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How Growing Up a Blind Man’s Son Inspired the New Sitcom ‘Growing Up Fisher’

J.K. Simmons plays Mel Fisher, a blind lawyer and father, in the new NBC sitcom "Growing Up Fisher."If you’ve been watching the Olympics (and who hasn’t?), you’ve probably seen the promo ads for a new show called Growing Up Fisher, which will debut on NBC this Sunday, at 10:30 p.m., after the network airs the games’ closing ceremonies. And if you’ve seen the ads, you’ve probably noticed that the family patriarch, Mel Fisher, is—well—blind. And, yes, it’s a sitcom.

But before assuming it’ll take potshots at the visually impaired, consider the man who created it—and who also produces and writes for Fisher: D.J. Nash.

“It’s the reality I grew up in,” Nash says of the show, in which Mel acquires a guide dog after he and his wife, Joyce, agree to divorce. “I didn’t write a story and say, ‘Hey, what’s the hook? What if he were blind?’ I’m recounting my experience. I met the most amazing man of my life when I was four-and-a-half minutes old. It’s the story of how my father fathered me and how it’s affected the way I am as a dad.”

If the first episode, which I got a chance to see, is any indication, it’s an entertaining, heartwarming story—even if, as Nash says, the entire Fisher family “is going through their adolescence at the same time.” Mel, played convincingly by J.K. Simmons (a veteran TV and film actor lately known for his Farmers Insurance ads), is a lawyer who’s been faking having vision but is now “coming out” via his guide dog, Elvis. Joyce (Jenna Elfman), who got married and started having kids young, is in mid-life crisis mode, and their two kids, Katie, 16, and Henry, 11, are actually coming of age. Although the show’s set in present day, it’s narrated by a grown-up Henry, voiced by Jason Bateman.

“My story took place in 1982,” says Nash, a veteran TV producer (‘Til Death, Up All Night). “But we switched to present day because of production limitations. Plus, we want to tell a contemporary story. For example, a woman going through divorce in 1982 faced not easier or harder but different challenges than a woman going through that today.”

As did someone who’s visually impaired. Nash’s dad (whom he’d rather not name, for privacy reasons) lost most of his sight at age 11, after an ear infection went untreated and spread. “Penicillin wasn’t readily available back then,” explains Nash. So the man D.J. “met” when he was born had the equivalent of a halfway-closed eye’s vision, which has diminished even further since. “There was a time in my life,” Nash says, “when he could tell if someone was in the room with him or not. That has gone away.”

His father, however, didn’t indulge in self-pity, and made up for his vision loss with steely determination—a trait shared by Mel Fisher, who, in the first episode, engages in activities one wouldn’t usually ascribe to a blind person. Like cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. Or teaching his daughter how to parallel park. And playing football with his son. “Everything in that first episode—that all happened,” says Nash.

Those activities are, indeed, sources of humor, magnified by Simmons’ comedic skills. But they’re grounded in Mel’s—and, one assumes, Nash’s father’s—dignity. One poignant moment, which those with guide dogs will appreciate, comes as Mel temporarily moves into a hotel, Elvis in tow. When a snooty clerk says the hotel has “a strict no-pets policy,” Mel shoots back, “I have a strict don’t-break-the-law policy,” then cites California Civil Code 54.1, under which service dogs can’t be denied lodging.

More than anything, Nash is hoping that, over time, Growing Up Fisher will be less about Mel’s blindness and more about his exceptional parenting, and how the members of one dysfunctional family are able to make something of themselves. He would, in other words, like to redefine “normal.”

“A few weeks ago,” Nash says, “I visited my dad for his 80th birthday. We went out to dinner and, as usual, walked into a restaurant with this guide dog, and everybody looked. That’s something I’ve never fully gotten comfortable with. But I said as we were walking in, ‘You know, Dad, a year from now, if this show’s still on the air, people will look at us and say, “Oh, it’s just like that guy on TV.”’ It’s pretty amazing to think that TV might make something like that normal.”

Pictured, top: J.K. Simmons, as Mel Fisher, in Growing Up Fisher, accompanied by his guide dog, Elvis. Photo and video courtesy of NBC Universal.

17 Responses to 'How Growing Up a Blind Man’s Son Inspired the New Sitcom ‘Growing Up Fisher’'

  1. Brian says:

    As a blind man myself, I think this is great! I can’t wait to watch.

  2. kathy streeter says:

    As a single mom going blind, I cannot begin to express my gratitude for this show. Humor is what gets me through. Thank you.

  3. L H says:

    Would we be able to petition NBC and the appropriate people to provide this show with descriptive audio for all of us blind folks? Would make the show much more meaningful.

    • jackie says:

      Now THAT would be amazing! My son is blind and that would do wonders for a better TV experience for him. ESPECIALLY since the lead character is blind. Does ANY show do that? I’ve been looking to see what all would be involved to make this type of thing available like they do w/closed captioning for the deaf. That would just be spectacular.

  4. KY says:

    Thank you for this article! I wasn’t sure I could find the comedy in this sitcom, but after reading about the genesis of the show, I think that seeing life with his legally blind father through DJ Nash’s experiences will open eyes and hearts across America to the amazing abilities of the “disabled”. It sounds like the writers will present the story in an amusing, but instructive way that will be entertaining, and hopefully inspiration to many. I’ll be watching!

  5. Colleen says:

    My Dad lost his sight when he was in his early 20’s. And the chainsaw thing..yea he did it…along with riding a motorcycle until mom caught him. There were no limits!!!
    Cant wait to see the series!

  6. My husband, now 68, has been blind since 16 when a rocket blew up taking his sight and half his fingers. Having said that, he went onto graduate 3rd in undergraduate and 6th at Wharton Business School. He helped build and sell a $6B investment firm. He was a US Civil Rights Commissionner for 15 years. He also won the Gold medal Champioship in jujitsu 3 years in a row against non-disabled opponents. Thank you for helping us take the DIS out of DIS-ability! I know our children and grandchildren appreciate it!

  7. charlie umphred says:

    My significant other of 22 years, Cynthia Kennelly….has been legally blind since age 9. (She is 57 years old now).
    Cynthia’s vision is 20/400 which means she only sees very little. Growing up she never even let on that she had a vision impairment had to guess it. She only recently started carrying a cane after almost falling into the sea after walking onto a boat where there was no ramp! She has 2 college degrees, has numerous martial arts black belts and was almost the 2nd legally blind woman to be in the Olympics….she competed in and won Gold in Aido which is the art of the samurai sword. This competition was one that was hoping to be added to the Olympics and had it happened she would have most likely made the team. We LOVE the show, because we LIFE it!

  8. Wendy says:

    This show is ME, a blind lawyer, spending my life covering up and finally coming out (with my cane)! I am so greateful for this show. Laughed so hard. I hope to personally thank Mr. Nash one day for making this the new normal, much like Modern Family. I hope people will learn that being legally blind does not necessarily mean “lights out,” and that determination and hard work always pays off.

  9. Shirley Stoner says:

    Loved the show cann’t wait for next show! Nice to have a show that leaves you feeling good!

  10. Carol Wilson says:

    This is a terrific show with humor, love & real life. First light hearted show that I have watched & truly enjoyed. Though he may be blind … Fisher sends a postive all of us: abled & disabled. A breath of fresh air.

  11. Jeanette says:

    I LOVE this show! I have been completely blind for a little over three years. I definitely can relate to some of the obstacles that we as blind people face, but I can also relate to overcoming those obstacles. I wish they had audio (voice over) description as to what is going on in the show. I am fortunate that I have my husband (who is sighted) to describe what is going on to me. I hate to admit it, but I feel as if I’ve accomplished more since losing my vision (I am 48), in that I have learned braille, which was like learning a new language and I obtained my Doctorate degree in Economics as well as opening a staffing company. I am currently going to school for my J.D. We as blind people can do just about anything we set our mind to; we just do it differently :).

  12. Jolene Girard says:

    Omg I love this show. Since the first day I’ve watched it, makes me laugh and it also makes me cry. It hits so slide to home for me as I grew up with my father being blind. For many years between the 4 guide dogs and my self we were his eyes, I have experienced some of the same and also difference experienced as D.J. Thank you from the bottom of my heart on wrighting and turning your personal life in to a TV show. It helps people out there who have not been around people who are blind see the amazingly Wonderful life we can and have enjoyed.

  13. Congratulations on producing this amazing show for all to experience about life experiences of being blind.
    I was blind for five years due to an optic neuritis from overlapping autoimmune diseases and now I can see. After a stroke, I was given major medical therapies and my vision came back in one eye. Very very rare and once again I am blessed beyond words.
    You have also opened up a incredible forum, that may give you additional opportunities to share others stories. My hopes are that you have a long and continued successful series that will continue to share your life experiences that will give true insight and education about blindness along your journey.
    You are opening this experience for those who do not know about blindness in a unique and interesting way by combining comedy and endearment. I have so many friends that live with blindness and low vision day in and day out and walk with laughter and love in their hearts for life. Your portrayal of your father and you and all of your life experiences is your personal story and will always be a part of you. I truly thank you for sharing your extraordinary family experiences with the world. Please keep it going!!
    Forever grateful!!
    Sincerely, Randyce Wechter

  14. Debra Orals says:

    I am so excited about this show! I have a bunch of dumb vision issues that have gone away with this amazing observation of a real life. Probably embellished for tv but who cares. I can SEE now.

  15. NANCY says:

    I LOVED this show and miss it so much. What happened to it and how can we get it back? There is so much sex and violence on TV and FINALLY we get a good show that I can look forward to each week and loved every show, now it is just gone. No explanation. I am about to toss my TV.

  16. Denise says:

    Really liked this show. This was a family show all could watch. My family would love this show to make a come back.
    Thank you

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