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Most people love to share stories about their wacky and crazy families. But few experience the reaction comedian and TV writer DJ Nash (Bent, Up All Night) used to get.
"I was telling a story about my dad cutting down a tree with a chainsaw — because I thought that that was not a big deal, I really did — and this other writer had this look like, 'Should I call child protective services five years later?' And I realized there's a show here," Nash tells TVGuide.com.
The one big difference about Nash's family is the fact that his dad is blind. Six years after that light-bulb moment, Nash's often-told stories about his family patriarch are taking on a life of their own in the new NBC family comedy Growing Up Fisher, which premieres Sunday after the Olympics.
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The semi-autobiographical comedy follows the Fisher family, including kids Henry (Eli Baker) and Katie (Ava Deluca-Verley) in the wake of their parents' decision to get a divorce. While mom Joyce (Jenna Elfman) goes on a journey to find herself, newly independent dad Mel (J.K. Simmons) must finally get a guide dog, Elvis, and reveal his blindness to the world after years of keeping it under wraps. "He realizes if I'm going to be the dad that I want to be, that I need to be, I'm going to need some help and this is what happened with my dad," Nash says. "As much as his pride didn't want him to admit to the world that he is blind, it was even more important to him to be a good father."
Just like in real life, it takes a few minutes into the first episode before Mel's condition is revealed to the viewers at home — something Nash did specifically. "I told the network and I told the studio, I'll change anything about this script — I wouldn't really, but I said it — but I won't change the fact that he's got to be holding that chainsaw at the top of the show. That cold open, you already are endowing that moment with so many sort of father-son moments in your life that by the time you learn he's blind, you never have a chance to feel sorry for him," Nash says. "You never feel sorry for Mel because he doesn't let the fact that he's blind keep him from living life."
It may be a sensitive subject to some, but Nash has a lifetime of experience telling jokes about his father's life. Like when a young Nash tricked his dad into going on one of the more daring rides at a carnival because he lied and said it was a Ferris wheel. Or when his father graduated from law school and didn't know he had received a standing ovation until he was later informed at home. "I've been joking around and telling stories about dad for a long time. Wwen you know me and you know dad, there's just a way that you can laugh at it and it's immediately just funny. The challenge of making America laugh along with that is absolutely difficult," Nash says. "I'm not trying to own every visually impaired person's story. There may be people who aren't comfortable with the tone that we're taking. I'm telling, for the most part, real stories and having the real attitude of these characters respond to this."
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A crucial part in setting the tone of the series, Nash says, was casting Simmons as Mel. "I know that the first thing people see about my dad is the fact that he's blind, and I know that on a show when you're marketing [it], the blind thing is our hook. But it wasn't my hook growing up. It was a matter of fact. It was as natural as the fact that I had siblings or that I lived on the East coast. It was just a fact. J.K. plays beyond the blindness and plays that strength," Nash says. "I just can't even imagine anyone else doing the part."
The same cannot be said for Elfman, who replaced original cast member Parker Posey and whom Nash praises for breathing new life into matriarch Joyce, a woman who takes so much needed time for herself after the divorce. "Joyce lived her life in the wrong order. She went from being someone's daughter to being someone's wife to someone's mother," he says. "We needed somebody in that role who is inherently maternal so that if she is sometimes taking a break from being maternal you'll still love and appreciate her journey. As much as J.K. reminds me so much of my dad in my role, Jenna has found a different version, and together we've found a different version of my mom in the role. It's the same quirkiness and you're rooting for her as she struggles to figure out who she is.
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"I really do love the idea that this is a show about everyone going through their own adolescence at the same time."
However, the biggest change to Growing Up Fisher during its six-year journey was elicited by a big change in Nash's personal life. "Six years ago when I pitched the show, I didn't have kids," Nash says. "I have a five-year-old son now and a four-year-old daughter and I have such a deeper appreciation, understanding, forgiveness for what it means to raise a kid, to instill values, to save money for college — to do all the things that my parents did so well."
To incorporate this, Nash added a voiceover by adult Henry (narrated by executive producer and Arrested Development star Jason Bateman). "The show is about a father looking back at the way his father fathered him and I think that perspective makes things like divorce and blindness — things that aren't necessarily inherently funny — funny because of the perspective this kid has. It's a line in the show, but it's a line in my heart, which is: At the time, I would have changed just about everything that was happening, but looking back, I wouldn't change a thing," Nash says. "I really wanted to write a love letter to my dad."
Growing Up Fisher premieres Sunday at 10:36/9:36c on NBC before moving to its regular timeslot on Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30c. Will you watch?