Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Yoo-Hoo, You Forgot Me, the Woman Who Invented the Sitcom

Yesterday's Top Ten list and the (sad) exclusion of Roseanne and I Love Lucy from the list made me remember a documentary I watched over 3 years ago.  Chronicling the life of the eminent triple-threat hyphenate screenwriter-actress-producer Gertrude Berg,Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg celebrates her seminal achievements and reaffirms her status as a broadcasting pioneer. It’s beyond incredible how someone can be on top and eventually suffer from almost complete obscurity. Imagine Oprah being forgotten 60 years from now. Well, that’s exactly what happened to Berg. Her name rarely gets mentioned as a pioneer, yet as Yoo-Hoo shows, she can lay claim to having invented the sitcom with her popular show.
Director Akiva Kempner weaves together archival footage from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s with insightful interviews of an eclectic bunch of talking heads, including Berg’s co-stars, family, and fans, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Ed Asner, producers Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties) and NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg – all of whom reveal just what an extraordinary woman Berg was. Kempner also includes excerpts of audio from Berg’s well-loved radio show, The Goldbergs, which launched her writing and acting career when it aired in 1929 (just one month after the stock market crash), as well as rare footage from the CBS television show which followed in 1949. The television version of The Goldbergs, a situation comedy about a middle class Jewish family, earned Berg the first Best Actress Emmy in history and a tremendous fan following.

Berg paved the way for the acceptance of Jewish characters on radio and television. The Goldbergs were a huge hit on radio in the Depression era, when there was an abundance of domestic anti-Semitism, manifested by restrictive real estate covenants, university quotas and overt discrimination. Viewers accepted the overt Jewishness of matriarch Molly and her family. Yes, they were Americans, but Molly spoke with a Yiddish inflection, the mannerisms were ethnic, the family celebrated Passover, went to synagogue and at least one episode alluded to the Holocaust. Berg was able to pull off the most positive show about Jews because the Goldbergs were a warm, struggling family that people could identify with. You didn’t have to be Jewish to love Molly.
Yoo-Hoo reveals what Berg represented to middle class families, the Jewish community and how she re-defined motherhood in the mid-20th century. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is attributed with having said that it wasn’t he, but Molly Goldberg, that got America through the Great Depression. In Yoo-Hoo, Kempner attempts to rescue Berg from obscurity. Unfortunaltey, while the documentary is well-researched, it’s mostly unchallenging and barely touches upon the dark side of Berg’s life. Berg was a complicated, labile woman, whose own mother never recovered from the early death of Berg’s brother and eventually ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Her father never accepted or supported her artistic endeavors. Kempner is less successful at delineating the real Gertrude Berg, who, unlike her alter ego Molly Goldberg, was not the homey, Yiddish mama from the Bronx tenements. Berg was a wealthy, stylish powerhouse who not only created one of the most popular TV shows of her era but stood up to the Red-baiting of the 1950s and personally penned 12,000 scripts.
Yoo-Hoo is more than an enjoyable, edifying journey, showcasing the charming personality and extraordinary work of a television legend. Beneath the pleasingly nostalgic facade of a well-paced and fun documentary, there’s a rich historical tapestry interwoven into the narrative of Berg’s life, the effect of the World Wars and, most significantly, the Red Scare and House on Un-American Activities’ blacklist rendered starkly against the backdrop of Berg’s ostensibly-carefree family comedy. Moreover, Berg is, or should be, an icon to be lauded and remembered, not locked away in the vault of television history. Berg is nothing if not an example of an exceptional feminist ahead of her time who fashioned an incredible career and whose work touched millions. So yeah, a woman invented the sitcom. Who knew, right?

Check out more clips HERE


  1. LOVE this story! Thanks for posting!

  2. You should watch the documentary too.