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Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 5, “Tests and Breasts”

Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 5, “Tests and Breasts” (photo)

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“Freaks and Geeks” is now airing on IFC, and we thought we’d take this opportunity to revisit the show that launched a thousand bromance movies. Every week, Matt Singer and Alison Willmore will be offering their thoughts on that night’s episode.

Episode 5: Tests and Breasts

Directed by Ken Kwapis

Written by Bob Nickman

Originally aired November 6, 1999

“In movies like that, they sensationalize certain things. But in reality those things don’t usually happen.” — Coach Fredricks

Matt: When Coach Fredricks (Thomas F. Wilson) says that line, he’s calming Sam’s fears about an alarming porno film. But he’s also speaking to the “Freaks and Geeks” ethos of realism over sensationalism. Tonight’s episode “Tests and Breasts,” written by Bob Nickman and directed by Ken Kwapis, really embodies that style of storytelling. It’s full of moments when the show could veer into melodrama or exaggeration but never does.

Take that storyline with Sam. For the third week in a row, he’s grappling with the fact that high school is thrusting him into adulthood well before he’s mentally and physically prepared for it. On “Tricks and Treats,” he refused to heed his English teacher’s call to grow up and learned his lesson the hard (boiled) way. On “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” Kim’s vicious pal Karen mocked Sam’s prepubescent body and accompanying lack of body hair; to prove his manhood, he wound up throwing away his beloved Tonka trucks.

07302010_fandg5_1.jpgThis week, Coach Fredericks teases Sam in front of his entire sex education class about his lack of knowledge about the female anatomy. That, and a vulgar joke that the geeks don’t understand, sends Sam off on another unwanted search for maturity, this time of a sexual nature. Lindsay’s friend Daniel offers up a porn film. The audience doesn’t get to see its contents — broadcast TV and all — but whatever it shows doesn’t help. Instead of answering Sam’s questions, it raises new ones. Disturbing ones, according to Coach Fredericks.

Plenty of movies from “Porky’s” to “American Pie” have tackled the subject of high school boys’ sexual awakening as broad, vulgar comedy. “Freaks and Geeks”‘ approach is totally different: for Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, sex education is yet another loss of innocence on the part of our protagonists. Sam and his geek pals aren’t horndogs champing at the bit for some action — okay, so Neil (Samm Levine) kind of is — they’re actually kind of freaked out about this whole new world they’re totally unprepared for.

There’s a few jokes about Sam’s ignorance — Coach Fredericks calls him “Doctor Love” and the nickname sticks, at least temporarily — but there’s also that remarkably understated scene where Fredericks privately counsels him in the ways of love. We can see the conversation through Fredericks’ office window, but we can’t hear a word (the soundtrack plays “Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra instead).

High school, particularly high school as portrayed by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, is often a minefield of embarrassment and shame. In keeping its distance, the show affords Sam the privacy he so rarely gets at McKinley. As audiences we’re accustomed to television that gives us unfettered access to characters’ lives and emotions. I like the idea that Feig and Apatow were erecting a boundary here. By suggesting Sam needs protection, it makes him feel that much more like a real, fragile teenager. Forget what Fredericks said about reality; those things don’t usually happen in fiction either.

07302010_fandg5_3.jpgAlison, while Sam’s dealing with the question of how someone without arms and legs can ring a doorbell, Lindsay’s got a serious problem of her own, one caused by her sympathy for Daniel and his insufficient math skills. That storyline seems to me to be another cautionary tale of freakdom in a series of them. My question to you: is “Freaks and Geeks” getting a bit too moralistic in its portrayal of the freaks? And also: where the hell is Seth Rogen’s Ken?

Alison: It is funny to think that Rogen, who’s become the biggest star out of all the cast members, played the least prominent of the freaks, but Ken’s offerings of sarcastic commentary really only have a place, for now, in a group setting. He’ll get his moment — but this episode is all about Daniel, who Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos) describes so brutally as a “dirtbag,” telling Lindsay “I know Daniel is cute, with his bedroom eyes and stringy hair, but he’s a loser. And losers pull down winners. Now, you’re a smart girl — don’t let your hormones get in a way.”

The “freak” half of “Tests and Breasts” definitely has a whiff of the cautionary tale — except that the lesson learned is so complicated. Cheating on a test and paying the consequences is another of those classic sitcom plots that the show turns on its end. The episode doesn’t close with Lindsay and Daniel getting punished and taught a lesson about honesty, it closes on Lindsay’s unstoppable, inappropriate giggles. As far as we can tell, the two of them are subjected to no immediate consequences at all.

Daniel doesn’t learn a damn thing, though Lindsay has to deal with the fact that she was manipulated but good — the look of disbelief on her face morphing slowly into uncontrollable laughter as she hears Daniel’s second run-through on the “track three” speech is priceless. Not that she hasn’t picked up a thing or two about manipulation herself. Look at how quickly she shames her parents into taking her side when the call comes about the disciplinary hearing — there’s nothing like going on the offensive to divert attention away from any actual wrongdoing.

But the greater, murkier truth Lindsay’s starting to grasp, in this episode and the next, is that, contrary to the sunny messages of success and trying your hardest she’s been bombarded with all her life, plenty of people (including her new friends) won’t go on to bigger and brighter things, and don’t have the smarts, talent, the willpower or the options that she does. Daniel’s not going to study with her and finally grasp algebra and ace his tests and become “a guy with one of those things” — an abacus? — solving equations with the greatest of ease. And even if he miraculously did, it’s highly unlikely his family has the money for college.

07302010_fandg5_7.jpgSam may be struggling with being thrust into adulthood too soon, but Lindsay’s actively backing away from it, after years of pressure, competition and expectation. She’s been preparing for and thinking about the future all her life, and the freaks represent a glorious freedom from all that forward-looking responsibility. Of course, that’s because the freaks are well aware that they don’t have a lot to look forward to after high school — think of Daniel’s cousin and his friends, still bumming around town, trying to blend in with the teenagers.

So here’s my question for you, Matt — what do you think it is that prompts Daniel to give Sam the porno in the first place? I can’t recall his even speaking to Sam at all before that point, except for chiming in to help Lindsay apologize for the egging at the end of “Tricks and Treats.” Is he trying to indirectly repay Lindsay for her misguided attempts to help? Or is the sharing of an illicit adult film, like lying to authority figures, just the kind of thing he thinks he’s good at?

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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