Judd Apatow's 'Freaks and Geeks' gang reminisces -- and mocks James Franco
That's what it sometimes seemed like during a reunion that brought together the stars and creators of the beloved but short-lived show Saturday night. As part of the Paley Center for Media's annual Paley Fest, a handful of the program's now-famous alumni such as Seth Rogen and Jason Segel sat on a panel at the Saban Theater that was moderated by filmmaker Judd Apatow, who co-created and produced the show.
Franco, who starred as the rebellious bad boy on the show about the rigors of fitting in at high school, wasn't able to attend. He sent in a video message in which he held up an iPad displaying an image of Anne Hathaway, jokingly blaming his absence on having to prepare to emcee a slew of upcoming award shows with his Oscar co-host.
But that didn't stop his former co-stars from ragging on him.
No sooner was co-creator and executive producer Paul Feig singing the praises of the young cast when Apatow lobbed the first insult Franco's way.
"There were no drama queens on the show," Feig said.
"Except for Franco," Apatow quipped, adding that the best actor nominee was "already method" acting during the early days of his career.
It all seemed to be in jest until "Cougar Town's" Busy Philipps, who played Franco's hard-edged girlfriend Kim Kelly on "Freaks and Geeks," chimed in with an odd anecdote. During one scene, she said, the actor threw her to the ground, even though the script didn't call for the action.
Franco had created a back story in which his character had "maybe been abused by his father, and so he didn't want any physicality between him and his girlfriend. This was unbeknownst to me," Philipps recalled, giggling. During the scene, the two characters were verbally sparring, and Philipps was meant to slap Franco lightly on the arm.
After doing so, he blew up, saying "'Don't you ever [expletive] touch me again!' and threw me to the ground. I had the wind knocked out of me," Philipps said, adding that she then ran into her trailer crying.
"And he's way better looking than all of us," Segel added.
"He's also the only one too cool to be here," Rogen said, not skipping a beat.
Beyond the awkward tension surrounding Franco, the evening was otherwise light and fun as cast members ribbed one another and even poked fun at themselves. Samm Levine, who played one of the diminutive geeks on the show, acknowledged that unlike some of his co-stars, he's gone on to have a less-than-fruitful career: "I'm a serious actor now. I was on 'That's So Raven,' " he said, referring to the Disney Channel show.
Apatow's fierce paternal nature for the cast, many of whom were barely out of high school when the show was in production, also was evident.
"They were all so young, we were like, 'Are we about to ruin all these kids' lives?' " Feig recalled. "And Judd said, 'No, we are just gonna treat them like they're our kids.' "
"I always assume that's why you took care of us," said Segel, who later appeared in Apatow's show "Undeclared" and a handful of his film projects. "A lot of us were kids, and have no higher education because of you."
Segel said he did decide not to go to college to act on "Freaks and Geeks"; Rogen dropped out of high school; Phllipps and the show's lead actress, Linda Cardellini, both dropped out of college.
"I was supposed to be surgeon general," Segel faux-lamented.
All jokes aside, it was clear the show was made during an integral time in many of the cast members' lives.
Rogen kidded that a then-13-year-old John Francis Daley, who played Sam Weir, still believed in Santa Claus when they filmed the show.
"I also didn't have pubic hair," Daley said, laughing.
Cardellini, who went on to star in "ER," was so terrified by the prospect of her first acting gig that after the cast gathered to watch the pilot together, she burst into tears.
"I was terrified," she admitted. "I had never been such an important part of something. Everyone was so good, and I didn't know what to think of myself. So I ran into the bathroom and cried."
After the panel concluded, hundreds of fans bum-rushed the stage to get autographs from the cast, who lingered for nearly an hour to accommodate all the requests. There was such an outpouring of affection for the show in the theater Saturday that it was almost difficult to remember what a flop it was for NBC when it aired from 1999 to 2000.
"We were the lowest-rated show on NBC," said Feig, explaining that the show had an average of 7 million viewers when today a hit show has 8 million.
"So we still wouldn't be a hit show," Apatow said.
-- Amy Kaufman
Photo: The cast of "Freaks and Geeks."