He’s the man behind Freaks and Geeks, has directed episodes of The Office and even has a role in Walk Hard, but what motivates Hollywood coolest geek?
Nerd is a popular word in Hollywood today. Just ask Steve Carell (The 40 Year Old Virgin) or Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite). These big-name dork protagonists have become box-office bonanza, but have they really advanced the nerd cause? Maybe, thinks Paul Feig, Hollywood’s 43-year-old spokesman for all things awkward-adolescent. “Anything that helps make outsiders and weirdos into people who others give a second look, then I’m all for that,” Feig says, “but I worry that if it is a fad, every fad ends.”
Feig certainly knows the pain of “nerd chic” gone sour. His critically praised 1999 television series Freaks and Geeks earned a huge cult following, but was canceled after only 18 episodes. With Arrested Development (for which Feig directed five episodes), the frustration continued. The show’s acclaim and awards sadly exceed its ratings. It seems nerddom in television is somewhat less palatable than it is in film, which is why Paul Feig is now veering his career toward other mediums. Books, for example.
This story originally ran in issue 18 of RELEVANT.
With Paul Feig’s first foray into comedic memoir writing, 2002’s Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, and his most recent book, last summer’s Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin, the nerd emeritus has created something of a new genre: the masochistic memoir. No one wants to revisit their most embarrassing adolescent experiences, let alone share them with the world. Feig does, however, and has a heck of a good time doing it. Kick Me relayed hilariously painful vignettes about young Feig’s nightmarish experiences as a teenage boy in public school: dodgeball, prom, gym class, you get the idea … Superstud, on the other hand, focuses completely on dating and sex, exposing those all-too-personal experiences of discovering and, um, dealing with one’s burgeoning sexuality.
For Feig, there are two main reasons for writing in such a shockingly frank manner: “The altruistic motive is that I like to put stuff out there that people suppress or don’t talk about, but are like, ‘Oh yeah, I did that too!’ The non-altruistic side is, I just think it’s funny.” The cringe-inducing, uncomfortable things in life, says Feig, are the most entertaining. That’s why he much prefers shows like The Comeback to modern fantasy-fulfilling fare like The O.C. Feig doubts the honesty with which sex is talked about, written about and portrayed in such entertainment. “The message seems to be, ‘It’s normal if you want to get laid or hook up all the time,’ and that’s fine, but I can’t believe that kids nowadays are that much more secure with their sexuality.”
There is a need to portray sexual issues honestly, the Michigan native believes, “because when I was growing up, I didn’t know—was I weird? Was I normal? Below normal? You have all these things that you do in the privacy of your home, bathroom or bedroom, and when I was growing up, I had nothing to compare it to. Then you add church and religion on top of it, which basically says you shouldn’t do anything, and if that’s the only standard that you’re judging it by, you feel too uncomfortable to share your questions with anyone.”
Sex and Religion
Feig grew up a Christian Scientist, and while he doesn’t practice anymore, Superstud is full of God—well, at least a voice Feig attributes to God. The book, which finds Feig struggling with guilt galore (dealing with all things sexual), is full of mental conversations Feig has with “God,” aka an internalization of what religion told him he wasn’t supposed to be doing. “It started out as just me talking to myself, and then I sort of morphed it into God—sort of a mother voice, nagging, pestering me the whole time.” God’s biggest role in Superstud comes in the final chapter of the book (“The Book of Miracles: Otherwise Called How the Author Lost His Virginity”), which is curiously formatted like biblical text (with columns, chapters and verses). A bit sacrilegious for sure, but only underscoring the fact that religion plays an important role in Feig’s sexual experience.
“When I was writing Superstud, my publishers were a little wary of the religious stuff, but that is such a huge part of sexuality and your perception of it,” notes Feig, who reflects on his Christian Science past with a mix of corny nostalgia and veiled contempt. “The religion I was brought up in was basically about ‘look away from your body; don’t think about that sort of thing.’ But when you’re that age, that’s all you can think about, so it created such a terrible dichotomy in me.” The dichotomy provides for some sidesplitting moments in Superstud, but it also reflects upon a serious issue Christians must face: How do we navigate the tenuous waters of modern sexuality if the Church refrains from discussing it?
Feig is quick to maintain that he is not anti-Christian or anti-religion in any way. “It’s fine to be religious—religion has a lot of great things it does for people,” he says. However, he is troubled by what he sees as careless moralizing that leads to suppressive—and ultimately more destructive—behavior. “Whatever your morality system tells you, you should try to go for that,” Feig says. “If the morality of it is ‘Don’t have sex until you get married,’ that’s fine. I can get into that. I respect that.” The problem for Feig is that many faiths seem to give no other outlet to relieve pre-marriage tension. “You cannot then say, ‘No, you cannot masturbate; you cannot think about sexuality.’ Then that’s not fair, then I have to call foul on that.”
What Is Right vs. What Is Normal
The message of Superstud, Feig says, is perhaps this: “Look, everyone does it, so don’t beat yourself up.” There is definitely a dialectic of “right” versus “normal” in the book, as Feig struggles between what his God-voice says and what society’s broad sexual ethic seems to validate. When asked at what point “normalcy” supersedes moralistic upbringing, Feig quickly responds, “I think it always does, because at the end of the day, we’re only human.” Feig echoes a familiar sentiment when defending his sexual standard: “When you say no, no, no … just look at the problems we’re having in the Catholic Church. If you put it off, it manifests itself in some other weird way, whether aggression or drinking or drugs. People just have to give themselves a break.”
To the question of whether the “everybody’s doing it” standard holds up when one considers the possibility that everyone might be doing the wrong thing, Feig is a bit more uncertain. “It’s a big question that I have grappled with,” Feig admits. He asserts that while he doesn’t support people having sex just to have it (“I don’t think that works at all”), sex is still a fact of life that cannot be hidden. For him, the important thing is that it never be approached casually. “I was never a casual dater,” Feig claims. “I was always trying to find the person I would be with for 80 years, which is a lot of pressure to put on yourself too, so I don’t think there is an easy answer.”
Just Left of Normal
Despite Feig’s general disposition toward “the norm” when it comes to sex, in other areas of life, normalcy is abhorrent to him. The director of I Am David (his feature-film directorial debut) finds the traditional Hollywood fare boring and especially loathes films that are marketed toward teens (“either so dumbed-down or just corporate America trying to tap into what the marketing says is a fad”). “The good thing is that people do tend to rebel against things that feel blatantly commercial or corporate,” Feig notes. “There was so much product placement in Herbie: Fully Loaded, people were running from the theaters, which is heartening.”
And so in true populist, “nerd for the people” fashion, Feig continues to speak up for things on the fringe of the mainstream. The former stand-up comedian and actor (bit parts in things like Walk Hard) may not be a big name, but he’s a rising talent in Hollywood with a loyal Freaks and Geeks fanbase, who is fighting for better, more true-to-life entertainment. “At the end of the day, people just want a good, engaging story with great characters they can relate to,” Feig says. In the super-forthright Superstud, Paul Feig proves that this can be done.