'The Goldbergs' Creator on Courting John Cusack, WWE and the '80s Obsession

Adam F. Goldberg tells THR that the ABC freshman comedy will look to incorporate key moments (and music) from the decade, including the arrival of Nintendo, as well as viewers' home movies.
ABC; Getty Images
"The Goldbergs" and Adam F. Goldberg (inset)

It may have taken two years and two different networks, but Adam F. Goldberg's childhood is coming to primetime. The creator behind Fox's short-lived Breaking In refused to give up on his autobiographical comedy after Fox passed on the 1980s comedy last year and took the project -- unchanged -- to the female-skewing ABC, where it landed a slot on the network's rebuilt Tuesday lineup in the prime post-Agents of SHIELD time slot.

Here, The Goldbergs creator talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the appeal of the '80s in the comedy that stars Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Wendi McLendon-Covey (Bridesmaids) and Sean Giambrone as the young Adam, who recorded his happily dysfunctional family's proudest -- and loudest -- moments.

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The Hollywood Reporter: This show was originally set up at Fox. What changed from the Fox pitch to what we see in the pilot?
Adam F. Goldberg: Absolutely nothing; it was identical. I pitched it to Fox, and this has been one of those processes where because it's about my family, it's really personal. I had a lot of stories. I knew right away I wanted to do the pilot story about my grandfather. I was trying to get my license, and we were trying to take my grandfather's license away, and the whole thing about crashing into that burger joint is true. My grandfather got confused and was going onto a freeway ramp, but it was actually a drive-through of a Wendy's, and he demolished it. I knew that was the pilot story I wanted to do, so that's what I pitched to Fox and what I ended up doing at ABC.

THR: What about the pitch process? What happened with Fox?
AG: I had Breaking In at Fox, and that was a constant stopping and starting of getting canceled and picked up again. I wanted a clean slate, and this show was geared up and ready to go. It just wasn't in their pilot season. My show was one of the first picked up at ABC. I wrote an outline and handed Fox the story, and timing-wise, because Breaking In was mid-season and got canceled, I jumped into the other. I didn't want to have to wait another six months for pilot season. With my other show going down, Fox said if I wanted to take it elsewhere that was fine.

THR: Did ABC want you to do anything differently?
AG: No. This has been a really amazing experience that I'll never get again in that I knew right away what the show was. There was never any question of character or how people behave in certain situations. I know it all so well and have so many stories. I haven't gotten many notes at all -- to the point where you get a little worried! There have been a couple stories here and there, and the only note I really got is that Beverly was acting too outlandish. But it's a story that happened to me. And when I said that it really happened, ABC trusted us. ABC has had a lot of faith that I know these people, I know these characters, I lived this and I survived it. They're just letting me run with it, which has been great.

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THR: That's the kind of creative freedom showrunners must love.
AG: It's hard to give notes when someone has lived it and it's so private. My dad is Murray, my mom is Beverly, my brother is Barry, my grandfather is Albert/Pops. When you're typically doing a show, most of the notes are: Would a character do this, or would a studio have an opinion on that? This is a story where I say, "Here's what really happened, and here's our TV version of it." I think it's a smart thing to do because they see it's so personal and that it comes from something and that I have something to say. The third episode is about my dad, who was engaged before my mom and re-purposed his wedding ring and gave it to my mom, and she didn't know. That's one of the stories, and I literally wrote in my pitch document, "This is what really happened, and here's how we're rewriting it."

THR: You've previously mentioned that The Wonder Years is your favorite show. Beyond the 1980s setting, how is The Goldbergs different?
They're different families. I'm showing the world the family I grew up in, and The Wonder Years was the all-American family that was very typical of the time -- a hardworking dad, homemaker mom, hippie sister -- and to those creators, that's what they knew and what they grew up with. The Wonder Years family was the kind where everything seemed to be bubbling and simmering with the occasional explosion. There were a lot of things that went unsaid in that family. In my family, everything is said -- on the surface, you scream and yell about it, and three minutes later you're all friends. That's the real difference. My family has the yellers; my wife's family doesn't really yell at all, and if they fight, it's all the subtext that will stay under the surface and will go on for years.

THR: A big part of the appeal of The Wonder Years was the relationship between Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. Can we expect young Adam to have a similar story that serves as a central focus throughout the show?
Absolutely. You get a hint in the pilot. I'm bringing a lot of my missteps with girls and bringing them into the young Adam character. Sean is fantastic, and we're doing an episode about him courting a girl and using his favorite '80s movies as inspiration -- all of that young love in the '80s, which is like the last of the simple times before the Internet. It's really special. There is definitely going to be a lot of that.

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THR: Are there specific moments in pop culture that you're planning to incorporate? The Apple computer? Nintendo?
AG: The first Nintendo was a huge thing we wanted to do. For me, it was the first time I won Legend of Zelda, which is an episode idea that we're going to be doing in the first twelve. I want it to seem universal, so that even if people don't know that first Nintendo or any of those movies, what I'm really trying to hit is the universal stuff, like the first time you see a scary movie that terrifies you. Those things are timeless. Historically, we're not really targeting anything, yet it's all those things I grew up with that made my childhood great.

THR: Anything specific?
AG: I contacted WWE about WrestleMania, because my brother and I were obsessed with wrestling, and most boys still are. WrestleMania 1, 2, 3 and 4 were so defining for me that I reached out to them asking if we could have free rein of those early WrestleManias. We haven't heard back yet. That's an episode I would love to do. Another is the first time you see scrambled Cinemax and how you'd go to great lengths to see nudity in the '80s. Every guy or girl has a memory of a scrambled naughty movie that they watched, so that's definitely a formation of an episode that we are doing.

THR: Beyond WWE, who has responded? Has anyone said no?
AG: Everyone has said yes. The music is definitely pricey, but I want to do a great song in every episode. We're hoping that if we're on the air, people will start giving us breaks to have their music on the show. I want Bill Cosby in a clip for an opening about TV dads and my dad being so different than TV dads in the '80s. That Cosby clip is a fortune, but he said yes, and it's just a question of can we afford it. No one has really said no to anything. The really interesting thing is that so many people have reached out to us, including Tiffany. The show is set in the '80s, and she saw the pilot and loved it. And we were asked if we'd be interested in having her on the show to play somebody. The thing that is so odd in our world is that Tiffany is Tiffany, and you can't have her be your aunt. There's a Tiffany poster on Erica (Hayley Orrantia)'s wall.

THR: So is Tiffany going to be on?
AG: As herself? Maybe -- but she's also 30 years older, so she's not a teenager anymore. It's that weird reality of the show. I want to meet all the people on the shows that I grew up with. I loved Tony Danza on Who's the Boss?, but how do you get him on the show if he's playing a character but older? It's been interesting. Everyone has said yes and no one has stood in our way. People love the '80s and are good sports. But we haven't used any of the celebrity thing yet; we're keeping it in the family and keeping the story small.

THR: There are so many memorable TV shows from the '80s. Are you limited to using only ABC fare?
AG: No, it's just a matter of if we have enough money for the clips. I want to start every episode with a montage to bring people back to that time. On the ABC website, there are submissions for people to submit their '80s home movies. If we're doing an episode about block parties in the '80s, if people have their old home videos of block parties they can submit them and we'll use them as a montage on our show. Sony [which produces The Goldbergs] has Karate Kid, and it's preferable because it's cheaper for us to use. But other than that, it's going to Universal or Warner Bros. and seeing what the clip costs. The only person who has said no, which is kind of a bummer but we're still working on him, is John Cusack. We want to do a Say Anything montage, and he's known for not approving that particular clip. We were forewarned, but we are still working on it. Hopefully that will work out.

THR: What do you think is behind the fascination people have with the '80s?
AG: The amazing thing about the '80s is that so much of it is still here. Everyone in the '80s grew up, and for a lot of the film executives, that's what they know and love. If you look in the theaters, it's Karate Kid and GI Joe [remakes] and all those old properties coming back and becoming huge blockbuster movies or TV shows.

THR: Will you be licensing any Michael Jackson or Madonna music?
It's just a matter of how much the budget will allow. Sony is being very generous, so if it's in our budget…. A Bon Jovi song is going to cost you $80,000, and on my last show that was our budget for the entire season. So you can get any song you want as long as you can afford it. It's about picking and choosing what the big ones are or which ones we can do a cover of.

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THR: The Wonder Years incorporated politics, such as the Vietnam War, into its story. Will The Goldbergs get political at all?
AG: I'm sure, eventually. Right now, I only have 12 episodes and there are so many funny family stories that I want to show the world what it's like growing up in my family. But if I get more episodes, absolutely. My parents are interested in politics. But right now it's about showing that my mom loves shopping and how dad parented us and my brother's bad temper. Those are all the things that I'm focusing on because I have so many great stories from those memories.

THR: You've got a cast with improv and stand-up backgrounds. How much do you allow them to improvise?
AG: Always. Especially when you get Jeff Garlin, who did Curb, and Wendi from Reno 911 -- they're two of the biggest improv comedies of the past 10 years. It'd be crazy to get them together and not let them improvise. Frankly, the funny stuff in the show is usually improvised from Jeff or Wendi. As a writer, you're in awe, and you're also depressed because you spent an hour on a line and just off the cuff they come up with something better. There's an entire scene in the pilot when Wendi is in jail and she's screaming at the cop -- that's all her improvising. We get it down the way it was scripted and then let them have a little fun.

THR: The show went through pilot season with the name How the Hell Am I Normal. Why did you change it?
AG: How the F--- Am I Normal was my initial pitch and how I sold it. The title change came from Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 and S#*! My Dad Says not working. If those shows would have worked and been huge hits and were still on the air, maybe the networks would be more open to titles with profanity in them. [ABC Entertainment Group president] Paul Lee really related to the family. He said my family is very similar to his family and from minute one wanted to call it The Goldbergs. He just saw the poster of that family portrait and How the Hell Am I Normal just takes on a negative connotation. He wanted it to be focused on a family, and these are the Goldbergs. He was right; those posters are great, and they explain everything about the show. And I love the tagline: "Oh, like your family was so cool in the '80s."

THR: What's your premiere night superstition/tradition?
AG: What I did on my last show, which is now a tradition, is that we set up TVs on the stage and have everyone watch, because a lot of the crew had been working and hadn't even seen the pilot. We shoot during our premiere night, so I'll get a bunch of food trucks and TVs, and we sit and watch as a group and I thank everyone.

THR: If The Goldbergs were on cable, what would be the first change you'd make?
AG: Take out the bleepings for profanity. In my family, we were always using the F-word. We said what was on our minds. I'm bleeping a swear word in every episode. On cable, I could really show the world how my family talked, and that'd be uncensored in a really hilarious way.

THR: If we snuck into the writers' room, what would be the most surprising thing we'd find?
AG: You'd definitely find a Rubik's cube. I'm incredibly unathletic -- people were throwing a football around on the first day, and I said there is a no-football-in-the-room rule. So of course, one of the writers the next day brought in dozens of balls. The entire room was covered in footballs and baseballs. That's what happens in a comedy room: When you say one thing, people do the opposite.

The Goldbergs premieres Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. on ABC.

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit