High school was not easy for me. I began my tenure at Fullerton Union High School a shade under 5 feet tall, 98 pounds, and with a broken leg. I fell down the stairs on day two, and never really quite recovered.
Every high school has its defined groups, whether they are freaks, or geeks, or jocks or whatever. At my school, there were the nerds, the stoners, the punks, and the jocks. I kind of didn’t fit into any of them. I suppose I fell into the “waiting for puberty” crowd, which seemed to include only me. I certainly couldn’t be much of a jock, considering I was terrified of taking a locker room shower. And in our school, there weren’t any doors on the bathroom stalls, and to be caught while taking a crap was a humiliation worse than death. I basically spent the day trying to avoid being picked on. I went through probably every freshman rite of passage, made worse by my diminutive stature. I was “trash canned,” and once even taped to a tree. High school became sort of an obstacle course to get through on a daily basis.
And the funny thing is, I am a pretty outgoing person by nature. I could never resist a good comeback to a teacher if I thought it could get a laugh, and I always wanted to raise my hand if I felt like I had something to say. I wanted the other students to see beyond my physical representation so I would often go out on a limb and try to be smart, or funny, or worldly. I was the class clown that tried to disappear at lunchtime. But I think my smart aleck-ness sealed my fate as a kid that was just going to get beat up on.
Those few traumatic years at high school really defined my personality in a lot of ways, and for a lot of years. It wasn’t until senior year that I started to grow, and I didn’t reach my full height of 6’ 1” until my first year of college. So I think it took me many years not to see myself as this small, awkward kid that would never need a razor. I’m sure there were positives to this mindset, but I mostly just felt embarrassed that I was me.
In a lot of ways it took going off to college to start my life. Finally I was able to have a fresh start, and meet a group of kids that didn’t know me as a pair of legs sticking out of a trashcan. I began to use my interests in a positive way. I became the political cartoonist for my college newspaper, and also began writing and taking photographs. I found that conversations could be started around books I had read, bands I liked, or movies I had seen. Girls started talking to me. But I carried my high school experience like a shameful secret, and tried my best to cover up my past. Whenever I found myself in a potentially embarrassing situation (and believe me, I found plenty of them), I would get that old familiar panicked feeling, and immediately look around for an exit. Even now, writing this down, there is some feeling of discomfort, some shame that I carry from those years.
As I look back at those years, I have to believe that my high school experience, on the whole, was probably quite normal. Some kids had it better, and some kids had it worse. But to me, it was everything. And now, as a parent, I think about it from the perspective of my kids. What will they go through, silently, that I will never be aware of? What humiliation or shame will they feel they have to suppress? What will they feel embarrassed about and afraid of?
If their experience is any better than mine was, maybe in some small way I have Judd Apatow to thank. Since Freaks and Geeks, he has been creating films that reveal the inner pain of being a human from adolescence up through adulthood, and making us all feel a little less alone in the process. No, he is not the first person to create a show about the experience of being in high school, but I will argue he did it better than anyone else by a country mile.
Starting with Freaks and Geeks, Apatow began his career long interest in those very uncomfortable and very real moments that define us. With deft precision, he reveals in his characters all of the pain and awkwardness of human interaction, and in doing so, makes us see ourselves. He claims that when Freaks and Geeks was cancelled it broke his heart, and he has been in some way seeking revenge ever since; staying involved in the careers of every one in that cast. He also claims he continues to tell that story in all of his films. In fact, his memories of his own high school life have become so intertwined with the characters he created for that series that he is not sure where the show ends and his own memories begin.
So how did Apatow create such a realistic portrait of high school? I think the success lies ultimately in his empathy for every character he ever met or created. Apatow is eternally hopeful that we are all the same inside. We may have our own brand of crazy, but we are all crazy, and we shouldn’t have to go through it alone. And because he knows this, his characters take on a depth and dimension beyond most found in the comedic genre.
Mostly, Judd Apatow endured. He found comedy at a young age, and immersed himself in the world of funny—from the Marx Brothers to Jerry Seinfeld. He somehow knew deep down that sticking with this passion, even though he had no friends that shared his love for comedy, would one day pay off for him. And in high school, when he started meeting his heroes by ingeniously interviewing them for his high school radio station, he found out something else: there were other people like him in the world, and they were kind. Judd took this to heart, and has turned his passion into his own genre of filmmaking—funny people who remind us of us.
I first met Judd Apatow while co-directing a little film about Loudon Wainwright III, and I instinctually liked him. He came off as humble, engaged, and a great listener. After doing this interview, I like him even more. Through his career path, his sense of discovery, and his dogged pursuit of telling a great story, he has become sort of a central figure in a comic creative force field. He helps his friends with their movies, makes time for anyone that needs his advice, and is generous to a fault. And most of all, he is human, and not afraid to disguise that fact. He is constantly willing and even eager to tell you that he is unsure of himself, or self-conscious to a fault. It pointing out his own insecurities, he has helped me become more forgiving of my own, and that is quite a gift.