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 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.)
“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.”
DRAWING LINES OF GOOD TASTE AND GOOD COMEDY
Perhaps the show’s best, and certainly most quintessential, episode of the first season was the Oscar party show, which hit all the bullseyes, and particularly the ones about funny and the specificity of disability. Maya grappled with her jealousy of a much more put-together special needs mom, while JJ’s aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) tried to organize competitions for JJ and his disabled friends, which climaxed with the absurd spectacle of the kids beating each other up with padded sticks and cushions and wearing various improvised devices designed to put them on a level physical playing field.
“We’ve shot stuff and not used it,” says Silveri, “but that felt pretty much within our power alley, because it was coming from a place of empowerment: ‘Okay, if anybody else can do this, why can’t these kids do it?’ If you have that sure footing, then you can go for it. I was surprised early on when JJ gave the finger, people were into that. When JJ got drunk, people were into that. We got clued in very early on that he could even misbehave and that was welcome in itself, because it was ‘normal behavior.’ So as long as he’s got a point of view in it, as long as he and these other kids with disabilities are not props in it, then we’re on sure footing. How wrong can we be?
“We also have a lot of sensitivity in the room,” he adds. “We have a lot of people with either siblings or kids with disabilities. We now have a writer with a disability. We’ve bounced a lot of the stuff we do off of a couple of different foundations, including the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. We could be wrong, and we will be at some point, but we kick the tires a little bit. But if JJ has a say in the matter, if he he’s active, that helps us a lot.”
An early cut of that same episode found the creative team crossing a line without realizing it, with a joke where one of the kids at the party kept repeating the same phrase over and over.
“It had the crew in stitches,” Chun recalls, “but when we saw it in the cut, it felt a little like, ‘Which side of this joke were we on? Are we laughing with this girl? Are we laughing at this girl?’ It felt close enough to that, that we cut that out.”
Another major line the writers have to worry about crossing is being so honest that laughter becomes impossible. The show is blunt about the realities of JJ’s disability — Kenneth helps him go to the bathroom, Dylan has to feed pizza to him, and he has virtually no privacy — and can do it very well as matter-of-fact material, occasionally taking place in the background of a scene about something else. But when they did an episode about JJ being briefly hospitalized — a periodic fact of life for many people with disabilities — Silveri found it was “a tricky thing to edit, because he got hurt and was in a little bit of pain. That was not fun to lean into.”
At the same time, JJ’s condition not only gives the DiMeos license to be jerks (though Jimmy would contend that they’re idiots, not jerks), but gives the writers license to let them be as loud and abrasive as possible — so long as the loudness is specifically in service of JJ.
“Early on, we had some stories in mind that were just Maya going on a tear for a tear’s sake, and it didn’t feel right,” says Chun. “That was the sort of thing that we executed and just went, ‘If she’s doing it for the kid, that’s funny. Crazy for crazy’s sake is not going to win us any viewers.’”
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Silveri didn’t pull the idea for the series out of thin air. His brother’s CP is more severe than JJ’s. (“He’s non-communicative.”) And in Micah Fowler, who has CP, he has a star who knows the material even more intimately than he does. Where some showrunners want no creative suggestions from their actors, Fowler is an obvious resource, both for details about life with disability and for advice on narrative philosophy.
“I had my pad out ready to take down a bunch of disability-specific ideas,” Silveri recalls, “but that’s not how he sees himself. He wants to talk about what any 17-, 18-year-old wants to talk about. He wants to get in relationships. He wants to put himself out there. He wants to think about his independence. That’s what we ended up doing a lot of, towards the end of the season especially.”
At the same time, the show can’t always draw from real life. Fowler is working on walking, which at first Silveri wanted to make into a parallel arc for JJ. But when they spoke to some of their other consultants in the disability community, “They’re like, ‘Maybe not make it about him overcoming disability. Living with, dealing with, thriving with.’ When it’s ‘casting off the shackles of dreaded disability,’ it’s much thinner ice for us.”
“We met a lot of people in pre-production,” says Chun. “Either parents of people with special needs, or the people themselves. We went to some places that do therapy for kids with special needs and got tons of material from that. Usually, in pre-production we’re sharing, ‘Oh, this show’s at a restaurant. Let’s go visit a restaurant for 30 minutes.’ Then, it’s just a huge waste of time. Here, we got tons of stories from talking to those people.”
The season two writing staff has added Zach Anner, a writer and comedian with CP who worked as a technical consultant in the second half of season one — Silveri reached out to him after watching an online video where Anner discussed the show — and cameoed in one episode as a man Maya hoped could be a role model for what JJ’s adult life could be like.
“In the first packet of ideas that he sent us [in season one],” Silveri says, “I think we used about five different stories out of it. We were just about to do the grocery store episode, and in my first conversation with him, he mentioned that thing of, ‘When I go to a grocery store in my chair, it’s just a string of, “Hey, buddy, you got a license for that?”’ I went, ‘Shit, change what we’ve got, get that in the show!’”
Anner knows the subject, but he’s also funny enough to keep up with a room full of more seasoned sitcom writers, and at times outpace them.
“The only problem with Zach has been typing fast enough to get what he’s saying on the screen,” says Silveri. “It does save us the added bonus of we don’t have to think, ‘How might this go? This process with the school board? Who would be involved in this?’ He knows. But that’s .01% of what we get from him.”
SOMETIMES, COMEDY WINS OUT OVER TRUTH
Nowhere is this more unapologetic than with the show’s use of Kenneth. Not only would someone with Kenneth’s (lack of) qualifications (he was the school groundskeeper) never be allowed to take that job, but he wouldn’t be hanging out at the DiMeo house on nights and weekends, or really at all.
“Sometimes, we’ll do some mental gymnastics to justify it,” Silveri says, “like it’s right after school, so he dropped the kid off and got sucked into some DiMeo thing. Or, ‘This isn’t a Saturday, even though they’re all sitting around sitting college football. It’s a Thursday, it’s right after school.’ But it will never limit us, it will never keep us from putting him in a scene. It’s the unfortunate curse of having him be really funny. Sure, he could work for that family 25 hours a week, but it would be a lot less funny. We’ve all worked on shows where it’s like, ‘Why are they over there at that apartment? Why is he meeting the murderer for coffee at work?’ After a certain point, you just go for it. We have bigger fish to fry.” (Chun says they also justify it both in the writers room and in occasional dialogue by pointing out that Kenneth doesn’t have much else going on in his life, and is thus eager for the excitement and companionship he gets from the family.)
HOW “HEY!” BECAME “OY!”
In development, various executives kept pushing to make Maya an American. (TV executives are terrified of the idea that a foreign accent might scare off viewers, which is why Karen Gillan is somehow no longer Scottish.) So, for that matter, did Minnie Driver herself, who told Silveri that the Maya in the pilot script seemed very American to her. Silveri, though, wanted her to use her native accent.
“Comedy is so delicate,” he explains. “Any time you see somebody trying to hide an accent, there’s this sense of, ‘What is that? Are her parents Dutch?’ It’s just a little off. It was clear to me, you didn’t want her to be playing vowel police off in the corner. We’ve got enough work to do without having to say, ‘No, that was really funny, but you were British.’”
Driver and the execs gave in, and then she improvised one of the most defining bits of the character by inserting a demanding and very English “Oy, sea slug!” in a pilot scene where the script had her saying, “Hey, sea slug!” (The school’s mascot is a sea slug, for reasons best explained in context.)
“As soon as she said it,” Silveri recalls, “we were like, ‘Throw some more “Oy!”s in there! It’s fine!’ Now, we keep writing ‘Hey’s and ‘Dude’s, and Minnie Britishes them up for us. I just wish she’d stop saying ‘bugger.’ It’s funny and we’re not allowed to use them.”
Chun thinks Maya’s Britishness helps in another way: “It buys you about 10% more outrageous behavior than you’d accept from an American.”
THE SHOW ALMOST DIED AT “THE COOKIE PASS”
While Speechless has fit seamlessly into ABC’s family comedy machine, it was originally developed to air on Fox the year before ABC bought it. No pilot was ever filmed. There was no Kenneth character, since JJ in the first iteration of the script spoke with the help of a computer; while doing research later, Silveri met a woman who used a word and letter board like the one JJ has, with an aide who read aloud from it, and enjoyed their dynamic so much that he realized, “I don’t know if we can make a computer funny, but I know we can find a funny person to (play an aide), and that adds another flavor to the show.”(*)
(*) Because the talking computers have become fairly common for disabled people with the means to buy one, Silveri decided to do a story midway through the first season where JJ inherits a hand-me-down device from a friend, only to realize that he prefers letting Kenneth speak for him. It was meant to answer the many fan questions they’d received on the topic, but, “We had to wait to find a version that actually felt funny, and wasn’t just like a Star Wars crawl at the beginning of an episode of, ‘Here’s why we do this.’”
Silveri commends the Fox executives who read “70 different revisions” of the script, “each getting incrementally closer or way farther from the mark.” One of those is what he and Chun (who was developing Grandfathered for the network at the same time) refer to as “The Cookie pass,” in which Silveri attempted to transform the show into something that felt more appropriate on a network becoming increasingly defined by the success of Empire. That version featured “A lot of white fur coats and stuff. It was just leading into her being outrageous and her husband being a record mogul.”
By the time Fox declined to make a pilot, Silveri was so dispirited that he initially wasn’t interested when he heard ABC wanted to revive the idea. “Then, when I looked at what ABC had, I thought, ‘Oh, of course. It was crazy ever to consider putting it anywhere else.’”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
When I visited, pre-production for season two was still in early stages, with only a script or two having progressed beyond the outline stage. But the writers already had ideas for the year as a whole, from small ones, like the introduction of a rival for JJ who gets away with being awful because he’s disabled, to big.
One of those big ideas involves Maya’s initiative in getting JJ into this great school backfiring, as word spreads throughout the special needs community that Lafayette is open for business, resulting in so many families moving into the district that it runs out of money, which could lead to JJ losing Kenneth as his aide.
From a less plot-driven standpoint, Silveri is interested in JJ’s aging, and what that means for both him and Maya.
“It’s an interesting and true fact of life with kids like him, there’s so much that’s available to a kid with a disability,” he explains. “Then, the older you get, there’s a little less. There’s a little less infrastructure. It’s a little less cute to people. There’s less novelty and help. Now we’re feeling like, ‘What is this guy’s life going to be?’ He’s going to apply to college, he’s going to have to become realistic about what his options are while challenging himself.
“For Maya, she doesn’t want to hold him back, but at the same time, ‘This kid’s been my life forever, what am I without him?’ It’s going to open up new worlds for her about where is she, what is her place in the world, in a world that’s already a little less dominated by him. Now he’s in the school, and he’s got an aide, and he’s going to be more independent, and she’s going to get more independent. We want to meet her family.”
Other stories will be less profound, like a Halloween episode where Ray and Dylan swap bodies. The writers had to sell ABC on that one, since it’s so far outside the show’s usual reality, but Silveri looks at it as the kind of big swing that then allows them to get more grounded and serious elsewhere.
THE “FUNNY” BULLSEYE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE
Silveri spent years as a Friends writer/producer, but of late has worked more on shows that straddle the comedy/drama line like Go On. But rarely has he seen the line become as blurry as it is here. “Shows that I’ve worked on, it’s normally like, ‘This is a funny scene, this is a serious scene.’ In this show, we do a lot of banking recklessly from one to two. It’s kind of a fun way to write, not to have to quarantine the arc.”
That said, the longer we talk about the series, the more he begins to fear that this story will make it sound like televised broccoli.
“One thing we really want to get out there is, if you see the poster, if you see a still shot, it could read as this earnest and self-serious thing. It’s no documentary on disability. It’s comedy, and it’s not too good for you.
He pauses after that speech, worried he still hasn’t made his point.
“Just tell people it stinks,” he adds.