Nearly every television producer working today has a sad story about the one that got away – the passion project that made it to air but after usually a very short period of time was axed, justifiably or not, by the network. This scenario is one that can rankle creators years, or even decades, later.
For Judd Apatow, that show was “Freaks and Geeks,” which ran on NBC in the 1999-2000 season and was canceled after 18 episodes, but has since gained cult status — and remains very near and dear to his heart.
As the acclaimed writer/producer/director was honored last week with the PaleyFest Icon Award at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills for his artistic contributions to television, he made a startling admission.
“Everything I’ve done in a way is revenge for the people who canceled ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ Apatow said near the end of a celebration honoring his creative contributions to television, which also include “The Ben Stiller Show,” “The Larry Sanders Show," “Undeclared” and, currently, “Girls.” “It’s like, ‘You were wrong about that person and that writer and that director.’ I guess I should get over that,” Apatow said.
Before “Girls,” Apatow had not worked actively in television for more than a decade — apparently a little bitter about how “Undeclared,” what he called the college version of “Freaks,” was also canceled after less than a full season, just 17 episodes.
Oh, and he was just a little occupied with films including “The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “Superbad,” “Knocked Up,” “ Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek,“ “Pineapple Express,” “This Is 40” and “Bridesmaids.”
“TV is 1,000 times harder than film,” Apatow said at the ceremony for his Icon Award — only the second one given. (Last year’s, the inaugural of the honor, went to Ryan Murphy.)
It was a unique presentation, a trip down memory lane, tour-guided by “Entertainment Weekly’s” Dan Snierson, with many of the key players in his career speaking out from the audience, telling anecdotes about their experiences with Apatow and on his shows.
Apatow’s wife, actress Leslie Mann, and their daughter Iris Apatow were in the front row to cheer him on.
After an introduction from Paley Center for Media CEO Pat Mitchell, Roseanne Barr took the podium. “I discovered Judd,” she told the packed house, and praised his “humanistic” ability to weave a story so well, with an eye for sensitivity. “Plus, it’s pee-your-pants funny,” she said.
After working with Roseanne and her then-husband Tom Arnold, Apatow got a big break when Garry Shandling asked him to write jokes when Shandling was called to be host of the Grammy Awards in the early 1990s.
“I wrote 100 jokes for him but it was right around the time of the first Iraq war and he didn’t use any of them. But it spurred him to think of his own bits, so I basically wrote a hundred setups for him.”
Shandling, who was in the packed theater and reminisced and cracked jokes with Apatow, gave him a job on his vaunted HBO program, “The Larry Sanders Show.”
A 20-plus-year-old clip was played that was especially resonant. It showed Larry — after consulting with his producers — with Ellen DeGeneres riffing on whether she was going to come out as gay on his fictional talk show — a bit that ended in them passionately kissing and leaving the question of her sexuality up to the viewer to decide, and Larry’s producers in confusion.
“I learned almost everything I know from Garry,” Apatow said, noting that his good experience then with HBO led to his returning to the pay cabler’s fold with Lena Dunham for “Girls.” He got in touch with Dunham after seeing her indie film “Tiny Furniture” with his wife and offered to work with her. Apatow said the deal to return to TV was sweetened when it turned out that Jennifer Konner, with whom he had worked on “Undeclared,” was the executive producer.
As for his early influences, Apatow shouted out Paul Reiser’s performance in the 1982 Barry Levinson film “Diner,” because some of his lines were ad-libbed. “Oh my God, you can get a job on a movie when [you have] funny things to say?” Apatow said he was also inspired by Dave Eggers’ book “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” because of its honesty and vulnerability.
Those are qualities that have marked Apatow’s work in both television and film. And although they are usually cloaked in humor and emanate from the man-children that many of his characters embody, he also has a traditional romantic side — as epitomized in the finale of “Girls” last season, when a shirtless Adam rushes to the rescue of Hannah through the streets of New York, to the accompaniment of a soaring score.
It should also be noted that “Girls” is now one of Apatow’s longest-running shows, having been renewed for a fourth season.
Asked by Snierson which show he would like to write for if given the opportunity, Apatow consulted with his wife and answered “The Americans.” And then, perhaps not as surprisingly, “Switched at Birth” and “The Fosters.”
(The 31st PaleyFest runs through March 28 in Hollywood. All of the panels will be live streamed at http://media.paleycenter.org/pf-live.)