Two Memoirs by Freaks and Geeks Alumni

These days, I watch no television. At all. I haven’t owned a set in over eight years. But as a kid, teen and young adult, I loved TV. I devoured cartoons and reruns every day after school (Pinky and the Brain, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, etc.); I was a devoted watcher of the TGIF line-up, and petitioned my parents to let me stay up late to watch Murphy Brown. We subscribed to the TV Guide magazine, and each September I would eagerly read through the pilot descriptions with a highlighter, planning which new shows I was going to try. It’s how I found ones like Alias, Felicity, Scrubs and 24 that I followed religiously. Starting in my freshman year of college, I was a mega-fan of American Idol for its first 12 seasons. And so on. Versus now I know nothing about what’s on telly and all the Netflix and box set hits have passed me by.

Ahem. On to the point.

Freaks and Geeks was my favourite show in high school (it aired in 1999–2000, when I was a junior) and the first DVD series I ever owned – a gift from my sister’s boyfriend, who became her first husband. It’s now considered a cult classic, but I can smugly say that I recognized its brilliance from the start. So did critics, but viewers? Not so much, or at least not enough; it was cancelled after just one season. I’ve vaguely followed the main actors’ careers since then, and though I normally don’t read celebrity autobiographies I’ve picked up two by former cast members in the last year. Both:

 

Yearbook by Seth Rogen (2021)

I have seen a few of Rogen’s (generally really dumb) movies. The fun thing about this autobiographical essay collection is that you can hear his deadpan voice in your head on every line. That there are three F-words within the first three paragraphs of the book tells you what to expect; if you have a problem with a potty mouth, you probably won’t get very far.

Rogen grew up Jewish in Vancouver in the 1980s and did his first stand-up performance at a lesbian bar at age 13. During his teens he developed an ardent fondness for drugs (mostly pot, but also mushrooms, pills or whatever was going), and a lot of these stories recreate the ridiculous escapades he and his friends went on in search of drugs or while high. My favourite single essay was about a trip to Amsterdam. He also writes about weird encounters with celebrities like George Lucas and Steve Wozniak. A disproportionately long section is devoted to the making of the North Korea farce The Interview, which I haven’t seen.

Seth Rogen speaking at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con International. Photo by Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia Commons.

Individually, these are all pretty entertaining pieces. But by the end I felt that Rogen had told some funny stories with great dialogue but not actually given readers any insight into his own character; it’s all so much posturing. (Also, I wanted more of the how he got from A to B; like, how does a kid in Canada get cast in a new U.S. TV series?) True, I knew not to expect a sensitive baring of the soul, but when I read a memoir I like to feel I’ve been let in. Instead, the seasoned comedian through and through, Rogen keeps us laughing but at arm’s length.

 

This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps (2018)

I hadn’t kept up with Philipps’s acting, but knew from her Instagram account that she’d gathered a cult following that she spun into modelling and paid promotions, and then a short-lived talk show hosting gig. Although she keeps up a flippant, sarcastic façade for much of the book, there is welcome introspection as she thinks about how women get treated differently in Hollywood. I also got what I wanted from the Rogen but didn’t get: insight into the how of her career, and behind-the-scenes gossip about F&G.

Philipps grew up first in the Chicago outskirts and then mostly in Arizona. She was a headstrong child and her struggle with anxiety started early. When she lost her virginity at age 14, it was actually rape, though she didn’t realize it at the time. At 15, she got pregnant and had an abortion. She developed a habit of seeking validation from men, even if it meant stringing along and cheating on nice guys.

I enjoyed reading about her middle and high school years because she’s just a few years older than me, so the cultural references were familiar (each chapter is named after a different pop song) and I could imagine the scenes – like one at a junior high dance where she got trapped in a mosh pit and dislocated her knee, the first of three times that specific injury happens in the book – taking place in my own middle school auditorium and locker hallway.

She never quite made it to the performing arts summer camp she was supposed to attend in upstate New York, but did act in school productions and got an agent and headshots, so that when Mattel came to Scottsdale looking for actresses to play Barbie dolls in her junior year, she was perfectly placed to be cast as a live-action Cher from Clueless. She enrolled in college in Los Angeles (at LMU) but focused more on acting than on classes. After F&G, Dawson’s Creek was her biggest role. It involved moving to Wilmington, North Carolina and introduced her to her best friend, Michelle Williams, but she never felt she fit with the rest of the cast; her impression is that it was very much a star vehicle for Katie Holmes.

Busy Philipps at the Television Critics Association Awards in 2010. Photo by Greg Hernandez, from Wikimedia Commons.

Other projects that get a lot of discussion here are the Will Ferrell ice-skating movie Blades of Glory, which was her joint idea with her high school boyfriend Craig, and had a script written with him and his brother Jeff – there was big drama when they tried to take away her writing credit; and Cougar Town (with Courteney Cox), for which she won the inaugural Television Critics’ Choice Award. She auditioned a lot, including for TV pilots each year, but roles were few and far between, and she got rejected based on her size (when carrying baby weight after her daughters’ births, or once being cast as “the overweight friend”).

Anyway, I was here for the dish on Freaks and Geeks, and it’s juicy, especially about James Franco, who was her character Kim Kelly’s love interest on the show. Kim and Daniel had an on-again, off-again relationship, and the tension between them on camera reflected real life.

“Franco had come back from our few months off and was clearly set on being a VERY SERIOUS ACTOR … [he] had decided that the only way to be taken seriously was to be a fucking prick. Once we started shooting the series, he was not cool to me, at all. Everything was about him, always. His character’s motivation, his choices, his props, his hair, his wardrobe. Basically, he fucking bullied me. Which is what happens a lot on sets. Most of the time, the men who do this get away with it, and most of the time they’re rewarded.”

At one point, he pushed her over on the set; the directors slapped him on the wrist and made him apologize, but she knew nothing was going to come of it. Still, it was her big break:

what we were doing was totally different from the unrealistic teen shows every other network was putting out.

I didn’t know it then, but getting the call about was the first of many you-got-it calls I would get over the course of my career.

when [her daughter] Birdie turns thirteen, I’m going to watch the entire series with her.

And as a P.S., “Seth Rogen was cast as a guest star on [Dawson’s Creek] and he came out and did an episode with me, which was fun. He and Judd had brought me back to L.A. to do two episodes of Undeclared” & she was cast on one season of ER with Linda Cardellini.

The reason I don’t generally read celebrity autobiographies is that the writing simply isn’t strong enough. While Philipps conveys her voice and personality through her style (cursing, capital letters, cynical jokes), some of the storytelling is thin. I mean, there’s not really a chapter’s worth of material in an anecdote about her wandering off when she was two years old. And I think she overeggs it when she insists she’s always gone out and gotten what she wants; the number of rejections she’s racked up says otherwise. I did appreciate the #MeToo feminist perspective, though, looking back to her upbringing and the Harvey Weinsteins of the Hollywood world and forward to how she hopes things will be different for her daughters. I also admired her honesty about her mental health. But I wouldn’t really recommend this unless you are a devoted fan.

I loved these Freaks and Geeks-themed Valentines that a fan posted to Judd Apatow on Twitter this past February.

17 responses

  1. Phew! Another couple of books I don’t think I need bother with. Like you, celeb biographies aren’t my thing, and if I haven’t even heard of them – well, no chance!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can you think of any celebs you’d make an exception for?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Erm … I can’t think of any celebs ….

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  2. Wow, someone who watches less TV than me! I’m actually delighted. I don’t own a TV but probably watch a couple hours of Netflix a week on my laptop. I always feel woefully out of touch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stranger Things, Fleabag, all those phenomena … I just have no idea! I don’t watch films either. The more of a mega-reader I’ve become, the more I’ve started to feel like watching stuff is a waste of time (which sounds judgemental of me). I understand that sometimes people need to wind down with something that feels less demanding. An occasional 20-minute episode of Parks & Recreation on DVD used to fulfil that role for me. It’s when people have the telly on for hours per day, even if they’re not watching anything in particular, that I think it’s particularly negative.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like films a lot, but find I can only really concentrate in the cinema, so I don’t watch very many.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s my other problem with watching: it feels very passive, so I’m compelled to multitask and do something else with my hands at the same time, like a jigsaw puzzle or skimming a magazine (or reading, but that doesn’t generally work).

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  3. I loved Freaks and Geeks but I won’t be rushing to read either of these. I’m not fond of a celeb memoir either, but read Gabriel Byrne’s last year and thought it was beautiful

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It must be quite rare to find one who can actually write well (without employing a ghostwriter).

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  4. The audiobook of Yearbook was a real treat. I laughed so hard I cried at the Amsterdam essay. I don’t mind f-bombs, though, ha ha. I do enjoy celebrity memoirs mostly, as an escapist, quick sort of reading. I find that they’re vastly improved on audio format over book format, if the celebrity reads them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting! I can imagine hearing it read in a familiar, e.g. actor’s voice would add to the experience. They do say that the mark of successful writing is for it to sound just like the author’s speaking voice.

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  5. I can see the appeal of revisiting favourite actors from your youth. Even in celebrity memoir form! (Which I’m also not a fan of, but agree with Laila that they’d be better as audio books.) I’ve never heard of Freaks and Geeks. In high school I think I was watching shows like Friends and ER.
    My TV time also tends to be time spent with my kids. My oldest daughter shares my taste in movies and my youngest shares my taste in TV shows. My son gets me watching things I wouldn’t normally choose myself – haha!

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    1. I think I was just that little too young for Friends, but I’ve seen a fair number of reruns, enough that I understand the characters and their dynamic and know a few famous scenes. I did love ER, too, though Scrubs took over as my medical show of choice. Is there a Canadian TV scene?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, there are lots of Canadian shows! They’re not as popular as the American shows, though, but I think some are very good. I can’t speak a lot on it, because I don’t watch a lot of TV either (even with the kids). The Canadian shows I’ve watched the most tend to be Atlantic Canadian TV – mostly comedy. There are a lot of great actors from Newfoundland!

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  6. I loved Freaks and Geeks so much. And My So-Called Life, which was probably just a bit too much before F&G for it to strike you as an avid viewer. And I watched every episode of Felicity and memorized the soundtrack. Hehe Loved those young-woman-finding-her-way kind of stories. (And I grew up watching all the same reruns you did, along with some others that I’m sure your parents wouldn’t have approved of!) I bet I’d enjoy these memoirs too, if I just gave them a try. Can’t pretty much anything be a waste of time, really tho? I mean, loads of people think that reading is a waste of time…and we do a hella lotta reading. It would be a shorter list, to say what’s NOT a waste of time maybe?

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    1. My sister was into My So-Called Life, but I think I was a little too young for it. I can remember everyone wanted to be Claire Danes and kiss Jared Leto! My parents banned The Simpsons and Dawson’s Creek. I know loads of Simpsons lines and scenes just from Chris reciting them, though.

      A line I always go back to, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, when a character is discussing his reading habit: “I am constructing my personality.”

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      1. I figured you must have been on the other side of that show because I was already working full-time and unsure whether I related more to the parents or the kids in it by the time I was watching it myself! 90210 was undoubtedly on your banned list too, but I remember rushing home after my retail job to catch the end before Melrose Place aired. *rolls eyes* But of course you couldn’t miss a week, cuz there was no wiki to check for a summary later on if you did!

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