Written By April May : Page 26

WRITTEN BY LISA ROSEN PORTRAITS BY JILLY WENDELL LESS IS MORE cott Silveri is acutely aware of his luck. He and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Shana Goldberg-Meehan, decided to try their hands at sitcom writing right out of college, landed on the staff of Mad About You for the 1995-96 season, and then joined the juggernaut Friends for the next eight years. “I know how that doesn’t happen, and I appreciate it wholeheartedly,” Silveri says of their immediate career suc-cess. “ e only downside is I’m pretty light on life experi-ence. I could talk about what it’s like to work on a writing staff , but e Larry Sanders Show and e Dick Van Dyke Show did the job on that.” If he had any unique perspective, it was thanks to his up-bringing. Silveri’s brother has cerebral palsy, and his family relied heavily on humor to face the resulting obstacles. Silveri always hoped to create something about their life together, but didn’t know what that might be. “It was hard to conceive of a version of a show like this that wasn’t preachy and Very Spe-cial.” He didn’t want anything sweet, self-pitying, or noble. “Fuck nobility,” he emphasizes. “But it’s hard to hit a tar-get when all you know is what you don’t want .” He knew one other thing: the show he couldn’t quite come up with would require a higher level of skill to fi nesse than the usual sitcom. So he fi gured he’d create it some-where down the line. Twenty years later, with a develop-ment deal at 20th Century Fox, he was pitching a bunch of ideas to executive Jonnie Davis, “and he was really pound-ing me. ‘ at sounds great, but what do you really want to do? What can only come from you ?’” Silveri fi nally caved. “Fine, you want to hear what I want to do? I want to do a show with a kid with a disability and whatever’s surrounding that.” To Silveri’s surprise, Davis loved the idea. “ e truth is I didn’t have anything else other than a wheelchair in mind. I didn’t know how to fi ll it out at all. en I started thinking about stories from my childhood, and trying to isolate the vari-ables a little bit. What’s baked into my family because they’re my family, how we were defi ned by my brother and his experience.” 26 • WG A W WRITTEN BY APRIL | MA Y 20 17 Speechless fulfi lls a special need by showing people with disabilities as…people. From his description of his family, they sound like a bunch of cocky underdogs—“knowing we’re diff erent and not apol-ogizing for it at all. In fact, thinking we’re better because we’re diff erent. ere’s a little bit of swagger, and a choice to laugh any chance you get.” at all went into Speechless , the ABC sitcom that gives an irreverent voice to an overlooked community. But fi rst, Silveri had to fi ll that wheelchair. e initial draft of Speechless hewed too closely to his own family experience. “People tell you to write what you know; they don’t say it’s going to kill you.” Silveri’s sitting on a couch in his offi ce on the Fox lot, ignoring his lunch as he talks. “Dealing with family, dealing with issues of disability, it’s sort of where comedy writing meets therapy. It’s hard enough to make up a show without the added responsibility of what’s my brother going to think about this, what’s my sister going to say about this at anksgiving . So the fi rst version of it was more of a literal representation of the people in my family, and it was a little suff ocating.” Before moving forward, he gave his parents the pilot script to make sure they were comfortable with the idea of a show based loosely on their lives. eir reaction was so positive he knew he was on the right path. But he also realized he had to go beyond his own experience to open up the story, so he sought people with similar backgrounds. “Since there’s so little representation of anybody with disabilities in media, it sort of caught fi re, with one person sending me to another and another.” In the course of his research, he had a revelation. “We grew up before the Internet; there wasn’t much by way of support. I never felt like part of any community. I thought of our experi-ence as unique. Once I started meeting people and reading and seeing chat rooms and magazine articles and whatever else, I started to see that we—me and my family—are clichés! We’re not well-rounded characters. We’re the fi rst draft of people.” It was comforting, “seeing the normalcy of your own expe-rience echoed all over the place.” FINDING HIS VOICES S

Less Is More

Lisa Rosen



Speechless fulfills a special need by showing people with disabilities as…people.

Scott Silveri is acutely aware of his luck. He and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Shana Goldberg-Meehan, decided to try their hands at sitcom writing right out of college, landed on the staff of Mad About You for the 1995-96 season, and then joined the juggernaut Friends for the next eight years.

“I know how that doesn’t happen, and I appreciate it wholeheartedly,” Silveri says of their immediate career success. “The only downside is I’m pretty light on life experience. I could talk about what it’s like to work on a writing staff , but The Larry Sanders Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show did the job on that.”

If he had any unique perspective, it was thanks to his upbringing. Silveri’s brother has cerebral palsy, and his family relied heavily on humor to face the resulting obstacles. Silveri always hoped to create something about their life together, but didn’t know what that might be. “It was hard to conceive of a version of a show like this that wasn’t preachy and Very Special.” He didn’t want anything sweet, self-pitying, or noble.

“Fuck nobility,” he emphasizes. “But it’s hard to hit a target when all you know is what you don’t want.”

He knew one other thing: the show he couldn’t quite come up with would require a higher level of skill to finesse than the usual sitcom. So he figured he’d create it somewhere down the line. Twenty years later, with a development deal at 20th Century Fox, he was pitching a bunch of ideas to executive Jonnie Davis, “and he was really pounding me. ‘That sounds great, but what do you really want to do? What can only come from you?’”

Silveri finally caved. “Fine, you want to hear what I want to do? I want to do a show with a kid with a disability and whatever’s surrounding that.”

To Silveri’s surprise, Davis loved the idea. “The truth is I didn’t have anything else other than a wheelchair in mind. I didn’t know how to fill it out at all. Then I started thinking about stories from my childhood, and trying to isolate the variables a little bit. What’s baked into my family because they’re my family, how we were defined by my brother and his experience.”

From his description of his family, they sound like a bunch of cocky underdogs—“knowing we’re different and not apologizing for it at all. In fact, thinking we’re better because we’re different. There’s a little bit of swagger, and a choice to laugh any chance you get.”

That all went into Speechless, the ABC sitcom that gives an irreverent voice to an overlooked community. But first, Silveri had to fill that wheelchair.

FINDING HIS VOICES

The initial draft of Speechless hewed too closely to his own family experience. “People tell you to write what you know; they don’t say it’s going to kill you.” Silveri’s sitting on a couch in his office on the Fox lot, ignoring his lunch as he talks. “Dealing with family, dealing with issues of disability, it’s sort of where comedy writing meets therapy. It’s hard enough to make up a show without the added responsibility of what’s my brother going to think about this, what’s my sister going to say about this at Thanksgiving. So the first version of it was more of a literal representation of the people in my family, and it was a little suffocating.”

Before moving forward, he gave his parents the pilot script to make sure they were comfortable with the idea of a show based loosely on their lives. Their reaction was so positive he knew he was on the right path. But he also realized he had to go beyond his own experience to open up the story, so he sought people with similar backgrounds. “Since there’s so little representation of anybody with disabilities in media, it sort of caught fire, with one person sending me to another and another.”

In the course of his research, he had a revelation. “We grew up before the Internet; there wasn’t much by way of support. I never felt like part of any community. I thought of our experience as unique. Once I started meeting people and reading and seeing chat rooms and magazine articles and whatever else, I started to see that we—me and my family—are clichés! We’re not well-rounded characters. We’re the first draft of people.”

It was comforting, “seeing the normalcy of your own experience echoed all over the place.”


“It was really helpful asking Eva what kind of things she’d like to see on the show, but also what kinds of things she didn’t want to see,” Silveri says. “She was the one who turned me on to inspiration porn,” the concept of relegating a person with a disability into a source of inspiration simply by virtue of their existence. “This show brought that to the masses; I’d be lying if I said I was even aware of that a year ago.”


A friend of a friend of a friend suggested he speak with Eva Sweeney, a writer and disability activist with cerebral palsy (CP). They met for coffee, and Sweeney, who is nonverbal, spoke to him through the use of a letter board, a laser pointer she directed with her head, and an aide who read the words she pointed out.

“Everybody I spoke with—moms of kids with disabilities, kids themselves, dads, brothers—had something that opened my eyes a little bit, gave me a new perspective,” Silveri says. “Eva’s the one who blew the thing open. Two minutes into my conversation with her, I created a whole new character.”

In early iterations of Speechless, JJ DiMeo, the character with CP played by Micah Fowler, spoke through an assisted communication device, à la Stephen Hawking. “It was a little cumbersome, didn’t help the story, and sort of slowed everything down,” Silveri says. “Before I even heard anything Eva had to say, I saw the way she said it, making selections on a board with an aide at her side. The two of them had a really cool connection, and it suggested, instead of a computer, a whole different person.”

Silveri created the character of Kenneth as JJ’s aide, an integral part of the show.

Now Sweeney serves as a consultant. (See sidebar on p.30.) “It was really helpful asking Eva what kind of things she’d like to see on the show, but also what kinds of things she didn’t want to see,” Silveri says. “She was the one who turned me on to inspiration porn,” the concept of relegating a person with a disability into a source of inspiration simply by virtue of their existence. “This show brought that to the masses; I’d be lying if I said I was even aware of that a year ago.”



(Cedric Yarbrough, who plays Kenneth, introduced him to another unwanted conceit, the Magical Negro, in order to keep his character from falling into another noble stereotype. Silveri addressed it early, and hilariously, on the show.)

THE FAMILY THAT BLUNDERS TOGETHER

Sweeney is impressed by how well the show tackles the issues that JJ must deal with: “They don’t sensationalize them or try to make JJ a saint.” That was another requirement of Silveri’s. “I came into this with no axe to grind, or lesson to teach on disability, but one thing I definitely wanted to do was show him as a well-rounded character. I think people don’t realize that depicting somebody with a disability as angelic stinks too. I wanted to depict his aggressive side; I want him to screw up.” The first time we see JJ with his brother Ray, played by Mason Cook, JJ sets him up to get in trouble with their mother, and Ray calls JJ a bully. “I like that that kid gets to be a bully,” Silveri says. “I wanted to depict him as flawed and a jerk sometimes.”

Nor do they sanctify anyone else in the family. In the course of Silveri’s research, every single mom he talked to was a fighter. “They’re good wartime consiglierei,” he says. “That’s irrespective of what their manner was before they had a kid. When you have to fight for every single thing over and over again every day, you’re gonna get lean and mean. You’re gonna get emotionally ripped.”

Sweeney’s mother, the screenwriter and novelist Deena Goldstone, agrees. “We are all mothers from hell,” she says. “And sometimes you get a little nuts, because you’re fighting all the time. You’re fighting wellmeaning agencies, and wellmeaning people who want to help but don’t know the right way to do it. So it’s very hard to lay down that warrior shield when it’s appropriate to do so. You’re always looking for the next challenge, especially when your kid is little. Scott really understood that.”

That’s why Speechless mother Maya DiMeo, played by Minnie Driver, is an unholy terror.

The siblings of kids with disabilities tend to fall into a few categories too: The ones trying to keep the peace, and the ones who go off and do whatever the hell they want. As for Silveri, “I was a bit of an approval-seeking performance monkey. I studied really hard in school. It was important to me not to be the problem. My parents might have a different take on that, but that was my intention at least.” He modeled Ray after himself. “All the silliness and skittishness and vanity, all that goes into Ray. Once I realized, I don’t want to take my whole family on this journey, but I can [take myself], that kid became the repository for all the punishment that I feel like I deserve. Poor guy.” Sister Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) is not bound by such troubling self-reflection.



DiMeo patriarch Jimmy, played by John Ross Bowie, is a refreshing break from the usual lumpy sitcom husband of a powerful wife. “That’s another way I defined it by what I didn’t want,” Silveri says. “The trope of the boring, dumb, horny dad,” a stereotype he chalked up to “wish fulfillment for all the old white guys” in writers’ rooms. Besides, he didn’t want his own father to punch him in the face. Jimmy’s easygoing nature balances his wife’s frenetic energy. Together, the DiMeos—and Kenneth—are a grand, funny, merciless mess.

GRINCH HEARTS AND COMMON GROUND

Early on, Silveri tried to come up with an adversary for the family to rally against. In his childhood, it was society. “At one point, I had a version of a universe that was hostile to people: ‘We don’t serve people in wheelchairs here!’ And of course, that’s not the way it is. It’s 2017, there’s a lot more understanding, or at least lip service to understanding. But then I shifted it to be a world where everybody is falling all over themselves to prove how cool they are with this kid. And ironically, in trying to prove that you’re so open-minded and so evolved, it’s a different way to—while accepting somebody—not understand them at all, and not even try to understand them.”







Eva Sweeney in her home. Left and right: Her early and current letter boards.


“Eva Sweeney’s the one who blew the thing open,” says Silveri. “Two minutes into my conversation with her, I created a whole new character.” Sweeney, who’s nonverbal, spoke to him through the use of a letter board, a laser pointer she directed with her head, and an aide who read the words she pointed out.


JJ is very decidedly a kid, not a concept. “It’s harder to BS when you’re being specific and honest. That’s why we never considered casting a kid as JJ who didn’t have a disability. I just knew it would stink of inauthenticity. There are so many ways to screw one of these things up; I don’t want to choose the first one.” (Fowler has CP.)

When it came time to staff the writers’ room, Silveri included people with connections to the disability community. “Perhaps I would have had to dance around it in a very measured and respectful and lawful way,” Silveri says of asking writers if they had family members with special needs. “But God bless agents, they strip all that crap away,” and pitched such people to him as soon as they heard the show’s logline. “One of our writers, Carrie Rosen, has a brother who has autism and is nonverbal. We had a lot of things in common. We met for the first time, and I got choked up in a staffing meeting because it was this great catharsis.” Another recent addition to the room is Zach Anner, a comedian and writer who has CP.



Eric Wojtanik, Scott’s assistant, and Scott Silveri walking to the set of “Speechless”.

Silveri estimates that about half of the writers have some connection to a person with a disability. “I don’t want to be the only one with boots-on-the-ground experience. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be limited to that experience. I didn’t want those of us who come from families like the DiMeos to be talking to ourselves.”

Once assembled, the group interviewed people with disabilities and took field trips, including a visit to a physical therapy facility for children. Says Silveri, “There are some of us who grew up in these places and weren’t surprised by anything; it was sort of like going home. But for the people who didn’t have any link to it, to watch them—jaded Hollywood jerks, their eyes opening wide and taking all this stuff in, connecting with these kids—to watch the interest and empathy, you could see their little comedy writer hearts swelling to Grinch-like proportions.”

The writers tackle subjects familiar to any coming-of-age story, but with an angle that’s new to just about anyone watching television—or writing it. Goldstone, a fan of the show, particularly loved the episode where JJ got drunk at a party, under Kenneth’s unobservant nose. “Scott’s brave enough to talk about stuff that people who don’t have a background with disability would feel is disrespectful,” she says. (See sidebar on p.28.)

Over the years, Silveri had covered a lot of the same sitcom ground, working hard to make it feel fresh. “When I write a scene about a breakup or a blind date, I’m trying to find a way to make it different from the 15 times I’ve written it and the 2,000 times I’ve seen it, as opposed to this subject matter, like writing about inspiration porn. I’ve never seen people making jokes about that. We get to play in a somewhat less-trod area, and it’s exciting.”

RELATING THE ACCESSIBLE, ACCESSING THE RELATABLE

The show is single camera, rather than his usual four-camera sitcom format. “I love four-camera shows, and I’d go back to them in a second, but I knew it couldn’t be that,” Silveri says. “The most inauthentic form of human communication is the third-take awww. With a kid who rides a wheelchair on stage, I just saw an awww-fest. That’s what we looked very hard to avoid.”

Even in its style, Speechless cuts across expectations of a show with a kid who uses a wheelchair. “You think it’s going to be quiet, so it was important to me to make it really active. That’s why, in the pilot, the very first scene was a car chase, essentially,” in which Maya races against time and common sense to use an expiring dining coupon, with the family careening along. “This van ride, this ticking clock, active and loud, that’s something you wouldn’t be able to do in fourcamera.”





Silveri says he misses the immediate feedback of a live audience. “It can keep you honest.” But this format allows the writers to make tonal shifts from unapologetically silly to unapologetically sincere. “And there’s not the expectation that every other line has to be a joke. You can take your time, you can be quiet, you can depict things visually. That was really helpful.”

Silveri credits (non-writing) Co-EP Christine Gernon, who directed the pilot and six subsequent episodes, with roughing it up a bit around the edges visually, to give it warmth and energy. He and Gernon also figured out a lot about the show’s tone after shooting the pilot. They sifted through hours of footage, “and got so damn many takes, so many reads, tones, volumes, knowing that we didn’t know,” Silveri says. They always ended up picking the takes that felt the most real. “You want to see what’s working and what’s not working, and then write it in that direction. This year has been a year of trying stuff .”

That applies to the writers’ room as well. Midway through the season, the group wrote a few scripts together. “We learned the very scary lesson that it actually worked. And once you learn that, it’s hard to wean yourself off of it. So we did a couple of episodes that way, but it taxed everyone’s resources and you’re not building up stuff down the line.”



They went back to breaking stories in smaller groups before sending someone off to write a draft. “Then ideally you give notes and have another round, but that’s not a first-year reality.” So the room goes through the draft before the table read, “and after that a group of us will give it a big fat rewrite.”

He resists the temptation to take a solo pass. “There’s a tendency among a lot of people, and I’ve fallen prey to this often myself, to ‘just let me do it.’ Maybe if you have six episodes, you can ‘just let me do’ your way through it. But I got good advice from Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat). She’s a functional showrunner. I think I’ve probably got 10 years on her; I want to be her when I grow up. She was advocating being in the room a lot, showing people what the tone is as you figure it out, finding it together, and having it be a replicable thing, because if you’ve got to do 22, 23 of these things, there’s no auteur in network comedy.” He adds that Co-EP Danny Chun can now write Silveri’s childhoodself Ray better than Silveri.

He’s made it clear he has no intention of taking on the role of educator, role model, or champion for the disability community, but “if seeing a TV show helps someone realize that, Hey that guy is not that different from me, then great, I’ll take that. It’s not our goal—I’ve got enough work on my plate trying to come up with a script for next week—but it would make me really happy if it had that unintended consequence.”

Then he should be pretty delighted. “We rarely see people with disabilities on TV, let alone fully developed characters, within a family,” says Sweeney. “So when society sees this and then sees a person with a disability in their community, hopefully they will view them as a whole person, and not some tragic object.”

That’s the Speechless irony: not striving to be Important is what makes the show so very special.



Just Do It
Deena Goldstone remembers warning her daughter, Speechless consultant Eva Sweeney, not to get her hopes up about the show ever making it to air.

“When Eva started to tell me that she had met [series creator] Scott Silveri, and this was what he was doing, I said to her, ‘Well I’m glad you had coffee with him, but Eva, don’t count on this ever getting filmed. Nobody’s making a series about a kid in a wheelchair who doesn’t speak.’”

Months later, Eva said, “You know what, they’re going to make the pilot.”
Goldstone responded with, “They are? Well Eva, don’t think this is ever going to be a series. They make lots of pilots.”

A few more months went by. “Finally, Eva said to me, ‘You want to see the pilot?’ Because Scott had sent it to her. I said sure, and I watched it, and I went, ‘Oh my God, this is great. But don’t count on it…’ So every step of the way she could say, ‘Look, Mom, you were wrong!’”

Goldstone had nothing to do with Silveri and Sweeney meeting, and has nothing to do with the show. But she did offer him some great advice, from one writer to another. He held a screening for people from the disabled community. Marty Sweeney, a disability rights advocate (as well as Goldstone’s husband and Sweeney’s father), was invited, and brought Goldstone along.

“When I met Scott, he said, ‘I feel such a responsibility to get it right for everyone,’” she recalls. “I said to him, ‘You can’t do that. Your responsibility as a writer is to the piece of material you’re creating. You have to make it as whole and truthful and complicated and vital as you can. If you do that, everything will follow from there.’”

Silveri remembers that moment well, and heeded her wisdom. Goldstone is thrilled with the results. “I think that one of the last areas where people feel okay to be uncomfortable is around the issue of disability,” she says. “We really live in a segregated society; there’s a sense that if you are disabled in any way, you belong with other disabled people. Every time a disabled person tries to become more part of the mainstream, there’s this issue of how to make the non-disabled people comfortable enough to accept the disabled person.” Silveri’s sitcom turns all of that on its head.

“One of the things that’s so wonderful about Speechless is that Scott has created a family that’s relatable, and a significantly disabled person that we as viewers can come to know and feel comfortable with,” continued Goldstone. “And hopefully that will translate into feeling more comfortable with other disabled people. The brilliance of Speechless, as far as I’m concerned, is that instead of doing it as a very well-meaning and solemn drama, they decided to do it as a really wacky half hour, so that people’s discomfort will be swept away by the pace, and by the endearing qualities of these people, particularly the actor Micah Fowler who plays JJ. If you buy into this family, then you will buy into JJ’s disability as being one aspect of this family, and I think that’s brilliant. And I think that works on an emotional level. I’m hopeful that it will translate into people viewing other disabled people with a little more acceptance and generosity.” —L.R.

Eva Sweeney Spells It Like It Is
Via email, Eva Sweeney discusses her involvement on Speechless. “We (Scott, my aide, and I) met for coffee. As soon as my aide pulled out my letter board, Scott was very interested about how it worked and why I preferred such a low-tech method to communicate. This completely altered JJ’s character, as he initially used a high-tech device. Scott also created Kenneth because he saw the benefits of having an aide character. Anyway, we talked about high school, family, weird stuff people did around me, etc. Then, as Scott was writing the pilot, he would periodically email me with questions, mostly about my relationships with my aides and about my communication board.”

After the show was picked up, Sweeney visited the writers’ room, “and they peppered me with awesome questions. Again, mostly about high school (they were very disappointed about how good I was in high school), and about my letter board. They seemed to really get it.”

Silveri estimates he sends her a third to half of the scripts, and she sends back notes. Says Sweeney, “I make sure nothing is completely off or offensive. I obviously cannot speak for the entire disability community, but I know what generally would get people upset.

“One time Scott emailed me about an argument JJ and Kenneth have because he felt it was not serious enough.” The fight was over JJ assuming Kenneth would take him out somewhere when he wasn’t working. “Kenneth felt JJ was not respecting his time,” Eva wrote. “I reassured Scott that their argument was about an important and real issue in the disability community.”

She vetoed an early idea for JJ to learn how to walk. “It would have reinforced society’s emphasis on walking. Also, some people might have seen that as an attempt to ‘fix’ JJ, instead of embracing the character’s disability.”

Silveri also consults with Richard Ellenson, CEO of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation in New York. Ellenson agreed that the walking storyline wasn’t appropriate. “Neither of them jumped down my throat, but both pointed out how it would be perceived,” Silveri recalls. “Richard laid it out very rationally: ‘This is how people might see that for X, Y, and Z.’ Eva was the one with the quicker negative gut reaction: ‘Don’t tell stories about him overcoming it; tell stories about him living with it.’”

Silveri saw her point, and dropped the story arc. “That was a test study of the system working,” he says. And to Sweeney’s credit, he adds, “she didn’t just say, ‘Here’s what you don’t do,’ God bless her.” She offered up story ideas as well. “I said, ‘So what kind of stories should we be doing?’ She said, ‘Well, he’s 15, 16, have him date, have him want to be popular, have him have trouble in school, have trouble with his siblings.’”

As Sweeney notes, “While very ‘normal,’ it is unfortunately not normal to see people with disabilities represented that way on TV.”

Silveri welcomes her help. “We were always going to have him dating and partying and rebelling and all that stuff, but it gave us an even bigger push in that direction. We’re looking for these universal themes; we just happen to have this specific focus.”

Sweeney is eager to see more of JJ separating from his mother. “They have begun to do this, and I’m excited to see how it develops. This is tricky for any teen, but even more so for teens with disabilities.”

Sweeney admits that she doesn’t usually watch sitcoms, “but every week I’m glued to my TV [watching Speechless], so that tells you a lot. I think it’s funny as well as important. I’m so proud to be a tiny part of it!” —L.R.

SOLIDARITY
There are 56 million people with disabilities in America—one out of every six—but they seldom see themselves reflected in the TV shows they watch every night. Part of the problem is that there are few non-disabled writers with the vision and courage of Scott Silveri. Equally disturbing is that there are almost no writers with disabilities on current writing staffs. The Writers with Disabilities Committee exists to change all that. It doesn’t take a writer with a disability to tell a story about disability, but they bring a perspective no one else can offer.

The Writers with Disabilities Committee meets monthly and engages in year round awareness projects. If you are interested in attending, contact the Guild Diversity Department for more information.

Allen Rucker

Chair, Writers with Disabilities Committee

Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/Less+Is+More/2765322/401593/article.html.

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