The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
There are many who say that entertainment works in cycles: things become popular, they go out of fashion, they come back again in an updated, but similar form. If you go along with that model, it should come as no surprise that one of the most popular, new television programs is ABC’s The Goldbergs. That’s because one of the first TV sitcoms to rise to popularity aired for ten years, from 1949 to 1956, and was called The Goldbergs.
There are several noteworthy things to be said about The Goldbergs. In its origins, the program dealt with the struggles surrounding tenement life in the Bronx for Jewish families before eventually transitioning to the suburbs and showing the issues of assimilation into a new society. The family and characters in the show are Jewish, almost stereotypically so, during a time in which ethnicity and Otherness was whitewashed on television. They represented a lone minority voice that appealed to the majority.
It’s also important to note that the show’s star, Gertrude Berg, also wrote and directed each episode of the radio show, and continued to write every episode of the almost decade-long-run of the television iteration. Despite what you might have seen on The Dick Van Dyke Show, women did not make up one-third of television’s writing staffs. They were few and far between, but here we had a head writer, showrunner, star, all rolled up into one 1940s version of Tina Fey. She was also a woman with a very clear vision of what her show should be. She insisted that her show would not have a studio audience. She made sure that every plotline on her show had a basis in everyday events, which no doubt contributed to the program’s popularity. She also remained as loyal to her actors as she could. When her co-star Phillip Loeb was blacklisted she was pressured to remove him from the show. She refused, and as a result, her show lost their sponsor forcing CBS’s hand to cancel The Goldbergs.
The other thing that made The Goldbergs different was its blend of the comic with the tragic. The radio show was airing during World War II, and there were plotlines dealing with friends attempting to escape the Holocaust. The episode we look at today, which aired on August 29, 1949, is no different as it deals with the idea of lying to strangers, while balancing the sitcom tropes of a situation blowing up in our protagonists’ face.
The show opens with Molly Goldberg, the main character, leaning out the window of her apartment, talking directly to the audience about the theme for this episode: the family is returning from their vacation in the Catskills, and they met all kinds of interesting people there (she then goes on to tell us about how great Sanka coffee is). The tone is incredibly conversational. She seems rambling, and stutters here and there, but not in a way that seems unprofessional. I immediately felt the personal approach she was going for here, and was drawn in by it. It felt as though she was addressing me directly. However, it did not affect my impressions of Sanka one way or the other.
Her neighbors soon join her and as she tells them about her vacation she also offers to help them by giving them the contact information of a big-time real estate man and another fellow with an eligible son who is a top legal expert. As it turns out, her husband, who works in the dressmaking industry, is also very excited about a man he met on vacation by the name of Alex Reichmann who is the biggest name there is in the pajama industry (his specific position isn’t that important to the plot, but I was really excited to be able to type that sentence) who is looking to expand into dresses. Her husband Jake is so excited by the upcoming dinner he’s set up with Reichmann that he has Molly invite her cousin Simon over so he can rub it in his face.
Mr. Reichmann arrives for dinner and takes a seat in the living room where he and Jake trade cigars. However, once cousin Simon is mentioned, a look of panic seems to cross the man’s face. He asks to use the phone, and the person on the other end tells him he has to leave immediately. He asks them for as much money as they have on them for cab fare, and happily takes $50 from them, a hefty sum during this time.
The Goldbergs are perplexed by his behavior when suddenly both of their neighbors reveal that the Goldbergs’ vacation friends aren’t all they claimed to be. The real-estate bigwig is simply a rent collector and is unable to help. The legal expert is actually just a first-year law student. Their daughter returns home from the vet with their new puppy they bought on vacation, grief-stricken to have learned that the thoroughbred is actually a mongrel. This is the moment in which a modern viewer is confronted by the lack of a laugh track or audience of any kind so harshly. Molly and Jake are suddenly left to silently realize that maybe their golden ticket, Mr. Reichmann, isn’t all he’s cracked up to be either. They stare forward into the middle distance for a few seconds of complete silence. The audience is forced to watch these characters that we care about and are pulling for have their hopes and dreams crash down around them.
As is usually the case with television, the ending is resolved quickly, and it is a happy one. Cousin Simon arrives, late to dinner, and reveals to Jake and Molly that Alex is legitimately a big wheel in the pajama industry. Molly Goldberg once again addresses the audience from her apartment window, stating that Jake was the “only one to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff,” and then tells us about how great Sanka coffee is.
The Goldbergs was a strange show, but its weird blend of heavy drama with the light, real world issues of the 1940s make it a show that doesn’t always remain as relevant as many other programs throughout the ages. However dated it may be, The Goldbergs remains an important part of Jewish, female, and television history.