Everyone trying to get their television project made in Hollywood has an “elevator pitch”: a shpiel that can describe his or her show in the time it takes to go from the executive suite to the ground floor. When Adam F. Goldberg was trying to get the green light for his latest series, he had something even better: pitch control.
The fine art of fine-tuning the picture on a VCR was a handy skill to have when the 37-year-old Goldberg, a Jenkintown native and Penn Charter alumnus, made his presentation to network executives. “The way I sold the show was by showing home movies of my family” — all shot on VHS during the 1970s and ’80s — at these meetings, Goldberg recalled in a recent phone interview.
His “truth is stranger — and funnier — than fiction” gambit paid off. The Goldbergs, a half-hour comedy based on Goldberg’s family during the 1980s, premiered on ABC last week, winning its time slot.
Who knew that 2013 eyeballs were hankering for the era of aerobicise, big hair and Gobots? Actually, a show set in the 1980s follows an established pattern of television shows spotlighting an era roughly 25 years after it has passed. The trend began with Happy Days, a show about the 1950s that began airing in the late 1970s, and continued with shows like The Wonder Years, which captured the 1960s during its run in the late 1980s to early 1990s; and That ’70s Show, which ran from the late 1990s to mid-2000s.
Goldberg began recording what would eventually become material for his eponymous show when he was just 5 years old, after his family purchased one of the very first home video cameras. Over the course of his childhood, he captured arguments, tender moments, milestones, blowups — enough material to fill boxes and boxes with tapes, which he dutifully lugged from apartment to apartment, until he had them all digitally recorded. “One of the most liberating things in my life was to throw those tapes out,” he says with still evident relief.
In addition to having a wealth of source material to draw from, Goldberg decided to add to the show’s verisimilitude by naming all of the characters on it after his real-life family, including Murray, the gruffly histrionic father, played by Jeff Garlin; Beverly, the overprotective, domineering mother, played by Wendi McLendon-Covey; and Pops, Adam’s grandfather, played by George Segal.
There is one minor name change that was the result of a major gender change. In real life, Goldberg had two older brothers, named Barry and Eric. For the show, though, Eric became Erica, the older sister. “I saw more stories coming out of having a daughter in the mix,” Goldberg explains. “I really took all of Eric’s characteristics” and grafted them onto a teenage girl’s personality. And he says there was an unexpected upside for his brother as well. “He was disappointed at first, but he has complete deniability of his character now.”
The Goldbergs is Goldberg’s latest, most high-profile project to date, but it is far from his first. In addition to helming the 2009 feature film, Fanboys, and being the showrunner for the Christian Slater comedy series, Breaking In, he has written more than 50 plays, including award-winners like Dr. Pickup, a one-act about Pops’ battle with Alzheimer’s that won him the 1992 Philadelphia Young Playwrights competition at age 15.
He says he was motivated to return to writing about his family by his own fatherhood — he has two children, ages 5 and 2. “The way that I’m raising my kids is so different from the way I was raised that it really gave me a way to explore how my parents raised me,” he says, emphasizing that there is virtually no yelling in his household — a dramatic departure from his own upbringing. “I was raised before there was political correctness. You could get away with calling your kid a moron, and we never took it in any kind of offensive way — that was just my dad’s way of saying, ‘You made a bad choice.’ ”
The result of revisiting his childhood with the aid of that treasure trove of video (be sure to watch each episode until the credits roll — the home movies that each scene is drawn from are shown side by side with their small-screen recreations) is a kind of mirror image of The Wonder Years, right down to the voice-over narration by the main character’s adult self — given voice here by comedian/actor Patton Oswalt.
“That show, for me, was so defining,” Goldberg says. “I was in seventh grade when Fred Savage’s character was in seventh grade. The Wonder Years was all about, ‘Don’t get your father upset.’ Everything would be simmering with tension. It was so different from my family, where you would blow up and everything would be fine five minutes later.”
When asked if and how he would be incorporating Jewish content into the show, Goldberg responds: “When you name a show ‘The Goldbergs,’ they’re automatically a Jewish family. I didn’t go out of my way to speak of their Jewishness; I just wanted to present how I grew up. I only have 12 episodes right now, so I had to pick the 12 stories I wanted to present about my mom and my dad and Barry and Pops.” He adds that if his show does get picked up for a second season, he would love to be able to do a two-part Bar Mitzvah story arc that would no doubt draw on his own experience as a Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
When asked to describe what it’s like to see his vision come to life, Goldberg sounds like someone still dealing with the daily cognitive dissonance of going to work in a facsimile of his childhood. Based on his videos, the production crew was able to recreate his Jenkintown house and the way that his family dressed to the point, he says, that “I was walking on set the other day and I saw someone out of the corner of my eye and I thought, ‘That guy reminds me of my dad.’ ” It was Garlin, dressed in an outfit put together from old footage of his father, the late Dr. Murray Goldberg.
Now that he has begun to bring REO Speedwagon, Fila tracksuits and Cosby sweaters back into the popular consciousness, Goldberg says he has no intention of letting up on the flashback fever. “My dream is to do a Gobots movie,” he says, still excited over the thought of sparking a revival in the once-ubiquitous robot toys. “They did the Transformers movie, which obviously worked. I pitched it to the CEO of Hasbro. That’s the best thing about the ’80s: It just keeps coming back.”