Geeks and More Geeks

I went and hung out with my mom and sister last weekend so that we could watch the new A&E documentary about one of our all-time favorite shows, Freaks and Geeks. I guess I forgot that it’s been almost twenty years now since that show came out. This keeps happening to me; so many things that made a big impression on me when I was an older teenager or very young adult are still so big in my imagination that I kind of fail to notice that they’re not necessarily top of mind for other people anymore. 

The documentary was sadder than I expected it to be, but I shouldn’t have been surprised, since the show itself was often so melancholy and challenging. In the documentary, the writer and executive producer of Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow—who is fucking funny—opens up about the personal baggage he’s lugged around with him through life, and about how devasted he was at the thought that his beloved show was being neglected by the network. When it was cancelled, thereby breaking apart the makeshift family of his cast and coworkers, he felt as bad as he had as a kid, when his family split up during his parents’ nasty divorce. He jokes that every project he’s worked on since then has been done in a spirit of revenge, but you can see he’s only half kidding. Being hurt can be quite motivational when it comes to trying to succeed, or even just getting out of a bad situation.

After we watched the documentary the three of us talked about some of the other wonderful shows and movies Judd Apatow has written, directed, or produced: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Love, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. My sister asked me if I’d read the book of interviews he did with comics and I hadn’t, so she lent it to me, and wow, what an exciting thing this is to read.

In his introduction Apatow tells us that, when he was in tenth grade, he went to work for his high school’s radio station in Syosset, Long Island. A friend of his who also worked for the station was obsessed with music, and this kid took the train into NYC to interview the bands he loved, including REM and Siouxsie Sioux. A lightbulb went off over young Judd Apatow’s head. “Wait, so we could actually interview people we admired? They would talk to you if you asked nicely?” This was all the encouragement he needed to, sort of sneakily, set up interviews with famous and up-and-coming comics whose agents didn’t quite realize, until he showed up with his tape recorder, that the interview was going to be with a kid. This book collects many of those old interviews. Apatow writes that he never even aired most of them (the questions he was asking were mostly for himself anyway), but he saved them all.

Sure enough, as you read through you see that some of the interviews are dated from the early 80s, when Apatow was still in high school. The first one, in 1983, is with Jerry Seinfeld, who had just started to take off, and it makes for surprisingly good reading. You can hear Jerry’s voice, his intonations, because the conversations are reproduced word for word, Q&A style. It’s so much fun to eavesdrop on conversations like this, and it’s especially good when the conversations are about writing. This whole book is about writing, basically, though since it’s about comedy and the interviews are with celebrities you’ve seen in movies and TV, the fact of it being about writing kind of sneaks up on you. 

The book includes a number of newer interviews alongside the old ones, and the conversations often circle back to the subject of sadness. Apatow wants to know what’s wrong with everybody, all these people he admires so much—what happened to them to make them comics. Marc Maron tells him that his favorite scene in Freaks and Geeks is one with Bill Haverchuck, the awkward-looking kid played by Martin Starr whose mother is raising him on her own. At the start of one episode we see Bill come home from school and let himself into the apartment. The Who’s “I’m One” is playing, and you really feel the melancholy of the moment. Anybody who has lived alone will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it can feel really lonely to return home to an empty house at the end of the day. Bill makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich and puts the TV on, and watches Garry Shandling do stand-up on The Dinah Shore Show. We don’t hear anything Shandling is saying because the song plays over the whole thing; we just see Bill start to crack up with laughter. Pure joy, a smile that splits his face open. He’s enjoying his own comany in the nicest way, and this hilarious person has helped him do that. People who are happiest when they’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or playing a game—people who connect with other people this way better than they can in person—we’re the people that scene was made for, and it’s incredibly touching. 

Teenage Judd Apatow’s questions were intelligent and straightforward and showed a good understanding of how writing worked even then, but the more striking thing is how generously people opened up to him. One of the other early interviews is with Garry Shandling, who talked to him over the phone from a hotel room in Lake Tahoe resting up for his show that night. They had a real, adult conversation about writing and stand-up, and it’s wonderful to read. He interviewed Shandling again in 2014 and they revisited some of the same subjects but got more intimate, about feelings of guilt and self-doubt, and following your gut when it comes to pursuing the work that you love because that’s really the only guide you can rely on. I haven’t come across any ego, fakery, or other bullshit in this book yet; at the risk of sounding trite, these interviews are full of lessons on life, not just work.

Are comedians nicer people than the rest of us? That seems to go against what I’ve heard about them as a group. I can tell you that, generally, writers are not nicer than anybody. But artists love to talk about their work, about the mystery of it as well as the slog. Most successful people, I’ve found, when they were first starting out, got a little help and guidance from people who were older and more experienced, and nothing feels better than getting the chance to help somebody else when it’s your turn to be asked. In a sense, I guess, this book is really about love. About doing what you love and doing it with love. At its best, whether it’s angry or funny, challenging or sweet, that’s what art is—a love letter to the world.