Words & Nerds: Ranking the Writing Careers of the ‘Freaks and Geeks’ Cast Members
One of the more curious things about The Incredible Burt Wonderstone – aside from Steve Buscemi's ability to pass himself off as a member of the band Nelson – is that it was co-written by onetime Freaks and Geeks actor John Francis Daley, who played Sam Weir on the obsessively loved high-school drama. It's Daley's second feature-film screenplay — Horrible Bosses was his first — and cements his membership in the exclusive after-school club of former F&G cast members who write as well as act.
'Freaks and Geeks' Cast Now: Hollywood Stardom
Freaks and Geeks is one of those crazy Hollywood tales: a show that didn’t last a full season, yet launched all of its cast members into stardom, or at least Hey-It's-That-Guy recognizability.
Conventional wisdom credits their success to F&G creator, Judd Apatow, and his eagle eye for spotting young talent. But that interpretation neglects the essential piece of advice that two of Daley's fellow writing-club members, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel, say made their careers: Apatow’s encouragement to “start writing [their] own material” instead of waiting around for the right script or opportunity to magically appear.
The actors who followed Apatow's advice have distinguished themselves in the movies, while the ones who didn’t have seen their careers limited to television. Then again, not all screenwriters are created equal. Below, a ranking of fictional McKinley High's writing alumni. Read on to see who has been Apatow’s star pupil and who should be held back:
1. Jason Segel (Nick “29-Piece Drum Kit” Andopolis) – Though he’s not the biggest success story to come out of McKinley, Segel is Apatow’s best student by far. He found his way to stardom (and some mild notoriety) by writing scripts with characters based on himself – then truly bared all by exposing his lots-to-love body to the camera. (Apatow’s current protégé, Lena Duham, appears to be following the trail Segel blazed.)Although Segel’s nominal day job is playing fourth banana on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, he’s earned plenty of extra credit by spending his summers building a mini film empire, writing or co-writing five films – Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, Get Him to the Greek, The Five-Year Engagement, and the upcoming Undercover Cop – in as many years. The schlubby star’s prolificacy is impressive enough, but it’s the skill with which he’s written and played variations on his TV personae from F&G and Mother – the human teddy bear with a barely suppressed psychotic neediness – that earns him such high grades.
James Franco (Daniel “Carlos the Dwarf” Desario) – As the only one of the Freaks to enjoy an Oscar nomination and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, James Franco is the Johnny Depp of the Freaks gang – a decent thespian whose ridiculous hotness launched him into a film career buttressed by family-friendly, eye-straining tentpoles that adapt classic literature without understanding what made them classic. Although most of Franco's screenwriting credits have not been seen by large audiences, he's got quite a few projects in the hopper, including an adaptation of William Faulkner's revered 1930 novel, As I Lay Dying. Meanwhile, Franco hasn't limited himself to writing for film. Lately, he has put his scattered thoughts on paper as a short-story writer, a poet, and a celebrity blogger, leading Time Magazine to call him, with utmost seriousness, “the 21st century’s first great public intellectual.” Being compared to Susan Sontag, Calvin Trilling, and Christopher Hitchens for collecting diplomas and teaching a course called “Editing James Franco… with James Franco” might embarrass some people. Unfortunately, such pyrrhic recognition only expands the one role Franco doesn’t play with distracted boredom nowadays, that of an actor with a fatal case of pretention-itis.
Seth Rogen (Ken “I Love Tuba Girl” Miller) – Quentin Tarantino had Uma Thurman, Sam Raimi had Bruce Campbell, and, for a brief spell in the late 2000s, Judd Apatow had Seth Rogen. Though he was often a peripheral Freak, Rogen became Apatow’s golden boy, if not his muse, after the show went off the air. In fact, Apatow was so generous to the young comedian, giving him starring roles in Knocked Up and Funny People, as well as a key supporting role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, that Rogen didn’t need to write any scripts for himself – and perhaps he shouldn’t have. The frog-throated wisecracker is such a talented improv he single-handedly made last year’s The Guilt Trip bearable, but off-the-cuff jokes don’t necessarily translate well into screenplays with three-act structures and compelling character development. Rogen's co-written scripts for Superbad, Drillbit Taylor, Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet, The Watch feel like badly copied facsimiles of Apatow’s lesser work.
John Francis Daley (Sam “Parisian Nightsuit” Weir) – The only one of the Geeks to try his hand at writing is John Francis Daley, who, like Segel, finds enough time between takes on his network show, Bones, to put together movie scripts. After tackling an episode of his Fox procedural, Daley and his writing partner Jonathan Goldstein have been on a script-selling tear. In addition to Horrible Bosses and Burt Wonderstone, they wrote the upcoming Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and a new Vacation installment. If the former child star wants to retire from staring into David Boreanaz’s dead, dark eyes every week to a job behind the camera, he’s certainly preparing a cushy landing for himself. But if he’s not going to write himself into his scripts, he should at least take a page out of the Apatow handbook and write something more personal than the second and sixth installments of already tired franchises.
By taking Apatow’s advice, Segel (and Dunham) have guaranteed themselves acting jobs for at least the next few years. And more SAG members aren't following suit is a mystery. Sure, actors are busy doing Pilates three hours a day, and not everyone’s a great writer – but that’s what script doctors are for. Besides, given that an actors careers basically comes down to creating and managing their screen personas, it’s surprising that more of them don't work more actively to manage their own brands, so to speak. Hey, it worked for Matt and Ben.
Inkoo Kang is a film critic and investigative journalist in Boston. She has been published in Indiewire, Boxoffice Magazine, Yahoo! Movies, Pop Matters, Screen Junkies, and MuckRock. Her great dream in life is to direct a remake of All About Eve with an all-dog cast.
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