'The Goldbergs' Creator on Foiled 'Thriller' Episode, Courting Madonna, Next Big Tribute

The Goldbergs Guitar - H 2015

The Goldbergs Guitar - H 2015

ABC's The Goldbergs has hit its stride.

In its sophomore season, the family comedy based on the life of showrunner Adam F. Goldberg, has surged in both total viewers and the all-important adults 18-49 demographic. And it isn't because the series is doing anything different. Now part of the network's family comedy block on Wednesdays, The Goldbergs has helped pave the way for other retro family comedies including the network's freshman hit Fresh Off the Boat.

Showrunner Goldberg talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how the show's success has helped open doors to land key music, TV and film rights, the artists who continue to evade him as well as who has said yes.

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In the 2014-15 season to date, The Goldbergs is up 23 percent among adults 18-49 and 33 percent in total viewers vs. season one. In a season where comedy has really struggled, what's setting the show apart from the rest?

We started to really pop when we finally went on the right night. We always wanted to be on their block of family shows. We're such a good match between The Middle and Modern Family. I don't know that it's particularly my show; it's such a good block of family comedy with Black-ish, too. A family could sit down, and over the course of two hours, watch great stuff with your whole family. We are doing the same exact thing we did last year. I don't think we changed anything; all we did was get on the right night.

The Ferris Bueller" erpisode was a huge success — and drew Charlie Sheen back. What was that experience like?

He was the only one I wanted for that episode. I love the idea that there was this guy who has been sitting in the same place for 30 years. I wrote him a letter saying that I'm a huge fan and listing — because I'm a movie geek — all the roles he did that I love, quoting my favorite lines of his. That's how I got him. He read the email I sent and was like, "This is a guy who likes that I'm a comic actor and appreciates my work." He emailed back right away and was just like, "I want to do this. I just want to have fun for the day. I loved that movie. I love getting back in the leather jacket. Let's do this." He came and killed it.

How did the process of doing Ferris change after season one's big Goonies episode? Was it easier? Harder?

It was harder just because last year was such a small story that took place in the house. When you're doing an episode like Ferris, it's about having a wild day out and about in the city. We're only allowed to film one day out per episode, so this was a ton of preparation on scattering scenes over the course of two months so we could — whenever we were out somewhere — crossboard it with the Ferris episode. A ton of planning went into it. Beyond that, I had to get approval from everybody involved in the original movie: the actors, the studio, John Hughes' [estate]. Everyone had to sign off and let us use all the clips and re-enact scenes. It was such a group effort of love for that movie that had to come to fruition. Otherwise, it's an impossible task. Because there is a lot of goodwill we'll handle the properties in the right way and be respectful. That made it a lot easier than the first season where you're trying to make a name for yourself. There was a trust that was given to us by everyone involved in the original movie. We went over budget, and [producers] Sony never once complained because they knew that this was a make or break thing for the show.

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How did that process inform next season's big tribute? Do you know what it is already?

I've narrowed it down to three movies. It takes so much time that over this hiatus I'm going to approach the studios and see who is the most receptive because you need full cooperation. On the Goonies episode, every actor but actor but Jeff Cohen, who played Chunk, signed off — which made it easy for me to show clips. You need the actors and studio to sign off so that dictates what I do. The worst thing would be to pick a movie and then they say you can't use any clips, reference it or use any of the props. Then you're just stuck.

What are the three movies you're considering?

I cannot say, but it will not be a John Hughes movie.

Has the music clearance issue gotten any easier now that the show is much more established?

Sony is incredibly helpful. Their music department has been very willing to give us songs or help get us songs for a price we can afford. They want to work in conjunction with us now because they see that this show is good for everybody. Any Sony movies or TV shows they're thrilled to give me. The hardest place is Warner Bros. They're so protective of their properties, but now they're recognizing that when I tackle something it's done out of sheer love. Even they're coming around, which is nice to see.

What's been your biggest roadblock with Warner Bros.?

I have an episode coming up "The Lost Boy," and I went to them and wanted to show clips from The Lost Boys. I thought that to it would be great to have them sitting in a movie theater, and to show Kiefer Sutherland or Corey Feldman and Corey Haim together. At first it was a flat-out "no." Then I wrote an email and gave them statistics on how The Goonies episode played. That was one that they said yes to, but that happened after months of begging. This wasn't The Goonies; I just wanted to show it on a movie screen. I put together a whole list of all the tweets that everyone sent about the Goonies andFerris Bueller episodes and a list of statistics that Sony gave me about how these things benefit both of us. That email helped, and now they are willing to get into bigger conversations if we want to use more of their properties.

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What about other '80s icons, have there been more who have reached out who want to participate?

Scott Baio reached out, and his poster is now on the wall in Erica's (Hayley Orrantia) room. That's been the coolest part: people that I grew up on are watching the show and talking to me about episodes and saying, "Hey, can you use my stuff?" The Fat Boys — I grew up on their music and have so many videos of me with pillows stuffed in my shirt pretending to be them — they message me all the time about episodes. Tiffany reached out and [joked] about doing  an episode where they all go to the mall. It's really cool to have that dialogue with these people online that I admire. Once they give me that approval to sign off, there is always an episode that I could do because I love these people and I have something to say about them.

Who's your big Everest who is still saying no?

Madonna. I did a whole episode where Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) dresses like Madonna. First, it was impossible to get a yes. Once we got a yes, the price was astronomically prohibitive. It's a bummer. I ended up using El DeBarge and doing a joke that Beverly thought El DeBarge was Madonna. One of my big dreams is the Beastie Boys — I want to do a Beastie Boys episode and do a whole tribute to their first album, which had a huge impact on me as a kid — so it's beyond getting a song. I want to explore what it was like being a Beastie Boys fan in the '80s as a kid. Then the other dream is Michael Jackson. This year I wanted to do a big Halloween "Thriller" episode. Not only is the song impossible to get, but you have to also pay $100,000 for the choreography.

For the choreography?!

Yes, for the choreography! We broke out a whole "Thriller" episode — which would be amazing — but it's so heartbreaking. Then you get into the nuts and bolts and you can't do it unless the Michael Jackson Estate says yes, which I don't think is possible, and unless the choreographer says we can use the moves for free, which I think is impossible. Hopefully if this is printed, they can read it and come back to us! I run into that every week: There's something that I'm dying to do, but with having a TV show and doing so many episodes, there's only so much budgeted and so much time to get it done.

What about Duran Duran, they were another big artist in the '80s who really blew up thanks in part to MTV.

Duran Duran I think I could certainly get. I've slowly been building in this season that Erica is love with [lead singer] Simon LeBon, which she talks about in the episode called "I Drank the Mold." I'll keep building her love of Simon in to next season, and we want to do an episode about that infatuation (laughs).

Beyond the Princess Bride-inspired episode that's coming, what other properties are on the horizon?

So we have a big Tiffany episode coming up. We're doing an episode where Erica wants to be the next Tiffany and Tiffany has fully blessed it. The episode came from her tweeting at me that she was game to just be on the show in any way. The writers started to talk about what if Erica wants to be a musician when Tiffany comes to town. How does that work? It's all about Beverly becoming a momager, of course. Tiffany is not appearing in the episode, though. Hayley does get to sing, and it's about what happens when your kids come to you with a dream that's scary. It stems from telling my parents that I wanted to be a writer when everyone else in my family are doctors.

I'm also doing an episode about my brother Barry getting a job as a pizza guy — we would joke that he was the Noid, the '80s cartoon that made pizza cold from Domino's. So in the episode, Barry discovers that he's a Noid, and I had to go to Domino's and get full approval for that, which conflicted with ABC's marketing. I had to negotiate how I could get Noid on the show; it was a long struggle but my love of the Noid persevered and we got him on the show.

And I'm doing a Dance Party USA episode. The creator heard it was happening because we had to get clearance, and he called and offered us all the footage and access. He was so excited because Dance Party USA had been lost to the ages, and it only really exists on YouTube right now. I watched that all the time with my friends, and noew we're doing an episode about Erica and Barry going on the show.

The Goldbergs airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. What are you looking forward to seeing?

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit