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Television: Freaks Show

Two hundred former high-school misfits mourn a beloved program.


Whoever said history is written by the winners never watched Freaks and Geeks, NBC's bittersweet comedy-drama about burnouts and brains trying to survive a 1980 Michigan high school. Sure, the show about bullied misfits was itself shoved around -- from what creator Paul Feig calls the Saturday-at-8 p.m. "death slot" to Monday nights and, finally, cancellation after twelve episodes. But on a recent Saturday and Sunday afternoon, 200 fans whose memories of high school owe more to Square Pegs than to Fast Times at Ridgemont High packed into a Museum of Television and Radio theater to watch the six hour-long shows that never aired.

Most of those in the auditorium were the kind of smart, shy twenty- or thirtysomethings you'd see at a Pavement concert -- it's safe to say none of them had been captain of his high-school football team. Indeed, Freaks and Geeks won a dedicated following by turning the humiliations of high school -- the wedgies! the swirlies! the towel-snapping savagery of it all! -- into nostalgic comedy without easy answers or upbeat endings. "The show touched on my experiences perfectly -- me and my friends played Dungeons & Dragons," said 33-year-old Keith Lyle. "Things you were embarrassed about, this sort of validates them." One of the few fans to experience high school contemporaneously with the program, a 15-year-old from Woodstock, barely suppressed a sigh when she said the show was "painfully true."

These days, every canceled cult favorite has a Website, but only Freaks and Geeks fans bought a full-page ad in Variety urging another network to pick up the program. Feig, who flew in from Los Angeles at his own expense to speak on Saturday, received a standing ovation. After asking, "How many of the Website people are out there?," he told them their support had helped keep Freaks on the air as long as it was. "Without you," he said, "we could've been Wonderland!"

During a brief Q&A session before everyone settled down to six straight hours of television, a fan asked about Feig's inspiration for a scene in which a character unintentionally streaks through school; Feig replied that the incident was loosely based on a gym-shower "dog pile" he suffered in his own high school. "I was a stand-up comic for years," Feig said later, "and if you tell a story about something terrible that happened to you, it's always funny." Most high-school shows, he said, "are about getting laid. We were too busy getting our asses kicked."


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