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A new sitcom, “The Goldbergs” debuts on ABC tomorrow. It’s not the first time a show called “The Goldbergs” has been on television.
In 1949, a groundbreaking program of the same name made the leap from radio to TV. It was the first Jewish sitcom and had a huge audience.
Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, joins Here & Now to take a look at how Jews have been portrayed on television, from the original Goldbergs to the Goldbergs of today.
How important is the fact that the family is Jewish?
“It depends on who you ask, which is what makes it so interesting, so Adam Goldberg will tell you that it’s not a big deal. On the other hand, Jeff Garlin, who plays the father, says ‘You know, by calling the show ‘The Goldbergs,’ you might as well call it ‘The Jews’.’ And George Segal, who plays the grandfather, says ‘This isn’t a Jewish family. This is every family.’ So you have got a wide range from the universal to the autobiographical to the particularly Jewish, this tells us maybe more about the viewer and the discussant than the actual program. But certainly a program named ‘Goldbergs’ makes that possible because, for some people, that name signals a Jewish family.”
On how Jewish characters have changed throughout TV history
“Well, you know, there isn’t a continuum here because Jewish characters come and go and sometimes they’re a singular presence. So one of the reasons that the character of ‘Rhoda’ got a lot of attention, especially when she first appears in the ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ is that you didn’t have a lot of Jewish characters on television, especially Jewish female characters and by the time you get to ‘Seinfeld,’ there are not only more Jewish characters, but the idea of Jewish characters are getting played with, and ‘Seinfeld’ does really, wonderfully, perverse things with Jewishness and the shows has characters that we are told aren’t Jews, and yet they are loaded with Jewish markers.”
On how the new Goldbergs do not hide their Jewishness
“And here we actually have a kind of similarity with the original Goldbergs series, is that Adam Goldberg says ‘This family is not overtly Jewish, they are just implicitly Jewish’ and Gertrude Berg said about her Goldbergs, in an interview years ago, she said, ‘They weren’t very self-conscious about being Jewish, they just sort of were,’ and I think that kind of sense that Jewishness is just there is noteworthy in its own right.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Tomorrow, the new sitcom "The Goldbergs" debuts on ABC. It takes place in the 1980s and is based on show creator Adam Goldberg's real-life family. Now it may be just a coincidence, but the premier comes more than 60 years after another sitcom called "The Goldbergs" made the leap from radio to television. So how has the portrayal of Jews on TV changed since then? Joining us to discuss is Jeffrey Shandler, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. Welcome, Jeffrey.
JEFFREY SHANDLER: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, you've seen the pilot episode sitcom "The Goldbergs." Tell us about the members of the family and a little bit about the show.
SHANDLER: Well, I would say if you were going to classify this in the range of sitcoms, I would put it in the genre of the family from hell. You have a nuclear family. You have the mother, the father, three kids, a grandfather. And they're very loud. They're very raucous. They're yelling at one another all the time. Their emotions are in overdrive. And that is the source of the comedy.
HOBSON: Well, let's take a listen to a little bit of "The Goldbergs." Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOLDBERGS")
TROY GENTILE: (as Barry Goldberg) What the hell is this?
WENDI MCLENDON-COVEY: (as Beverly) It's a locket. It's got my picture inside so you can always have your mother near your heart. Sweetie, you're just not ready to drive. You're too immature, and quite honestly, a little high-strung.
GENTILE: (as Barry Goldberg) I am not high-strung. I'm strung just fine, like a tennis racket or a banjo or...
SEAN GIAMBRONE: (as Adam Goldberg) You know, I think it's great 'cause all the cool guys in my grade, they have mom lockets, all of them.
GENTILE: (as Barry Goldberg) Hey. Don't poke the bear, all right?
HOBSON: So a loud family. There's an overprotective mom. But how important is the fact that the family is Jewish?
SHANDLER: Well, you know, it depends on who you ask, which is what makes it so interesting. So Adam Goldberg will tell you that it's not a big deal. On the other hand, Jeff Garlin who plays the father says, you know, by calling the show "The Goldbergs," you might as well call it the Jews. And George Segal, who plays the grandfather, says this isn't a Jewish family. This is every family.
So you've got a wide range of, from the universal to the autobiographical to the particularly Jewish. This tells us maybe more about the viewer and the discussant than the actual program. But certainly a program named "Goldbergs" makes that possible because, for some people, that name signals a Jewish family.
HOBSON: Well, let's go back about 60 years now. There was another show called "The Goldbergs" that began as a radio program, aired on TV from 1949 to 1956. So we've got to remember this is right after World War II. It's been called the first Jewish sitcom. The producer of the new "Goldbergs" program says there's no connection between his show and the original. But let's take a listen to a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOLDBERGS")
GERTRUDE BERG: (as Molly) Hello, everybody. Excuse me for talking through from my kitchen window. I'm just in the middle of serving supper. My cousin Samuel(ph) is here for dinner. If I could spell, I could write books about my cousin Sam. But he's a cousin so maybe silence is golden.
HOBSON: Well, what are your thoughts on that, Professor Shandler? Obviously a very different sound than what we heard from the new "Goldbergs"
SHANDLER: Yes. Well, certainly, Molly Goldberg - the character we just heard is performed by Gertrude Berg who was the creator, the writer, the producer and the star of the series, so it's very much her brainchild - is identifiable by an accent, at least that would have been recognizable at the time in the 1950s, as a Jewish accent, an American-Jewish accent.
And what's, for me, even more striking about the clip you just played is that Molly Goldberg is raising the curtain on her window of her apartment in the Bronx and leaning out the window and talking to the television audience as if they were neighbors across the air shaft in the next apartment. And it's a very simple device, but it's a very powerful way of establishing her family as the viewers' neighbors.
And the new "Goldbergs" show about this very raucous, wild, out-of-control family is really the polar opposite of Gertrude Berg's family of "The Goldbergs," which were very accommodating, and pleasant, and harmonious and good neighbors. And that was a concern of Gertrude Berg's in creating the series that she wanted people to feel that this family would be welcome to them as neighbors.
HOBSON: We're talking with Jeffrey Shandler, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. And you're listening to HERE AND NOW.
There were a lot of shows that have come over the years that have very strong Jewish characters, and I'm thinking, first of all, of Rhoda Morgenstern back on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" played by Valerie Harper. And then she had her own show "Rhoda" which aired in the '70s. Here, she calls her friend Mary after she reluctantly moves back in with her parents.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RHODA")
VALERIE HARPER: (as Rhoda Morgenstern) No, Mar, I'm just fine. I'm fine, honestly. It's just that things got a little cramped at Brenda's so I took a temporary little place up town. Mm-hmm.
NANCY WALKER: (as Ida Morgenstern) Chicken salad sandwich and some milk for you.
HARPER: (as Rhoda Morgenstern) What? Oh, that's just room service.
HOBSON: And then let's get to the show that no discussion about Jews on American TV would be complete without, and I don't think we need an introduction.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) Boy, I'm in the mood for a cheeseburger.
JERRY SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) No. We got to go to the soup place.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) What soup place?
JASON ALEXANDER: (as George Costanza) Oh, there's a soup stand. Kramer's been going there.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) He's always raving. I finally got a chance to go there the other day, and I tell you this, you will be stunned.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) Stunned by soup?
SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) You can't eat this soup standing up, your knees buckle.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) Huh. All right. Let's go. Come on.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) There's only one caveat. The guy who runs the place is a little temperamental, especially about the ordering procedure. He's secretly referred to as the Soup Nazi.
HOBSON: So, Professor Shandler, as you hear those clips from those shows over the years, how have things changed? How did things change from the old "Goldbergs" of the 1950s up until "Seinfeld" in the '90s?
GENTILE: Well, you know, there isn't a continuum here because Jewish characters come and go, and sometimes they're a singular presence. So one of the reasons that the character of Rhoda got a lot of attention especially when she first appears in the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" is that you didn't have a lot of Jewish characters on television, especially Jewish female characters.
And by the time you get to "Seinfeld," there are not only more Jewish characters but the idea of a Jewish character is getting played with. And "Seinfeld" does really wonderfully perverse things with Jewishness, and the show has characters who are - we are told, aren't Jews and yet they are loaded with Jewish markers and Jewish issues come up...
HOBSON: Elaine Benes, George Costanza, right? I mean, we've got two characters that you would think they're Jewish but they're not.
GENTILE: Exactly. And everything is double-edged because it's a show about nothing but, of course, it's about everything. And one of the things that they interrogated and really brilliantly through the medium of comedy was what it meant to signal Jewishness in this context. And so they would throw all these markers out at you. If you knew those markers, you were seeing them everywhere and yet - then they were telling you they have no meaning. And that made people crazy in, I think, a very productive way.
HOBSON: And yet here we are in 2013 with the new show "The Goldbergs" and they are out there. This is a Jewish family and that's it. There's no hiding anything.
GENTILE: No. And here we actually have, I think, a kind of similarity with the original "Goldbergs" series is that Adam Goldberg says, you know, this family is - they're not overtly Jewish. They're just sort of implicitly Jewish. And Gertrude Berg said about her "Goldbergs" - in an interview years ago, she said they weren't very self conscious about being Jewish. They just sort of were. And I think that kind of sense that Jewishness just is there is noteworthy in its own right.
HOBSON: Jeffrey Shandler is a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. "The Goldbergs" premiers tomorrow on ABC. Professor Shandler, thanks so much.
GENTILE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: And we'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. You can go to hereandnow.org.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
We're already getting some comments. One of them is from Ruth Camden(ph), who writes: I honestly, honestly am one of the most liberal non-biased people you will ever, ever meet. But yes, I thought the same thing when I saw ads for "The Goldbergs," and that is do we really need another comedy sitcom where the main characters are Jewish? And I only say this because African-Americans and Hispanics have been complaining for years regarding how white TV is. And that's Ruth Camden.
HOBSON: There's one comment. We'd love to hear from you at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
PFEIFFER: And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.