Last year, I binge watched Freaks and Geeks. It’s a show I had regretted missing out on during its first run, and if you’ve never had the pleasure I urge you to add it to your Netflix Instant queue or go buy its egregiously short run on DVD.
One rare weekend in 2012, I was both sick and alone. An undesirable combo to most, but it made for a magical weekend for me. My wife and son had gone out of town, so for me it was two uninterrupted days parked on the couch in front of the television- no one expecting any more from me- a true rarity (even more so now that we’ve added another to the family).
I’ve had a “Freaks and Geeks rules so hard I need to write something about it” themed draft parked in this site’s dashboard for about a year now. Dustin Rowles’ brilliant post on Pajiba yesterday brought that draft to the forefront for me, as he perfectly described this latchkey kid’s lifelong “relationship” with John Ritter, and the emotional significance a television character can hold for a person.
Roughly 13 years ago the Freaks and Geeks episode “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” premiered. Shortly after the first commercial break, and juxtaposed with a humorous scene involving Jason Segel and his guitar, is what I hold to be the most touching scene in television history.
For this spot to land where it needs to, it probably needs the context of the rest of the series- but you’ll never see a more beautifully done television scene, top to bottom. From Apatow’s direction and Martin Starr’s acting to the spot-on portrayal of a good kid left to his own devices every weekday after school, this intimate scene succeeds in so many ways. It reminds us of how the world goes away when we are being genuinely entertained.
At that point in the show’s run (Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers was ep. 14 of 18), we had gotten to know Haverchuck a bit, which is what helps successfully deliver this scene with the intended sentiment. We had primarily seen Bill in group settings, but those of us who the show as a whole speaks to so loudly didn’t need to see Haverchuck at home alone to know that he probably made himself grilled cheeses and drank milk from an Empire Strikes Back glass while watching Garry Shandling sets on The Dinah Shore Show. He’s comfortable being alone, and ultimately, with being Haverchuck.
The Who’s “I’m One” provides a perfect theme for the scene and for Bill Haverchuck as a character. This is a kid who was undeniably one of the show’s titular ‘geeks’, but in that moment he was fine with who he was. He had his friends, he had his Entenmanns’ chocolate cake, and on that latchkey afternoon he had The Dinah Shore Show and a great sense of humor.
I think this is why this scene holds so much emotional value for me. While I was by no means my high school classmates’ primary target of ridicule, I was certainly served with more insults than party invites. I never really minded though. I had my friends, I had a solid home life, and looking back on it, I had a sense of humor that I’m positive was a huge part of the foundation for a normal(ish) adult social life. If you can find humor in things, and realize when not to take life so seriously, you’ll be ok. This scene put our minds at ease- despite his social struggles and the fact that he just found out his ex-stripper mom is dating his gym teacher (brilliantly played by Thomas Wilson AKA Biff Tannen), Haverchuck was going to be ok.
The particular comedian whose act is connecting with Haverchuck so deeply in this scene is no accident, either. Judd Apatow has said that he was influenced by Garry Shandling’s penchant for taking events from real life and using them for inspiration. It seems like there’s a lot of Haverchuk in Apatow:
“I never thought about writing about my life, because I couldn’t think of anything less interesting than my own life. But slowly during ‘Freaks & Geeks,’ I would slowly pitch out stories from my young life. Then when we did the scene with Martin [Starr] watching the ‘Dinah Shore Show,’ I realized it was probably my best work and that maybe I should work up the courage to do more personal writing.” [source]
While Apatow was himself a huge Shandling fan, apparently Martin Starr was not. He is said to have found that particular Shandling set “annoying”, so to achieve the authentic Haverchuck belly laughs you see in this scene, Apatow supposedly stood off camera and told him “extremely dirty jokes”.
Paying such tribute to this one scene does the entire episode (and season) an injustice. The truth is, this is just one of a countless parade of real and deep emotions I felt watching the entire run of Freaks and Geeks. There’s a scene later in this same episode in which Bill breaks down in tears after a heated exchange with his mom’s boyfriend/his gym teacher, and every episode is packed with moments like these that foster your emotional connection to the characters. Freaks and Geeks is a show that exists in a world closer to ours than any other show ever has.