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Meet ‘The Goldbergs’: Adam Goldberg mines his family’s mishegoss for new sitcom

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 6, 2013 | 1:58 pm

From left, standing: Jeff Garlin, Wendi McLendon-Covey and George Segal. From left, seated: Sean Giambrone, Hayley Orrantia and Troy Gentile. Photo courtesy of ABC

Adam F. Goldberg still remembers how his father used to come home from work, promptly unbuckle his trousers, drop them by the front door and then declare “the TV’s mine,” before parading around the house in his tighty whities.

In lieu of car keys when Adam was a teenager, his mother gave him a locket with her picture inside it, “so you can always have your mother close to your heart,” she told him. His response was a version of “ewww.”

And when Adam once stalled the family’s car while learning to drive, his father advised the other drivers, “Go around; he’s a moron!”

Goldberg — who picked up his family’s camcorder when he was 5 and seldom put it down — captured all his clan’s mishegoss on videotapes, which he has mined to create his new autobiographical sitcom, “The Goldbergs,” premiering Sept. 24 on ABC.

The show is structured like a dysfunctional 1980s version of “The Wonder Years,” with a narrator representing the adult Adam Goldberg, and characters who share the same names and quirks as his real relatives.

The series’ patriarch, Murray (Jeff Garlin of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), is gruff, blustery and trying (although not very hard) to parent without screaming. Overprotective mom, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), rules the roost “with 100 percent authority and zero sense of boundaries,” as the narrator puts it: When she asks her middle son — while he’s showering — what he wants for breakfast, he irately pulls the curtains shut and shouts: “Privacy!”

Adam (Sean Giambrone), Goldberg’s 12-year-old alter ego, loves “Star Wars” and gleefully wields his camcorder, ignoring all entreaties to “Stop with the camera already!” Erica (Hayley Orrantia) — so-named for Goldberg’s own brother Eric — is a fiercely hormonal teenager, Barry (Troy Gentile) is the hapless middle son, and Pops (George Segal) is the dapper lothario of a grandfather, who is schooling Adam in the art of love as well as the more luscious aspects of the female anatomy.

During an interview at The Beverly Hilton, Adam F. Goldberg, 37, (not to be confused with “The Hebrew Hammer’s” Adam Goldberg) seemed mischievous and jovial, his cheeks reddening as he laughed, which was often. He described himself as a science fiction and fantasy film geek; after all, he penned the 2009 flick “Fanboys,” spotlighting a group of rogues who set off on a cross-country trek with plans to steal a copy of the as-yet-unreleased “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” from George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Goldberg delights in the vintage movie T-shirts that Giambrone wears on his show.

The writer-producer went on to say that he is well aware of the 1950s television series called “The Goldbergs,” which was based on the radio program created by Gertrude Berg about a New York Yiddische mama and presented the first recognizably Jewish family on prime-time TV.

When Goldberg was growing up in Jenkintown, Penn., the older denizens of his neighborhood would greet him with a catch phrase from Berg’s show, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” and the writer-producer said he owes a debt to the series as the first sitcom to grace the small screen.

But his own show is in no way a remake. “We share the same name, and that’s it,” he said. 

Nor are his Goldbergs overtly Jewish, even though Adam is a member of the tribe; he even invited Steven Spielberg to his bar mitzvah and was stunned when Spielberg’s assistant phoned to politely decline because the director was busy shooting “Always.” Rather, the Judaism in his show is implied, à la “Seinfeld,” he explained, although he would love to write a bar mitzvah episode if the series is picked up for future seasons.

The show’s title is good enough for Garlin: “The only way it could be better is if it was called ‘Jew,’ ” the actor said

When a reporter at a press conference for the show suggested that some families don’t shout quite so much as “The Goldbergs,” Garlin countered, “Are you a Jew? Jews and Italians, we love our yelling. … And yelling is good. Yelling is funny.”

“In our house, there was a lot of yelling,” Goldberg said in the interview. “It was everyone walking in on each other and very few boundaries.” In fact, the first time his Irish-Catholic wife-to-be — then his high school sweetheart — visited his home, she phoned her parents, crying, and entreated, “You’ve got to get me out of here!” At her home, he saw the family rules taped on the wall — “We don’t say ‘shut up’ ” was one of them — and he thought, “Who does this?”

“On every one of the more than 100 videotapes that I digitized to create the pitch for the show, there’s some kind of family meltdown; that’s just how we communicated,” Goldberg said, adding that there was plenty of humor and love, too. “My wife even coined a term she calls ‘Adam-nesia,’ because one minute after a fight, my mother would be like, ‘Who wants waffles?’ It’s just that instantly we would move on.”

The young Adam was hardly an innocent bystander in the chaos. Rather, he encouraged it, in part because he was the youngest child and thus often ignored, and in part to get good fodder for his incessant videotaping. “Negative attention was better than no attention. Most of the tapes are me bugging my brothers and trying to get them to beat me up, or harassing my dad, trying to get him to yell at me. He had such a short fuse that he would quickly freak out — and then I would give a thumbs up to the camera.”

Some of the antics in “The Goldbergs” are so outrageous that its creator received notes from the network, querying whether it was realistic for characters to behave so wackily. At the press conference, one journalist practically accused Goldberg of being ageist for a scene in which Pops drives his Trans-Am into a burger joint. But his Pops really did that, and Goldberg’s father had to pay for the damage, “Which really pissed him off,” Goldberg said. “It’s hard to argue about the veracity of the show when it’s all true.”

Goldberg was nothing if not precocious as a kid. And not just because he presumed to invite the famed director to his bar mitzvah; he also invited his favorite author, Stephen King, who in declining sent a hand-written note of encouragement to the aspiring young writer that is now framed on his desk.

After a dismal performance as Eugene in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which Goldberg described as “a rite of passage for any young boy interested in the theater,” he began writing plays, and by age 19 had penned more than 50 of them, winning national awards for his efforts.

The year after he graduated from film school at New York University, Goldberg moved to Hollywood and got his big break writing for CBS’ “Still Standing” in 2003. He penned screenplays for films like “The Jetsons” and “Revenge of the Nerds” and teamed up with Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions to create sitcoms.

“But I always knew that I had this bullet in the chamber — a really funny family comedy in me from my childhood,” Goldberg said. Yet he was at first reluctant six years ago, when the show’s producer, Doug Robinson, first suggested he turn his brood into a sitcom. “I thought that they would kill me,” he said. “And that people would run screaming from their TVs.”

The change of heart came a year later, when the writer’s father died around the same time that his own first child was born; he said he came to realize how his folks had parented with love and had done the best they could to raise their three children. (Goldberg also determined to do things differently in his household: “There’s no yelling,” he said.)

A three-minute clip from his videotapes sold the show — initially titled “How the F--- Am I Normal?” — to ABC; and the strength of his pilot script drew veteran Jewish actors like Garlin and Segal, the latter an Oscar nominee for his turn in “Who’s Afraid in Virginia Woolf.” 

Roger Ebert once wrote that Segal excelled in portraying the harassed son of archetypical Jewish mothers (think “No Way to Treat a Lady” and the black comedy “Where’s Poppa,” in which Ruth Gordon, playing Segal’s mother, famously bit his tush in one scene).

But the actor doesn’t see the Goldbergs as a stereotypically Jewish brood. “They’re universal,” he insisted. And as it turns out, Goldberg’s own family is thrilled with the show. 

“My mom thinks it’s validated everything she’s ever done,” he said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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