A few years ago, ABC started to do something very different with the comedy shows they were producing. Instead of green lighting the standard sitcom, which has been outdated for forever and filled most other networks rosters, they began working with creators/producers who were interested in showing the experiences of real American families. Blackish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Real O'Neals and now Speechless.
Speechless centers around an eccentric family that has a 16-year-old son with cerebral palsy. You might not think that there is anything funny about that... but you would be wrong. The humor comes from how the family deals with certain challenges on a daily basis. My 12-year-old daughter and I watched the pilot and we both agreed it was the best new show on TV.
While in Los Angeles for the Moana event, we were treated to a set visit to Speechless on the Fox Studios lot. In addition to getting to go behind the scenes, we were able to interview Scott Silveri, who is the show creator, writer and executive producer. Here are a few of the highlights.
How did your family react knowing you were gonna write a show that’s based on your experience?
They were incredibly supportive about it. I made it clear from the beginning to them, as I try to make clear to anybody else, this is not their story. This is not my story or my brother’s sister. What’s important to me is to capture a couple of elements, about the time we had growing up. They were very, very supportive about that. The things that I wanted to play to that choice is very important in how you live your life.
I feel like you can take whatever challenge is thrown your way an wallow in it or turn to something -- you know, let it define you or have it make you a better person or more fun person or more interesting person. You can curse the heavens or you can band together and make it work. And that’s what my mom did. That’s what my dad did. And I wanted to celebrate that at every turn. This is intended to be a love letter to my mom and my dad.
Did you have to make any changes to make it more network ready?
The network was actually supportive of what we wanted to do. There’s a difference between Micah’s character, JJ and my brother in real life— in real life my brother’s condition is more significant.
I wanted the character to be a little more there …to be a lot more back and forth. That was my choice. That wasn’t them laying the hammer down and saying, you know, make it lighter or make it funnier or make it anything different. I just thought in a world where you have, you know, six characters in a family, you want a lot more give and take between them. And it also was important to me. One challenge when I was thinking of doing a version that was closer to my own experience, I never wanted that character to seem like a prop. I wanted him to be active, and this made it easier to be active.
And when I was thinking about the JJ character, the criterion that I kept coming back to is -- is this a character that would exist on TV independent of a disability, independent of the wheelchair? That was the litmus test. But if it was simply defined by a wheelchair, that’s telling a story I didn’t wanna tell.
When did you know that Micah Fowler was the perfect actor for this?
The second I saw the tape. He lights up the screen.
Is it hard to mix the seriousness with the comedy in this show?
I feel like life’s that way. Sometimes you go from your highest highs to your lowest lows. It’s something that I’ve not gotten to do in television really. I love that we get to do it. So, it’s the opposite of hard. It’s easy and it’s a joy.
After the interview with Scott, we had a meet & greet with the entire cast— It was such a delight!
John Ross Bowie as Jimmy and Minnie Driver as Maya
Cedric Yarbrough as Kenneth
Kyla Kenedy as Dylan and Mason Cook as Ray
Micah Fowler as JJ