Can 'Freaks and Geeks' Move Beyond Cult Classic Status? Streaming on Hulu Could Help

Freaks and Geeks with an inset of Paul Feig
NBC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

It took four years, an internet petition and a hefty price tag to get Freaks and Geeks on DVD in 2004. The short-lived NBC dramedy about high school misfits quickly became a cult classic after its 2000 cancellation, surviving on word-of-mouth recommendations and bootleg burned eBay DVDs until a company coughed up the cash for the megahits that populated the soundtrack of the 1980-set series. It was largely music rights issues that prevented the series — created by Paul Feig, executive produced by Judd Apatow and starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Busy Philipps — from being released before then.

That's why recent news that the beloved one-and-done would finally be streaming on Hulu beginning Jan. 25 — original soundtrack in tact — made headlines. Freaks and Geeks hasn't been available to stream since leaving Netflix in 2018, and Feig told The Hollywood Reporter that he suspects the costs involved in securing major songs by Joan Jett, The Who, Billy Joel, the Grateful Dead, Rush, Styx, and many more meant that no streamer would license the show beyond a year or so.

But at this point in time, there's no way Freaks and Geeks will be available without its original soundtrack in tact. It was written to specific song cues — the band Rush (and Neil Peart's drumming prowess) is a recurring plot point — and the show wouldn't be the same without it, Feig tells THR. In fact, he'd intervene if he learned that it would somehow be released with alternative music cues.

"I'd just rather not have it out there than to have it out wrong," he said, "so I was thrilled when Hulu wanted to do it this way. I was surprised when it was made a big deal of, because I just thought, 'Well, there's no other way to put it out.' We wouldn't do it any other way. But I'm glad that they're highlighting that so people know that the music's there. As far as I know, other than in some foreign markets, I don't even know if the show has even aired without the original music."

Feig spoke with THR from London, where he's prepping big-budget YA adaptation The School for Good and Evil for Netflix. The director explained the difficult licensing process that has kept Freaks and Geeks from streaming for so long, the show's continued cult classic status, and why he hasn't changed his tune on the prospect of a reunion. He also weighs in on the controversial HBO Max/Warner Bros. 2021 hybrid release strategy, and what he'd think if one of his films were affected in that way.

The show's journey to DVD was long and hard. What was it like to get Freaks and Geeks on streaming?

After we did the show, when it got canceled, that was before they were really putting out shows on DVD or tapes or anything. I'd always liked the British model: In Britain, I would always come here and buy videotapes of my favorite series, and I always remember saying they should do that here. So after we had gone down, we looked into it and had some interest in places that wanted to do it, but nobody wanted to pay for the music rights. When we were doing the show, we would just automatically do something with our composer, Mike Andrews, for the foreign markets. He would always compose replacement music for it and at the time I was like, well, it's not going to be in English, so I guess it's OK.

But then when people wanted to [release it on home video], they didn't want to pay for music rights, so it was like, well, what are we going to do? And they said, "Oh, we're just going to play those replacement things." I was like, "Wait, no, you can't do that," because the show was written specifically to so many of those songs that they're just like characters of the thing. So I said I'd rather not have it out than to have it out in a bastardized form.

And so it took four years until Shout Factory said they would pony up the money to do it. I think they've had great success in doing that, even though it cost a lot of money. The DVDs have just sold for years in different forms, and then out on Blu-ray. If I were to hear someone was going to release it without the original music, I would intervene to not let them do it because, again, I'd just rather not have it out there than to have it out wrong.

So do you think at this point in time the fight for those music rights isn't the same as it was back when you tried to get the show on DVD initially?

We were streaming on Netflix for a while, and it was the original music. But what happens is that just the license runs out because I think they only pick up the license for a year or something, so then it'll disappear. I always assumed that's mostly because of the music rights, but I'm not 100 percent sure, to be quite honest. I know plenty of shows that are out there without the original music. It's just something I just always took for granted, because I fought so hard not to have it done that I always just kind of assumed it didn't even exist anymore in any form other than what we put out in the DVDs, which is with all the original music. I didn't even realize there was an option for somebody to buy it without the original music. So I'm very much looking into that because I want to destroy those tapes immediately.

There's so much product, and there's a reason why we all grew up watching Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, because I think those were right before they were paying the big residuals. So unfortunately, all the actors didn't make any money off of it, but it was free. But that just doesn't happen anymore. Everything costs. Yeah, so it's definitely an expense. I think it helps that we're only 18 episodes vs. 100 episodes or something like that. But also, it's been 20 years now. I think there's enough people who have such a fondness for the show that they wouldn't want it [without the music]. I think it's abhorrent to them, the thought of putting it out in this not-complete form.

Freaks and Geeks is 20 years old and nearly everyone involved has huge careers now, but the show has still hung on to its cult status. Why do you think that is, and do you think being readily available on a place like Hulu will help more people see it?

I think it's a combination of things. I think you're completely right — pretty much everybody from the show is famous now. So for a lot of people, it's fun to go like, "Oh wow, that's what Linda Cardellini did back then," or "Oh, that's where Seth Rogen came from," or "That's where Jason Segel came from." Just like when you put out a movie, stars don't make your movie successful, but they do help people go like, "Oh, I like that person. Maybe I'll check this out." So I think, for some people, that's the way in.

But I think for a lot of other people, it's just one of these shows, thank God, that had word of mouth its entire time out. People talk about it and tell other people about it. It's one of these shows that wasn't famous enough to be like, "Oh yeah, I've seen that," but we're still kind of the indie band that didn't have a hit, you know? It's like, "Oh yeah, I love them," and then the minute they have a hit, then, "They sold out." So we never really sold out because we didn't last long enough.

I just think it's a very relevant show. My goal, back when I came up with it, one of the goals was to almost be able ... When I went to high school, I was terrified and didn't know what to expect. And I really liked the idea of a parent being able to hand this to a 13-year-old kid about to go into high school, who's afraid, and go, "Here it is. This is kind of what's going to happen to you, in various ways, but these are the types of things you're going to be confronted with: bullies and weird relationships and awkwardness and the ups and highs and lows and all that." So I do know a lot of parents who actually have their young teens sit down and watch it, and they get into it.

But the music is a big hook into it too, because that music is really timeless. Having gotten to make the show 20 years after when it was set allowed me to cherry-pick all the songs that have stood the test of time. It's one of the reasons why I was so afraid, when we pitched it, that they were going to make us do it modern-day, because the last thing I wanted to do was be one of those shows where they're like, "Oh, such-and-such band has this new single out, and it's supposed to be hot," or "This band's about to break. Let's put them in here." Then, three years later, when the band didn't do anything or the song just wasn't a hit, people are like, "What the fuck is that song?" That makes you dated, weirdly, even though you're doing a show that is "dated" because it's a period show. If it's got timeless music, then it somehow feels fresh every time you hear it.

What were some of the hardest songs to get the rights to?

Well, the hardest one was one, actually, that never originally aired. I think it's on the DVDs, and I think it's probably going to be on when it streams: the Neil Young song from the punk-rock episode. We just couldn't get the rights to it, and nobody wanted to pay for it. I don't remember the exact chronology of this, but I know Judd reached out directly to Neil Young. We had to do that with Styx — we had to reach out to them directly, to Dennis DeYoung, and get him to let us use "Come Sail Away" back on the pilot.

So [the punk rock episode] aired without [Neil Young]. And it was actually a very, very big controversy with our fans at the time, because there were two options for that scene. One was that Neil Young song, and the other was [a] Dean Martin song. We always liked to do some unexpected things. And I remember thinking, "oh, it'd be really fun if we put this Dean Martin song on there, since we couldn't get the other one." And Judd was like, "Yeah, it's fun. Let's put it on." But somehow, all the fans of the show were so enraged by it because word had gotten out that we hadn't been able to use Neil Young. So their whole theory was that the network had forced us to use Dean Martin on the thing, like there were a bunch of old people who went like, "No, we're going to put our music on there." And it made me laugh because I'm like, "No, guys, we actually liked this. We liked Neil Young much better, but we actually thought this was kind of fun." But I do believe Neil Young is now back on that show, and it works 10 times better than good old Dean Martin did.

When ER went to Hulu two years ago, it brought that show back into pop culture in a way that it hadn't been in a long time. Do you think that could happen to Freaks and Geeks?

I really hope so. If you look at a show like Schitt's Creek, which is an amazing show, but I think one of the reasons that suddenly started winning all these awards is that everybody was home and suddenly, finally, got to watch it all, and got to realize that it was a great show. With us, people have definitely found us over the last 20 years, either through DVDs or through the various times we were streaming. For a long time, we were [in syndication] on ABC Family [now called Freeform]. It's been kind of equidistant moments of when we've been streaming enough to keep people aware of the show, but never enough to have everybody have that ER moment, like saying, "Oh my God, I forgot about this."

So I really do hope that the combination of people streaming more and the fact that we've been away for a pretty good amount of time now [will help] people rediscover it and really get excited about it again. Look, it's the thing you dream of when you make TV. Back when we were doing this 21 years ago — almost 22 years ago, we started it — television was either you did 75 episodes and got into syndication, or you got canceled and you were never seen again, and you were completely forgotten. So when we got canceled after 18 episodes, and we only aired 13, the feeling was like, well, OK, it's gone. That's why it was so nice four years later when we finally came out on DVD. Up to that point, we were the lowest rated show on NBC a lot of weeks, even though back then that meant we had 7 million loyal viewers which now would be a giant hit. The politics of television have definitely changed. But we were one of those shows that everybody had heard of, but not that many people had seen. So to have those four years, "Oh, I created a show called Freaks and Geeks." "Oh yeah, I've heard that's really good. I never got to see it." So when it finally came out, it was just this relief of, "OK, good. Finally, people can at least see it." And then people were responding in the way they had originally, but just people who had never seen it before.

Nostalgia has always been a theme in pop culture, but it seems to be extra prevalent today. What do you think a show like this would look like if it were made today? Do you think it could cut through? Is there something that exists now that feels similar to doing what Freaks and Geeks did?

Yeah, there's a lot of shows now. If you look at Pen15 and Big Mouth and Mindy [Kaling]'s show [Never Have I Ever], now there's a lot. I think if we came out now, people would be like, "OK, another one of these shows." Had we come out 10 years later than we did, I think it would've been a different thing. But we were just like this weird kind of — "unicorn" is too kind of a word. We were just this weird thing. We were this geek, you know? This embodiment of a geek that came on the air that had no real equivalent. The only thing that was close to what we were doing tonally was Ally McBeal, really, because that was an hour long, it was funny, but it was a drama at the same time. So people didn't quite know what to do with us.

The show that always destroyed us, even though we weren't up against it, but just won every award away from us and was the hot show dealing with similar things was Malcolm in the Middle. It was a half-hour show, it was very, very broad. Very funny, but very broad, just big. And we were this little comedy that was really uncomfortable, and it would make you really sad sometimes, it would make you squirm a lot of the time, and people just couldn't deal with it in a way that they could now. Comedy has really changed over the last 21 years. And back then, it was all sitcoms. I don't want to say we were too subtle, because that makes us sound so smart, but we were just not a tone that people were used to and were ready for. And also, nobody was really in the mood for a show like ours anyway, because we got killed by game shows every night. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was always the thing that destroyed everybody. That was when everybody just wanted game shows. Every network wanted game shows. It seemed like the audience, all they wanted to watch was game shows. So we really came out at a bad time. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Have you ever talked about a reboot or a revival or a reunion in a serious way?

Not seriously. We get asked that all the time, and I've been offered many, many times to do it. I don't have any interest in doing it, personally, just because I love what we did. I really love those 18. They feel kind of perfect for what we wanted to do. And I've never seen a reunion of any show that I really thought was awesome. But I've said this for 20 years too: look, if we suddenly had this epiphany of this great idea of the perfect way to do it, then sure, we would think about it. But I don't know. I'm not a big sequels guy. I always feel like something happens for a reason, and it's because it catches you unaware, and it's something that feels so unique at the moment. When you rehash it, I feel sort of like there's nowhere to go but down, which is not entirely true because plenty of people have [proven that wrong] —  I mean, Godfather II versus Godfather I, that worked. But let's just say the examples are few and far between. But look, I'd never say never.

With people stuck inside due to the pandemic, streaming seems to be the main form of entertainment these days. Do you have any thoughts on the HBO Max/Warner Bros. decision? Have you ever thought about what you'd think if that happened to one of your films?

You never want to be a dinosaur who's like, "I'll never do this, I'll never do that," because that's just the end of your career, when you suddenly become stuck in your ways that way. I don't think I'd be pleased if I made a movie specifically that was going to be released theatrically and then they switched it up on me. I would have an issue with that because I think I would make the movie slightly differently. Not entirely, but just mentally. But I'm living in London now doing prep for this big Netflix movie that I'm going to do. It's a really big movie, a big production. But I went into it knowing it was going to be for streaming, and so I'm very at peace with that.

I'm a theatrical guy. I love movie theaters. I make movies for big audiences to watch together, because we engineer them that way. We do everything in service of that live audience. So yes, I would have an issue if that was sprung on me. But that said, I think streaming is great. Anything that gets your stuff seen by people is fantastic. I already have a relationship with HBO Max because we have Love Life over there that I produce, and we just did a new pilot for them called Minx that is amazing. So I have high hopes that that'll get picked up. And we've got Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist that's streaming over on Peacock now.

It's all things that erase that thing that hindered us back 21 years ago when we did Freaks and Geeks — you've only got one shot, it's only on this one night per week, and if people don't watch it then it's gone, versus, hey, people can check into a show whenever they want and suddenly fall in love with it, binge it, and have a great time. Anything that gets your stuff seen and people to fall in love with it, that's the goal.