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The Late Great

TV College Comedy Finally Made the Grade in Judd Apatow's Undeclared

His Freaks and Geeks follow-up cracked a mystery that had eluded TV minds for generations.
  • Left to right: Timm Sharp, Carla Gallo, Charlie Hunnam, Monica Keena, Jay Baruchel, and Seth Rogen in Undeclared (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    Left to right: Timm Sharp, Carla Gallo, Charlie Hunnam, Monica Keena, Jay Baruchel, and Seth Rogen in Undeclared (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    In The Late Great, Primetimer staffers and contributors revisit shows that were cut short, but still cast a long shadow over the TV landscape. 

    In the age of The Sex Lives of College Girls and Grown-ish, it might be surprising to learn that television used to be a little more standoffish about higher education. A cheeky title like The Sex Lives of College Girls provides some indication as to why: When the broadcast networks ruled the roost, when standards and practices were more restrictive, TV wasn’t a natural fit for teenagers finding themselves, and their first tastes of freedom, in a university dormitory.

    Authentic depictions of these rites of passage were particularly challenging for series whose characters graduated from high school to college over the course of their run: How feasible is it that everyone who’s anyone from the West Beverly High class of 1993 would enroll at the fictional California University, or that George Feeny might follow his favorite Boy Meets World pupils all the way through their undergraduate studies? Gilmore Girls weathered this transition better than most, but even that show manufactured the occasional reason to pull Rory Gilmore away from Yale and back to her hometown of Stars Hollow.

    It wasn’t impossible to set a long-running series on campus. A Different World managed the task after Debbie Allen retooled the show away from its origins as a Denise Huxtable spinoff. Felicity told the story of its titular character’s matriculation across four seasons — and then retold it over the course of its final, controversial time-travel arc. But more common was the fate of the three frat-house sitcoms that the networks unveiled in the winter of 1979 in an attempt to ride the toga tails of National Lampoon’s Animal House: ABC’s Lampoon-sanctioned Delta House didn’t live to see its sophomore year, and neither did NBC’s Brothers and Sisters. More humiliatingly, CBS pulled its Co-Ed Fever after a single airing.

    But none of these shows had to contend with such difficult odds and the aftershocks of a national tragedy. For that, we must look to the underclassmen of Undeclared. Judd Apatow’s follow-up to the beloved-but-canceled Freaks and Geeks was initially slated for midseason 2001, but with a Writers’ Guild of America contract set to expire that May, a strike-wary Fox held Undeclared for the following fall. There would be no strike — the WGA was able to secure an expanded suite of residuals, including a bump in pay from Fox, without a work stoppage — but the collegiate misadventures of Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) were nevertheless set to commence on September 18, 2001, a debut ultimately preempted by wall-to-wall news coverage following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

    Those would be difficult headwinds to launch any new comedy in. But the network didn’t do Undeclared any favors by scrambling the broadcast order of the 13 episodes it already had in the can: In Episode 1, Steven and his floormate Lizzie (Carla Gallo) impulsively sleep together as a mutual declaration of independence from his newly divorcing parents and her overbearing long-distance boyfriend. But the episode in which Steven learns about said boyfriend, Eric (Jason Segel), wouldn’t air until the following January.

    Despite largely positive critical notices — reviewing the premiere for the San Francisco Chronicle, Tim Goodman wrote “There's a lot of subtlety and inspired writing in Undeclared, making this the first buzz-show sitcom in years” — the show failed to find an audience on par with that of its lead-in, the filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience stalwart That ’70s Show. By the time producers, cast, and crew gathered for a screening and Q&A at what was then the Museum of Television & Radio (now The Paley Center for Media), they were bracing for the end. “Our yearly trip to the Museum,” Apatow joked, alluding to a previous event held in Freaks and Geeks’ honor, “which is always followed two weeks later by our cancellation.”

    Undeclared did indeed join Delta House and the others as yet another college show expelled — but that setting had almost been arrived upon by default. Following the demise of his period-piece team-up with Paul Feig, Apatow sought a project that could keep the whole Freaks and Geeks gang together. Since they did high school the first time around, it was determined that college would be the right fit for the cast’s age. Plus, there was a niche going unfilled: “We thought, ‘Well, there’s never been a super-funny college show,’” Apatow says in the DVD commentary for Undeclared’s first episode, “Prototype.”

    Of the main Freaks and Geeks ensemble, the only cast member to become an Undeclared regular was Seth Rogen, who was also hired as a writer on the show. His castmate Segel, who’d played the love-lorn wannabe drummer Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks, was originally tapped for the role of Steven. But the network balked, wanting more of an underdog type to anchor the series; Baruchel was recommended on the strength of his performance as a gawky Led Zeppelin superfan in Almost Famous. The high-school geek looking to reinvent himself in college was the one character locked in before casting began — Steven’s peers at the University of Northeastern California were eventually tailored to the actors playing them: Rogen as the sarcastic Ron, Gallo as chipper Lizzie, Charlie Hunnam as self-styled ladies’ man Lloyd, Timm Sharp as sleepy-eyed eccentric Marshall, and Monica Keena as high-strung Rachel.

    There’s a lot about how Undeclared came together that was unorthodox by turn-of-the-21st-century-TV standards. With characters refined after casting, auditions were conducted around a series of generic scenes. The first six episodes were developed simultaneously, rather than being written after a pilot episode was completed and ordered to series. Picking up a thread that began with Freaks and Geeks, the actors were encouraged to improvise extensively, contributing to Undeclared’s easygoing, chummy method of joke-telling.

    There’s also the matter of the way Undeclared was filmed: single camera*, no studio audience. This style of TV comedy dated to the zippy, high-concept sitcoms of the 1960s, but it was back in primetime vogue thanks to the breakout comedy of 2000, Malcolm in the Middle. Undeclared was one in a whole wave of single-cam comedies cresting post-Malcolm, coming to the air the same fall as Scrubs, The Bernie Mac Show, and The Tick. As the Detroit Free Press put it that November, “[t]hough the single-camera sitcom takes more time to produce and is more expensive, costing $100,000 to $200,000 more per episode than studio-audience comedies, the networks are willing to gamble in hopes of creating distinctive programs that attract younger viewers lured to risk-friendly cable in recent years.”

    (*It’s here where the pedants must note that single-camera is frequently a misnomer, as many single-cam series including Undeclared are shot with two cameras for coverage.)

    Cable was where single-camera had re-established its foothold, particularly on HBO, where Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm were using the technique to make a rawer, more candid kind of comedy. Those shows walked through curtains parted by The Larry Sanders Show, the pioneering backstage talk-show satire created by and starring Garry Shandling. Shandling was a mentor of Apatow’s, who was hired to write for Larry Sanders following the brief but glorious run of The Ben Stiller Show in 1993.

    “Garry’s whole thing was about truth — getting to the emotional core of people,” Apatow says in David Bianculli’s The Platinum Age of Television. “And asking, ‘What would really happen in the situation? … And so, we had very deep conversations about human behavior, and when that was figured out, it was much easier to write the comedy.”

    Undeclared is a comedy in a Larry Sanders vein, pulling its humor from exposed vulnerabilities and punctured pretensions. And who could be more vulnerable or pretentious than a college freshman? Steven arrives at UNEC thinking a new wardrobe and a trendy haircut will erase all evidence of the dork he once was, but interlopers like his ingratiating father, Hal (Loudon Wainwright III), and his high-school buddy Theo (Martin Starr) keep popping up to remind people of the dork he still is. When Marshall tries his hand at personality-via-animal-accessory, his suave “birdman” shtick is undercut by a skittish ex-classroom cockatoo. (“Don’t poke her with chalk — she goes nuts,” warns the pet shop employee played by former Freaks and Geeks writer and future White Lotus creator Mike White.) Even Lloyd, the most cocksure of the principals, is regularly shown to be less than the expert he fancies himself as.

    While other single-camera sitcoms of the day tore down the fourth wall or dabbled in flights of fancy, Undeclared was building a bridge to the production mode that Apatow turned into a cinematic brand. It wasn’t exactly the “retroscripting” approach of Curb or the first season of Home Movies — in which whole episodes are ad-libbed from an outline of plots and scenes — but it did give the cast and crew the leeway to find the funniest way through a script in front of the camera, and then shape the final product in the editing room. The result is a show that genuinely captures the feeling of lazing around the dorm or huddling over Solo cups with its characters.

    “There’d be a lot of verisimilitude in the behavior you’d see of the actors,” director Greg Mottola said during the Museum of Television & Radio panel. “What I love is people throw jokes away. They don’t hit punchlines hard, they don’t go into the bada-boom rhythms of sitcom acting. I think the improvs really created that environment.”

    The fun of Undeclared isn’t necessarily found in precision-tooled dialogue and quote-worthy zingers, but the guys’ fumbling through a rigged game of truth-or-dare, or Keena and Christina Payano’s moves in a stereo-war dance-off whose music wasn’t added until post-production. Like the sagacious casting work of Allison Jones — which made Undeclared a before-they-were-famous showcase for guest stars Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart, and Jenna Fischer — the improvisations of Undeclared presaged a whole era of TV comedies to come. Apatow, Mottola, Rogen, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg later brought this model and its rhythms from Undeclared to the big screen, and it eventually trickled back to TV via the on-the-spot scene tags of New Girl (whose pilot, like Undeclared’s, was directed by Jake Kasdan) or the unpolished conversational flow of Girls (produced by Apatow and co-run by Undeclared vet Jenni Konner).

    Within this milieu, Undeclared was able to easily incorporate a little melancholy into its comedy, too — a sort of inverted-polarity Freaks and Geeks, and the proper fit for a writer of poison-pen love songs like Wainwright. The whole series ends on a note of emotional slapstick, as three separate rom-com epiphanies culminate in a passionate Steven-Lizzie clinch in front of the fourth-floor elevator — whose doors open to reveal a beaming Eric, his smile curdling into the wrestling-promo rage typically reserved for his scenes opposite Baruchel. Laughs are paramount on Undeclared, but they’re built on a foundation of sincere, you-can’t-always-get-what-you-want material: Hal’s bachelor-life loneliness, the kids’ money woes, or their overriding quest for a sense of self. The last of those motifs carried over from Freaks and Geeks even if the whole cast didn’t. (For the record: In addition to Rogen, Segel, and Starr, Busy Philipps, Samm Levine, Natasha Melnick, and Steve Bannos would each eventually pay a visit to UNEC.)

    And maybe that’s the best way to capture college in a television series: As an experience that’s neither entirely fraternity prank wars (Undeclared wrapped that up in the two-parter that capped its initial 13-episode order) nor nonstop existential crises (that subject got an episode, too — though it went unseen until the DVD release). That’s kind of how Allen’s version of A Different World made college on TV work, casting the students and faculty of its Hillman College as characters uniquely primed to tackle the social issues of their day. Of course, multi-cam was still the predominant mode of TV comedy when A Different World was on the air, so these discussions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and South African apartheid still had to contend with studio audience laughter and the more conventionally heightened sitcom performances of its leads. (No shade to Jasmine Guy, who gave one of the best conventionally heightened sitcom performances of the 1980s as Southern belle Whitley Gilbert.)

    The clashing tones just blend more smoothly in single-cam. And while a show that got 17 episodes onto the air can hardly be called a game-changer, it’s easy to see the traces of Undeclared in the longer-lived college shows of the past 20 years: The wide-eyed naïveté Steven shares with Greek’s Rusty Cartwright, the comic frankness of The Sex Lives of College Girls and Dear White People, the emotional honesty of Grown-ish. Undeclared arrived too early to take advantage of the full-on single-cam revolution bolstered by the likes of Arrested Development, the American Office, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — by the time those last two shows premiered, Apatow and the gang had already pulled up stakes for the big screen and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But like a fake ID bequeathed by a newly minted 21-year-old to their freshman buddy, it showed a way around an obstacle that had flummoxed generations who’d come before.

    Erik Adams is a writer and editor living in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Undeclared, FOX, Freaks and Geeks, Carla Gallo, Charlie Hunnam, Jay Baruchel, Judd Apatow, Monica Keena, Seth Rogen, Timm Sharp