Revisiting Freaks and Geeks is akin to revisiting an old high school friend. As you watch the characters wander the halls of the fictional McKinley High School in Michigan, you can’t help but feel as if this was your own high school experience. It’s all very relatable. And nearing 22 years since the first day of school on September 25th, 1999, the show manages to defy the impossible.
Despite only having lasted for 18 episodes (12 of which only ever aired during its initial run on NBC), the show has left an indelible mark on pop culture. In the years that have passed, a massive cult following has built up, only furthered by the fact that every single person has gone on to do bigger things in Hollywood. But no matter how high they have soared and no matter how many years have stacked behind them, all roads seem to lead back to the nothing-short-of-stellar Freaks and Geeks.
You’re hard pressed to find a more eclectic and kick ass soundtrack from a TV series. In a time when it was incredibly rare to hear classic rock on television, this show looked to change all of that. Whether it was the derailed slow dance set to “Come Sail Away” in the pilot or an entire episode chock full of music from The Who, this was a show that took its music very seriously. Where most creators may have considered music to be an afterthought, Freaks and Geeks had it built into its very core.
And just how seriously did those behind the scenes of the now-iconic series treat the music? Creator Paul Feig went out of his way to create a show bible that featured an obsessively detailed list of all the bands from that era, and whether it was a band the Freaks or the Geeks would listen to at the time. Van Halen is attributed to the Freaks, The Bee Gees were given to the Geeks, The Doobie Brothers were tagged to the Freaks and the Geeks, Simon & Garfunkel were tasked to the teachers, and the B-52s, well, were nobody’s business. And while all of this backstory may seem to be unnecessary to the untrained eye, what it wound up doing was lend further credibility to just how hard everyone who worked on the show strived for total authenticity within the world they were creating — and it worked. That’s why we’re still talking about it today.
What happened with the music of Freaks and Geeks after the show went off the air, however, is just as interesting in how they acquired it in the first place. Because of how expensive all the music rights were — and the fact that home media for a failed TV show in 2000 wasn’t necessarily a thing — it would take four years of knocking on doors and fighting before Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow would ever find someone willing to pony up the dough to go back out and acquire the music rights all over again. Eventually, Shout Factory! came in and saved the day, though the advent of streaming forced that process all over again. First with Netflix in 2010, and then this year with Hulu, where the entire original soundtrack remains intact.
In celebration of its return, Consequence of Sound‘s own Andrew Buss recently spoke with the shaggy rockers at heart who helped the show find its voice. Below, you’ll hear from creator Paul Feig, executive producer Judd Apatow, composer Michael Andrews, music supervisor Buck Damon, and actors Martin Starr, Samm Levine, and Busy Philipps about finding the right tone from a music standpoint, their favorite music-based moments, and the long journey of getting it on to Hulu.
In 1999, Paul Feig sent a spec script he had written, titled Freaks and Geeks, to longtime friend Judd Apatow. At the time, Apatow had an overall deal at Dreamworks, and after reading the script, he immediately leapt on the project and got the studio on board.
PAUL FEIG (CREATOR): I knew right away that I wanted music to be a big part of it because it was so based on my experience in high school and just how important music was to all those memories and to everything we did. When you’re a teenager, especially, whatever songs are your favorite songs become the soundtrack to your life. So, I knew I really wanted to make that an integral part and wrote a lot of the cues into the actual script — some of which changed, actually. Long and short, music was always going to be very integral to it, and always something that I wanted us to write into the scripts so that we could mold scenes around the actual songs when possible.
JUDD APATOW (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER): One of Paul’s original visions is that it would have all of the music of the era, and we always thought that that was exciting. Because, at that time, there weren’t any shows using that type of music in their soundtracks or scores. It’s very common now, but to score a sequence with a Billy Joel song or something by The Grateful Dead was pretty much unheard of when we did the show. Other than The Wonder Years, you didn’t hear much classic rock music on hour television.
FEIG: I was in high school from ’76 to ’80. I had a lot of angst when I was putting the show together — whether it should be the late ’70s or whether it should be 1980 — and I finally decided to make it 1980 just because I liked all the music. I wanted to be able to use all the music that happened in high school right from the top. When I was in high school, Van Halen hit the scene and blew our minds. I wanted to be in a world where all that stuff could exist, so we could put it in.
APATOW: We were all fans of movies by people like Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese, who used rock music so well. So this was an opportunity to do our version of it.
FEIG: When I was in school, the freaks – as we used to call them, the burnouts or freaks – were way into hard rock. So Van Halen, Ted Nugent, Led Zeppelin, the list goes on and on of just the hard rock groups. And then as geeks, we dipped in and out of all those things, really. Because we were into hard rock, too. But then we also liked dumb, novelty songs like Benny Bell’s “Shaving Cream”, you know? And then things more like Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg. That kind of stuff. Also, the theme from Caddyshack, which we decided to use in there because that felt like it was so indicative of what we all liked as geeks. Music that had a connection to something else that we liked, on top of being a cool song.
I never wanted to have a strict delineation of the Geeks listen to this and the Freaks listen to this. I wanted it to be crossed over. Out on the Internet – I know it’s been out there for a long time – there’s this bible I wrote for the show. I really went through and wrote down all the bands and who would be into them. I’d say, “This is a Geek band. This is a Freak band. This is a band that both of them liked.” I haven’t looked at that list in a thousand of years, but it’s pretty interesting. It breaks down everything.
With a clear road map of exactly what kind of music they wanted featured on the show, it was time to bring in the actors. A few of the cast members had been familiar with a lot of the tunes from that era, but most of them were not up to snuff.
SAMM LEVINE (“NEIL SCHWEIBER”): I’ve always, always, always been a big classic rock junkie. So, going into the series, I was very familiar with almost all of the music that would wind up getting used in the series just because I was raised by my dad, who’s a big classic rock guy. So I had access to all his old vinyls. I even had a record player in my room growing up. I was a big, big, big, big fan of the music of the ’70s and early ’80s to begin with, so getting on a show that heavily featured so much of the music from that era was such a nice bonus. And I loved how much of the music from the ’70s and the early ’80s that we were able to use.
MARTIN STARR (“BILL HAVERCHUCK”): I think this opened my world up quite a bit. I grew up in Los Angeles, and most of the music that I listened to up until that point was hip-hop and R&B. Stuff that was popular in my friend group. I listened to jazz. I listened to some world music, because my dad had eclectic taste in music which, luckily, I’ve developed later in life. But at the time, I think I was really only actively listening to hip-hop music. The first album I ever bought was Tupac’s All Eyes On Me. I mean I listened to other stuff, but that was the first one that I spent my money on and bought.
BUSY PHILIPPS (“KIM KELLY”): I just finished my sophomore year in college when I was cast, and I was very into music. I went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, as did Linda Cardellini, and LMU has a really great indie music radio station called KXLU. It’s known nationally. My roommate was a DJ there. My friends all worked at KXLU. I was very into indie rock like Modest Mouse and The Promise Ring. Early emo indie stuff was my vibe, and then my holdovers from high school, because I was always very into female musicians like Tori Amos and I guess Fiona Apple a little bit. And then some other sort of singer-songwritery vibes. So, it was a lot of rock and a lot of indie rock back in the day.
APATOW: I think it was important to Paul that everybody catch up on their Led Zeppelin, especially Jason Segel. I don’t think this is correct, but my memory tells me that it was somewhat shocking how little many of them knew about Led Zeppelin.
FEIG: I was really concerned our cast playing the freaks wouldn’t know Led Zeppelin, or wouldn’t have the deep dive. I remember taking them — even though his politics are horrid — to see Ted Nugent at the House of Blues just to go, “This is the stuff. This is what it felt like to be in a club where it’s just rocking loud with rock music.” And they loved it.
STARR: Zeppelin is easily my favorite band now, and I only really got to know them because of Freaks & Geeks.
LEVINE: At first, Paul asked us — the whole cast — if we had any Rush, The Who, Zeppelin, and several other classic rock artists of the era at home. I recall him being a bit more interested in the freak side being well versed in that music than the geek side. I, of course, was so proud of myself that I already owned many of those artists’ albums and knew them well. Back in those days, I took great pride in being a teenage classic rock aficionado. I’m sure I gloated to Judd and Paul that they “didn’t have to worry about me” when it came to our music knowledge. So Paul immediately — and rightfully — took me down a peg by asking if I had Hocus Pocus by Focus at home. I did not, so he said, “Well then I guess you haven’t heard everything yet.”
STARR: I do feel like I got a CD at one point that had a bunch of music on it that helped me understand what they were doing. Because I just wasn’t really familiar with this time period in music.
LEVINE: He brought in many of those albums for us to borrow. And to this day, I haven’t returned his copy of Focus II. I also have no idea where it might be, but I know I definitely never gave it back.
PHILIPPS: I asked them for a list of music that I should get and maybe get into. You’ll have to remember the Internet didn’t really exist. Like in 1999, it wasn’t like I could just pull up fucking Pitchfork’s “The 20 Best Albums From 1979 or 1980” or “The Best Rock Music From 1980.” We had to come by it organically. So, asking Paul and Judd made the most sense. Paul, especially, since this was based on his experience as a young person in the world. I asked him what the Freaks listened to, what was their vibe, and so early on, I went to Tower Records and bought a bunch of Best Of albums for The Who and Rolling Stones. I bought Rod Stewart CDs and I bought Joan Jett. More stuff that I thought Kim would be down with.
FEIG: I was definitely giving out a lot of music. It was just really important to me that they be fully in touch with everything we listened to and not just what culturally comes along. It’s a very funny show, but I didn’t want to do That 70’s Show, which … I don’t know how to say it … cherry-picked kind of the most absurd things of the ’70s. So, the outfits they wore were definitely worn back then, that wasn’t what everybody wore, you know? So it was very important to me. With wardrobe, I got all my old yearbooks and I went through them — I still have them all year marked — and I said, “Here’s how we dressed. We didn’t all wear platform shoes and leisure suits and have our hair feathered with puka shells. Burnouts dressed in army clothes and jeans. It was more ’60s-oriented still.”
So, it was the same thing with the music. I wanted to make sure that they knew more than just the songs that everybody knows from back then. Back in the days, you’d buy an album and you’d just put on the album and listen to the whole album. You weren’t just popping around to your favorite songs. You would actually go into the deep tracks and know intimately tracks that nobody knows because you were listening to the whole album — because you bought it and it was there. It wasn’t cool to buy a single. You’d buy the album, and then, of course, you’d have to listen to the whole album.
APATOW: We forced Jason to learn how to play the drums, and we thought if he tried really hard, he would still be terrible in the way we wanted him to be. And then we made them all learn instruments and did this sequence where they had their own band and tried to play “Sunshine of Your Love”.