Paul Feig saw some of the most painful moments of his youth re-created on the small screen in Freaks and Geeks, the TV series he and Judd Apatow made for NBC about dorks and burnouts suffering through high school in 1980. In 2000, in the middle of its critically acclaimed but poorly rated first season, the show was canceled, though its cult has increased since the release of a DVD box set last year. In 2002 Feig wrote a book in the same vein--Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, a memoir about the humiliations of his childhood and early teen years. In a second memoir, the new Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin, he tells the anticlimactic tale of his long-awaited deflowering, confesses his love of roller-skating, and provides excerpts (complete with original misspellings) of journal entries detailing his excitement about and eventual disillusionment with a real live girlfriend. Feig is currently working on film and TV projects in Los Angeles. He'll read from Superstud this Wednesday at Barbara's on Halsted.
Heather Kenny: You've written that you take pride in being the one with the most embarrassing stories on the Freaks and Geeks team. A few of Sam Weir's most humiliating experiences--getting his friends to go trick-or-treating when they're way too old, being abused during dodge ball, having disastrous relationships with girls--are said to come from your own life. Do you think your experience was unusual?
Paul Feig: I never thought it was when I was growing up. But as years went by and I would tell my stories, people would go, "Wow, that's worse than mine." But everybody has stories that are embarrassing and humiliating. Part of it is how you choose to process them. I think the only thing that I might have had that some people didn't was that I was an eternal optimist. I threw myself into situations that were fraught with peril. I always had this kind of nonimage of myself where I never went, "I can't do that because it's not cool."
I think that's why a lot of the more geeky people turn out to be more successful, because they expose themselves to more things. If you're trying to be socially popular, you've cut out about 90 percent of the things that you should or could be exposing yourself to. That's why all the mindless lemmings who were the popular kids were into whatever dopey top 40 there was, or whatever the popular movie at the time was. I think all of us in the nerd and geek and outsider category bonded because we were always exchanging stuff: "Hey, have you heard of this? This is cool." We bonded over, like, "You're the only other person who ever saw that." And our references were all so specific; it made us as much of a clique as the popular kids. But the cool thing about our clique was that it was much more open-minded and forward-looking.
HK: There must be some universality to the geek experience, otherwise you wouldn't have gotten as far as you have. Or do you think more people think of themselves as geeky than actually were?
PF: I think everyone thinks of themselves as being a quote-unquote total geek. How many times have we heard the quote from a fashion model: "I was the total geek in high school"? There's very few people who will say, "Oh yeah, I just had it all wired." Our experience is always as an outsider, because very few of us have 100 percent acceptance. For most of us who grew up in the suburbs or just had normal childhoods, not growing up in abject poverty, 90 percent of our lives were pretty fine. But what happens is any adversity becomes magnified--especially when you're a teenager, one terrible thing that happens to you feels like it's just a thousand terrible things.
HK: In your book you go into excruciating detail about things that most people would really rather forget or just keep to themselves. Why is it that you're willing to explore these things?
PF: I've always found the comedy of pain and humiliation among the funniest. That's the stuff that humanizes us all, that's the stuff that forms what we become later in life--what our fears, our prejudices, our hopes and dreams and all those other things come from. So many people try to forget that stuff for self-preservation. It's sad to think that so much human experience, personal experience over the eons, has been lost. I'd love to know the excruciating details of three thousand years ago.
HK: Of course comedy is a defense mechanism too.
PF: That's the other thing. Like these stories I tell, I go, "I'm kind of glad that happened, it makes such a funny story." But at the time it was never fun. The only bitterness I have is when somebody's being mean or a jerk. I always think, "That sucks, that somebody's like that." Those little run-ins you have every day--the jackass, the guy behind the counter at Starbucks--those moments where you're like, "God, why are people so mean? Can't everybody be a little nicer?"
HK: Maybe they were the bullies in high school.
PF: That's always my feeling. You definitely carry that. I think a lot of the political climate these days is still geeks versus jocks. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, but a lot of us geeks became a little more liberal than our conservative jock counterparts. It does feel like we are being ruled by these bullies. You know what it feels like? It feels like we're being run right now by the guys who, if you've ever worked somewhere and they go, "Hey, we have a softball team. It's just really fun, nobody cares, it's really low stakes." You get up there and there's always that asshole who's kind of in charge of the team, or thinks he is. You miss the ball and he's like, "What the fuck's wrong with you?" It's really sort of revenge of the dads right now, the mean dads. The Karl Roves of the world--who's an evil geek, a geek gone bad, a geek who wanted to be in with the jocks.
HK: Do you feel this climate has affected the industry in which you work? Do you think Freaks and Geeks could be made today?
PF: No, but for different reasons. Let's be honest: everybody gets all up in arms about Paris Hilton and Desperate Housewives. One of the topics I talk about with all my liberal friends is how much we hate all that Paris Hilton stuff on television. We're not watching it--but apparently you guys are! These things are huge! Somebody's lying here. Who's watching it?
The bigger problem I have is that my stuff isn't edgy enough. That was one of the problems with Freaks and Geeks as far as the industry went: it wasn't enough fantasy fulfillment.
HK: For instance, the parents on Freaks and Geeks, they weren't this sexy couple like on The OC. They were definitely middle-aged and not cool. But they were so touching to watch.
PF: Yeah, that to me was real life. Well, do people really want to see real life? I don't know. As much as we have a really nice fan base and people discover the show now on DVD, our ratings were horrible. There were a few weeks when we were the lowest-rated show on NBC, possibly the lowest-rated show on television. But I'm a realist: I work in the entertainment business; this is my trade. I'm surrounded by entertainment all the time. I'm watching it, evaluating it, I'm figuring out how to make it better. Well, most people in this country, their stock-in-trade is working in an office building, or in a factory, or in their job that has nothing to do with entertainment whatsoever. So my industry is their escape. At the end of a tough-ass day, dealing with the kids and finally getting them in bed, you've got one hour or two hours to watch television. Are you going to sit down and challenge yourself, or are you going to go, I just want to turn my brain off for two hours and watch something that's nicer than what I have, or looks better than what I have, or that's some idealized version of what I want my life to be?
HK: Do you think people younger than us won't understand what you went through? The chapter in Superstud where you write about concocting elaborate plots to get fashion magazines and photo books for masturbation material--today I'm sure kids get around Internet porn filters, not to mention that there are sexy ads and TV shows everywhere.
PF: If nothing else maybe it'll make them appreciate the porn. "Oh, the great age I live in now!" Yeah, that's the funny thing, it's like writing a story about somebody not being able to find a pay phone.
HK: I have to ask you about the chapter where you describe an ill-fated attempt at autofellation. You say even your wife looked at you differently after she read it. And in the book you ask people to skip over it.
PF: I'm definitely not looking to shock or anything. It's more that I really wanted to write this honest book [about] the journey from being completely scared of sex and completely misunderstanding the whole thing to actually becoming a functioning sexual being. One day I went, "If I want to be honest about the past that led to me being who I am, I really shouldn't hold stuff back." That was one thing I would occasionally cringe about. I literally woke up one morning and went, "Oh god, I think I kind of have to write about this." My wife is still absolutely horrified. She's still really mad at me about it. She's like, "I can't give this book to my parents!"
HK: Have you found the publishing industry more receptive than the television industry to your subject matter and style?
PF: Hard to say. What I love about the book world is that, unless you're getting six-million-dollar advances, the bar is set very low compared to television. Freaks and Geeks got canceled because we had about seven million people tuning in every week. If you sold seven million books, you'd be the most successful author ever--or you'd be right up there.
HK: You grew up in Michigan, and Freaks and Geeks was set there. How much does the midwestern mentality figure in your work?
PF: Midwestern humor is so different from coastal humor. It's way more honest. In the midwest we have a way-high bullshit meter. I think midwestern comedy's a little more subtle, too. For me, Freaks and Geeks was always a very midwestern comedy. With comedy scripts, Hollywood loves jokes, so it has to be these wisecracking jokes. If you look at a script of Freaks and Geeks, some of the stuff in the show that's hilarious isn't funny at all on the page. Something weird happens, and Bill goes, "Huh?" The word huh isn't funny. That's the problem with writing these things and trying to get people to make them.
HK: Do people who don't know you or don't know your background have a hard time believing that you actually went through these things?
PF: People that read the book or see the show say, "Did you exaggerate?" I didn't; I wish I could say I did.
If you look at some of the stuff I write about, a lot of what's going on is happening inside my head. I kind of take things that another person going through them might go, Whatever--it wouldn't faze them. But for me, everything was under a microscope, was so big, because I expected so much, or wanted so much, or had so many high hopes for something. Just getting turned down was colossally upsetting.
You know, I was an actor forever. When you go to a job interview, they're looking at your skills or your training, so if you don't get the gig, you go, "Well, my resume didn't hold up to what they wanted." But as an actor, if you didn't get the job, it means they just don't like you. You personally--the way you look, the way you are--are not right. That's kind of what it feels like to me when you get turned down for dates or even just in the harmless flirting one will do with a waitress--when you just get shut down by those people. Those daily rejections of who you are--I have great sympathy for that kind of thing. I run my life almost too far the other way, trying to make everybody feel good, because I'm so sensitive to not wanting to be the guy who ruins somebody's day, having had my days ruined so many times in the past, and continuing to have them ruined.
HK: And yet you keep putting yourself out there.
PF: I'd rather put myself out there and get knocked down than play it safe and sequester myself away and not interact. I have the benefit of getting to make my living doing what I do, which requires me to keep myself out there, learning about people and things and just observing the world. At least I have the benefit of having an outlet for it. That's why people should always keep journals or have some kind of creative outlet, because otherwise you become a pressure cooker and can't get rid of this kind of stuff. That's why people become bitter and scared. That's why I think the world is so fearful--that's not a fun way to live. You've got to take advantage of this life.
When: Wed, July 13, 7:30 PM
Where: Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.