SPEECHLESS, now on ABC Friday nights in its third season, follows the adventures of the DiMeo family. Mom Maya (Minnie Driver) is fiercely protective of teen son JJ (Micah Fowler, who like his character has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair), so much so that other son Ray (Mason Cook) sometimes feels neglected. Daughter Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) is trying to navigate her own way through puberty. Dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) wants to be supportive, and JJ’s aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) works to stand up for JJ and for himself.
SPEECHLESS creator/executive producer Scott Silveri (a writer/producer on FRIENDS, co-creator of JOEY and PERFECT COUPLES, creator of GO ON) based the half-hour comedy series on his own experiences growing up with a smart, independent-spirited brother who has cerebral palsy.
At the end of Season 2, the DiMeos were evicted from their home. The situation forced them, and Kenneth, to travel to England to ask for a loan from Maya’s long-estranged father Martin, played by John Cleese. Working with Cleese was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Silveri, who talks about this and much more. (The Cleese episodes are available on Hulu, along with all earlier episodes from Seasons 1-3.)
ASSIGNMENT X: How surprised versus how gratified are you to have a third season of SPEECHLESS?
SCOTT SILVERI: I’d say more gratified than surprised, but a healthy measure of both. You just put your head down and start doing the work when these things start. You’re shot out of the cannon, and you find yourself three years later, sort of reeling. “Oh, this is a real thing, I get to keep doing this.” I was actually moaning to a friend when we were on vacation. I had to rewrite a couple scripts while we were away, and he reminded me, “Dummy, look at where you are. If you had told twenty-year-old you that you would be writing a couple of episodes to go shoot in London with your hero John Cleese for a show that means a lot to you, that twenty-year-old you would take that any day.” And I was like, “Yeah, of course. This is awesome.” You get so focused on the fear of the deadlines, and the work that you know is coming, but we’re very fortunate to be able to continue to make the show, and I’m doubly fortunate to be working on something that actually means something to me. Because you put in a lot of hours on these things, and inevitably, there’s a moment when you look in the mirror, and it’s like, “What am I doing it for?” I have a good “What I’m doing it for” on this one.
AX: Did you think, “Gee, I’d really like to work with John Cleese, who can he play?”, or did you think, “Who can play Minnie Driver’s father?”, or …?
SILVERI: From the point that I started doing this for a living, there was the, “I’d really love to work with John Cleese, I wonder what he could play.” But for this show specifically, we had a story that wanted to tell with Maya introducing her dad to the kids, to our audience, and we needed to find somebody who would be able to match her in terms of his outrageousness, his volume, his fabulousness, his silliness, and there was really no second place to John Cleese in this. So luckily, the dates worked out. If we hadn’t gotten John, I can’t imagine the compromises we would have needed to make in terms of what we had conceived, because it was a love letter to John that we wrote. Luckily, he was amenable to it, and he not only got it right, but elevated it at every turn. It’s no surprise that John Cleese is funny. I don’t think we’ll be teaching anybody that. But there’s a sweetness there that I’ve not seen in a lot of what he’s done, and there’s an undeniable chemistry that he has with Minnie that we were really fortunate to capture. So for this, big picture, “What do I need to work with John Cleese?” But for this role, it was, “Oh, this is the guy we need to tell this story.” All we knew going into this season was something we planted in the last [Season 2] episode, that there was twenty years of bad blood between the two of them, so we know there’s something to be overcome. But that’s what we do for a living. We make our problems and we try to have fun cleaning them up. There’s no one more fun to have to clean up a problem after than John.
AX: Did you go from, “Well, let’s get them out of their house and see where that goes,” and land on England, or did you reverse-engineer it as, “We’d like to go to England, how do we justify that? Ah, they get kicked out their house”?
SILVERI: No. That was something we took pains to avoid, “Oh, we’d like to go on a trip, oh, we’d like to go to England.” Because any time that’s your goal, if that’s what your eyes are on, you’re going to stink up the joint. You and I have both seen enough trip episodes, where a family is having conversations that they could have had at the kitchen table, and they’re having it in front of Big Ben, and who cares? Why am I watching this? So we were able to pull off something that’s very much a SPEECHLESS episode, and it’s organic. It’s not, “Hey, we got free tickets, let’s go somewhere – oh, there’s Maya’s dad!” They start the season without a home, without any recourse. This is our ticket out of the problem, this is the one shovel to get out of this hole that we’re in, but Maya’s very conflicted about going hat in hand to this man who has written her off for the past two decades. We had a very organic reason to get us there. And that was something that was very important. We didn’t want it to be simply, “Okay, we know we’ve got the Tower of London and Big Ben, what’s the rest of the story?” We wanted it to be a story that we can only tell there, and we think, when people watch the episodes, no one will be asking the question, “Why did they go there? What was the point?” As great as London is, as great as John Cleese is, we didn’t want to hand over the show to either of them. We wanted to do our show, and have those be factors to elevate what we were doing, and I think we pulled it off.
AX: Both in terms of the story with JJ, and in terms of real life with Micah Fowler, how difficult was it getting them to England?
SILVERI: [The difficulty] is just a fact of life. I notice that, not even when I travel abroad with Micah, which I’ve now done, I notice that when I go out to lunch with Micah. As heightened as my awareness is to these issues, I can’t go in a restaurant and find a place to sit with this kid. I can’t go to get coffee and find a way in that’s easy. The obstacles that are thrown up in the way of people like Micah are very real, and it’s something that we work hard to mine for story, and for comedy. Micah has such a wonderful outlook on the world that he’s undaunted by it. JJ is the one who’s least excited about going abroad. Because everybody else – “Oh, it’ll be fun, we’ll meet Grandpa, we’ll have a trip” – he knows the wheelchair is going to get busted up, he knows that they’re not going to have the plug to charge the thing. So it’s a real journey for him to get from “No thanks, not interested,” to, with his dad’s help, embrace a little bit of the fun that’s open to him in travel.
AX: How much of what we see is dealing with the airplane?
SILVERI: You got it. We have a little bit of the trip over there, we have a very big arrival, where you get a lot of bang for your London buck, we see the sights, we check all the boxes of the things we’d be crazy not to do when we were in London. But I think we make it organic to the show.
AX: Do you play at all with the height differential between Cedric Yarbrough, who’s normally your tallest person, and John Cleese, who’s even taller?
SILVERI: It’s hard not to. And there was no dearth of jokes lobbed down at John Ross Bowie from two feet above him by John Cleese about his height. That’s really all he knows about his son-in-law, the top of his head. That’s all he’s ever seen. So there are plenty of jokes about that. Now, John Cleese is a very tall man, so we can make short jokes about ninety-five percent of the planet. But Bowie is an incredibly good sport, and took it in stride.
AX: Are we going to see more of JJ’s horror filmmaking career?
SILVERI: We are. That was sort of a key for us to unlock last season. From the very beginning, we wanted to make sure that JJ was not a prop, that JJ was not something to be experienced by everyone else. And once we struck upon a particular passion for him, and a talent for him, it made telling those stories a lot easier. So that’s going to be his springboard to launch him into this next phase of independence. It’s what he’s looking to pursue as he goes on. So we’re going to be seeing a lot more of that. But for me, from the very beginning, the rigor of the storytelling with JJ, the question we have, is, “Is this an interesting character without the wheelchair? Because if it’s just about the wheelchair, we’re not doing our jobs, and these aren’t stories worth telling.” So I think finding that passion for him helped us unlock a lot.
AX: Is JJ going to get interested in more genres, or is there particular fun to be had with horror?
SILVERI: No. I think we’ll spread it out with him. The nice thing about horror was, when we wanted to suggest that he was good at it, we talked about different kinds of movies that could be screened for an audience, where you’d see an effect. And it seemed a lot easier, rather than saying, “This is a great comedy,” and having people rolling in the aisles, you could demonstrate a horror movie and the jump scares in it pretty well, and see that it’s affecting an audience. But I think he’ll branch out a little bit. It’s not going to be all filmmaking for him. He needs to grow up. He’s going to get to date this year, he’s going to have a whole list of things that he feels he needs to accomplish before he goes off to college.
AX: Is SPEECHLESS going to get into how JJ feels about other quadriplegics?
SILVERI: Yeah. I think, certainly early on, he was on an island, and it seemed like he was the only person with a disability in our universe. We’ve brought in some more, some different kinds of characters. The trick with them is similar to the trick with JJ. We never want that to be the story. But yes, we have some more things coming down the pike where he’s seeing his place in a community. Is he going to take a more political bent, or is he just a get-along guy? There are two different ways you can handle [being someone with a disability]. You can identify yourself, and seek out others, or go far in the other direction, and seek not to be defined by that, so they don’t [interact with] those communities. I think he could stand to reach out a little more, and find other people with whom he has that in common. We sent him to camp at the end of the first season, where he was one of a group of people with disabilities, and it felt like a homecoming for him. So I think there’s more to be mined by that. But we never want to silo him, or quarantine him, and have that be the whole of his experiences. Maybe someday down the line, he’ll date somebody with a disability, but I’m not interested in having that be the next person he dates, because I feel like that’s a statement in itself. I think where we found the most success is finding his commonality with all sorts of people, rather than really exploring the specificity as much.
AX: Given some of the awful things going on in the world now, are you going to get politically at all into things like attacks on the Americans With Disabilities Act, or do you feel like that’s heavier than SPEECHLESS wants to get?
SILVERI: It’s not a question of “heavier,” but as it stands, I think we’ve been able to carve out a sort of unique and sometimes subversive tack without even delving into the political at all. I take a lot of pride in our show being a kind show, and a civil show. And I think, if there’s a statement, that’s it. We don’t all need to be sons of bitches to each other. We can look out for each other a little more. That seems to be a somewhat radical idea right now [laughs]. That’s as political as we get right now. I don’t mean to take it off the table, and we may wade into that in the future, but so much of our storytelling comes from the dynamics between these characters, rather than that far outside. So the answer is, who knows? Maybe.
AX: And the family dog won’t get eaten by a coyote? You have now established that there are coyotes in the neighborhood …
SILVERI: No, no, no. I’ve been doing this job long enough – I haven’t learned much, but I know not to kill dogs. That is the SPEECHLESS promise [laughs].
AX: What about the development of the two other kids, Ray and Dylan? Are they going to have to go to college near home in order to stay on the show?
SILVERI: The show is at its best when it’s these people together, so I never want to send them all to the winds. But yeah, there may be some gap years or something in there [laughs]. It’s never going to be somebody face-timing in, Skype-ing in for weeks at a time. We know what we do well, and we want to keep these guys together. So if they go away, it won’t be for too long, I promise you. And God bless us if we have that problem.
AX: Now that Ray is no longer defined by his romance, is he going back to astronomy?
SILVERI: He is a hopeless romantic. He’s not done loving, but he’s going to have find somebody new who gets him and wants to tolerate him. And it’s no small feat. The funny thing about the show – I started it off borrowing a fair bit from my family. Very early on, I wanted to divorce it from that, because it’s hard enough to do one of these shows without having to go home for Thanksgiving and apologize to your sister and to your brother for dragging them through the mud. But the one character I can continue to punish is Ray, because the Ray character is based on me. So I can take the worst and most embarrassing [thing] that ever happened to me and multiply it by ten and throw it at Ray, because I’m not going to complain to me about it. The only person who complains to me about it is Mason Cook, but he’s still cashing the checks, so he has to keep it up [laughs]. Luckily, he’s able to keep it up in a far more charming way than I ever did.
AX: Were you ever a basketball tackle, as Ray was?
SILVERI: [laughs] His version of sports was more painful but more glorious than mine. Ray took his charges and was able to influence the outcome of the games. I played lacrosse and stood far behind, out of bounds, and just had to pick up the balls that had been shot way wide of the net, and scoop them up and return them to the actual play.
AX: This season, does Dylan gain more equilibrium, or start losing equilibrium?
SILVERI: I think as a fourteen-year-old girl, there’s room for both. I think she’s been cooped up with her two brothers for a bit too long. We’re going to open her up a little more. I never want to lose her spunk, her fire, the fight in her that she shares with her mom. But I think at times there can be a little bit of a softening around the edges for her, there can be a little bit of insecurity creeping in, as any teenager is going to deal with, and I think that’ll be an interesting color on her. We’ll find her new interests, we’re going to find her love, and I think it will be a look on her. You cast kids off of a page-and-a-half of dialogue in a pilot, and you hope for the best. She’s a fantastic young actor, and I think we can show a lot of different facets of her. So we’ll get to see them this year.
AX: And do Maya and Jimmy have adventures in store beyond parenthood?
SILVERI: Absolutely. With an increase in JJ’s independence, there is a lot of fear in the parents, and a lot of opportunity for them to see, “All right, what else is there for us?” Because they have defined themselves, as is reasonable, by taking care of their son for a long time. And old habits die hard, but I think they see early on in this season, “Oh, we’re not going to be his everything forever, and we’ll always be there for him as much as he needs, but he’s needing us less and less.” That started in the pilot, when he got a full-time aide and started to branch out a little bit, and it continues this year, as they get ready to send him off to college.
AX: What would you most like people to know right now about SPEECHLESS?
SILVERI: I’ve always been proud of the show, and its ability to strike a chord with families in general. It’s not something that we set out to do, but I think the best manifestation of the show is that it’s not cynical, it’s not crass, and it is something you can watch with your kids. So a lot of my comedy writer snob friends have found the show. “This is actually something that I can watch with my fourteen-year-old, and my twelve-year-old, and my ten-year-old.” And it’s something that I take a lot of pride in, it’s something that the network has recognized, and put us on this night of viewing with families, I just want people who haven’t seen it to know that what they might expect – you see the poster with a show with a kid in a wheelchair, and you expect a certain thing. You expect it to be soft, you expect it to be all touchy-feely, and a lot of hugging, and a lot of learning, and it’s not what we do. I think we have a unique take on the world, but we’re dealing with universal themes, and there’s nothing off-putting about it, and I think if people give us half an hour on Friday night, they’ll get a kick out of it.
This interview was conducted during ABC’s party for the Television Critics Association press tour.
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Article: SPEECHLESS: Creator Scott Silveri talks about Season 3 and John Cleese