When DJ Nash set out to make a TV show about his family, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to air their dirty laundry. But as he began bouncing ideas off other writers, he realized that his childhood was a veritable goldmine of comedic possibility - even though it didn't seem that way at the time.
Nash's father, Mel, went blind by the time Nash was 12. Mel hid his blindness until it was impossible to do so anymore, and eventually had to get a guide dog to help him around. The dog was precipitated, says Nash, by his parents getting divorced.
In writing NBC's Growing Up Fisher, which is based on real-life events, Nash had the opportunity to comb through his childhood all over again, and to see it from a very different perspective.
"I'm now a father," Nash says during a phone interview, "and I have so much more understanding and forgiveness."
Nash grew up in the Boston area and now lives in Sherman Oaks. When he was a kid, his dad worked at a steel fabricating company. As he began to lose his sight, work became more difficult. With some doing, though, he was able to hide his declining vision from his employees. "If you close one eye and close the other halfway, that's how much he could see," says Nash. "He knew the social graces of sight - so you make eye contact, turn when someone is talking."
In other social situations, he relied on his kids to help him make it through. "We kind of helped him cheat it," says Nash. "When we were holding hands at a business lunch, people thought, 'That's nice, he's taking care of his 8-year-old.' They didn't know I was whispering, 'Three steps down.'"
But once the divorce went through and he was living on his own, Nash's dad had no choice but to come clean. From there, the chaos that was Nash's adolescence began. It's that chaos, says Nash, that has spawned most of the ideas behind Growing Up Fisher.
Growing Up Fisher, Nash says, is derived mostly from real-life events. A recent episode, for instance, recreates a surprise birthday party that was held for Nash's brother. His brother's entire school class was invited over for the event, but when his father went to retrieve the birthday boy, he failed to realize that his son was only wearing underwear. When he went downstairs and faced his classmates, he was mortified.
"That's the kind of crazy thing that happened" on the regular, says Nash.
Other moments were a bit more dangerous. There was the time that Nash's dad took it upon himself to teach his kids how to parallel park. Or the instance in which he smacked someone's car with his cane after the person refused to stop for him.
But for the most part - at least as Nash recalls it now - his father's story was one of triumph. After getting the guide dog, he decided to go back to school to become a lawyer. In the eyes of his son, that decision was downright heroic. "That's something a son will do to his dad," says Nash. "Make him a superhero."
The actors cast on the show, says Nash, try to accurately portray his youth. J.K. Simmons stars as Mel, the dad, Eli Baker plays Henry, the character based on Nash, and Ava Deluca-Verley plays Katie, Henry's sister. Jenna Elfman plays Henry's mom. "That's the greatest gift a son can give a mother," says Nash. "That beautiful tall woman, that's how I see you."
Each has taken on the role in their own way, but for most of the cast, the story has made them rethink what it means to live with a disability. "J.K. has a really great line," says Nash. "When people say, 'It must be really hard playing a blind guy,' he says, 'It's not as hard as being a blind guy.'"
It's not clear whether Growing Up Fisher will get picked up for a second season or not, but viewership has grown each week, and on a recent week the show ranked as the no. 2 network show in its time slot in total viewers, women 18-49 and women 25-54.
Ultimately, Nash says that he's not trying to speak on behalf of every blind person - he's trying, instead, to get across a universal message of hope and perseverance.
"I hope that people are affected by Mel, the character, the way that I was affected by Mel, my dad," he says. "I'm not trying to send a message, but it's more like, 'This is what you've been dealt, what are you gonna do about it?'"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Jessica Ogilve on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: