I’ve been told that life often imitates art. So when art or entertainment imitates life, you can say it is a little strange. I was at a holiday party in January at Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. (Yes, January — hey, it’s when the comedians are all around.) I was approached by a fellow comedian who congratulated me on my new show.
I said, “Thanks. Wait, what new show?”
“Growing Up Fisher. Isn’t it about you?”
This was the first I had heard of the show. Yes, I am a comedian, and a lot of comedians have landed sitcoms, but my last name is Fischler, not Fisher, although I am willing to change it if it means I get a sitcom.
After reading the description of the show, I wasn’t surprised why people thought it was about me, as the main character is blind and has a guide dog, and the show co-stars Jenna Elfman, a friend of mine. Jenna has hosted my Laugh For Sight benefit and was recently this year’s celebrity host for our L.A. benefit at the Hollywood Improv.
After researching the show some more, the similarities got even eerier when I learned the creator of NBC’s new show name is D.J. Nash. My guide dog’s name is Nash. What, is this guy stealing my life story? Ends up he isn’t, as D.J.’s father is blind and has a guide dog, and the story of Growing Up Fisher is D.J.’s life story and not mine.
Ok, so if Growing Up Fisher isn’t my life story but is so close to it, then who would be better than me to interview the show’s stars Jenna Elfman and J.K. Simmons? That’s exactly what I did.
J.K. did you have dogs in your life growing up?
J.K. Simmons: Yes, as a little kid we had a little French Poodle named Suzette, but I don’t really remember her as we had to get rid of her after she knocked my sister down the stairs.
In college I had a black Lab named Sadie. She was one of my best friends of all time. Now with all the traveling it’s just cats. My daughter was campaigning for a dog but got a cat. The great thing about our cat is it thinks it is a dog, as it comes when you call it, and follows my daughter around everywhere.
What drew you to Growing Up Fisher?
To be perfectly honest, at first I wasn’t really that interested as I had told my agent I wasn’t looking to play a lead in anything as I had wanted to spend more time with my family.
So he sends over a script that is the lead for a network sitcom, stars a dog and kids, so it already had three strikes against it [laughs]. My agent kept pushing it on me telling me that I had to read it and speak with the creator D.J. and hear his story.
It sounded like a lot of work to play someone who is blind, but I finally read the script, and once I did I was 90-percent hooked.
So what made you change your mind?
Hearing D.J.’s story. The show is based on D.J.’s real experiences growing up. If I ever was going to play a lead on a network sitcom, now was the time, and what I liked about this script was that it is basically a love letter from D.J. to his father who just happens to be blind.
As a blind guy, I have to know what’s it like to play someone who is blind.
It’s definitely more of a challenge than I have had on a T.V. show in a long time. There’s a lot of technical work. We are fortunate to have D.J. on set, who lived this, and my pal Vince who used to work with the blind is also a consultant, and we have people like Lorri Bernson who is blind [and who Dogster interviewed] and works with a guide dog every day on board to help consult to make the show as accurate as possible.
Did you need to go through any special training?
No, I got together with Lorri and we watched some videos. Once we got filming the pilot, it was like bang bang zoom. If the show would have been for anyone other than the son of a blind man, I might be worried, as he is there on set to give any hands-on advice, or in the editing room, he will notice if I don’t feel for the doorknob.
So how’s it been being blind for the past few months?
Right now we’re filming the 10th episode and I’m continuing to learn new things every day about being blind. Sure, there are going to be family members out there of blind people who will say, “I don’t believe that guy is blind.” We’re not making a documentary about being blind, we’re making a network sitcom. Hopefully we’re staying true to how a blind guy might spend his day.
Tell us a little about your guide dog on the show, Elvis.
D.J.’s dad actually has had five German Shepherds as guides, but I think the network said, “Shepherds aren’t the funniest of dogs — how about using a Lab?”
I know that Elvis is not a real guide dog, but what’s it like working with him?
It’s funny, I was thinking I’ve actually broken both of W.C. Fields’ rules here: Never work with kids or animals. I was campaigning for us to get a real guide dog instead of a Hollywood dog, but for a variety of reasons it wasn’t practical. So we got Peyton, who plays Elvis. He hasn’t thrown any diva fits on set yet.
If you see me walking with him, he isn’t really guiding me. The problem with a trained Hollywood dog is getting him to walk like a real dog. Peyton and I have really been bonding and he is getting more accustomed to wearing the harness. I’m still hoping that if we do get picked up for multiple seasons that we might be able to get a real guide dog who looks like Peyton.
How has it been sharing the screen with a dog?
We’ve been filming a scene at a hotel and we are running in and out of rooms looking for my daughter and it has been almost farcical. During this scene a lot was required of Elvis, and he was in more of a play mood than a work mood. A lot of times we will shoot a wide shot where Elvis is right by my side, but when we go in for the close up Elvis isn’t on set, I’m just holding on to the harness. Elvis gets treated better than me. Every time he works they put a treat in his mouth.
The blind community can be a little overly critical. How do you hope they respond to Growing Up Fisher?
I hope they enjoy the portrayal of a blind guy who doesn’t let his blindness get in his way. D.J. saw his dad as John Wayne, but in his version, John Wayne just happened to be blind.
Jenna, what’s it like sharing the screen with a dog and acting opposite someone who is supposed to be blind?
Jenna Elfman: Well, since I love dogs and animals, in general it’s really fun getting to work alongside this handsome canine. The only bummer is that my character Joyce thinks the dog doesn’t really like her. So while the cameras are rolling I don’t really get to have much interaction with him.
In terms of acting opposite someone who is supposed to be blind, that did take some getting used to acting-wise since connecting with someone visually is a main perception to use when communicating.
How has the experience been?
Jenna: It has been really cool, actually, to find that comfort with J.K., because the characters we play have such a past together in their marriage. It was a fun challenge to create that history on screen without the use of visual cues and reactions.
What’s the best part about getting to work with Elvis?
J.K.: The loving. He’s an absolute sweetheart between takes. When I get in the zone with him, I feel we are working well together and I just need to concentrate on being me, and Elvis on being a dog.
Jenna: There’s always a source of love and snuggling, regardless of what else is going on in life.
Read more from Brian:
Read more about the bond between humans and dogs on Dogster:
About the author: Brian Fischler is a standup comedian and writer. He has been seen on The Today Show, published in Maxim Magazine as the Comedian of the Month, and on Top Gear USA on The History Channel. Along with writing for Dogster, Brian also writes for Cesar Milan’s website and magazine. Brian also runs Laugh For Sight, a bicoastal comedy benefit featuring the biggest names in comedy that come together to raise money and awareness for retinal degenerative eye disease research. You can connect with Brian on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @Blindgator.