By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Paul Feig remembers everything about his childhood you want to forget about yours--the ass-kickings, the name-calling, the overwhelming smell of a classmate's vomit commingling with the odor of the red sawdust used to sweep it up, the tingling sensation down there brought on by climbing a rope in gym class, the humiliation of being made dodge-ball target, the horror of taking a Little League pitch square in the butt and having the coach rub it all better, the fear of the first kiss. He possesses an endless torrent of horror stories and is proud to revisit and recount them for you; anything for a laugh, though Feig is invariably both joke and punch line. It's the former stand-up comedian in him, standing in front of a brick wall somewhere and conjuring nightmares for two-drink-minimum customers desperate to laugh at someone else's pain.
Feig has no difficulty telling you about the time he was 12 years old, with long blond hair and big pale nose, donning his mother's dresses and go-go boots while smeared with her makeup. He just liked the way he looked as a girl, that's all. Nothing, ya know, gayabout it. He just liked to look pretty. He did, anyway, till the afternoon his prancing about the house was interrupted by neighborhood kids who knocked on his door to tell him his mother had been in a car accident down the street. There was just something about standing over his mother, while wearing her clothes, that pretty much scared him straight, or at least into a pair of pants from that point on.
Feig has made a career of conjuring the nightmares of pre-pubescence, first as the creator of one of television's best-loved--and most tragically short-lived--series, NBC's Freaks and Geeks, now as author of the just-published Kick Me: Adventures of Adolescence, a sort of cautionary tale broken down into humiliating junior high and high school vignettes. His last name, pronounced "Feeg," is always coming out "Fag" when formed by the mouths of classmates, and girls offering long-awaited first kisses always seem to do so after puking at the school dance. It takes about a day to make it through Kick Me, but it will take years to forget, because it seems to exist solely to conjure yourworst childhood memories. It reads like a stomach-acid flashback, a gut-churning return to the site of your biggest failures and most mortifying defeats. Unless, that is, you were one of those little Toughskin bastards who liked to pick on kids who were too embarrassed to take a post-gym class shower and spent the rest of high school on the smoking porch. In that case, Kick Mewill invoke the best few hours of your life, at least till you gotta get back to your job at the construction site.
As it turns out, as though anyone needs reminding of this timeworn fact, the best training for comedy is to suffer an endless series of humiliations in childhood; there's no better preparation for life than revealing your butterfly underpants in the locker room. Comedy becomes a defense mechanism, the shield used to fend off opponents' dreary barbs. And Feig wields his shield like Captain America...or maybe Wonder Woman and her magic bracelets.
"Comedy gets you out of a lot of trouble all the time," Feig says from a Los Angeles editing room, where he's putting post-production touches on a film he wrote and directed, I Am David. "It was the only way to get that acceptance from girls or guys who were gonna kick your ass--though that didn't work all the time. Trying to make the bully laugh is one of the most misguided bits of advice you can give a kid. 'Oh, no, they'll like you.' No, they'll just kick your ass when you top them with a zinger. It's a natural progression for people who got knocked around to go into comedy. Or go up into a clock tower."
Feig began writing Kick Me in the mid-1980s, those lost in-between years separating high school and college and his career as an actor (on, among other things, TV's Sabrina, The Teenage Witchand the Tom Arnold series The Jackie Thomas Show) and TV show creator. He was working the comedy clubs when he got a new typewriter and began putting to paper the stories he was using in his act, in hopes of completing a book called School. But his father disabused him of such illusions, telling his boy that no one would ever want to read a book about his childhood misadventures. "You're not famous," said the old man, which crushed whatever spirit his son had left in him. After that, he'd occasionally fish out the finished chapters, but only to polish, never to publish.
But in September 1999, Mr. Feig's son did become sort of famous: He was creator of Freaks and Geeks, a thinly veiled fiction based on what had been not-too-distant fact. Paul Feig became Sam Weir and, in turn, Paul Fag became Sam Queer. Indeed, the entire cast of the show, set in high school at the beginning of the 1980s, bore some resemblance to Feig, as well as executive producer Judd Apatow and the show's other writers, who were asked early on to share their own childhood traumas and incorporate them into series plotlines. That's both why the show worked so marvelously and why it failed so miserably: It was so real for some of us, it was like watching our most secretive home movies acted out by people who looked like we did when we were too young to know better.