out as well.

Anyways, it was a really fun event, and the backstage access made it that much more memorable. So here's to UNDECLARED, FREAKS & GEEKS, great TV, and big Hollywood dreams!

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