Minds behind ‘Jury Duty’ talk high stakes and lots of laughs

Jury Duty
‘Jury Duty’ premieres on Amazon Freevee on April 7.
Amazon Freevee

With Amazon Freevee’s latest 8-part series, ‘Jury Duty’, audiences will watch one man—Ronald—as he goes through what seems like a typical jury duty process. What he signed up for was a documentary on the experience of trial, but what’s actually happening is something much more unique, and he doesn’t know it, but everyone else involved is an actor and all of the situations are planned hilariously and meticulously.

‘Jury Duty’ comes from some of the minds behind Eric Andre’s Netflix hit ‘Bad Trip,’ and also, ‘Borat, Who Is America’ and ‘The Office.’ Executive producers Todd Schulman and David Bernad loved the reality comedy genre, and wanted to think of a situation where they could bring their own idea to reality with one unknowing person at the center of it all a la ‘The Truman Show.’

“We were kind of bouncing ideas back and forth, and then I threw out, what if we try to think of situations where you remove someone from the internet and from society at large?” explains Schulman. That’s when the thought of sequestering a jury came to mind. After then chatting with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky (‘The Office’), the idea for this new series was born.

“The idea was: What if you could do a show like ‘The Office’? But Jim was a real person and didn’t know that Dwight and Michael Scott were actors. So, they felt like the perfect people [to work with] and they loved the idea,” Schulman continues.

Writer and comedian Mekki Leeper was also struck with the idea of the show, so much so that after beginning in the writer’s room, he went through the audition process to star in it as well (“One of the strangest and most interesting auditions I’ve ever done,” he notes) which involved tapes, and going into focus groups around LA mixed with actors and real people and not knowing who’s who.

Leeper was also involved in the selection process and says it was the “weirdest” auditions who ultimately ended up getting cast. “We looked at all these tapes and it was interesting to see how many people started to say the same lines. Some of the truly most bizarre tapes that we got are people who are cast on the show,” says Leeper.

Every person you see on ‘Jury Duty’ is an actor set there to react and set up situations for Ronald. As soon as he walks into the waiting room, the characters who will soon sit on the jury with him begin to make their presence known in funny, but subtle ways. Edy Modica’s character (Jeannie) offers Ronald candy that she swiped from the court room snack store, Leeper’s character (Noah) asks Ronald what he should do to get out of jury duty (that pops up again), and James Marsden has a woman come up to ask for a picture with him.

Jury Duty
James Marsden and Ishmel Sahid in ‘Jury Duty.’Amazon Freevee

It’s Marsden who’s the only actor who isn’t changing his name, but he is to some degree playing a character—himself, but much more ego-driven, and much more obnoxious. Ronald seems to know Marsden’s face, but after seeing the fans recognize him, that’s when he makes the connection. And its through Marsden (without giving away any spoilers) that the jury ultimately leads to getting sequestered on a trial that probably should have taken less than a week.

“We lucked out with James in terms of someone who was really fearless in playing off their persona and being a less likable version of themself,” Schulman says. “James is such a good, nice, likable guy. So for him to be willing to dive in when there are easier jobs in the world for these people than having to spend three weeks in character 24 hours a day, we got really lucky. I think if we landed a different actor it might have been a problem.”

As Schulman says, it was important for the rest of the cast of ‘Jury Duty’ to be a little lesser known, not just for the sake of Ronald not picking up on the concept, but also, because there are a lot of talented comedians in LA that don’t always get the chance to show what they’re capable of.

The rest of the cast is a parade of characters: Leeper’s Noah is the nervous guy in the corner who’s going through some relationship woes as the series goes on, and Edy Modica’s Jeannie excitedly hops on that opportunity. Ronald also sits on the jury with a self-proclaimed true crime junkie and the head of Reddit’s made-up investigative team, Vanessa (Cassandra Blair), a woman who can’t seem to stay awake in court, unless she eats a pot cookie, Barbara (Susan Berger), and the walking enigma and tech whiz that is Todd, played by David Brown.

“David Brown, who plays Todd, is one of the funniest improvisers in the world,” says Leeper. “There are so many moments where he is saying crazy stuff as Todd, but I cannot lend to you how many thousands of things he actually said—hours and hours and hours a day all the time.”

Leeper also said the pressure was on with trying not to blow the show’s cover. However, sitting through days of court testimony at a time seemed to seal the deal, and the lines were blurred with life and work with most actors having to be in character 24/7, especially if they were sequestered in the same hotel as Ronald. And that’s hard when there are situations like chair pants, a 3D court video gone wrong, a weird sex request and even a debacle over the made-up word, “Jorf” that await the jury.

“If [one] person messed up, the entire project would explode. So that was where it was a game of hot potato every day,” Leeper continues. “You have one chance and if you mess up, it’s all completely done. It’s not like that in like a play. It’s not like that in standup…And they just made a lot of interesting choices about like who trust that with. You don’t always get that kind of agency from the EPs and crew (such as Cody Heller, Nick Hatton, Andrew Weinberg and Jake Syzmanski) of the show.”

As for Ronald, all he had to do was react as he normally would, but with ‘Jury Duty,’ he was never the punch line, even with the craziness going on around him. It brings out the heartwarming and human aspect of the series, which otherwise is blazing its own trail comedy wise in the reality genre.

“Sometimes you hear different terminology on shows like this of what you call the real person. Sometimes they’re called the target or the mark, but we always call this character our hero, because it was important to us that this person goes on a journey that we were rooting for them, we liked them and they were never really the butt of the joke,” finishes Schulman. “We wanted someone who the audience could kind of relate to feel like he was representing how they would react in situations, or the best version of themselves reacting to situations.”

Catch ‘Jury Duty’ on Amazon Freevee on April 7.