For 20 years, Scott Silveri wanted to create a show based on his own family and real-life experiences. He has a brother with cerebral palsy. Born and raised in Yonkers, New York, he is a veteran television writer and producer. You may not realize, but you're probably familiar with Silveri's work. His earliest credits include NBC’s “Mad About You” and “Friends,” where he rose through the ranks to executive producer, receiving the Emmy award for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Get a glimpse into the world of “Speechless” starring Minnie Driver as Maya DiMeo, a mom on a mission who will do anything for her husband, Jimmy, and kids Ray, Dylan, and J.J., her eldest son with cerebral palsy. As Maya fights injustices both real and imagined, the family works to make a new home for themselves, and thankfully found just the right person in Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) to help give J.J. his “voice.”
We had the unique experience of being able to have a one-on-one interview with Scott Silveri and take a behind-the-scenes on-set tour of “Speechless.” Before we started the interview, we took photos of Scott and it was clear he doesn't love interviews. He even (half) joked with us that the reason he's a writer is so he can avoid one-on-ones.
On his family's reaction knowing he was writing a show based on his experience
Scott: They were really 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 supportive about that. The things that I wanted to play to were—I think choice is very important in how you live your life.
I feel like you can take whatever challenge is thrown your way and wallow in it or turn to something, 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.
I mean this is meant to be. I know they don’t have a lot, and they’re loud sometimes, but this is intended to be a love letter to my mom and my dad.
You know, and I hope that comes across. They're broadly drawn characters, and this is not a documentary about my childhood, but it really is meant to be a loving depiction of the choices that I celebrate. But the great thing about their response to it was when they first read it—and I asked. I asked permission. I did not wanna get in trouble for this. Like this would make for a lotta bad Thanksgivings and Christmases. I did.
I knew wading into these waters at all whether it was not about us per se, I needed their bind. The great thing that I got back from them when I first showed them wasn’t flattery or vanity. Like, ‘Oh, you know, there’s gonna be a famous actress playing a version of me,' it was just relief. Oh, ‘It’s gonna be a family like ours on TV,' and that’s, fantastic because so much of the experience of families like ours was just feeling invisible, you know, not being heard.
And I don’t think that’s specific to that’s unique to disability, but it’s certainly the experience of a family with somebody with disability. It’s like people either stare or ignore, and they found it refreshing to have a story like ours told. Did that sound pompous enough? I hope it did.
On the network being open to the storyline
Scott: You know, 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. My brother’s condition is more significant.
I wanted 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 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, this made it easier to be active.
And when I was thinking about the J.J. character, the criterion that I kept coming back to is like this character that would exist on TV independent of a disability, independent of the wheelchair. And that was the litmus test. Once he has an attitude and he has agents and he has things that he wants, okay that’s somebody, that’s somebody that’s worth writing for. But if it was simply defined by a wheelchair, that’s telling a story I didn’t wanna tell.
I’d love to say that I had some big fight with them. Like I really wanted to go in there and say, ‘You listen. The time is now and…' It's less interesting, but it’s true.
On Micha Fowler being perfect for the role of J.J.
Scott: The second I saw the tape. We did a, a wide search. We took tapes in from all over the country. And there was a funny thing that happened with the casting director, Susie Farris, who I worked with on a couple shows over a bunch of years. Normally she knows to play the game, not just with me, with any producer. Like she doesn’t sell it too hard. You know, when you wanna sell somebody something, you try to make it their idea.
She’s like, ‘Then there’s this one lady, she’s coming in. We’ll see. She’s good.' You know, she doesn’t say, ‘This isn’t the one.' With Micah she said, ‘This is the one. We’re done. I’m sending you a tape. You’re gonna like it or I’m gonna quit.' And I saw him and he lights up the screen.
You know, I write words. It’s a challenge for us thinking for the best way for him to express himself without them. It’s a challenge for him making this stuff work, being present in the scene without lines. But he did it from, from Day 1.
I wanted to do a show like this. I’ve been wanting to do a show like this for 20 years, as long as I’ve been doin' this, but he was the one that allowed me to do it, you know. It was pretty easy. He made it easy for us, which is great. Like in casting, you see so many people and like they’re the great ones, the ones you know right away, and then there are the ones that stink. Most of ‘em are in the middle. You could see a version of that. Yeah, kinda, maybe. It's this weird thing where you really want the great ones, but at a certain point you appreciate the ones who stink. So, ‘It’s like so it’s not him? Great. We can cross that one off the list.' And he made it easy in the other direction.
On the relationship between Kenneth and J.J.
Scott: They just, they just hit the ground running, and can I just say in the early iteration of the script, there was no Kenneth. He spoke through a computer.
I met a woman who’s since become a consultant on the show. Her name’s Eva Sweeny. It’s far more common these days to use a device, an iPad. The technology’s unbelievable in the way it enables communication. It’s staggering. I mean when I was a kid in the ‘70s, there would be a board on somebody’s wheelchair, and it’s like, ‘I want milk. I want bathroom.' And that’s like it.
And people have more profound things to say. It’s incredible the way technology’s being used to empower these kids to speak. But it’s a choice. There are a lot of different ways to do it. And this young woman I met, Eva, is the one who I first saw communicating this way, and it was through an aid, and it was this odd thing. She prefers it. She finds it to be warmer. She finds it to be more conversational, and there’s a flow to it. And I liken it almost to like it’s like vinyl versus an MP3. There’s just a warmth to it. When I saw her communicating with her aid, it was a lot easier for me. It felt like more of a seamless conversation.
So we cast Kenneth first. Cedric [Yarbrough] was the first one to sign up on the show. God bless him. I don’t know why he did. There was nobody else, and it was late in the process. We didn’t know that we’d find a family. But he signed up for the show, and I had him meet Eva, and, watch but he didn’t need it, 'cause right from the beginning the two just had a fast friendship. And they just clicked and they make each other laugh. And they sure make me laugh.
On whether they feel like they've “gotten it right” and breaking down walls for people with disabilities
Scott: I will say that I can’t agree. I feel like we stretch out in different directions. We get it right. We get it wrong. But I will say the reception that we’ve gotten from families like this in this community has blown my mind. And I was prepared for the fear, because that’s how I feel like I watch it. Like,'What cynical bullshit is this gonna be?'
Like just cynicism and also there’s so many ways to get this show wrong, like a maudlin after-school special kinda thing. And as somebody who feels this stuff very personally, if I was a viewer I’d be very, very cautious about it. And I was really surprised, frankly, that people gave it a shot and embraced it. And then those who early on, said, ‘Oh this is gettin' it right.' I am wholly, deeply grateful to the people who gave it a shot and didn’t write it off before it aired. I mean there were a couple of pieces early on where people were, like, ‘Oh, these guys are gettin' it right.' And then just the fact like that all I banked on was like we’re doin' our homework.
You know, we are talking with people. We’re talking with parents’ moms of kids like this. We’re talking to kids like this. We’re talking to families. We have a partner in the Cerebral Palsy Foundation where we run ideas by them. So we are doin' our homework. I can tell you our hearts are in the right place.
We wanna be respectful to situations, and we’re trying to make it funny, too. So, I was hoping that people would give us the benefit of the doubt, because we’re trying and we’re working. But it was a not a given that people would, but they are. I’m just so relieved. ‘Cause if you get this wrong, if people are watching this and feeling it’s not reflecting their experience—I didn’t get into this for any sort of political sort of thing to win hearts and minds. I just wanted to tell the story of this one family, but because there are so few representations, you can’t help but feel the burden of responsibility for people who are watching. So, I’m glad we’re not disappointing them in large numbers. I’m glad the majority seem to think we got it right, and I take that very seriously.
[We broke down walls] years ago on ‘Life Goes On' kids with Down Syndrome. I mean I think it’s happened with like sexuality and stuff like that. Any time you get a chance to show something with a little specificity, somebody who’s not like me but we have a lot in common, I think that’s great.
I feel like if set out to like win people over and change minds and stuff, I would’ve failed miserably.
If it were a soapbox kinda show rather like what are we gonna teach people this week, it would've just crashed and burned. So it is not my goal to do that. I’m just trying to make it entertaining.
I do wanna do an episode about language, about like do we say special needs, disabled, handicapped. Like there’s, there’s so many ways to mess this up. People just get so hung up on, on words and trying to be sensitive, it just kills any conversation.
That’s what I’m trying, to just have a conversation. you just don’t ignore people. You know, that was the anger that I felt growing up. Like don’t look the other way. Don’t stare. Don’t look the other way. There’s a lot in between. Let’s find a little something in between.
And if I have any axe to grind, it’s that. If it helps anybody in that regard, then I’m done. I can go home and see my kids.
On mixing in the lightheartedness with the seriousness of the show because it's so beautifully done
Scott: I love that you feel, I mean, that’s all I wanted to do. I’m thrilled that we have people who care to see it as an audience. And in the network. That’s all I wanted to do. Like that tone going back and forth, between like unapologetically silly to unapologetically sincere. It's almost like you’re driving down the street and you make a turn and you’re completely lost. I enjoy writing that way. Isn’t that how life is?
It’s a deliberate thing. It’s we’re trying to do exactly that, and I’m thrilled that you feel like we’re succeeding in it. But I’ve felt for a long time like network comedies, in particular, have gotten bitten at by so many different things, so many different. You know, movies, you can say the F word. It’s easier. Cable you, you have a wider swath of things you can say and do. Reality TV that’s where most of us go for what’s funny, 'cause it’s funny. It’s absurd.
Even dramas. Like the best dramas are really funny. ‘The Sopranos' are really funny. ‘Breaking Bad' is really fun in moments. We little network comedy, we got little bites taken out of our territory. So I thought like maybe we can take some back from these other ones. Maybe we can put a little sincerity in. Maybe we can go a page without a joke. I’m enjoyin’ it.
On why now is the right time for this show since he's been wanting to work on it for 20 years
Scott: I didn’t want it to be like the first thing I tried, because of the tone and because of the subject matter it felt like a little like I didn’t feel like I was up to the challenge. I didn’t think it was going to be easy. And it’s not easy. Part of it is like I’ve been doing this for a while and you don’t get to do it forever.
And I thought, ‘Okay, if I do it and it goes wrong, okay. You gotta take a shot.' I’ve just gotten a little older and a little more mature, and I had a sense of mortality and mortality in my career. Like, ‘If I don’t do it now, when am I gonna do it? Why shouldn't I, why shouldn't I take the shot?' And it’s a little scary to put yourself out there that way.
It's not a cynical show, and I think it’s easier to be cynical. But I thought, ‘What the hell? I’m just gonna try and put it out there.' So I’ve written my share of romantic comedies and stuff like that. I fake that stuff for a long time. I met my wife when I was 18. I didn’t date anybody, you know. I’ve been BSing that for 20 years. So, I feel like maybe I’ll write something I actually care about and understand.
On the vetting process
Scott: We ask people who lived this stuff, who live in the advocacy world. For instance, Micah, the actor, is working on walking. He has been for a long time…we very early wanna get this kid dating. When I talk to Eva, who introduced me to the idea of this board, when I talked to her about the walking thing, she was the first one like, ‘He should wanna date. He should rebel. He should wanna be popular, wanna make friends. He should be out making mistakes.' And so early on we had like drinking. We had him driving a car when he shouldn't be. Not in the same episode. We had him, very clear about that. Very close to the microphones for that.
We have him dating, liking a girl and, and the challenges around that. So, I mean as a rule the stuff that we’re not sure about that’s what we’re running towards. We just do wanna make sure at the same time that we’re respectful to the experience. So, that’s why we have our professionals as a backstop to make sure we don’t screw it up too much.
I didn’t expect that when we rolled this out. And it’s something that I keep hearing, and that’s the greatest thing in the world.
Watch “Speechless” on ABC Wednesday 8:30|7:30c