By Tanner Stransky
Updated September 26, 2012 at 05:00 AM EDT
Ron Tom/ABC
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Ron Tom/ABC

ABC’s The Neighbors concerns a family that moves into a community…full of human-looking aliens…who communicate via something called a Pupar…and cry green goo from their ears. Yep, you’re thinking: Did TV time-travel back to 1996, when “wacky” sitcoms (see: 3rd Rock From the Sun) were all the rage?

How’d the season’s oddest new comedy come to be? Looking for answers, we grilled everyone who helped bring The Neighbors (which debuts tonight at 9:30 p.m., before moving to 8:30 p.m. starting Oct. 3) to life to discover how this wild concept — Pupar and all — landed on Earth.

Inspired by his mother’s condo development, Cars screenwriter Dan Fogelman — alongside producer Chris Koch — shopped the alien-human idea My Fellow Zabrovians (as it was then titled) to the networks, and Fox bought it. But after the writers’ strike hit in November 2007, the show’s development languished — and died — before a pilot was produced.

DAN FOGELMAN: It was fun going around town pitching people and seeing who we could stun out of the room and who would take it. My pitch for the show was, “We’re going to do the first season of The Cosby Show.”

CHRIS KOCH: Sometimes it’s just the genre — aliens — that makes us a target.

FOGELMAN: Alien comedy is a genre of storytelling that’s only been done four times [successfully] on television in 50 years: ALF, Mork & Mindy, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and My Favorite Martian. To those who are quick to dismiss [The Neighbors], the only thing I say to them is, There are 15 alien movies that come out every summer. So what’s the problem?

Indeed, Zabrovians couldn’t be killed: Fogelman approached the networks again. ABC bit, and after it was developed during winter 2012, president of entertainment Paul Lee and head of comedy Samie Kim Falvey greenlit the retitled sitcom The Neighbors as part of their Wednesday-night comedy block, anchored by Modern Family.

PAUL LEE: I love The Neighbors. I know there’s some issues about the high-concept nature. But Dan Fogelman is an incredibly smart writer. And I think he will combine, in a way, what Adam [Horowitz] and Eddie [Kitsis] do on Once Upon a Time — that very broad idea with a very smart piece of storytelling.

FOGELMAN: I said, “I’m not going to do TV again until someone makes that show.”

SAMIE KIM FALVEY: It’s not like you set out at the beginning of the season going, “I want a New Jersey family/alien cul-de-sac show.” You start at the beginning of the season going, “I want to work with Dan Fogelman, and I want to do the one thing that he’s incredibly passionate about.”

When it came to assembling the cast for The Neighbors, producers had only one rule: no silly voices.

KOCH: We got a lot of actors that came in and read in a Coneheads voice. So we immediately knew we needed to not do that.

FOGELMAN: I saw the aliens as a cross between E.T. and District 9. It was the most all-encompassing search because there were no limitations in terms of who could be in the alien parts [in human form] — they were not written as an African-American woman and a white English guy.

TOKS OLAGUNDOYE (alien Jackie Joyner-Kersee): I’m a sci-fi geek, so I was on board. It felt like how they cast shows in England, which is looking for the best actor instead of the look. I walked in with women younger and older than I am, looking completely different, all ethnicities.

LENNY VENITO (human Marty Weaver): I got the script and started reading it, and I’m like, “This is stupid, man. I can’t do this!” But I realized it’s very funny. Do I worry about it bombing? There’s always that possibility. It’s television — what’s funny is funny.

JAMI GERTZ (human Debbie Weaver) I was sitting by myself at home, laughing out loud, which rarely happens during pilot season. When I read it, I immediately identified with Dan’s voice: What is normal? Who is normal? And what do you know about your neighbors?

The Neighbors has yet to debut, but the producers behind it have big hopes for success…even while contending with early mixed reactions.

FOGELMAN: I’m normally pretty attuned to what the responses are going to be to my writing, but I didn’t expect that people would prejudge a show just because it has aliens in it. I don’t find it as wacky as everybody else does. When I saw the first director’s cut, I thought, “This is brilliant. I don’t know if this is ever going to get on the air.”

FALVEY: Dan has very smartly charted a road in which he wants to make sure there aren’t crazy stories on top of crazy, crazy big laughs.

FOGELMAN: Forgetting the aliens of it all, if this was happening in a weird workplace, it would be an equally hard degree of difficulty. That was the draw here: I’m going to tackle something with a really high degree of difficulty and see if we can’t make it really funny and special and heartfelt.

Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky

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