But, unlike the beloved show's season finale that had us reaching for the tissues, the talented (and extremely modest) actor's real life is no sob story. Savage's childhood curiosity on set prepared him for his new career as one of the hottest directors in television comedy.
With his latest work, Garfunkel and Oates, premiering August 7 on IFC, we got the scoop on how the Glencoe native got involved with the project, life after The Wonder Years, and his favorite Chicago memories. You'll love Fred just as much as you love Kevin, promise.
What are some of your favorite memories from growing up in Chicago?
"Oh my gosh, I have so many! I grew up in Glencoe, so I have the quintessential small-town memories like riding my bike to school and walking to my friend's house — things you would not do in L.A. Also, I remember my dad picking me up from school in the middle of the day. He'd let his office close and take us to a game at Wrigley Field in the middle of the week. So, basically, if you'd walked by the principal's office — where parents would pick their kids up — and see a kid around noon, you knew they were going to a ball game!"
"Also, there was this club for little kids — like a dance club — called Dingbat's. It was this place, I have no idea where it was, but I know we would drive downtown with my dad and friends. I have no idea if it was a nightclub by day, but it was for kids. It was dark and we'd dance, drink Shirley Temples, and get really high on grenadine. You have to look it up. My dad would always say that Mr T. would be the bouncer. So, that was a great Chicago memory. I feel like I'm talking insanity when I say it, but look it up."
You met your wife in Chicago, correct?
"Yes, we were both Glencoe kids. I've known her a long time."
On that note, The Wonder Years was a pretty spot-on depiction of what it was like for a lot of kids growing up, yet you had an atypical childhood as a child star. Any regrets?
"It was mine, so it's all I know. I don't know what normal is. That was my childhood, and I loved it. If there were things I missed out on, I feel like my experiences as an actor — and having a career at such a young age — was a trade-off because I got to do so many other incredible and exciting things. I feel like my life as a kid was just so full. Like riding my bike by Little Red Hen in Glencoe to get a slice of pizza, but also being able to travel, meet great people, and to do all these great things that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise.
"Also, I feel like you never really marry the girl next door, but the fact that I had this career, moved to LA, and had some distance — I don't think I would have been with my wife had I stayed in Chicago because life doesn't work that way. So, I kind of took this journey to end up with this girl and have a family that I love. So, yeah, I don't think I missed out on anything. In fact, I think [my childhood] was almost enhanced."
You recently came back to the Windy City for a visit. What do you like to do when you're here?
"Yes, my wife and I were just there for the CineYouth film festival in May. All of our friends are in the suburbs, but it was so great to stay downtown; we loved it. We hit the Art Institute and couldn't leave without going to the Pancake House for breakfast. There's nothing better in the world to me than an apple pancake/Dutch Baby. We just love the food scene in Chicago. We also had an incredible dinner at this place called 42 Grams on the Northside. And, there's no hot dog like the one from Michael's in Highland Park."
You recently reunited with The Wonder Years cast to take photos for the launch of the DVD collection. How long had it been since you'd seen everyone? Was it just like old times?
"It was just like old times. It was like no time had passed, which is such a cliché, but it's true. The cast of The Wonder Years was such a big part of my life — seven years, every day, from when I was about 11 to 17. Even though there has been a lot of time, I run into Dan every once in a while. Jason, Dan, and Danica — all of our moms stay in touch, so we hear about each other through our network of moms. So, it's been a long time, but it's amazing how you just pick up where you left off. It's great to know that I have those relationships and friendships that are so deep."
Do you still have fans recognizing you from the show? Do people still call you Kevin?
"Yes! Shockingly, yes. I don't know if they recognize me as Kevin or just know that I played Kevin. The wonderful thing now is that people my age come up to me and say how they are watching it with their kids. Or, young people will come up to me and say 'Oh my gosh, I watch the show with my mom and dad all the time!' It's been so great to feel how people have been sharing it with the next generation. It means so much when anyone comes up to me, but it's particularly meaningful when people are passing it down like an heirloom."
"I think ever since I was a little kid on The Wonder Years. I was always so interested in the camera and how it worked. And, with TV shows, there was always a new director coming in, so I was always curious as to why one director would make a certain choice, and another director would do something differently. Also, I was intrigued why something that was only two pages would take an hour to shoot, while something that was a half a page would take four hours. The cameramen on The Wonder Years were always so open and showed me so much, and the directors would talk to me, too. I was going to school at the same time, so it wasn't like I had a lot of downtime on the set, but if there was ever a free minute, I'd be talking to someone about what they did and how they did it."
Of all the directors you've worked with, who would you say has influenced or inspired your work?
"There were some really great directors when I was younger who were so nurturing. Peter Baldwin was wonderful, Michael Dinner, Ken Topolsky. All of these guys would show me things and challenge me. They would give me homework assignments at night — like asking me how I would do a particular scene, or challenging me to do shot lists. I was very lucky. At the same time, kind of like anything, I also learned just as much — if not more — from failed endeavors. There were directors who I would encounter when I was growing up who were great, but if there was a bad week, or something didn't quite feel right, you have to examine what you would have done differently, including talking to the actors, working with the crew, or moving the camera. So, I learned just as much from those directors."
Since you directed some episodes of your brother's show, Boy Meets World, do you have any plans to direct any of the episodes for the new sequel, Girl Meets World?
"That's funny you ask because Ben was just over last night, and we were talking about that. The job on Boy Meets World was huge for me. I was just starting out, and Michael Jacobs — who runs BMW and now GMW — was the first person to hire me. My first directing job was a show that I was acting on called Working. But, that was kind of part of the deal — like a contractual thing. I mean, it went great, but Michael was the first one who just hired me with no reason other than that he believed in me and wanted to help me. So, I owe a great debt to Michael and that show. They just finished shooting their first season, so if it comes back for a second season, and they asked me to do one, I don't know how I could say no."
"I was a huge fan of Riki [Lindhome] and Kate [Micucci.] They had a show on HBO, and I always thought they were so funny, charming, smart, and just different, so it would be great to work with them. Then, when I heard they were doing a show for IFC, I was like 'Oh my gosh, I have to talk to them about it.' The schedule was very tight, but I had done these types of tight schedules before on shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. So, I was asked if I wanted to come and do all of the episodes. Like many other experiences, I came in as a fan, so working with them was such a treat. It was very fun to be invited to be a part of their world for a while."
IFC president Jennifer Caserta said you're "one of today's hottest comedy directors." To what do you attribute your success?
"[Laughing] I don't know. I just try and keep working as much as I can, be very prepared, very collaborative, and try to challenge myself so I don't fall into patterns. That was very nice of Jen to say — I'm very flattered — but I just try to keep working as much as possible. It's hard to talk about my success because I feel like I still have so much to do, and there's so much more that I want to do — I'm still very hungry."
Do you think TV comedy is more conventional than some of the movies released that tend to go the gross-out direction?
"I think in [TV] comedy, one of the great challenges — but also one of the things that is so satisfying — is that you have many hours of material, many stories to tell. In a movie, you have to meet a character, like them, go on the ride with them, and have it all wrapped up with a bow in 100 minutes — which is like five TV episodes. Most seasons on cable are eight or 10, on the short side, but on networks, it's anywhere from 22 to 24 — that's 10 hours of material; that's a lot.
"So, one of the challenges of television is that we have to kind of keep it fresh, find all these new stories, and not repeat ourselves. But, at the same time, you have to create this familiarity with the characters that you couldn't possibly have with a film. I think sequels are a lot of fun; 22 Jump Street was fantastic. Those are fun because you get to revisit these characters that you love, but on a TV show, you get to do that every week. So, it's very difficult to establish a relationship with characters in a film — particularly a comedy — because you're not only telling a story, but you're also trying to tell jokes. I think one of the most satisfying things about TV comedy is that you can have a relationship with a character, be a part of their world, and know them so much more intimately."
Garfunkel and Oates premieres August 7 on IFC.