If you’ve been watching ABC’s new retro-comedy The Goldbergs, you’ve probably figured out by now that the show is set in 1984 … and 1986 … and every other year in the decade. Creator Adam Goldberg, who based the show on his own family, clearly has made a conscious decision against picking a year and sticking with it. Episodes take place in “1980-something,” as the the show’s narrator (Patton Oswalt) intones during every cold open. Initially, this was kind of confusing, and even a tad distracting: Why were characters talking about seeing a 1982 release such as Poltergeist in theaters at the same time they were obsessing over the Reebok Pump, a late-eighties invention?
As more episodes have aired, though, the warped sense of time has become less noticeable, or at least more tolerable. While there are still plenty of pop-culture references, nostalgia is not the focus; instead, The Goldbergs has turned out to be the sort of sweet, well-drawn family comedy at which ABC has traditionally excelled, from Happy Days to Modern Family. And Alphabet execs seem to agree: Last week, the show, which airs a new episode tonight at 9 p.m., got picked up for a full season. We called up the 37-year-old Goldberg to discuss the early evolution of his show, how much yelling his characters are allowed, and, yes, the matter of time.
So let’s get the time question out of the way first. Why isn’t The Goldbergs set in a specific year?
When I shot the pilot, in my head, [the show] was set somewhere in the mid-eighties. Then when we got picked up, and I had to think of new episodes, it came down to what I call the Power Glove Conundrum. To me, the three greatest things of the eighties, in my opinion, happened in ‘89: The Reebok Pump, the Nintendo Power Glove, and Say Anything … Even though they just squeaked in under the line in the eighties, to me, personally, they define the eighties. So I was like, “Wait, if my show is set in 1985, I have to wait five years to do these episodes?” I should be so lucky to be five years in on a show. And for now I only have twelve episodes. I kind of realized that the only way to approach it is to not make it Mad Men. And [that show] is brilliant. They’re literally changing haircuts according to the year. But I’m doing a comedy, and I’m doing it from a narrator who’s just like me: When I think, When did I win Legend of Zelda? I don’t remember what year it was. I only remember that it was somewhere in the mid- to late eighties. So the writers started going, “Okay, we have an undependable narrator.” And we played with that: Maybe he’s remembering things wrong, maybe he’s exaggerating. He’s probably mixing up things in the A and B story line. So we decided to set in “1980-something.” He’s literally pulling different memories every episode. And it became so liberating creatively. We could do anything … It’s kind of a melting pot of the eighties. It’s how you remember it.
Other period comedies have attempted to be more precise about timing …
That ‘70s Show tried to do it, but then they were on for ten years. So they stopped aging. Any way you swing it, it’s kind of impossible to make your comedy this kind of chronological thing. The Wonder Years was my favorite show growing up. And they did it well. But the difference was, it was a dramedy. The end of the pilot, which I still think is the best pilot ever made, Winnie’s brother dies in the Vietnam War. And that’s just not what I’m doing. I’m just doing a show about my crazy mom, who dressed me in a train sweater. I applaud those creators who can stick to a year and make it legit. But it’s a really tough place to be in. Being a huge eighties geek, I was impatient. I couldn’t wait.
Have you gotten any pushback from viewers online?
Some people have been confused by my approach, and some people really get it. It’s been cool to have that dialogue with people on Twitter. People are starting to get it, which is fun.
The first couple of episodes seemed crammed with eighties references, but you seem to have cut back in subsequent ones. What’s your thinking on leaning in to the nostalgia element of the show?
My intention was never to be, “Hey, look, I’ve got a giant cell phone! Because it’s the eighties!” But in the Halloween episode, I dressed Adam as a giant Rubik’s Cube. And I did it because, one year, I dressed up as a Rubik’s Cube. My friend Chad remembers me falling down and not being to get up, and it’s one of his favorite memories of me. So the next thing you know, there’s an episode of a kid dressed as a Rubik’s Cube. I had to comment on Alf, because I loved Alf. If I had walked into a room, my brother would’ve been watching Alf. So I’m pulling from all the stuff I remember. I’m not looking through scripts saying, “We need to do an eighties [reference] here.” I’m just writing the stuff that I love. Now, I noticed in that second episode there was such a tonnage of it, and I didn’t even realize it until the episode aired. You had a Top Gun T-shirt, you had The Great Mouse Detective, you had Poltergeist, you had Reebok Pump. And I wished I had pulled it back a little. Maybe it was a bit much in that case. But I still stand by the episode.
You’re not trying to be Mad Men, but you obviously want to maintain a certain level of historical accuracy. How do you do that?
I have a writers’ assistant tasked to just … to go through and see if it happened in the eighties — to see if Hooters was open then. But look, in my second episode, I did a song from , Styx’s “Come Sail Away.” To me, that was our song from camp in the eighties. That was our anthem. So I’m playing it a little fast and loose in that way. I definitely don’t want there to be stuff from the nineties in there, though. I’d prefer there not to be terminology from today, and I know I’ve slipped up a couple times. People have pointed it out, and it’s bummed me out. We used the term “re-gift,” and that wasn’t said in the eighties. Some stuff slips through the cracks. Hopefully, because we’re doing a comedy, we get a little leeway.
What stories are on your wish list?
I would love to do a Wrestlemania episode. I went to Wrestlemania IV, and it was the coolest thing in my life. We’re also going to do an episode where Adam re-creates Tron in the basement. Because I did that.
I’ll admit that I’ve gotten a little choked up during the musical montages that close each episode. It’s become something of a signature for The Goldbergs.
I recognized the power of it from the pilot, when we used REO Speedwagon. Before we shot it, Jeff Garlin told me he hated that song. But when he watched the pilot, he said, “Wow, I loved it.” It’s so expensive, though. We made room in our budget, because it’s a huge part of the show. And Sony has recognized that, and has been very generous. But [the cost of music] is also why we stopped using clips from the eighties, like we did in the pilot. It was too expensive to do both.
Any hints on future songs?
“Sister Christian” will be in our Thanksgiving episode. And Starship’s “Nothing Gonna Stop Us Now” is another we’re going to use. It’s probably one of the worst songs of the eighties, along with “We Built This City.” But … it worked.
Characters tend to evolve a lot early on in the course of a new series. How are yours changing so far?
For this show, it’s all [based on] my family, so I had a sense of what it was from the beginning. The writers make fun of me because my dad [Jeff Garlin] can never say, “I love you.” There have been scenes where it would be appropriate, and I have to say, “No. He can never say it. He can never say ‘I’m sorry.’” The moment where Adam hugged his mom in one episode was huge, because I would never hug my mom. So I really know the characters. But what I have learned is that the yelling is an issue for people. There’s been a push internally to figure out, “When is the right time to yell?” In my family, all we did was yell. And I stand by [the fact] that this is a loud family, and that there’s gonna be a lot of yelling every episode. The question is, when and how much? What is “yell-y,” but inviting? And that’s what I’m trying to find. I’m trying to figure out the right level. If I did what was real … if I really showed what my mom was like, no one would watch the show. This much I know. This is a Disney version for America.
How many years of therapy have you had to have?
I married a therapist, so … I get it every day.