Funny People  de Judd Apatow

When we were freaks

High school experience can create the notion that a population of young people easily divides into a centre and margins : some kids are in the light, popular and desired, and others, nerds, geeks, freaks & losers, occupy the darker corners for varying reasons - from lack of wealth, social graces or physical beauty to the exaggerated and precocious delving into film theory. Apatow’s films unfurl the consequences of a controversial claim originating in the past decade and announced with great clarity in the show Freaks and Geeks, created by Paul Feig and collaborated on by Apatow : if some kids in rich and trendy areas of the Western world have managed, as the story goes in many TV shows, from 90210 to Gossip Girl or Veronica Mars, to make stars of themselves, thereby turning a teenage crowd into a geeky audience to impress, in the real schools where most of us grew up, there were in fact only freaks, geeks and losers. Some Hollywood scenarists and directors, possibly themselves living as an oppressed geeky minority in a environment labouring under the shadow of Beverly Hills, have been obsessed for at least half a century with the redemption of the nerds, attempting to make them look presentable for prom night and perhaps, if not save the world from World War III or the return of the Nazis, hit the holy Grail of a high school sexual intercourse – as American Pie offered it. There is no need though for such an heroic redemption once one realises that everywhere else other than Beverly Hills everyone at school in fact looked bad.

We promised last week, as Funny People was hitting the UK, to come back to the subject of the British geek. Well there is one thing a show like Skins knows that its American counterpart Gossip Girl does not. Gossip Girl wants to know how many blows two rich girls, one brunette and one blonde, can handle without damaging potential recovery of their social aura, this determined by the degree of awe and desire seen in the eyes of a few nice looking but less wealthy kids who have made it into an exclusive upper Manhattan high school. Skins knows better, or, knows rather Bristol, with its cocktail of social mixing, dysfunctional homes and raw excitement. Here, losing or winning are momentary states of a random collection of teenagers whose path through light and darkness, joy and loneliness opens on a deeper affective exploration of existence. 

In Apatow’s world – including the films he directed and the ones he contributed to as a writer or a producer over the last years – the seeds of Freaks and Geeks have grown in liberty. Where there is no centre and so many margins, we are left simply with the sheer diversity of teenage species that nature can come up with. Too delicate (Sam [1] & Evan [2]), short and Jewish (Neal [3]), skinny, sweet and Asian (Miroki [4], Evan’s neighbour in bakery class), fat, voluble and curly (Seth and Leo [5]), not fat but still curly and Jewish (Officer Micheals, Ben and Ira [6]), tall with big glasses (Bill [7]), skinny with big glasses, and still Jewish (Fogell [8] and Officer Slater [9]), nice looking and goofy (Nick & Peter [10], Daisy [11]), Christian, nerdy and possibly hot (Millie and Cindy [12]), hot with a strange voice (Jules [13]), pretty, rebellious and “mathlete” (Lindsay [14]) : there are so many nice reasons for boys and girls to be part of a happy geeky humanity. The flow of characteristics also means that none of them could ever again function as a stereotyped marker of geekyness. The best proof thereof is that the recurring actors, each of them bearing some of the above mentioned physical peculiarities, alternate between the role of the loser and the role of life’s initiated. The geek no longer has an homeric attribute, be it the glasses or the computer. Anything goes. Which also means nothing makes you a geek forever. Fat and curly is just a way of colouring existence. Or being more successful at stand-up comedy, as Leo reminds Ira, in Funny People.
The geek condition has thus been revealed in its true essence. Geekyness is not a substance. It is a relation between two times : it is about being the privileged owner of a characteristic that makes one early or late on something the majority is doing. Sam (F&G) does not have any hair on his pits at 14, when everybody has, or pretends to have. Neil already has too much. Ben, in Knocked-up, is hit too soon by fatherhood while all he dreamt of for his life at 23 was to become the happy editor of fleshofthestars.com (a useful website that lists with precision the scenes in which a famous actress reveals her body). Andy Stitzer, virgin at 40, has taken a longer road than everybody around him – delay that the film, The 40 year old virgin, cleverly replicates by following Andy on the world longest date (no sex before the 20th date). Ira never has enough time to seduce girls before his slick flatmate Mark (Jason Schwartzman) puts them into his bed, however long a head start Mark gives Ira – one, two, three, four weeks. Ira and Andy need to take all their time. They have chosen to stay in a boy’s world, protected from girls.

If ill-timing is the essence of being a geek, it is also the cradle of a moment of grace, because it has preserved the singularity of a moment of learning. The untimely hero has to learn – too early or too late – something that others do everyday – like talk to girls. But through him, and the isolation he owes to his untimeliness, an otherwise routine feature of humanity reaches the beauty of singularity. The existence of the geek turns talking to a girl into a rare moment of daring and frailty. The existence of a 40 year old virgin is a redemption for sex. Just as Ira’s shyness around girls is the prodrome of a new charm and deeper knowledge of women. As he will put it on stage : whenever my friends see a hot girl on television, they start shouting how much they would like to have sex with her, whereas I just want to shout : “I want to “friend” that chick, so hard, oh man, I’m gonna “friend” her all night long. Being funny is all about having experienced this untimeliness and looking at daily life with the fresh eye of those who have had to learn it alone.

Which brings us to the core subject of Funny People : being funny. But let us give a week’s grace to all the freaks and geeks in Spain to catch up on the film. We’ll be back.

par Arnaud Macé
jeudi 28 juin 2012

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