Inside the Working-Class Comedy of 'Speechless' - Pacific Standard

Inside the Working-Class Comedy of 'Speechless'

A conversation with actor John Ross Bowie about comedy, working-class identity, and how entertainers should use social media.
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Speechless ABC TV

The pilot of the ABC show Speechless begins when the DiMeo family moves to a collapsing house in a good school district, all so they can make sure their son JJ gets the special education services he requires. At the end of the second season, which aired this spring, the DiMeo family has just been evicted after a rich neighbor decides to buy their house; the final scene shows the family reclining on their furniture, at night—on the front lawn.

Ironically, the father of the family, Jimmy, at least partially helped bring the eviction about. Jimmy, played by John Ross Bowie, had studied to be an architect, but instead found steady work in baggage handling as a way to provide benefits for his family. When his neighbor wanted to expand his house, Jimmy helped draw up plans, and then the neighbor decided to just purchase the rental property out from under the DiMeos. As Pacific Standard covered last year, Speechless is a show about disability. But it's also a show about white working-class America.

A few weeks ago, actress Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist slur, one of many slurs and conspiracy theories she's either written or retweeted on her social media accounts. In response, ABC abruptly canceled her show. Then the predictable debates started. Roseanne has always been held up as groundbreaking for its thoughtful depiction of white working-class America. A few critics worried: With the cancellation, would America just ignore this key demographic? Was the cancellation a sign that we're too sensitive, or that we're holding comedians to standards that make comedy impossible? In the Guardian, Joan Williams, an author of a 2017 book about the white working class, worried that "[Roseanne's] cancellation deprives American television of one of the only sympathetic depictions of white working-class life in the past half century—in other words, since television began." But American television is hardly devoid of such representations: Vox's critics Caroline Framke and Todd VanDerWerff quickly compiled a list of 11 sitcoms that depict working-class life, including but not limited to the white working class. Speechless, naturally, made the cut.

Pacific Standard reached John Ross Bowie by phone to chat about Speechless, the possibilities and perils for comedians on Twitter, and the role of comedy and social critique in President Donald Trump's America.

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Is it fair to say that Speechless is a show about white working-class America?

Absolutely. It's one of the things that initially drew me to the project. The audition scene for the character of Jimmy was him taking the family through the dilapidated house that the family was going to move into because it was a good school district. I've been there with my kids, and [although] my father had an office job, so we were technically white-collar, we lived in Hell's Kitchen. I shopped at salvation army and I ate a lot of TV dinners. The idea of completely having to shift priorities just to make sure kids get into a decent enough school I found incredibly relatable and made me want to be a part of the show.

So why doesn't Speechless get credit as a show about class?

I think that, for better or for worse, Speechless, especially by people who don't watch it, is viewed as the disability show. The world allows one issue, yours is disability, thank you very much, and off you go. The monetary problems that the DiMeos have are, for whatever reason, not part of the discourse.

And the [disability and class issues] are connected too. Jimmy has a degree in architecture, but he has to have guaranteed benefits with a lot of stability and not a lot of excitement. He does this for his children.

Are you frustrated that Speechless is overlooked in this way?

I won't say it frustrates me, because our fans are vocal enough that we're going into a third season, but when Roseanne was being framed as "the lone blue-collar, working-class show," and I was sitting on our deliberately disgusting house set....

The set is disgusting?

The living room has this rat trap that moves every episode. It's a great little detail that migrates around the living room. And I looked at that little detail [and thought], "C'mon man, the DiMeos have no money."

We shot the pilot in a teardown in Altadena and they rebuilt [it] on the Fox lot when we went to series, and made the doors a little wide to accommodate the chair. I should take pictures of the kitchen set. The oven door is held shut with a wire hanger that has been MacGyvered with this latch. Every drawer is a junk drawer. It makes the show relatable and charming, whether you have a person with disabilities in your family or not.

Since comedians on Twitter are now a matter of national interest thanks to Roseanne Barr, let's talk about that. You don't hold back on Twitter.

I hate to tell you—I actually do.

How do you decide what to tweet?

I have a couple of rules that I don't always follow. I try not to punch down. I try to go after people who have an even larger platform than mine, i.e. a TV show or a massive number of Twitter followers. I try to steer clear of picking on people who served in the military, just out of a genuine respect. And I try to keep it funny. Listen ... when this goes to press, there's going to be a million instances that I broke these. Those are some general rules.

Is there more focus on what comedians are saying right now? I'm not just thinking about Barr, but also the days and days spent on Michelle Wolf's performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

I am 100 percent, unambiguously [on] team Michelle Wolf. Everything she brought up, namely the marked dishonesty of this administration, was fair game, and if you can do that when still complimenting someone's eye make-up—I saw my wife do a smokey eye one time, and it is no easy feat! It takes a delicate touch.

So are we more concerned about jokes now?

Social media turns up the volume, but there's always been a tension to jokes. [President Ronald] Reagan made a joke about bombing Russia that's a not perfectly good joke, but I do believe he was just kidding; the man could occasionally land a joke. For a couple of weeks that was a shitstorm.

Imagine that happening with Twitter

There's a myth that we're so hypersensitive right now. The volume has been cranked up, but people are people, and we're figuring out new ways of communicating.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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