Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How to succeed in show business without really changing

How much do I love Judd Apatow right now? So much that, after seeing the awesomeness that was "Knocked Up," I'm thinking I want to spend a good chunk of this summer rewatching "Freaks and Geeks" and maybe blogging about each episode as if the show were airing today (ala Edward Copeland's faux-realtime bloggging of "Twin Peaks" season two). I feel a lot more inspired to do that than to watch "Pirate Master" or that ABC celebrity NASCAR show. Who's with me?

Now all I have to do is track down the friend I loaned my DVDs to, or failing that, put it in my Netflix queue.

I'm coming too late to the "Knocked Up" discussion to offer anything new and insightful about the movie itself -- like everyone else, I agree that it's a little too long, and like everyone else, I can't decide what parts to cut (the Vegas trip seems easiest, but that would mean losing Paul Rudd's bit with the chairs) -- but what really interests me is the notion that Apatow's managed to become this hugely successful movie person while essentially doing the same thing that made him a legendary failure on network television.

I was originally going to do a quick blog post on the subject, but have instead decided to do a longer column on it, probably for this Sunday. I have my own theories on the subject, and I'm hopefully going to talk with the man himself later today (if he has time in between running the various Balkan states of his comedy empire), but I was wondering if any longtime fans of "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" (or, going back further, "Larry Sanders" or "The Ben Stiller Show") have any thoughts. Has there been a fundamental shift in what he does? Is it just a matter of being able to do R-rated content? Has the audience changed?


Anonymous said...

I'm sure I could come up with a lot of theories, but here's a pretty obvious one: the tv shows dealt with high schoolers and college kids. The movies deal with adults. There's a much bigger audience for the latter.

Edward Copeland said...

Do it. I'm sure to keep up with it (and I can pull out my Freaks & Geeks DVDs to play along.

Edward Copeland said...

As for any change in Apatow, what strikes me as interesting is that he's making these extremely vulgar comedies that really have pro-family, almost conservative messages such as staying a virgin until you are married and staying together for a child, even if the child resulted from a one-night stand. I wonder if either Freaks & Geeks or Undeclared had lived long enough, he might have embraced those aspects on the series, even though he obviously couldn't have done the vulgar stuff.

Carl said...

Alan - I'm not sure how serious you are about doing a running Freaks and Geeks commentary over the summer, but I think it would be awesome. 18 weeks might overlap too deeply into the fall season, but maybe you could do an abbreviated "best of" F&G (though I bet the fan in you would demand to do all 18 episodes).

Anonymous said...

First off, I like your FREAKS & GEEKS idea, because I've been on an Apatow kick lately (just polished off UNDECLARED last night) and this will give me an excuse to continue.

Second, I think Apatow's failures in television are all about timing. F&G aired on Saturday nights, which strikes me as a bad idea for a show that needed a little TLC to find an audience. (Maybe my TV history is faulty, but how often do successful primetime shows get their start on Saturday nights?) As for UNDECLARED, that show debuted a few weeks after 9/11 and was promoted by those FOX ads that could make anything look unfunny. Given Apatow's reputation now, I suspect both networks would have treated those shows differently (and they probably should have anyway, especially the more championed F&G).

Anonymous said...

Do it, do it, do it! We just started re-watching Freaks and Geeks in our house and will play right along.

Anonymous said...

Re: Freaks & Geeks commentary - go for it! I'd love to read your observations.

Anonymous said...

I would be ALL OVER THAT. I actually pulled out my DVDs the other week with the plan of watching them summer.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Do it. I'm sure to keep up with it (and I can pull out my Freaks & Geeks DVDs to play along.

Edward, let me ask you: how did you feel about the real-time gimmick (pretending you were watching the episodes one by one without knowing what was happening next) going forward? If you were starting the Twin Peaks project over from scratch, would you have approached it that way, or just written it as if you were revisiting an old favorite?

I think I'm definitely going to do some F&G blogging, but haven't decided yet exactly what form it'll take.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen even one episode of Freaks & Geeks, so your idea sounds great to me.

. . . [Apatow is] making these extremely vulgar comedies that really have pro-family, almost conservative messages such as staying a virgin until you are married and staying together for a child . . .

I've read the "conservative message" idea about Apatow in a few places now, and it interests me because I didn't interpret 40 Year Old Virgin that way (haven't seen Knocked Up yet.} Sure, Steve Carrell's character gets treated very sympathetically, but so do Catherine Keener's character and all of his horny friends. I loved the movie, and thought if there was any message at all, it was, "Do what's right for you, but don't preach."

Anonymous said...

I think part of it may be that the way we watch television has changed since his shows were on. Back then, few had a DVR to do the scheduling and recording for us. I'm not sure I even knew those shows were on when they were on. I later rented teh DVDs and loved them. Now, were he to do a show, I would set it to DVR without question. It reminds me of how "Office Space" was considered a flop before it became a DVD cult film. The show went off the air, but the raving about it never stopped, and when it became available, people enjoyed it.

Edward Copeland said...

I like the real-time gimmick, just in the hopes that perhaps it could spark conversations about what was going on (not that too many have bitten yet), especially now that I'm getting close to the episodes after Leland dies and the show went off track a bit. (I am deviating once when I run the episode in which he dies to whine again that Ray Wise didn't get an Emmy nomination.)

Anonymous said...

Aptow: I think he just benefits from the fact that movies require much smaller audiences than television to be deemed successes. Aptow always had those viewers -- they just look more impressive buying $10 tickets than they do tuning in every week.

Summer Blog Ideas: Alan, I would love, love, love it if you would plug CBS's new "Creature Comforts" in your column/blog -- you may have seen the British version air on BBC-America last year. Real voices from people off the street coming from the mouths of a variety of claymation animals. It's awesome. And the same people made this version -- the animators behind "Wallace & Grommit". It's worth checking out (Mondays at 8pm).

Anonymous said...

I came to the F&G/ Undeclared party late and only saw a few episodes of each. I'd love to watch the series as a whole and have somewhere to read analysis and discuss each episode. Go for it!

As for the Apatow question of why his movies are working when the tv shows failed, here's my $.02. I think the reason has more to do with the medium itself and people's lazyness rather then the content. Say I see a really funny movie. I go home and call a couple of friends or maybe talk about it to a couple of coworkers. Those friends/coworkers think, "Ok, I'll take a couple of hours and watch this thing people are all talking about." But with tv, I can talk until I'm blue in the face about a show, but people automatically think, "God, I can't start ANOTHER show right now. When would I have the time? And not just this week, but for weeks to come. And what if I don't understand what's all happening with the characters? Maybe I've missed too many episodes already." I've been guilty of this myself and is mostly the reason why I didn't start The Wire or Deadwood.

The advent of DVD's are helping, but it seems that many shows these days rely on extended story arcs that are told over many episodes. Viewers really do need to watch every episode to know what's going on in some of them. This is also my theory of why shows like CSI and L&O do so well and/or hang on so long. They are single episode stores. Viewers can watch one episode and feel satisfied and not feel committed to viewing previous or future episodes.

Anonymous said...


Lindsay: What are you gonna do?
Ken: I dunno, what are you gonna do?

You're gonna do it, Alan!

Anonymous said...

I think the series were low concept and kind of about losers, where most tv shows that succeed need to be about something aspirational (that's why Seth Cohen's character worked within the OC - he was the only one in a sea of beautiful people who was a geek). Networks don't get shows about losers. But both movies have big concepts around them - or biggish enough ones - which is what every studio comedy needs to get made. Yet within the parameters of that concept he was able to do a lot of lower-concept character work, stuff that he learned in tv. He finally figured out the right frame to put around doing what he likes to do.

Anonymous said...

you and Edward should team up and do a "Freaks, Geeks, and 'Peaks'" blog.

Anonymous said...

I would rather read an ongoing blog about "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" than watch most of the network's summer programming.

I loved both shows. I think F&Gs has more of a cult following, but I loved that Undeclared had the most realistic college kids I've ever seen on TV.

For true fans or aspiring TV writers, you must buy "Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Scripts."

Anonymous said...

Please, please, please blog about
Freaks and Geeks...I would love to read your take on the episodes and to have a forum for discussion. I just finished rewatching the series last night and was once again touched by how true they were to the high school experience. I love that Apatow has remained in working relationships with the cast and crew...during one of the episodes commentaries he really addressed how much he enjoyed the cast and clearly they appreciate his work! He's obviously been a mentor for several of his cast members...Seth Rogan, Jason Segal, and Martin Starr...this was clearly a great experience for all of them and I enjoy seeing who pops up in each other's projects.

Ted Frank said...

Anonymous 2:41 is right. It takes 3 million $10 tickets to have a hit movie opening, and then buzz takes over from there if the movie is any good. If 3 million people watch your episodic television pilot, you're not going to make it to Week 3, no matter how good the buzz is: people don't like coming in in the middle. Even Arrested Development had 4.3 million viewers.

Note also that the movies aren't quite the same thing as what Apatow was doing in television: there are more laughs/minute, and he focus-groups the hell out of them to figure out where and which laughs belong.

It's also a lot easier to let a shlump into one's life for a couple of hours than as appointment television, especially with network suits trying to homogenize the show. But "40-Year-Old Virgin" would have bombed as a television series, even if conceived as one where Steve Carell eventually gets the girl.

Finally, the movies are different than the television series, because at the end the shlumpy loser gets the girl: there's a happy ending. The networks kept telling Apatow to have more victories for his characters in the television series, and they were right in that that would have broader appeal, but, of course, that would have ruined the shows.

I'm all for F&G blogging. I'm Netflixing it for the first time this summer.

Anonymous said...

Pleeeeassse do the Freaks and Geeks columns. It was one of the first DVD series that I bought. I have to disagree with the person who said the movies deal with adults and that is why there is a market for it. Wonder Years, anyone? Freaks and Geek was an amazing show, and I'm so glad so many of these guys are having so much success.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this too -- why do Apatow's movies do so well when he famously failed to keep any TV shows on the air. ... despite rabid fandom, etc.

I agree with what a few other people have said -- I think people buy into Apatow's movies because the promise of redemption is there. The guy in th movies starts out a geek, but we kind of know that he won't be as geeky or as much of a loser by the end. Movie viewers are willing to go along for the ride because the ride will be relatively short, and also pretty funny.

In a TV series like F&G, you have to buy into the concept of characters who are unlikely to change much over time. You meet these people and say, "Yep, they're geeks. They're outcasts. They're not really going to stop being geeks and outcasts, though they may be funny as hell."

Those of us who can identify with Apatow's geeky characters are totally into it. Those who can't just check out immediately. They don't want to see 22 episodes of a geek being a geek. They don't want to see the leads NOT winning, week after week.

A movie promises a transformation inside of 2 hours. A TV show doesn't. A TV show puts you on a long road trip with someone who won't change much, along the way. And it seems like the audience doesn't want to identify with 'losers' for that long. They want to identify with 'winners.' Hence David Caruso's deplorable TV success.

Definitely do the F&G commentary, if you can. It'd be great.

Tish said...

As a rabid F&G fan from the premiere of the first episode, I've thought about this a lot. First, F&G was more Paul Feig's baby than Judd Apatow's. He based the Lindsey and Sam characters on himself at different points in his life. The tone was quite different, more uncomfortable and awkward moments than the hilarious moments you find in Apatow's movies. This made it hard to classify F&G as either a comedy or a drama. Based on most of the crap on tv that passes for a hit comedy, people don't seem to go for that. Second, F&G was set in 1981, making the audience that identified with it (back in 1998) over 30, but under 50. A lot of us in that age range are too busy with kids, jobs, baseball games, ballet practice, etc etc to watch an 8:00 show, no matter what night it's on. Those of us who are total TV addicts made the time, the rest didn't.

With Undeclared, it had more of the tone of Apatow's movies, and I think if it hadn't been constrained by being a network show (i.e., having to be mostly clean), it would have appealed to a broader audience and done better in the ratings. Premiering right after 9/11 didn't help either.

Alan, I just started watching my F&G DVDs again for the fourth time, and am totally on board with a summer F&G blog. Please watch them all in order, that's the only way to go!

Edward Copeland said...

I'm not sure that I agree that his TV series wouldn't allow characters to change. In the commentary on the Freaks & Geeks DVD, Apatow mentioned that a second season would have shown John Francis Daley's character starting to pull away more from his geek friends as he's drawn more toward the popular crowd.

Anonymous said...

I'm watching Freaks and Geeks through Netflix as we speak. So awesome. I'd love a faux real time blog. I'm less than half way through.

Anonymous said...

I should have been more clear -- TV shows definitely allow characters to change. But the pace of change is much more gradual than in movies, for the most part. Or the change in life circumstances happens more quickly in a movie. That's what I meant to say.

hujhax said...

Howdy Mr. Sepinwall --
(Been reading a few months, commenting for the first time.)

Freaks & Geeks is my favorite show, period, so I'd love to see commentary about it. :)

Hmm. Why did Apatow fail in TV and succeed in film? My guess is that it's at least partly about context & genre.

When you're talking about an hourlong drama about teenagers, before 2000 those were mostly escapist soap operas, right? -- 90210 and its ilk. You had a few cult shows like Buffy that engaged a little more directly with real high-school experience, but in an allegorical way.

When F&G showed up, it was this unflinching, not-allegorical look at what being a teenager was/is really like -- apart from My So-Called Life, that was a nonexistent genre, and perhaps audiences couldn't really make sense of it. They sat down to watch Freaks & Geeks and found that it wasn't a soap opera, it wasn't escapist, and so it wasn't what they had come to see.

Then with Undeclared, you had a college show. Is there any kind of college-show genre? (I can't think of any besides Felicity.) And Undeclared was kind of raunchy. There's nothing wrong with that -- if it had been a movie, it could have often fit nicely in the 'college sex comedy' genre. But most often TV comedies are either puritanical about sex, or raunchy in a lowest-common-denominator, Married... with Children kind of way. I could see the 2001 audience expecting one of those categories, and Undeclared kind of fell between those two stools.

So when The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up come along, there's an established tradition of feature-length sex comedies that the films can fit into. People hear about it, and they understand what it is. They sit down to watch it, and they don't get confused -- like they were expecting one thing and getting another. So they judge it more on its execution, and then they recommend it to their friends and so on.

I'm sure there are other reasons -- Apatow got better at dealing with executives, he walked into a wasteland of film comedy, he deftly uses the studio's pre-screening process, and all the other reasons in comments above -- but I'm just saying with these movies it's easier for an audience to understand what they're getting.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Current problem with doing the F&G reviews: my DVD set is out on loaner to a friend who's having trouble finding it, Netflix has it on Long Wait status (I emptied out my queue of everything but that, and it's not helping), and the number of Torrent seeds is painfully low.

I intend to do this, but it may be a little while.

Anonymous said...

a couple of thoughts/questions

a. I always wondered about Netflix - could you get what you wanted, or did you have to settle for what you wanted ...less.
Still can't afford Netflix though.

b. Which one was Apatow? I'm too lazy to imdb.

I liked the movie, but mostly for Katie (who seems to be playing the same character) and the ending -- which made me cry, actually.
I tried American Pie, but never got thru the first movie.

c. You never mentioned Square Pegs... (hey, I'm 48. what do you want?) It seems F&G-like in concept, just from hearing of F&G

d. "I don't have time for more TV!"

I do - it's summer. If they put FNL on, in order, I'd watch it.

Anonymous said...

yeah, that was me

liz said...

I say do it, because maybe you could determine why the women in Freaks and Geeks--Lindsey and Kim, anyway (and Ken's GF--Jessica?)--were actually interesting, while the women in Apatow's feature films are such ciphers. Or maybe that's the secret secret to his success.

Chris Littmann said...

My theory is this: I don't think it's changed, but instead a lot of the people who watched "Freaks & Geeks" and "Undeclared" are a little bit older now, and they're consumers. They enjoyed those shows, and now a lot of those people who might be older (say, out of college?) also have disposable income (we all know that didn't exist in college) so they came out in droves for Knocked Up.

Anonymous said...

Alan, if you are still looking for the episodes, I can burn and send the DVDs to you if you are comfortable with the idea. If you are interested, please email me at

h@ml3t said...

If I'm not mistaken, most of the episodes are still on YouTube.