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The Untold Truth Of Judd Apatow's Undeclared

After the cancellation of "Freaks and Geeks," Judd Apatow (future director of "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin") created another prematurely canceled network TV comedy. After only 18 episodes, "Undeclared" remains forgotten by most and underrated by all but the biggest comedy fans. Compared to the cult following "Freaks and Geeks" has built over the years, Apatow's follow-up that aired on Fox from 2001-2002 still flies under the radar, despite featuring many of the same cast members and writers. 

"Undeclared" moved the site of the awkward coming-of-age style comedy to the freshman year dorms of a California university. The show follows the gangly Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) as he enters his first year of college and befriends his questionable group of roommates Ron (Seth Rogen), Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), and Marshall (Timm Sharp). He soon finds himself in a complicated flirtation with Lizzie (Carla Gallow), who happens to already have a boyfriend at another school. The dynamics might sound cliche, but in typical Apatow fashion there is a brutally honest heart at the center of this cringe-inducing and hilarious half-hour comedy. 

Production on "Undeclared" was tumultuous, though. Conflicts between the network and creative leads, as well as unprecedented world-shaking events, led to the show's tumultuous rollout. This is the untold truth of Judd Apatow's "Undeclared."

It was a spiritual sequel to Freaks and Geeks

An honest look at high school life in the 1980s, the 1999 NBC show "Freaks and Geeks" pulled no punches in portraying the sex, drugs, and awkwardness that come with being a teenager. "Freaks and Geeks" was a huge cult hit, but we never got a second season for a number of reasons. Ultimately, low ratings against the competition combined with a Saturday night timeslot led to the show being canceled in 2000 after only an 18-episode run.

Debuting in the fall TV season of 2001, "Undeclared" was the next series Apatow headed up as showrunner — and this spiritual sequel was arguably even more of a flop, switching its focus from high school to a different group of characters entering their freshman year of college.

While the format and setting were changed — "Undeclared" is a half-hour comedy set in the early 2000s — the underlying themes and style of humor remain in the same vein.The characters in "Undeclared" are as maladjusted and awkward as their "Freaks and Geeks" counterparts, and neither show shies away from the awkwardness of your late teenage years.

And a way for Apatow to keep many of those actors employed

Just as "Freaks and Geeks" was a career breakthrough for Judd Apatow, it was also a professional milestone for many of the show's stars, like James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Linda Cardellini.

For "Undeclared,"Apatow wanted to keep working with as much of the "Freaks and Geeks" cast and crew as he possibly could. "I enjoyed my writing staff and production staff so much that I just wanted to try and keep everyone working," Apatow said in an interview with Bullz-Eye in 2005. "So we thought, what would be the best show we could come up with that allows us to hire a lot of these same people and a lot of these same actors?"

"Undeclared" answered that question by keeping many of the same writers working together. Apatow also brought back Rogen and Segel as primary characters on the new show, and they were not alone: "Freaks and Geeks" favorites Martin Starr and Samm Levine were also featured as supporting characters.

Undeclared helped launch multiple careers

Looking at the list of "Undeclared" cast members and guest stars today, it's striking how much talent Apatow assembled — including a number of future stars. The slate of actors who appear across the show's 18 episodes includes a number of stars who were already established, like Ben Stiller, Amy Poehler, and Fred Willard. But the half-hour campus comedy was also a jumping off point for multiple successful comedic actors — including Jenna Fischer, years before she would be immortalized as Pam in "The Office."

"Undeclared" also gave Danny McBride an early breakthrough, albeit indirectly. Timm Sharp was originally cast for a role in the 2003 comedy "All the Real Girls," but departed the project to take the role of Steven's roommate Marshall in "Undeclared." According to director David Gordon Green, the role of "Bust-Ass" was re-cast and given to Danny McBride after Sharp had to bow out.

Jason Segel was initially cast for the lead role

The lead character on "Undeclared," student Steven Karp, was almost played by Jason Segel. While the part eventually went to Jay Baruchel, Segel was Apatow's first choice — and he would have gone with it if not for studio pushback, per Variety.

The executives at Fox took one look at the scripts and another at Segel, and decided that the two did not compute. The network thought Segel was far too handsome and charming to be as much of a loser as Steven. "They really did want someone who was more of an underdog and couldn't get a girl," said Apatow of the eventual casting change.

Ultimately, Baruchel was perceived as more suited to the part — and it wasn't all bad for Segel, who still landed a major role in "Undeclared." It would only be a few years until Segel made his official breakthrough in "How I Met Your Mother," and without "Undeclared," Baruchel might never have become part of the Apatow crew of comedians.

Episodes aired out of order

Like "Freaks and Geeks," Judd Apatow's "Undeclared" skirted the line between situation comedy and serialized drama as it followed the ups and downs of dorky teens trying to hook up and get high. Early on, though, it's important to watch episodes of these shows in the order they're intended to be viewed. Fox didn't do "Undeclared" any favors by deciding to air the episodes out of order. This is a major reason the show didn't find its fanbase until years later.

Establishing character relationships and dynamics was important, especially in the early episodes of the show. The first three in particular follow a budding romance between Steven and Lizzie (Carla Gallo), which unfolds as she's on the rocks with her current boyfriend Eric. Episode 3, "Eric Visits," aired the week after the pilot debuted on Fox. But the second episode wasn't shown until 2002. This is bad for anyone trying to follow the plot, but worse for the fans who stuck with the show. Imagine being halfway into the season and the next week's episode takes you all the way back to plot points from the pilot?

Fox almost forced Apatow to add a laugh track

The pressures of the networks were felt constantly during Judd Apatow's early career as a TV showrunner. This was never more distressing than during the production of "Undeclared." Jay Baruchel has said he felt the network didn't have confidence in the show from day one, citing the studio's insistence on adding a laugh track as one of the factors.

"They never understood what they had, that network. Because we didn't have a laugh track, and that was an issue from the beginning," Baruchel told the AV Club. "They thought we needed a laugh track because otherwise, how will the audience know where the jokes are?"

This kind of request was not uncommon for this generation of comedians, rising stars in a television space that had been defined by the laugh track for so many decades. If anything is for certain, it's that "Undeclared" would be received very differently today — and it's hard to imagine anyone asking for canned laughter.

Hurt by poor timing from the start

The first episode of "Undeclared" aired on September 25, 2001, at a moment when viewers were still in shock after the events of September 11. To many, a light-hearted potty-mouthed freshman year comedy seemed inappropriate, and according to Apatow, this was a major factor in the show failing to find a large audience (via Hollywood Reporter). In addition to sticking out visually — it was shot in the waning one-camera sitcom format — "Undeclared" was an ill fit for a new show in late 2001. Its tone wasn't a match for the era, something sadly underscored by its premature cancellation.

The sensitive state of post-9/11 America set the stage for one controversial episode of the show to be pulled from the lineup: "God Visits" was never aired. The storyline, which hardly seems controversial now, sees Luke (Kevin Hart) ​​convincing Steven to study the Bible. The punchline to the joke is that Steven eventually sees Luke making out with a girl and throws away all his pure thoughts in the hopes of having a shot with Lizzie.

Judd Apatow didn't take cancellation well

Having back-to-back projects canceled would be a crushing blow to anyone, but for the mind behind "Undeclared," it was the straw that broke the camel's back. In fact, in retrospect, Judd Apatow might have handled the end of "Undeclared" with a touch more grace.

Understandably tired of helming critically acclaimed shows that weren't given enough of a chance to find their footing, he sent the executive who pulled the plug on "Undeclared" a framed copy of an outlet's glowing review of the series — and included a note that was punctuated with some salty language that would later season some of his future work. Apatow disclosed the contents of that note during a 2009 interview with The Guardian, sharing that he professed bafflement as to how the executive in question could perform a certain act on him when the body parts in question were still tied up from the previous time. If you're going to walk away from television, you might as well go big, right?

Apatow hasn't worked on network TV since

With so much animosity between Judd Apatow and the networks that brought "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" to the airwaves, it's no surprise that he hasn't returned to television since. During an appearance on a 2018 Variety podcast, Apatow explained why he decided never to work with broadcast networks again.

"There is nothing that has made my life better than not working for network television," he said. "It's creativity with a gun to your head." Apatow claims his experiences working with streaming services like Netflix and HBO haven't felt like gambles in the same way as the older shows. In the modern landscape of TV, fewer shows are canceled in the middle of the season — it isn't even a possibility if the entire season of your show is made available on the same day, which is the standard set by Netflix. Apatow has gone on to enjoy years of success with streaming platforms, serving as executive producer on HBO's "Girls" and showrunner on Netflix's "Love."

Jon Favreau directed an episode of Undeclared

Jon Favreau sure has come a long way since writing and starring in "Swingers." Between serving as a creative lead in the "Star Wars" TV universe and a frequent contributor on either side of the camera in the MCU, it feels like you can't look up without seeing Favreau's name these days. But before he cemented his status, his journey from indie film darling to superstar had some interesting stops along the way — like directing the final episode of "Undeclared."

In "Eric's POV," we get the story not from the usual viewpoint — through Steven's eyes — instead spending a day with Jason Segel's character, Eric. The episode shows him working at Kopy Town as his work buddies try (and ultimately fail) to help him get over Lizzie. This was supposedly a backdoor pilot for a spinoff show starring Segel, per the AV Club, but with Apatow's relationship with the network in ruins, it seems safe to assume that none of the parties involved expected it to really go anywhere.

It was a strange sendoff to the series, not the satisfying conclusion it deserved — but at least we got a Ben Stiller guest appearance at the last minute.