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February 14, 2018

Family Dinner

Sam Lerner makes a seamless transition from the Instagram screen to the television screen, all while "enjoying" a family dinner.

T.L. Stanley
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC

Sam Lerner wanted his Instagram followers to get a good laugh, and feel his pain, as they watched his dad launch into the usual dining-out routine of torturing the wait staff with multiple questions and special requests.

Substitutions were de rigueur, viewers would learn, and menus were only suggestions.

“It would take him 15 minutes to order. It was totally insane,” Lerner said recently of his character-actor father, Ken Lerner. “So I started filming him and posting it. People really loved it.”

Among the fans of Lerner’s social media feed: his boss, Adam F. Goldberg, showrunner of ABC’s hit, The Goldbergs, who had always intended to set an episode of the sitcom in a restaurant. Lerner’s candid mini-movies and his role as The Goldbergs’ Geoff Schwartz helped crystalize that half-hour for the writer-creator.

“It worked so well because Sam truly understood what I was writing about,” said Goldberg, who described going out to eat with his folks as “always a traumatic nightmare of an experience.”

Lerner’s character, teenager Barry Goldberg’s (Troy Gentile) best friend and Erica Goldberg’s (Hayley Orrantia) love interest, was “the outsider observing the horror” and “the puzzle piece we had been looking for since season 1,” said Goldberg of the 1980s-set comedy based on his upbringing in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Sam fit so perfectly at that dinner – the panicked voice of reason calling out the Goldbergs on their behavior.”

“Dinner with the Goldbergs” aired in early January, quickly becoming both Goldberg and Lerner’s favorite episode of the series, now in its fifth season.

One review called it “a spectacular tribute to awful family dinners,” and a “masterpiece of cringe-comedy” which takes place at the now defunct carnivore-lover’s chain, Beefsteak Charlie’s.

Someone orders fish, of course, matriarch Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) complains loudly about the table and stuffs her purse with rolls while dad Murray (Jeff Garlin) explains that there will be no appetizers (“Because that’s how they screw you”), “no prime cuts, no salad bar, no ‘market price,’ no fancy sides, no out-of-season vegetables, no items in French and no dry-aged anything.”

“Every moment in it is 100 percent true,” Goldberg promised.

Lerner, a Los Angeles native and lifelong Lakers fan, had a pivotal place at that uncomfortable table and a significant amount of screen time, reflecting a part that’s grown over the seasons as he’s shifted from recurring character to regular cast member.

Goldberg calls him “a true gifted comedic actor able to make any line funny,” and noted that social media may have had a hand repeatedly in Lerner’s trajectory on the show.

Back in season 2, Goldberg wrote an episode where several of Barry’s high school buddies (a tight-knit crew known as the Jenkintown Posse) fall in love with his slightly older sister. Viewers picked up on some particular chemistry between Geoff and Erica and started shipping them with the hashtag #Gerica on Twitter.

“The fans were rooting for Geoff because he brings such sweet charm to the role,” said Goldberg, who’s so confident in Lerner that he sees Geoff “starring in a spin-off show” that could help build a Goldberg franchise at ABC. (The Goldbergs: 1990-Something, a pilot for potential spin-off with Tim Meadows and Nia Long, aired Jan. 24 and won its time slot with coveted 18-to-49-year-old viewers).

Meantime, Lerner, an avid gamer and basketball player who’s been acting since he was 9, uses his breaks in The Goldbergs production to scout for new challenges.

Later this spring, he’s co-starring with Lucy Hale and Tyler Posey in a Blumhouse Productions horror flick, Truth or Dare, debuting appropriately on Friday, April 13th, where he said he was able to stretch some new muscles.

“I’m usually cast as the nerdy, socially awkward kid,” the 25-year-old Lerner said. For the thriller, he’s more of an obnoxious, overconfident bro who provides a bit of comic relief, which let him improvise, something a network comedy doesn’t allow.

Lerner, a voice-over veteran from Monster House and The Secret Saturdays, also provides the voice for a character in the new Dreamworks series on Netflix called Trolls: The Beat Goes On. It’s part of his goal to continue to diversify.

“I just want to keep working and sustain this career for the long term,” he said, noting that his uncle, Michael Lerner, as well as his dad have been working actors for decades. While being supportive and encouraging, they were always realistic, he said.

“They warned me about all the rejection,” he said. “They told me that if I signed up for it, I’d need a thick skin.”

And likely a lot of homeopathic supplements and vitamins, which he obsessively takes, Lerner said, bowing to pressure from his “smother,” who bears more than a passing resemblance to Beverly Goldberg. “She’s emailing me 20 times a day with health or money advice or the latest thing to be on the lookout for,” Lerner said with a laugh.

And speaking of his real-life family, Lerner unwittingly (and successfully) auditioned his father for The Goldbergs with those Instagram videos.

Ken Lerner ended up guesting as Geoff’s on-screen dad in an episode dubbed, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” that ran in December and centered on an epic battle over Hanukkah between the families Goldberg and Schwartz. (The game of one-upmanship involved elaborate decorations, cash gifts, a loaded dreidel and a light-up menorah sweater).

Lerner, who’s interested in trying stand-up comedy and thinks he could also play “an offbeat leading man, like a Michael Cera type” one day, had filmed a commercial with his father years ago. But he had never been in a scripted show with the elder Lerner, an instantly recognizable face from TV shows and movies like CSI, American Crime Story, In Plain Sight, The Running Man and RoboCop 2.

Goldberg called it “amazing to watch,” with moments like Ken Lerner squeezing his son’s cheeks on cue. “It’s so free and real,” Goldberg said, “just how I imagine Ken does it in real life.”

Lerner said the holiday episode was “the coolest thing ever” because he got to work with his dad, and “the episode built a world around my character and made me feel like a big part of the show.”

With some major life changes possibly coming for Erica, Lerner’s character “will have to see how those decisions affect the relationship,” he said. No spoilers here, but Lerner can reassure the shippers that “Erica and Geoff are in a good spot” that he thinks will continue.

The Goldbergs returns with new episodes on ABC’s Wednesday night lineup on Feb. 28.

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