Adam F. Goldberg
Growing Up With The Goldbergs
by Jay S. Jacobs
As a website based in the suburban town of Jenkintown, PA, we here at PopEntertainment.com had gotten used to people outside of the area not knowing exactly where we were. Sometimes we’d go the simple route and just explain that it is a suburb of Philadelphia. Sometimes we’d bring up local fun facts, like pointing out that movie star Bradley Cooper grew up a few blocks away from our offices.
Now, thanks to TV producer Adam F. Goldberg, we never really have to explain where Jenkintown is anymore.
Goldberg is the mastermind behind ABC’s hit comedy The Goldbergs, a sweetly nostalgic look at growing up in Jenkintown in the 1980s. Goldberg was also raised in town (less than a mile away from Cooper, for those of you keeping track) and the loving tribute to his hometown has turned the area into a mini little Hollywood east. (Coincidentally, there is even a small neighborhood in neighboring Huntington Valley called Hollywood, with a bunch of stucco ranch homes that look like they were imported from the west coast.)
Based on his life, yet with many fanciful embellishments, The Goldbergs has made the borough of Jenkintown into almost another character. Faithfully using real local sites and real businesses, Goldberg has turned his own wonder years as the smallest child in an eccentric (and very loud) family into TV gold.
Young Adam (played by the previously unknown Sean Giambrone) must traverse the joys and indignities of high school with his overbearing family – brother and sister (Troy Gentile and Hayley Orrantia), mom (Wendy McClendon-Covey), dad (Jeff Garlin) and grandpa (George Segal). He also experiences some of the defining moments of the 1980s, and captures it all on VHS tape with his bulky camcorder, as Goldberg’s real-life home movies create the spine of the show.
In the middle of the hit third season, Goldberg gave us a call to check in about his show and all things Jenkintown.
Obviously, your show is all about it, but in your own words, what was it like growing up in Jenkintown?
I grew up in Jenkintown in the 80s. Even though it’s just a hop away from downtown Philly, it just felt like such small town life. Small town suburbia. Just amazing memories of going to the hobby shop and Martin’s Aquarium and walking into town to Elliott’s Toy Store. Riding bikes around the neighborhood and catching fireflies. All that idyllic suburban 80s, no cell phones, no internet. My best friend lived across the street. The Kremps lived right across the street. Emmy Mirsky, [another] character on the show, lived about six houses down on Newbold Road. So, yeah, just a really small, tiny bubble that in my mind over the years has grown more and more idyllic.
I have friends who live on Newbold Road.
Oh, you do?
Yeah. I don’t know if you’d know them. They met your mother when they moved in but I think you were gone by then.
Gotcha. It’s funny. The era of my parents has ended. All of the kids grew up and got married, and all of the parents ended up selling their houses. The Kremps are the only ones that still remain.
To give you an idea, by the way, we’re just off of Rydal on Grove Avenue.
Awesome. I know exactly where you are.
Your house on the show is much more modest looking than the house you really grew up in. Was that a conscious choice to make the characters more relatable?
(laughs) Well, we’re in LA, and we have to shoot close to the lot. Nothing really looked like that, or I would have picked a house that resembled the house I grew up in. I mean, all I do is show video of the house and clips and everything. We really couldn’t find anything that was comparable. The house I grew up in is kind of misleading in that even though it is really big, still up until the day my parents sold it, it was set in the 80s. They never put any money into it and it was kind of falling apart. I went back and visited with the new owners. I just knocked on the door. They watched the show every week, and they are room by room fixing it up. The kitchen is still exactly the same as it was in the 80s, which is kind of cool.
Do you get back here often?
I don’t. The show, we shoot 24 episodes. It’s a year-round job. So any free time I have, we’re in California, so to travel back is already two days of my limited time, so we just keep to the west coast nowadays.
How difficult a sell was it telling the network suits that you wanted it to be all about life in a very specific, not all that well-known suburb of Philadelphia?
Well, the good thing about Jenkintown is that it’s like Everytown, USA. The show is obviously greatly inspired by The Wonder Years. I’ve been very vocal about that. That’s my favorite show, growing up, from the 80s. In that show, they never even mentioned what town it was, but it reminded me of my town. That was a show about the suburbs, and that’s what this is. So I pitched Jenkintown to the president of ABC and that didn’t mean anything to him. He’s from England. I basically described that it was just Smalltown, USA., riding bikes, not worried about any dangerous elements. Just feeling free as a kid to roam around and have adventures. He responded to that.
Right, and even for a small town, both you and Bradley Cooper are from Jenkintown, and Joey Lawrence, Matthew Fox, Mike Vogel and Bob Saget are all from neighboring Abington. What is it about this area you think that so many make it into show business?
Yeah. (laughs) I don’t know. I mean, I think the thing that all those people… most of those people are around the same age, right? That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I know for me, it was just the time period. Video games were still in their infancy stage. There were only four television channels. There was no internet. There were no cell phones. So it was just me and my friends being bored and making movies, just out of necessity, to keep ourselves entertained. I had home movies shot all around Jenkintown. Through that, I learned storytelling and characters and writing jokes. That was the start for me.
How accurate is the show’s family life to your own, and how much is just having fun? Was your dad always hanging around in this underwear? Was your mother always scheming and a smotherer? Does everyone yell?
(laughs) The truth is, for comedy, I had to tone it down. The reality is – and it was very much seen in the pilot, which is very polarizing and a lot of people didn’t like – my family is very loud. In a lot of cases it was going to be an exposé on what it was like growing up in a crazy family. My original title was How the Hell Am I Normal? What I did was, when it ended up changing from FOX to ABC, I decided to really soften it and tone it down. Make it, instead of an exposé, a show that everyone could relate to. This is not “my family is crazy.” This is all of our families. What I ended up doing, which is kind of crazy, is I softened it a lot. I took out a lot of the abrasiveness that made people want to turn off their TV, I think. (chuckles) The only real difference is my oldest brother’s name is Eric, not Erica, who is the sister.
Like you said, you don’t have a sister in real life. Why did you decide you needed one on the show?
I made that choice because initially the show was called The Silvers. It was all directly based on my life, but I wasn’t ready to embrace what that meant, so I changed their last name to the Silvers. In order to make it a little bit different, I made it a girl, because I thought I could tell different kinds of stories. Then the president of the network said, “The way into this story is to show your videos to make it break out from all the other family shows. Show your videos and make it your life story.” So that’s how that happened.
What do your family members think of how they are portrayed?
Look, they love the show. It’s the sweetest, nicest version of my family that could ever be. And it ends with hugs every episode. (laughs) So, they are very proud. My mom would be proud if I did anything. Barry has his complaints, as Barry should. Definitely that character is so broad and ridiculous. But, at the same time, he recognizes that it’s him. Anyone who knows him says, “That character says things you say, does things that you do.” So, yeah, they all recognize that it’s them at the end of the day, and they love it.
How important is it to you to use real local businesses – like Kremp’s Flowers, Wawa, the Willow Grove Mall, Penn Charter School, etc. – to give the show a feeling of authenticity?
Totally. It’s important to nobody but me. I’ve gotten into such legal rigmarole, writing so many letters, that people go, “Just don’t name it Wawa. Just name it the Gas & Sip, or something.” To me, that’s what makes this show. If I’m going to embrace the fact that I’m doing a show about me growing up, I want every location to be the location I went to. I didn’t realize that people would relate to it. It’s a very small pocket of people I’m writing to, but they love that we do the Hiway Theater. They love that they had a keg party in Alverthorpe Park. Because, growing up, it’s like, “We did that!” I didn’t realize that other people would be like, “I totally relate to these locations and it makes it extra special for me.” I just did it because I wanted to embrace the concept of the show.
The show is kind of vague about when it takes place – incidents happen from throughout the 80s – do you have a specific time period in mind when it happens?
Yeah. Nineteen-Eighty-something. (laughs) Anything from January 1, 1980 to December 31, 1989. That was the concept of the show. I built the whole show around that concept of nineteen-eighty-something, because I knew it would free me up to tell the stories that I loved and not be constrained to a time period. Also, this is a show about memories. About popping in videotapes and playing a random day from your childhood and not remembering when exactly it was. Everything now is like timestamps. Even your location is stamped. On these VHS tapes I have, I have no concept of how old I was, what the year was, what the month was, even what grade I’m in. I don’t even know. So that’s the concept of the show. And frankly, the studio was really confused by it. They insisted the show be set in 1985. In the pilot, our compromise was I gave a month and a date, but I never said the year, because they really just didn’t understand nineteen-eighty-something. It wasn’t until about ten episodes in when I was just had free reign to explore the 80s as a time period that they were like, “Oh, we totally get why you did it.” Frankly, it’s the only reason the show’s still on the air, I believe.
Although the adults in the cast are all pretty well known, you took a chance to ride the series on fairly unknown actors as the kids. How did you cast everybody and what are they like to work with?
Two of the three kids had never even been on a set before. They were so new and so young. That’s what I wanted. I wanted just the authenticity of me and my friends. We weren’t LA kids. A lot of the actors from LA are very polished and have been doing it for years and years. They come in and they just feel like robots. I didn’t want actors. I wanted real people that you would watch and relate to. Sean [Giambrone, who plays Adam] is just a kid from Chicago who had done one commercial. Leslie Litt, who does casting, saw the commercial and said, “This kid, I think he’s cute. I’ve got a good feeling about him.” Haley [Orrantia], who plays Erica, had been on X-Factor. She just put herself on tape, taped herself off her iPhone and sent it in. We just saw her natural gift and ability to do comedy. Troy [Gentile, who plays Barry] had been doing it since he was a kid, but is just such a ball of energy that he was really the only choice for Barry. There was no one else even in contention.
Patton Oswalt has such a great, distinctive voice. How did he become the voice of the series?
He’s my favorite standup. He does a lot of geek comedy. I don’t think anyone else does [things] quite like [he does]. No one else does a routine on being a Star Trek fan in college and arguing with a professor. When I heard his standup it kind of blew my mind. I was like, if I were a standup, this is the kind of material I’d be doing. We have such similar interests. I’m not an actor, so when it came to doing the voiceover I am like, who is the voice of me? The only choice I had was Patton. I’m like, Patton Oswalt. He’s a grown geek man-child, just like me. (laughs) And of course, had so much voiceover experience. He was the lead in Ratatouille. It was the perfect fit.
Obviously there are so many interesting things that happened in the 1980s. What are some of the one that you haven’t hit upon that you still want to cover in The Goldbergs?
That’s a good question. I’m trying to think. Live Aid. Live Aid was, of course, in Philly. That was a big deal.
I know. I was there.
Oh, wow. (laughs) We always talked about Live Aid. Wrestlemania. I think I went to Wrestlemania IV. Just these big moments from your childhood that you remember so vividly. I’d still love to do an episode about [Michael Jackson’s] “Thriller,” which was a defining song from my childhood. There’s definitely ones we always bring up and talk about. Hands Across America we did this year. We’ve been talking about that since day one.
What are some parts of the 1980s that you definitely don’t think would work in the world of the show?
(sighs) Well, for every big, fun, splashy pop culture event that you remember, iconic events that you remember from then, there’s like The Challenger [the Space Shuttle which blew up soon after liftoff.] I was in school watching that with everybody when it exploded. We were sent home and we were all traumatized. Again, the show has dramatic moments, and we often talk about these more dramatic things that you remember. These experiences growing up. Do they have a place in a show like this? I think the one we did to the best effect was the Berlin Wall coming down. I remember being in school when that happened. Just such a memorable moment. So, I think there are definitely heavier events, and I’d even talk about exploring those, as well.
If the show keeps going for several years, do you see the series eventually moving on to college, grunge, Doc Maartens and the 90s?
(laughs) It’s up in the air right now. There’s so much to mine from the 80s still. Look, the show is about growing up and I grew up out of the 80s into the 90s. I wouldn’t say it’s set in stone. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens. We’re approaching season four and I haven’t even aged the kids and no one has even noticed. (laughs) So, I think it’s really just about the kind of stories we want to tell. Once Eric and Barry are out of the house… look, I grew up. People seem to be a little taken aback at how much Sean grew up, but those were the stories that excited me. I grew up. I went through puberty. It was hard and difficult. I was in high school. I struggled. These are stories I’m excited to tell. I think a lot of shows, they run out of steam, but I’m still drawing on real life experiences. This is me I’m writing about, literally. All those things excite me. So I guess the answer is, we’ll see. Hopefully I’m on that long. I’d love maybe to explore the 90s, eventually.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 8, 2016.
Photos ©2015-2016 Courtesy of ABC.