Hitting The Bullseyes: Behind The Scenes Of ABC’s Remarkable ‘Speechless’

Senior Television Writer
09.20.17

ABC

When it debuted last fall, Speechless was just the latest of ABC’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of distinct family comedies. By the time its first season wrapped, the series — about a special needs family where oldest son JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy — had become the best of them, deftly mixing at least two parts silliness for every one part reality, exploring how mom Maya (Minnie Driver), dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), and siblings Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy) build lives that are always at least partially defined by JJ.

It’s a story that on the one hand is deeply personal to Speechless creator Scott Silveri, who grew up in a family like the DiMeos, including a brother with CP, and on the other had to be figured out as he, fellow executive producer Daniel Chun, and everyone else in the creative team discovered what could be funny about their premise, what risked being offensive, and when it was okay to let things get serious.

It’s a balance Silveri, whose previous show was the grief support group comedy Go On, keeps feeling surprised he’s working to maintain.

“I told my wife, ‘I just want to write something funny for once,’” he recalls, “and she says, ‘For a guy who just wants to write something funny, you sure do an awful lot of shows about dead wives and disabilities.”

Last month, I visited the Speechless writers office to talk to Silveri and Chun about how they decided on the rules for this show, what they’ve learned from talking to real special needs families, what’s coming up in the second season (which premieres September 27), and a lot more.

THE FOUR BULLSEYES

Posted on the walls of the Speechless writers offices are four “bullseyes” for the writers to aim at, as explained by Silveri:

Funny

“Funny should go without saying, but you certainly can imagine a version of it that isn’t. One must always be mindful of that. That’s the goal, not teaching anybody anything.”

Rock Star Family

“This is meant to broaden the action in the show, rather than being the ‘ramp of the week’ show where Maya is always taking on some cause. A different thrust for fun seemed like, these are people who come to believe they’re in a special, privileged position, a little bit above the law. ‘We don’t play by other people’s rules.’ Taking the chaotic nature of their lives and turning it into a good thing, on the cheap, oftentimes.”

Comic Specificity of Disability

“We have that, let’s take advantage of it. When you set up, particularly in the first year, you want to do stories that nobody else can tell. We’re in a block of a bunch of different family shows, but we’re about this type of family, so let’s lean into that.”

(As the season moved along, they gained the confidence to do episodes — a Valentine’s Day adventure for Maya and Jimmy, a family trip to the supermarket — where disability was a minor concern at most, but they first had to establish the characters in the context of JJ’s needs.)

Non-Cynical

“I wanted to celebrate the bonds they share, their inclination to take being ‘different’ and turn it into a positive — the farthest thing from cynical I could imagine, and it was important always to keep an eye on that. So we looked — and continue to look — for other avenues to inject the bite we wanted. Whether it’s trading on the ignorance of others outside the family, or leaning into our characters’ brutal honesty and their choice to laugh in the face of adversity. (Take Jimmy’s ‘Having a disability is expensive. It’s almost not even worth it?’ from the hero episode.) It’s maybe the most fun part of the puzzle of making this show. Finding that tone where we can be frank, direct — the teeth — without being jerks about it.

“The other reason is simply a taste thing. I kind of relish the challenge of making a scene funny when people actually like each other. Folks taking turns crapping on one another has its place, but I wanted this to be a family that gets along, and I thought there could be plenty of opportunity for laughs even given that scenario. People have at times described the DiMeos to me as dysfunctional. I kind of think they’re supremely functional. They have differences and they butt heads, but they work in my mind. They care about each other. And this is a network comedy. I love darker, more sinister stuff in different contexts, but for a network comedy, people with differences finding common ground (and actually enjoying those differences) is what I most like to see.”

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