The PaleyFest used to travel back in time much more than it does today, revisiting TV programming from 10, 20, 30 years earlier. In recent years, the television festival has tilted much more toward the new kids on the block, and while that certainly plays to current tastes, some of the potential appeal and value of the event is lost.
Saturday, however, brought a rare look at two long-gone series – and so much the better that they were the tremendous “Freaks and Geeks” and the underrated “Undeclared,” in a 3 1/2-hour doubleheader moderated by Judd Apatow.
After Iris Apatow, the daughter of Apatow and Leslie Mann, came on-stage and welcomed the crowd with the words, “Good evening, nerds,” “Undeclared” kicked off the night with a lively panel that not only featured series regulars Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, Monica Keena, Carla Gallo and Timm Sharp but also a number of recurring guests including Jason Segel and “Parks and Recreation” star Amy Poehler, who played a dorm RA.
The first fun revelation was that Segel, coming off “Freaks,” was the original choice to play underdog lead Steven Karp on “Undeclared” but was rejected by Fox. “People didn’t believe that I couldn’t get laid,” said Segel.
“They really did want someone who was more of an underdog and couldn’t get a girl,” Apatow added.
That diverted the role to Baruchel, who still was getting ribbed by the cast at Saturday’s panel. Baruchel became engaged to Alison Pill this past week, leading one panelist to joke that this meant he might get to have sex by September 2012.
Rogen and Apatow told the story of how the series premiere “Undeclared” in 2001 was derailed by the attacks of September 11, putting a show that figured to have a challenge drawing an audience even further in jeopardy.
The funniest exchange of many in the panel may have been after an audience member asked Apatow if he would get back into TV. Apatow mentioned “Girls,” a show created by and starring Lena Dunham that he is producing for HBO.
“But HBO isn’t TV,” Poehler joked.
“I would go back into TV,” Apatow then said.”I just don’t want to see Jason get rejected again.”
“I’m super-rich now,” Segel deadpanned.
The “Freaks” panel followed a screening of the series finale, which was actually filmed midway through the show’s only season – not a good sign, as far as Segel was concerned. Recurring players Busy Phillipps, Natasha Melnick, Steve Bannos, Sarah Hagan, Stephen Lea Sheppard and Shaun Weiss joined creator Paul Feig, director Jake Kasdan and all of the series’ young regulars except James Franco, who sent along a videotaped message featuring him and a picture of Anne Hathaway on his iPad. Franco apologized that he couldn’t be there, joking that it was because he and Hathaway were preparing to host the Emmys.
The series’ origins got early play: Apatow had a TV deal in place and asked Feig if he had any ideas – Feig passed along a completed “Freaks” script that completely sold Apatow.
“Paul had just hundreds of the most humiliating stories,” Apatow said with wonder.
Casting stories abounded (with a fond shoutout to casting director Allison Jones). One interesting tidbit was that Sheppard, who was discovered reading a book at a casting session in Vancouver and ultimately got the part of recurrning guest Harris, was asked to read for the part of Daniel that ultimately went to Franco.
As with Baruchel, underdog lead Daley (now a series regular on “Bones”) was the source of lots of laughs. Rogen said that Daley was so young when he was cast, he still believed in Santa Claus.
“I also didn’t have pubic hair,” Daley offered.
Apatow and Feig said that the relative youth of the cast was a major concern of theirs. The youngest actors were still so impressionable, while the slightly older ones were skipping out on college to do the show.
“(Were) we going to ruin all these kids lives,” Feig said they wondered. “Judd was (already) a parent … We decided we’re going to treat them like they’re our own kids.”
Apatow said that feeling of responsibility continued after the quick cancelation of “Freaks,” as he tried to do all he could to make sure the cast continued working.
“Judd has taken amazing care of this entire group,” Segel said.
Story of the night involved a sequence that never made it to air. Philipps talked about how, unbeknownst to anyone else, Franco had built an entire history for his character that included Daniel having been abused as a child. And so when Philipps touched him while delivering a line, “Damn it, Daniel, do something!”, Franco whipped around screaming, “Don’t you fucking ever touch me!” and threw her to the ground. Everyone on the set was in utter shock.
The show’s all-too-soon end came right as Cardellini was about to tape an appearance on David Letterman’s latenight show. When Apatow called her with the news that the show was canceled, Cardellini said with a laugh that her initial response was, “Letterman’s canceled?!”
But no. “Freaks and Geeks” was gone in the year 2000. Fans have never stopped wondering what the remarkable storytelling and acting could have yielded had it run for more years, but it was great to take a look back at all the great work that survives today.