Everything that happens on ABC’s new sitcom The Goldbergs is true, insists creator Adam Goldberg in referring to the hijinks and sarcasm of the season premier, which carries the distinctive flavors of a carry-out order of sweet-and-sour chicken. It is cloyingly sweet and cheek-puckering sour. The 30-minute show debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. on local ABC channels and follows the raucous and raunchy goings on of the Goldberg clan — an undeniably suburban Jewish family with a penchant for high drama, higher sarcasm and overbearing mothering — set in the not-too-distant 1980s, when Star Wars, designer jeans and Jane Fonda workouts reigned.
Goldberg grew up in Jenkintown, a suburb north of Philadelphia. He recalled getting his hands on one of the earliest versions of a video recorder — VHS, of course —- as a kid. Those tapes of family get-togethers, arguments, spying on his two older brothers and minimovies he made served as the inspiration for The Goldbergs.
“When I sold this show to the networks,” Goldberg said during a quick break from his “writers’ room” last week from Hollywood, “I cut together all these old videos I had for a best-of reel of my family arguing.” And some of his boyhood experiences are virtually verbatim in Tuesday’s pilot. “My mom gave me a locket with her picture in it,” he admitted. “And we were trying to take away my grandfather’s driver’s license because there was a car accident and he got confused. Instead of getting on a freeway on ramp, he drove into the side of a Wendy’s.”
This TV family of five features Sam Giambrone as nebishy, camera-wielding 11-year-old Adam (as an adult voiced by Patton Oswalt), Wendi McClendon-Covey as Beverly, his smothering, meddling mother and ample Jeff Garlin as cranky but ineffectual and lovable Murray, the dad. George Segal shows up as Pops Solomon, Adam’s ladies’ man of a grandfather. He’s joined by Troy Gentile as older brother Barry and Hayley Orrantia as big sister Erica. The family is loud, but, the creator Goldberg hopes, lovable. And the look back at the ’80s is more ironic than lovable, for it wasn’t one of our nation’s finer decades.
The formula is a familiar one, where too-close-for-comfort families argue and reconcile in the course of 22 television minutes. Interestingly, the family sitcom format was invented more than half a century ago by Gertrude Berg, the creator of one of the earliest popular television programs, The Goldbergs, which began life as a radio skit in 1929. The entrepreneurial Berg, who played the meddling Jewish matriarch Molly Goldberg, developed her material for television and the show ran on CBS from 1949 until 1954. She was among the pathbreakers in marketing — her own cookbook, aprons, and more — and product placement on her show.
The iconic shot of Jewish ladies gossiping to each other across apartment windows led to Berg’s iconic catch phrase: “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”
“The Goldbergs in its time was cutting edge,” Adam Goldberg said. “Berg did a lot of controversial episodes, particularly for that time period.” Indeed, the 1940s and 1950s were not a time when most American Jews felt comfortable wearing their Judaism in the public arena. Many institutions and organizations — from social clubs to universities — still had restrictive quotas on Jews. That The Goldbergs portrayed a Jewish family with love and gentle wit assuredly helped Jews gain acceptance.
Additionally, the format Berg created — a close-knit family that had fun and solved problems together — became the model for every sitcom that followed, from I Love Lucy to The Jackie Gleason Show, Father Knows Best, The Cosby Show, Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond, to name a few.
“The way Gertrude Berg wrote The Goldbergs this was a woman’s depiction of a warm, passionate, very Jewish mother who cared immensely about her family, who cared about her relatives,” said Washington, D.C., documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner. “She may have intervened a lot of times but it was always for the good of people she loved. It was unlike the Woody Allen Jewish mother calling out from the sky,” said Kempner whose 2009 film Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg deals with both Berg’s personal and professional lives. “It was the one really great break [from stereotypical depictions of Jewish mothers] I think because a woman wrote it.”
“I haven’t seen the [new] show yet, but I saw the commercials,” Kempner said. “It’s the classical, overprotective magical mother, which just makes me crazy. … I doubt it will have the warmth about being Jewish, the warmth about being a Jewish mother [of the original].”
Show creator Adam Goldberg, 37, said he knew a little bit about the original Goldbergs program. “When you grow up with the last name Goldberg, everyone says to you ‘Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,’ but I didn’t know it was a TV show until about eight years ago. I always thought it was just a radio show.” He saw Kempner’s documentary and allowed that Berg’s early work as a woman in the male-dominated radio and television fields was groundbreaking. “I feel like it’s just not well-known. To have had a woman be a show creator and writer at that time, as well as an actor, is amazing.”
Asked about any inferences or connections he has made to the original program, he said, “At its core, both are about these strong women who run their households. My household was run by my mom, Beverly. The [old] Goldbergs show was her hanging out her window, gossiping. That made her famous. She had her eyes and ears on everybody in the neighborhood.” He sees those same traits in both the real-life Beverly and the mom character on his show. In fact he’s working on a matchmaker episode. Ultimately he sees the emphasis in both versions on “two strong women at the head of their households.”
Asked about the Jewishness of his television family, Goldberg admits that they may not be more openly Jewish this first season than the nondenominational (but very culturally Jewish) characters on Seinfeld.
“I’m basically taking every episode as it comes, as you do in your first season,” he said. “It’s not about religion. This is just the family I grew up with, and I have hilarious stories to tell that I survived having a mom who had no sense of boundaries and was very smothering and a dad who was very lovable but a total curmudgeon and very gruff. He loved to call us morons and parented in a very blunt manner.”
The real Adam Goldberg did go to Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Shalom in Abington, Pa., coincidentally one of the most well-known synagogues in North America due to its design by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Right now he’s looking at his old bar mitzvah videos and considering a bar mitzvah double episode — if the show gets renewed for a second season.
“These are hilarious family stories that I experienced that I want the world to see,” he added. “I’m sticking to moments from my childhood that are big deals, and having your bar mitzvah and that was a huge deal.” Maybe he should consider a miniseries.
The Goldbergs premieres on ABC, Tuesday, 9 p.m. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is available at www.mollygoldbergfilm.org.