Growing up hurts. A lot. Memoirs from TV writers sound just as painful, but thankfully Paul Feig’s Kick Me – Adventures in Adolescence pays tribute to the maxim that brevity is the soul of wit. If keeping to the point weren’t enough, he also includes enough pratfalls, empathetic flashbacks and good old schadenfreude to make sure things stays interesting.
A collection of anecdotes that span from his first days at school to his high school graduation, Feig’s remembrances are qualified and partly lifted up by the fact he was the creator of Freaks and Geeks, which is the only US TV series aimed at teens to have a soul in the past 20 years. With its ensemble cast, Freaks… was routinely gut-twistingly brilliant, timeless (it was set in 1980 but made in 1999) and oddly moving in places, too. In Kick Me, Feig’s too busy sending himself up to cram all that in: laughs are delivered in place of thoughts on the strains put on a family unit, as he’s keen to paint himself as a mollycoddled wuss. He’s nothing of the sort, of course, otherwise neither Freaks and Geeks or Kick Me would exist.
There’s no room for sentimentality here, just a brilliant rendering of a young man’s folly through adult eyes. The book starts with a story of how his parents are called upon to make an elf costume for him, for the school’s Christmas play. With best intentions, they cobble together something from the stock at his father’s army surplus store. As a result, he’s “the only combat-ready elf” in the production and the first of several fist-chewing denouements unfolds. That he manages to work in run-ins with cross-dressing, playing across stumbled upon genuine Nazi regalia and recounts his first gym class of junior high in two harrowing instalments, it’s enough to wish you weren’t there but that you probably were, or at least somewhere equivalent. We’re left in no doubt that the suspicion we all have about people who are popular in school being some form of unacknowledged pure evil is abundantly true.
Girl trouble, needless to say, also makes an appearance. The fact that this book’s sequel is subtitled How I Became a 24-year-old Virgin tells you where its going, but not before he’s blown his first kiss, managed a disastrous first date with a girl who somehow stops being pretty the moment she dolls herself up and accidentally pursued a prom date to whom he’s not sexually attracted, with the feeling being mutual.
Feig’s wit and perspective is notable in a broader context for the fact that the one series he had total control over was, as elitist as it might be to say it, too smart for TV audiences. The ones who tune in en masse to maintain ad revenue with their viewing figures and make shows viable in the US, anyway. His Freaks… collaborator, Judd Apatow, continued with a natural successor, college-based Undeclared, that too was unceremoniously shitcanned. It wasn’t as good, but is now the obvious missing link between the smart, intelligent and funny storytelling and the formula that Apatow found to eventually work: broader, crasser comedies like Superbad, The 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. Feig directed some episodes of Undeclared and has hardly disappeared since, working on a variety of programs. What his sole TV creation and first book both lack is the pragmatism of someone like Apatow recruiting Seth Rogan’s youth and ideas and turning both into commercial hits. Also, it’s true that Kick Me is a less accomplished novel than the similar The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. In fairness, though, it doesn’t set the same literary goals. Instead it sets out to do one thing: make the reader laugh. In that respect, it’s faultless.