Scott Silveri, creator and executive producer of Speechless, has a message for viewers.
“We’re not too good for you,” Silveri says, laughing, during a recent interview with Paste. The ABC comedy, loosely inspired by Silveri’s life growing up with a brother who has cerebral palsy, follows the scrappy DiMeo family. Eldest son JJ (Micah Fowler) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair. He communicates via an alphabet board and his aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough).
But if you’re thinking “sappy,” “tug-at-your-heartstrings,” or “after-school special,” you couldn’t be more wrong.
“If I saw the poster for our show, I would have a very clear sense of what that show could be,” Silveri says. “And I don’t think that’s the show that we’re doing. I don’t think we’re trying to be defined by the disabilities and we don’t want the character to be defined by the disabilities. The same way that people with disabilities don’t want to be defined by their disabilities.”
The key to Speechless, Silveri says, is making sure to treat JJ as they would any other characters. “If you elevate somebody with a disability, it’s another way of denying that they’re a human being,” he says. “Just because you’re nice about it doesn’t mean it’s a positive representation. We found early on that it was fun to have JJ be flawed.”
Silveri loves it when JJ fights with his siblings, Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), or struggles to gain independence from his fiercely protective mother, Maya (Minnie Driver), and doting dad, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie). JJ is the king of a well-timed eye roll. “Just because JJ is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he’s not going to fight. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want things. And it doesn’t mean he’s not a jerk sometimes,” Silveri says. “We keep saying to ourselves, ’Is this a character we would write even if he didn’t have a disability?’ And if it was all about the wheelchair, then—not interested. If we know what a JJ joke is if he didn’t have a disability, then that’s a guy I want to write for.”
Now in its second season, the show is, more than anything else, uproariously funny and, at its core, a family anyone can relate to, no matter one’s individual circumstances. “People call the family dysfunctional and it couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Silveri says. “It’s people who don’t have their acts together 100% of the time, but the foundation of what they have is good and strong. Yes, the house is crappy. Yes, they don’t make as much money as they might want. And the bills pile up and utilities get shut off every once in awhile, but the kind of wish fulfillment we’re going for is a different kind. It’s a bunch of people who don’t have it all figured out, coming together and trying to make it work as best they can.”
The show doesn’t shy away from the heavier topics. Last season saw JJ spending time in the hospital and his siblings wrestling with the idea of who would care for JJ when he was older. The trick, Silveri says, is finding the funny in these situations. “There’s a lot of stuff in families like theirs and like mine that doesn’t get talked about,” he says. “And there’s a real relief in having it come out. The fun part is trying mine that and turn it into something funny—which is a challenge, but it’s the most exciting part of the show. Yes, it’s not always easy to find what the comedic angle is going to be on a very real and sometimes difficult thing, but on the other hand, ain’t nobody else doing it—so you don’t have the burden of ‘I’ve got to make this different than a scene that I’ve seen a million times.’”
In the show’s sophomore season, Silveri wants to open up the world of the DiMeo family. “Hopefully you know them and care about them, so you’ll be interested in finding out, why is Maya in America? What’s her family deal like? Does Kenneth have a life outside of this kid?”
Mostly, Silveri wants to continue to capitalize on his actors’ innate comic timing and delivery while honing in on what sets the show apart. “We will continue to do what we do and be realistic and honest and have the difficult conversations that families like this have, but we will continue to do something silly to bank into a hard conversation. We want to announce to people that these are people with issues and highs and lows just like yours and invite them to have fun with us.”
Speechless airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .