Growing Up Goldberg

“The Goldbergs” creator talks 1980s life as a kid in Jenkintown and how it fueled one of America’s best sitcoms

When Adam F. Goldberg was first considering turning his family into a television series, the backdrop could have been anywhere. He didn’t scour the landscape of America, he didn’t even look beyond his childhood neighborhood. What he needed was already there, well-documented by his past self with video evidence.

That series is The Goldbergs, which airs on ABC and begins its third season on Sept. 23. Goldberg, who now lives on the West Coast, said what sets his sitcom apart is how authentic it is to his own childhood in Montgomery County.

“I think this show is more personal than most shows on television in that almost all of it is true,” he said.

Growing up in Jenkintown in the 1980s was like growing up anywhere in small-town America. There were kids riding bicycles, middle school dances, sports fanatics. There were what some might consider normal, wholesome family dynamics and there were the Goldbergs.

There was Murray, the father who worked to support his family and depantsed moments after walking in the door to settle into his worn-out recliner to watch the Philadelphia Phillies. There was Beverly, the well-intentioned but overbearing mother. There was Barry, the somewhat delusional, but earnest older brother, who worshipped Charles Barkley and always wore the same ratty Flyers jersey. There was Pops, the hip, womanizing grandfather. There was Adam, the geeky kid with a heart of gold who never put down his camcorder.

Then there was Eric, the brother left out of the show, in a way. His character became Erica (Hayley Orrantia), a decision made by ABC executives to round out the cast with a female character. She’s portrayed as an angsty teen, sparring words with her parents and peers, and fulfilling a central theme of the show – that no matter where you live, family life can be tough.

It doesn’t exactly mirror reality, but it comes about as close as television can. Goldberg places the characterization at about 80 percent accurate, but depicting his family exactly as they were on the small screen was not his original intention.

When ABC President Ben Sherwood first viewed Goldberg’s seemingly endless collection of family footage, he greenlighted the project, with one caveat: make this the show.

That created some complications for Goldberg, who had to put out entertaining content, while trying not to offend his family. He started asking himself questions like: How do I tell people Barry wanted to be a rapper named Big Tasty without embarrassing the real Barry?

“It gets complicated sometimes,” Goldberg said. “My family didn’t sign up for this. They’re happy I’m making it, but it does get tricky when I say a certain thing about Barry or my mom that may have not happened. I have to protect the characters and protect them as people.”

The characters come first, but the Jenkintown setting is of secondary importance to the The Goldbergs.

“I’m happy that my parents happened to pick Jenkintown,” Goldberg said.  “It is just a tiny, quaint town with so many memories.”

Those memories are often tied to the culture of Philadelphia-area sports fans.

In one episode, Barry (Troy Gentile) dates a girl whose father is a Dallas Cowboys fan, which brings disapproval from his father (Jeff Garlin), an Eagles maniac, and ultimately results in a dad-to-dad shouting match.

In another, Adam (Sean Giambrone) gets separated from his father at a Phillies game, and Goldberg absolutely nails a re-creation of the mess that was Veterans Stadium, right down to the horrifying bathrooms in the 700 level.

Sports aside, the landscapes of Jenkintown and surrounding areas are prominently featured. The Old York Road Skating Club, Willow Grove Mall, Alverthorpe Park and Hiway Theater have all been referenced in past seasons. The third season, which is being produced now, will include a scene based in Buckets Bar & Grill, located in the heart of Jenkintown.

“Writing those things are for such a small group of people, but the people there absolutely love it,” Goldberg said. “A lot of people are reliving their childhood through my show.”

Some of those people went to William Penn Charter High School with Goldberg. He personally reached out to about 50 former classmates via Facebook for permission to use their 1994 yearbook photos in an episode of the show.

These are not measures that have to be taken, but it helps Goldberg ground the show with a certain authenticity. It’s part of the reason that there is, undoubtedly, a group of friends somewhere that calls itself “the JTP” in reference to Barry’s gang of misfit friends that he self-named the Jenkintown Posse. It’s the reason fans feel compelled to locate the original Goldberg home in Jenkintown and send pictures to the creator on Twitter.

Authenticity is what the show is all about. It does for children of the 1980s what The Wonder Years did for people who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s now—it connects.

That’s exactly where Goldberg wants to go with the show’s third season. Barry and Erica are growing closer to college-age, and Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) clamps down harder because she doesn’t want to let them go. Adam will struggle, for the first time, with long-distance love and the existence of other possibilities. These are problems that many face throughout life and that’s really how the show relates—that, and rampant references to 1980s culture.

“What we’re doing is resonating with people so much,” Goldberg said. “As a writer, that’s the best.”

Season Three of ‘The Goldbergs’ premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

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