Paying Tribute to the Greatest Scene in Television History

by Howie Decker @HowardTheDeck on September 12, 2013

in Television

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.


robotspjs September 12, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Wow, great break down.

Howard Decker September 12, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Thanks man, I appreciate that.

2W2N September 12, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Very well said, Howie.

Howard Decker September 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Thanks 2 Warps!

crispy September 12, 2013 at 8:25 pm

This is one of the greatest shows out there. It was so well-written, so well-directed, so well-acted. It’s not surprising that almost everybody involved in the show has gone on to really distinguish themselves in movies and other TV shows.

This is one of my favorite scenes too.

Howard Decker September 13, 2013 at 1:06 am

Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the uplifting comment!

T2H September 13, 2013 at 1:53 am

He makes a mean grilled cheese.

Kevin Hellions September 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm

I need to get to this episode. We started watching Freaks and Geeks but eventually pregnancy hormones and stresses on both our parts stopped it. As someone who hated high school, there are certain parts of the show that hit a little too close. I couldn’t think of this new life I will be raising going through events of the show, or events of my own life. With a little bit more time we plan on also marathoning the series.

David September 14, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Great article. This show was the closet thing to my real high school experience then any other show besides the high school portion of the Wonder Years. I was definitely a geek in high school.
I never caught the show during its original run. I watched it 10 years later on IFC.

Pat Dotson March 7, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Funny. I’m sitting here with the show paused at the end of this scene. It’s paused so as to google for the Shandling routine that Bill watched. Found this site instead. I’m finding the series touching as well. Probably because I was the same age as Bill and his friends in 1980. Things hit home like the same Steve Martin poster I had hanging on my wall at the time. Nice review.

Howie Decker @HowardTheDeck March 8, 2015 at 9:31 pm

Hey, thanks Pat. I appreciate the feedback and it’s cool that your search for the Shandling routine brought you here. I came across which routine it was when I was doing that write up, and I forget what it was. From what I remember there were a few differing opinions on what Shandling bit it was. As for the show, it hits home as much for me as any show I’ve ever connected with, and it’s Sam and his friends I relate to most.

Tom Mathias December 29, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Great show, awesome scene, great breakdown(as usual)

Howie Decker @HowardTheDeck December 30, 2015 at 9:04 am

Thanks Tom!

steve March 1, 2016 at 11:40 pm

I watched this scene a few days ago and am googling to see others’ responses to it.

Because I had the same reaction to it that you did – just …. so emotional, so kinda freeing/poignant at the same time. So wonderful to see “Bill” having this joy in himself at the same time that he’s struggling with the mom/gym teacher stuff .. and frankly all the stuff he deals with all the time being “Bill”.

I responded just as strongly to the scene as you did, and, ya know, ‘hooray for the Internet’ and all that I could google around and find a like mind in your post. Cheers.

Bobby Clark June 21, 2018 at 5:49 am

Great write up, Howie. I just watched this episode yesterday and it had such a profound impact on me. It really is one of the best scenes I can recall, so touching and the use of The Who and Garry Shandling complement it so perfectly. So glad I discovered this show.

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