In part two of my series from Connecticon, I spoke with the one and only Samm Levine. Many know him as lovable geek, Neal Schweiber, from one of the most beloved cult classics of all time, Freaks and Geeks. And it’s not just in TV that he’s made a name for himself. He’s also been on the big screen, notably in Inglourious Basterds from Quentin Tarantino. And let’s face it, if you’re in a Quentin Tarantino film, it’s because you have the chops. While in Hartford for the weekend, Samm and I chatted about Freaks and Geeks, The Aquabats, doing stand up at bar mitzvahs, attending cons, what he’s up to this year and more.
Alex Obert: Being here at Connecticon, how many cons would you say you’ve done so far?
Samm Levine: I’m really new on the con scene, I think this is my third.
Alex Obert: So with those three, what are some crazy sights you’ve seen?
Samm Levine: That’s a good question, but it’s hard for me to answer that because everyone is so insanely dedicated to these costumes. Especially at this one right here in Hartford. At its core, it’s an anime/cosplay convention, so everyone here has really gone all out. But I’ve done ones before where people aren’t all dressed up and whatnot and craziest thing I’ve seen there are the dudes walking around wearing cock socks and capes. That also happens to be the name of my ska band.
Alex Obert: Who would you say is your favorite guest at Connecticon?
Samm Levine: My favorite guest at Connecticon is my good friend, Phil LaMarr. Phil has a body of work that spans so much on-camera and so much voice stuff. Everyone here knows him and loves him. Phil has had a line longer than George Takei’s.
Alex Obert: What’s your favorite role of his?
Samm Levine: I gotta go with Marvin in Pulp Fiction. He gets his head blown off!
Alex Obert: Do you two share Tarantino stories?
Samm Levine: We have talked Tarantino and it’s between me and Phil. Those stories can’t leave the room, they’re deadly!
Alex Obert: So prior to working with Quentin Tarantino and even before Freaks and Geeks, you started off with doing standup comedy at bar mitzvahs. What was your material like?
Samm Levine: Bad. It was not good. Here’s one of the only jokes that I really remember, it was something along the lines of “I’m growing up now, trying to be healthy. I want to be strong so I started lifting weights, but man, those things are heavy!”
Alex Obert: Oh, brother! That’s definitely something. You have also been doing some heavy lifting with several Freaks and Geeks reunions including photoshoots, a panel, a magazine spread, and as of this year, an award ceremony. Throughout this exciting time, have you been taken back by anything fans have said to you or asked you at these appearances?
Samm Levine: It’s hard to get taken back, no one’s asked me a new Freaks and Geeks question in ten years. I do feel bad because everyone wants to know about reunions and stuff. We’ve done our versions of reunions. We just did the TV Land Awards a couple months ago. We did the Vanity Fair spread, which was amazing. Those interviews we all gave, we haven’t spoken that intimately about our experiences on the show in over a decade. PaleyFest honored us a few years ago out in LA, that was a lot of fun. That’s the closest you’re really ever gonna get to a reunion. I try to tell people that and I know it lets them down a little, but hey, it’s better than nothing.
Alex Obert: And I recall a reunion panel for the next Judd Apatow series, Undeclared. How did it feel to become a polar opposite of Neal Schweiber on that show?
Samm Levine: That was the best! It was one of the most fun guest roles I’ve ever done because it was the first time that I ever got to be the asshole. It helped me and Judd Apatow figure something out which is ultimately, I really only play one of two characters. I am either the nerd or the mean nerd. That cemented it.
Alex Obert: I wonder what it would have been like to have Jay Baruchel from Undeclared on Freaks and Geeks.
Samm Levine: Yeah, he would have been great. I’m sure they could have fit him in somewhere. But it’s hard to say whether he would’ve been a freak or a geek because he’s so cool in real life.
Alex Obert: I’d love to get your thoughts on your experiences with a couple of the actors that you worked with during that time. The first one is Tom Wilson.
Samm Levine: Ah, Tom Wilson! Coach Fredricks! He was great. I love Tom and of course I love Biff from Back to the Future. When we started shooting the show, I started hounding him with Back to the Future questions. And he’s such a nice guy, he doesn’t want to be rude or mean to me because I’m his co-star on the show. But at a certain point, sometime in November of 99, he actually said to me, “You know what Samm, I like you, you’re a really nice guy. But here’s the thing, we’re coming up on fifteen years of Back to the Future talk for me, so I’m going to have to declare a moratorium starting on January 1, 2000. So if you’ve got anymore Back to the Future questions, you gotta get them all in there before December 31st, 1999. After that, we’re done.” So then I jammed all my hoverboard questions and Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen questions in there and he was a real mensch about it. I still love Tom.
Alex Obert: How about Dave Allen?
Samm Levine: Gruber Allen, man! That guy’s the best. That guy makes everyone smile everywhere he goes. You’ll never meet a happier, more jovial guy. And I got to work with Gruber again on a movie called Drones, which is a teeny little known movie directed by a fellow Connecticon guest, Amber Benson. Gruber’s great, man. He’s always at all of our reunion stuff and people go crazy for him. I don’t blame them, he’s the best.
Alex Obert: What’s he been up to lately? I haven’t heard much about him.
Samm Levine: He’s been doing a lot of smaller stuff. He does a lot of stage stuff, he keeps busy with that. He’s out in LA and I see him from time to time. He’s doing great.
Alex Obert: And how about Joe Flaherty?
Samm Levine: Oh, boy do I love Joe! I miss Joe so much. Joe, for me, was my personal favorite person I got to work with on the show. I grew up a diehard SCTV fan. Getting to work with him is still one of my happiest memories. I don’t get to see him as much anymore, he splits his time between LA and Toronto. He does a lot of teaching at the Second City theatre. Any time I get to see him though, it just makes me so happy.
Alex Obert: The show was also well-known for its selection of music that was featured. Which song do you felt fit a particular scene perfectly?
Samm Levine: I’m gonna say White Room by Cream in I’m With the Band. That’s the episode that showcases the honesty of the band audition and the honesty of the kid being too embarrassed to shower in front of his buddies. I was the one who suggested to Judd and Paul that they should use White Room by Cream when we were shooting the episode. The song plays when Sam finally decides he wants to shower and he takes the long slo-mo walk through the locker room.
Alex Obert: On the topic of music, what might we find on your iPod?
Samm Levine: Always Zeppelin. Always The Who. Right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Mumford & Sons, they’re fuckin’ great, man.
Alex Obert: I sense a vibe that you’re into big band music.
Samm Levine: I’m a big band man. I like my Benny Goodman. I like my Glenn Miller.
Alex Obert: What are some notable concerts you have attended?
Samm Levine: Weird Al Yankovic live at the Beacon Theatre on the Bad Hair Day Tour, 1996. I saw The Who at the Hollywood Bowl in July 2002. Also, Elton John live at the Bakersfield Centennial in 2003.
Alex Obert: How was your experience with The Aquabats?
Samm Levine: That was amazing. Those guys are so much fun. They’re such big fans of Freaks and Geeks and I was a big fan of theirs. Just getting to play around and goof around with them, it was super fun. I love how many people have actually seen that show and will come up to me saying, “Hey, Pilgrim Boy! I watch you with my kids.” That’s what I wanna hear!
Alex Obert: You recently got to interview TV’s Danny Tamberelli. How’d that go?
Samm Levine: (laughs) I did, it was good. It was a live show that my friend Kerri Doherty and I did in LA for while called Geeking Out. We had Danny on the show and we actually go way, way back. We go back to the New York days, pre Freaks and Geeks, early nineties. It was cool to have him out on the show.
Alex Obert: If you were going to be on a vintage Nickelodeon show, which would you have wanted it to be?
Samm Levine: Probably Roundhouse.
Alex Obert: That’s before my time.
Samm Levine: That’s vintage, man! I mean I could’ve said You Can’t Do That On Television.
Alex Obert: Definitely before my time, but I was born the year it came to an end. Here and now in 2015 though, you took part in the Big Slick celebrity softball game. How did that go?
Samm Levine: In Kansas City! Yeah man, that’s my favorite weekend of the year. Rob Riggle, Eric Stonestreet, Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis and Dave Koechner, they’re all Kansas City boys. Once a year, they get all their Hollywood buddies out to Kansas City to help raise money for Children’s Mercy Hospital. It is the most noble cause I know of and it is such a great organization. I have so much fun goofing off with those guys, playing a little softball, bowling, doing a big charity show and visiting the kids in the hospital. It’s a super fun weekend.
Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, what do you have coming up for the rest of this year into next year?
Samm Levine: At the end of this month, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp on Netflix. I am reprising my voice role as Arty, the camp DJ. Check that out, all eight episodes are streaming on July 31st. The new season of Drunk History starts on Comedy Central in September, I have a pretty funny episode of that. I did a very funny episode of Children’s Hospital recently, although it might not air until 2016. There’s a couple independent features that I shot, but I don’t know when they’re gonna be out on any medium. But check my Twitter, I always tweet about that stuff.
Alex Obert: If someone reading this is about to watch something of yours for the first time, what should it be?
Samm Levine: If they haven’t seen Freaks and Geeks, get on that! But if you know my stuff and you wanna find more, check out the movie I talked about before called Drones. It’s hard to find because I don’t think it’s on any streaming services right now, but you can still buy a DVD of it on Amazon. I gotta tell you man, it is so worth it. It’s a really great little movie that we shot for like no money. As far as no money movies go, it’s a really good one.
Alex Obert: Excellent! I’d love to thank you so much for your time.
Samm Levine: My pleasure, Alex!