By Daniel H. Mintz
One of the funniest new sitcoms on television takes the concept of “inspired by true events” to the next level. That’s because The Goldbergs, which airs Tuesday nights at 9 on ABC, is derived entirely from show creator Adam F. Goldberg’s own nutty family, and his childhood growing up in the ’80s with them. Comprised of an all-star comedy cast that includes Jeff Garlin, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and George Segal, the Goldberg family is certainly not your typical network TV bunch. They are loud. They are abrasive. But they are real, and represent a familial experience that does in fact exist. For proof, just have a look at the real-life Goldberg family home video footage that caps off each episode, or the tweets from the show’s following fans on Twitter, who frequently remark how similar The Goldbergs are to their own families. Though it isn’t necessary to identify with the Goldbergs to relate to them. The universal truths their experiences convey about growing up, parenting, and American family life will strike chords with everyone. It makes for a show that’s not only hilarious, but poignantly authentic. I spoke with Adam about developing The Goldbergs, and the unique challenges of writing an autobiographically based TV show.
The show is inspired or derived from all of this home video footage you have. How did that become the show’s pilot? What got you there?
Basically, I was trying to figure out what pilot to do. Back on my first job we do a thing called embarrassing video night. We had a lot of stand-ups, a lot of people who are actors. At the end of the year we’d show really embarrassing videos. One of the writers mentioned it to Happy Madison like, “You’ve gotta see Adam’s videos.” I would bring in these videos of my family screaming and show them to all the writers. So when I showed them to Happy Madison, Doug Robinson (executive producer of Rules of Engagement) was like, “This is totally a show.” It was actually the easiest sell I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever have this opportunity again. I just went in and showed these videos. I edited like a 3 minute little kind of trailer of just my family screaming at each other. And I just said, “This is the show!” So that’s how I sold it to ABC. They just totally got what the show was from [the videos]. I just said you know, “Beverly is my Mom. This is what she’s like…and my Dad.” Once they decided they wanted to buy it, I had pitched them in the room a bunch of stories about my family. The pilot story was in there. So right away I had approval because they loved this particular story about the circle of driving and my brother trying to get his license as we were trying to take my grandfather’s away. Then I just went through that whole process of doing the story area and doing the outline. With network TV they’re there every step of the way giving you notes and thoughts. Then we shot it and then we got on the air.
You’ve mentioned before that casting was a challenge because you were looking for actors who could play like your family members. How does aiming for that autobiographical ideal affect the writing of the show?
Really the main thing that kind of strays from what really happened was the fact that I changed my brother Eric to Erica. That’s the main one. I think everyone else was so specific initially, because I knew exactly. I survived. I knew who every person was. I didn’t really have a sense at the beginning of who Erica was gonna be. What I ended up doing was taking a lot of my brothers aspects and his personality and putting it into Erica. So it started to kind of flesh out. That was really the biggest challenge. The thing that made this so different was I knew how every character would react and what every character would do in a certain situation. That was such a really cool unique feeling. Just from the get-go knowing that. It took longer to find Erica. She didn’t really exist in reality. In every episode when I pitch it to the network, the first thing I pitch is “Here’s the real life thing we’re drawing from.” I’ll do a thing called the inspiration. There’s been no episodes that are just made up whole cloth. Every episode is derived from something that happened to me or one of my writers.
Do the other writers have access to the footage? Or are you giving them outlines to follow?
I come in the room. “Here’s something that I think would make a good episode.” This one that aired yesterday. My Mom obsessed with discount hunting and shopping and that was her hobby (Episode 10, Shopping). I came in talking about that thinking, “There’s an episode here somewhere.” Then we started talking and I remembered that when Barry worked at this store Hechingers in Philadelphia, my Mom would use his discount, and kept using it even after he was gone and quit the job. That just spiraled out into an episode. That’s what happens. As a room, everyone pitches ideas on what the themes can be. Then a writer will go off and outline it. I’ll read the outline and they’ll go off and do a draft. Then I’ll do a pass at the draft. Everything filters through me and the writers are basically there to to keep the train moving and making it so we can get scripts as soon as possible.
When you write new episodes, do you go back to the footage to look at it again?
No, actually, I initially got my order of 12 episodes, I knew exactly the stories that I wanted to tell. There were those certain stories that everyone has in their family that I thought would make great episodes. My plan was never to show the tapes on every episode. People really responded to it so I kept doing it. That was something that across the aboard, everyone was pointing out as being really a thing that set the show apart from from other series on the air. Generally it’s just me thinking of some great thing about my Mom or my Dad that I want the world to know and me doing an episode around that. Then after the episode is done, I have so many tapes, I’ll look and I’ll be like, “Oh this little moment can match up nicely with the episode.”
In what other ways has audience feedback affected the show’s development?
We had really quickly, which was kinda cool to see, a big following on Facebook. Every week I go there, and Twitter as well. The first season of a show you have a sense of what’s gonna work. But really the thing that helps the most is seeing what people are saying about the show. Seeing what people loved and what they’re looking forward to. What relationships they particularly liked. What I started to do was kinda just tailor the show a little bit to that. You see which dynamics are working. The Adam and Pops relationship was a story in the pilot, but every time I’ve done it people have really responded positively. They love seeing the little kid and his grandfather and how they have that special relationship. That wasn’t one I really thought I was gonna explore as much as I have. But by seeing the responses I’ve definitely gone to it more than I initially intended.
There’s so many parts about the show people really resonate with. They see their own family in your family. Was that something you anticipated or did you think people would just laugh at your crazy family, rather than with them?
It was actually my fear, that I would put myself out there so much and really do an autobiographical show about me and my family, and then no one would respond to the language of the show. That was just a big question mark. We didn’t know if my family was like any other families out there. You just don’t know. When we finished the pilot, Doug and I knew it was a great pilot. Seth Gordon (director of Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief) directed it so well. He’s also an executive producer. We knew that the show and that piece of material worked. What we didn’t know was, “Are people going to watch this family?” They’re not a perfect family by any means. A mom who’s incredibly overbearing, and can be destructive out of love. A dad who calls his kids morons. My brother who melts down all the time. The grandfather who’s kind of a ladies man and can say inappropriate things to his young grandson. We didn’t know if people we’re going to just be interested and relate or run screaming from the TV. That was the fear. It was such a relief, to the point where I posted something on Facebook to our fans, how everyone is saying, “I’m a Beverly Goldberg” or “My Mom’s a Beverly” or “My Dad’s just like Murray”. I didn’t really realize that it would feel so relatable to so many people. It was definitely a huge relief.
What advice would you have for someone who’s trying to become a television writer today?
I would say a good spec is everything. The good specs always stand out. What I tell people is I personally don’t read specs that are a show on the air. Writing in someone else’s voice isn’t why I hire a writer. I don’t want to see how good someone can emulate a 30 Rock. I always read a pilot. An original piece of material. The advice I give writers who are gonna tackle a pilot is, write something that won’t go on the air. Don’t write something that you think will be perfect on ABC. Write something that’s a little bit out there. That’s very creative. That shows off your voice. It shows what kinda writer you are. It shows how quirky and weird you can be. Just something that stands out in that giant pile. Usually a multi-cam about a college graduate moving back in with her parents, it’s just hard to make that pop out from the pile. The things I always respond to are more kinda weird and wacky and out there. They make me go, “This is a writer I wanna sit down with.”
Thanks for your time Adam.