If you haven’t moaned out loud upon getting a jury duty summons, you no doubt have heard the whimper from someone else. The perfect setting for a sitcom, right?
Well, just imagine if the eclectic assortment of personalities you’d find while serving as a juror was cast with unknown improvisational actors trying a fake case — and you were the only one not in on the joke. That is what Amazon Freevee has pulled off with its new show, “Jury Duty.” And, according to executive producers Nicholas Hatton and Cody Heller, it was quite a complicated undertaking.
The concept was an amalgamation of ideas from writer/producers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who had written a script about jury duty in the style of their previous hit “The Office,” along with longtime Sasha Baron Cohen collaborator Todd Schulman and producer David Bernad, who collectively came up with the idea: What if the jury duty show had a real person at its center?
“Essentially, what if Jim from ‘The Office’ was a real guy who just thought that he was participating in a documentary about being in a workplace and then found out at the end of it, ‘Wait, I was kind of the star, the hero of the sitcom that took place all around me,” Cody Heller, executive producer of “Juty Duty” told TheWrap. “So the idea was, could you make a sitcom without the star realizing it or being an actor himself?”
Executive producer Nicholas Hatton added, “It ended up being a real master stroke because putting them in that environment, which is something ostensibly you have to take very seriously, and there are great stakes to performing your civic duties and not getting out of line and being unruly or what have you. Then throwing all these wacky things at this poor person and seeing how they respond to them. It’s sort of the perfect environment to test this thesis out. And it worked out really well.”
The first challenge was securing the cast, the most important of which was the only non-actor. “We needed to find that person, and the process itself was truly quite extraordinary,” Hatton said. “We had around 4,000 tapes, which were sent in ostensibly by people, who were under the impression they were told they were in a documentary-style television show. We really truly wanted our hero to be someone that people could admire and respect and look up to.”
And that is when they found Ronald Gladden. “We were just struck by Ronald’s goodness and his apparent sense of decency,” Hatton said. “He blew us away because there were so many moments where we would have stuff planned and he would impress us. He really took his job as foreperson very seriously. He really cared. And he really was a good citizen. In many ways, Ronald sort of restored my faith in humanity.”
To make the scenario even funnier, the producers knew a name, recognizable actor with a comedic flair and a gift for adlib was needed.
“We wanted someone famous enough that, hopefully, Ronald would recognize him, and James Marsden was one of the first people to come up,” Heller said. “As soon as his name came up, we were all just like, ‘Oh my God. He would be so perfect. Would he do this, though?’ It’s asking a lot of a famous movie star to sit for sometimes eight hours a day in a courtroom with nothing happening pretending this is just real life.”
Heller and all the other producers couldn’t have been happier with that choice. “His improv skills … I was in shock of how funny he was. I was cracking up nonstop,” she said. “And his willingness to make fun of himself and just being down to clown for this really insane experience that we were making that wasn’t traditional in any way, shape or form.”
Then came filling the roles of the jurors, the judge, the attorneys and many others with improvisational actors. “There was so much work going into trying to pull off this huge endeavor,” Heller said. “My goal was, basically, to have as many people in the writers’ room who were also actors and improvisers and, hopefully, some legal people.” Mission accomplished.
But the real trick was keeping everything real enough that the Gladden wouldn’t be suspicious and think he was on a hidden camera show. And there was the very real “terrifying” possibility that he’d figure it out. “There’s no way to guarantee it because, what happens if the guy finds out a couple days in and you’re blown?” Heller asked. “This guy is not a mark, he’s not a target. He’s our hero. We want to send him on a hero’s journey where we surround him with eccentric people, but hopefully he creates a little family, which, I think, he really did.”
The scripts were “kind of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ in style,” meaning each episode was seven- to eight-page outlines that just said what is meant to happen, along with examples of dialogue, but nothing firmly written. Everyone’s improvisational skills were put to use. And if something spontaneous happened one day, the outline for the following day would be toned down to include something less crazy.
An abundance of footage was shot because the camera would be rolling nonstop for the length of the fake trial. “What you’re seeing in the show is one-tenth of the footage that we shot,” Heller said. “We would shoot hours upon hours every day of just boring court stuff where nothing happens.”
“Jury Duty” is currently streaming on Amazon Freevee.