Twenty years after Freaks and Geeks premiered on NBC, it's still challenging to find a TV show about high school that accurately taps into the awkward, painful moments that come with being a teen. Freaks and Geeks made those who considered themselves a “freak” or a “geek” — or both — feel understood. The series' second episode, “Beers and Weirs,” masterfully captured that. If you think back at most high school-focused TV shows and movies, parties are always seen as monumental moments that follow the same gist: Parents are out of town, time to pull out the red solo cups! And if it's a show on a family-focused network like Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, that means getting drunk off soda and wrecking the house. But Freaks and Geeks did something different with the party narrative: they turned it into a story about the uncomfortable moments that come with desperately wanting to fit in with the crowd.
“Beers and Weirs” served as a second pilot of sorts, filmed after the show was picked up by NBC. The crew faced the challenge of making sure the network would not regret the decision of giving Freaks and Geeks a chance, proving how it was the perfect vehicle for stories that could be hilarious and simultaneously heartbreaking. This episode is the first one where the freaks and geeks' worlds collide with a premise that sounds ludicrous but is absolutely genius. The geeks — Sam (John Francis Daley), Neal (Samm Levine), and Bill (Martin Starr) — grow concerned about Lindsay's (Linda Cardellini) plans of throwing her first party while her parents are away. So the geeks come up with a plan: they'll swap the freaks' keg with fake beer so nobody will get lit — as the kids say these days. But it turns into a hilarious placebo effect experiment, with a night filled with awkward singing, beer bong funnel mishaps, scary old men, and crying.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of “Beers and Weirs,” which aired on Oct. 2, 1999, TV Guide spoke to the cast of Freaks and Geeks about the making of the episode.
Many of the Freaks and Geeks storylines were best on real-life experiences and”Beers and Weirs” was no different. When J. Elvis Weinstein was hired as a writer on the show in his late 20s, he mentioned to co-creator Judd Apatow the concept of a story revolving around switching a keg with a fake one, based on a true childhood memory. Apatow decided to use this as the basis of the first episode to follow the pilot.
J. Elvis Weinstein (co-writer, “Beers and Weirs”): My idea was much more sort of Catcher in the Rye, in that everyone is a phony. Judd and I decided that he and I were going to write the episode together because it was the first episode on the shoot [following the pilot], so it was very hands-on for everybody. So it was Judd's idea, I think, to make the fake beer thing more about the geeks protecting Lindsay, as opposed to making people look stupid. It is something I did. As a kid, I had a friend whose father was a liquor distributor, and he was able to get this keg. And we did want to do this sort of entrapping thing, at a party, but enough people brought their own liquor that the experiment failed.
John Francis Daley (Sam Weir): We were all still kind of getting into the groove of our characters, because we had only done the pilot, so this was the first episode back after a very long break when we were waiting to see if the show would get picked up. During that time, things kind of changed — like I remembered personally thinking about what I would do, how I would handle being on a show, because it was the first one I had ever done. The pilot was such a whirlwind — it felt more like shooting a movie — that it wasn't enough time to get 100 percent comfortable with it. I remember reading the script [for “Beers and Weirs”] for the first time, and thinking, “Oh, great, so this can sustain,” because there's always that question of whether it not it will be as good as the pilot.
Linda Cardellini (Lindsay Weir): We were so excited about making it. Moving forward with the show was such a big deal. Because if you don't get a second episode, the pilot is never seen. The idea that we got to make a second episode meant everyone got to see the pilot, which we were all really proud of and excited about.
The episode hit a snag in the midst of filming. Martin Starr, who played Bill Haverchuck, didn't show up to shoot the liquor store scene on time. Judd Apatow was not pleased.
Martin Starr (Bill Haverchuck): I had done a short film with some older kids at USC, and I had gone out to that party, and then the next day, I had work, and I woke up like, two hours after I was supposed to be at work. It was during that episode, and I was scared I was going to get fired. I was 16, I just wasn't ready for the responsibility I had taken on, obviously, in working with adults. So I was appropriately scolded by multiple people, and that snapped me into gear.
Samm Levine (Neal Schweiber): People were sitting up there for a while, and no one could figure out why we weren't shooting, and it was because Martin [Starr] wasn't there. Judd was livid. He was really angry, and he literally said, to me and John Daley — which, I look back and I think it's weird that he threatened us with this, we were on time, us hearing that threat didn't mean anything — but he looked at the two of us and just said, “This is unacceptable. I hope you guys like acting with Lea Shepphard.”
Stephen Lea Sheppard (Harris Trinsky): Business decisions are not always made transparent to anyone involved, so if he was threatening to replace Martin with me, he wouldn't have told me until after he made that decision […] I know I was always on the verge of becoming a core geek throughout the show. I think the other reason why that didn't happen was because there was always the issue of passports and work permits.
The party scenes became important in Freaks and Geeks, because it would mark the first time that many of the characters interacted with people outside their core friend group. The main cast had already gotten close at this point, from table reads and hangouts during production, but this episode included tons of extras and minor characters joining them. The crew made sure to make it feel like an actual party, turning this into a great opportunity for the actors to mingle — and chug cream soda.
Cardellini: There's a scene where I'm supposed to be pounding beers, and I think I'm drunk, but it's actually just they replaced the beer in the keg. I remember having to shoot that scene, and I'm supposed to pound an entire beer, and it was cream soda, and I had to do it over and over and over again — so much soda. Afterward, I was sick to my stomach. I don't think I've had a cream soda since. I haven't had a cream soda in 20 years.
Levine: We shot that on a soundstage, so when they said cut, people just wandered in all directions. But there was some music playing, right before they say playback, and then action! So you get the rhythm of what the music should sound for a couple of beats before the music goes away and then they start shooting and there's dialogue and everything. But it was a fun atmosphere, certainly the most people we'd had on set, because I was not there when they shot the dance scene at the school, the last scenes of the pilot. This was the first time for me that there were so many bodies on set at the same time. And it was great, everybody was fun and professional and happy to be there, and that was a really good thing.
Daley: Jason Segel broke a coffee table! Sitting on it! He was sitting on a glass coffee table in a scene, and his butt went through the glass. When sh– like that happens, it's code red for a minute, because they have to swap out the glass, and obviously it's vintage props they have. It took them some time to vacuum it up and replace it, and time is money in the TV world. Honestly, I think they might have swapped it out with plexiglass, or they had him sit on the wooden part, and they just shot away from him after that. But the funny thing is, I remember seeing him sitting on that table before it broke, and much like Sam Weir, worried about the integrity of the glass.
Sarah Hagan (Millie Kentner): I remember there was this one scene where — it's Goldberg from Mighty Ducks, his name's Shaun [Weiss], he comes to me with beer and he's like, “Oh, you want some?” and he's spilling it, and I'm like, “No thank you, I prefer to get high on life.” He just kept barging in and sloshing the beer all over the place, and I thought this was really funny.
Levine: My mother was living with me in LA when I moved to LA to film the series, but my father and brother were still back in New Jersey, so they came out to visit. I was overly protective, like, “You guys can't be on set, if you're there, it's going to throw me off, please stay home, we'll hang out later, do not come to set.” So obviously that was not good enough for my father, because he had my mother sneak him on set, and he was in the back of the room while we were shooting those scenes. And he thought he was being sly, but I could hear his laugh from one hundred miles away. So I knew my dad was there, and I was angry momentarily, but then I was like, “Whatever, I don't have the energy to be mad at him right now.” So that was the first time my father had met Judd and Paul [Feig, co-creator], the night we were shooting. When I told him my dad was a dentist, they were like, “Oh, of course he is. Of course your dad is a dentist. Neal's dad has to be a dentist now, obviously.” And that is why Neal's dad is a dentist. Because when they met my father, Dr. Harris Levine. They were like “Nope, this just writes itself, we could not possibly come up with something better than this. Our work is done here.”
One scene no Freaks and Geeks fan can ever forget is when Millie and Nick (Jason Segel) become an unexpected musical duo, singing “Jesus Is Just Alright.” It's a song that was originally by gospel group The Art Reynolds Singers and became best-known as a Doobie Brothers cover in 1972.
Hagan: I took a year of piano back in the day, so I was not a piano player, by all means, but they gave me the sheet music and a cassette tape of the song, and it was like, maybe a month or two before we shot. I never even saw a script. I didn't know what context it was in. They just sent this to my manager to give to me and said “learn this,” and try to play it on the piano. So I had a keyboard [and] I knew a little bit how to read music, but I also looked it up and stuff, and I also had a really good friend who was good at the piano, so I would go to his house a lot, and he would help me learn how to play it, but I would just practice on the keyboard all the time. Once I got to set, and we were going to shoot that scene, there were two pianos, and I was like, “What? Why are there two pianos?” And I go to the one that I'm supposed to be sitting at, and the piano is muted.
Cardellini: That was so much fun to watch, too. The mixing up of Millie's character… Sarah Hagan is so great as Millie, and them playing piano together and us all watching [was fun].
Hagan: I remember Jason… it didn't seem like he was as prepared to do “Jesus Is Just Alright” as I was, so he didn't know the lyrics. I also knew, like, the whole song, and clearly they're not going to have me play the whole song, it's only a 45 minute show, there's just a portion of it, but he would just come in and start singing with me and sing all the wrong words, and then I had to either follow him or he had to follow me, and it was funny, I remember being like, “You are so unprepared.”
Martin Starr had some of the most memorable “Beers and Weirs” scenes, as Bill decides to drink the real beer and get drunk in Sam's bedroom watching Dallas. Turns out Starr's first time getting drunk was quite similar to Bill's.
Starr: I think had already had beer at that point, so it wasn't like the first time that I was introduced to beer. The first time I got drunk I was much younger than that. But I don't know if I'd had beer at that point. I remember when I was 14, a friend of my mom's — they were all going out for New Year's and she gave me a tiny bottle of some fruit champagne and I drank that. And then I partied pretty hard watching Nick at Nite while everyone was out.
Weinstein: Martin really had a grasp of that character right away and knew how to do subtle things with it that made it really funny. Playing drunk is tough for any actor, but for a teenage actor, it's even harder. It's so easy to be hackneyed when you're playing drunk.
The late character actor Clement Blake played Carl, an older man who Daniel (James Franco) is friends with who wreaks havoc at the party. Carl has a bizarre face-off with Ken (Seth Rogen), a moment that even made Daley break character, as he laughs in the background watching it unfold. Two decades later, it remains an unforgettable scene for the cast.
Levine: When we started rehearsing that scene, they said, “You should headbutt him.” And there's this goofy thing Clem did that's in the show where he bends down and bops Seth [Rogen] with the very top of his head. Where he's like, looking at the floor, and then running at Seth, which is never in the history of human beings how one human being headbutts another human being. That's how animals do it. I guess he had never heard the expression “headbutt” or didn't know what they were asking for, but in rehearsal, he did that, and I remember watching that and we all giggled. And they loved it so much because it looked so ridiculous and it was his honest-to-god instinct, that that's what they asked him to do for the show. Someone gave him the correct direction, but they were like, “No, no, no, do the goofy thing you did before. That's what we want. Please and thank you.”
Cardellini: I remember Judd trying to show them what he meant by a headbutt in the chest to start the fight. I think it was something maybe Judd had experienced at one point. It's funny to remember how strangely that fight begins.
Daley: It was funny to me as well, and very evergreen to have that happen, where a guy that's way older than everyone else… It's like an even more exaggerated version of Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, where literally a 75-year-old man comes in and is ready to tear this mother down. I just love how they were able to juggle comedy with danger and real-life stakes because the notion of a bunch of much older dudes that are pretty unsavory coming into a pretty innocent high school party is both hilarious and potentially very scary. And that's about the time that they called the cops.
Busy Philipps (Kim Kelly): I remember the guy [Clement Blake] — when the older people show up to the party and that's like when things are going off the rails. He had to pick me up and throw me over his shoulder and slap me on the butt. I remember that very clearly because I was still nervous about all of that, being picked up by somebody, being carried by somebody. I felt like it was a stunt.
The episode is one of the most hilarious in the series, but ends with a touching, heartwarming moment where Neal and Lindsay get to bond. Lindsay becomes heartbroken upon seeing Daniel hook up with Kim on her bed after he had given Lindsay false hope of being into her. Neal steps in to be a supportive friend, helping her by calling the cops and breaking up the party.
Cardellini: I sort of related to there being a big party going on outside, feeling the pressure, and just wanting to hide. And Samm is so good in that scene, and his voice always cracks me up, when he tries to have an adult voice on the phone calling the cops. But I think that changes the course of that relationship too. There seems to be a bond between them, even though it's not what Samm's character wants, he has a little crush on her, but they sort of become allies at that point.
Levine: I think the only improv I was really allowed to do was when I call the police and do my deep adult voice. I forget exactly what it said in the script, but it was just like, “Yeah, there's a very loud party next door.” That sounded like the kind of thing a dumb teenager would say trying to convince someone on the other end that they're an adult.
Weinstein: It's the times when we see the deepest part of him, you know, and his longing for Lindsay in that “Beers and Weirs” episode, and the painful place where he's coming from in “Noshing and Moshing.” I was a suburban Midwestern Jewish kid so that probably was the most relatable character.
The Freaks and Geeks cast and crew quickly formed a strong bond throughout the 12 episodes of the series. The cast recalls hanging out in their spare time in between filming, where Jason Segel's home became the main spot on nights out.
Cardellini: We used to go to Jason's house, he would have everybody over. We had lots of mutual friends, people doing shows that were near where we were. I was still in college and I lived with a bunch of college roommates, so we would have people over to our house, too. I remember having people over for Christmas parties, and we were lucky because we really had fun together. It's really fun when you work with funny people, because you really are around some of the brightest, funniest minds, and sitting there cracking jokes with them is fun. And Judd, even though he was the boss, wasn't that much older than everybody else. And so was Jake [Kasdan], and the writers. It was fun. It was a good time.
Phillips: We filmed at the exteriors in Valencia or up by where Magic Mountain is. I think it's Valencia, where we filmed the exteriors of the Weir house, and we were filming that late on a Friday night, and those were always fun. Those were always fun shoots. We all got along and hung out. Especially like the freaks, Jason and Linda and Seth and me, you know we would go to Jason's apartment and hang out after work. Or we'd go to Swingers and get breakfast burritos at like 11 at night.
Filming the second episode showed the cast the potential Freaks and Geeks had to tell deeply relatable stories.
Weinstein: We spent the first almost two weeks I think of being a writing staff just sitting around a table and dumping our most humiliating and gut-wrenching experiences as teens out on the table for everyone to examine, so that both made for a rich pile of stories to choose from as well as making us a close-knit group because of the intimacy we shared right out of the gate, you know? I think it was very important for us to portray teen years in a realistic, dramatic but not melodramatic way, and let the comedy occur naturally.
Phillips: Either you were the kid whose older sister threw the party, or older sibling threw the party, or you were the one who threw the party, or you were the friend that was egging them on to throw the party, or who were just like a person who was there when the party went off the rails. Like everybody has had that exact situation in high school. And it's so genius that they used that storyline as a second introduction to people to what this show was about. Which was just like: “Tune in every week, we're going to show you a version of events that you probably went through in high school. We're going to help you laugh about it. You might catch some feelings about it. And at the end of the day, maybe it'll help all of us move on from the pain of high school!”
Cardellini: There was a rebellious side to me, but there was also a side that was dedicated to my family, and my parents, and to be a good student and all of that kind of stuff, and just sort of grappling with both sides of that. And as a young girl trying to assert your power in your own way, but trying to fit into the crazy world that is high school. I remember when I was in high school, I liked a boy, and he went and he asked a girl to the dance right in front of me. I don't think he knew I liked him, necessarily, but it was so painful for me. High school is just like that. It's filled with incredible highs and somewhat unbearable lows, and that's where the show is comforting for those people when you feel like you're not alone. And you know that they're all going to be okay, but when you're a teenager, you don't know that you're going to be okay, and that's the hard part — you can't see that on your own. And as an adult, you're like, “Oh, that stuff I thought was the end of the world really wasn't the end of the world at all.”
Freaks and Geeks is not available to stream. Purchase the complete series on DVD here.