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Inside the “Exhilarating and Terrifying” Experience of Making Jury Duty

Showrunner Cody Heller shares what it was like to step outside her comfort zone on the Emmy-nominated comedy.
the cast of jury duty
Courtesy of Amazon Freevee.

As a showrunner, it’s Cody Heller’s job to oversee every detail of a television series, from its first scripts to its final edit. But on hidden-camera comedy Jury Duty, Heller faced an unusual challenge: She couldn’t meet series lead Ronald Gladden until filming had wrapped.

The entire premise of the Amazon Freevee show hinges on average-guy Gladden believing that he’s serving as the foreman for a real jury. What he doesn’t know is that everyone else in the courtroom is an actor trying to wring as much comedy as possible from his experience. So it was imperative that Heller and the rest of the Jury Duty crew stay hidden during their three-week shoot. “Unlike normal television, where you have action and cut and take two, we had none of that,” Heller tells Vanity Fair. “As soon as Ronald arrived on set, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re on.’ That was really fun and exhilarating and terrifying.”

It’s something of a miracle that Heller and her team managed to pull off the stunt. Over eight increasingly absurdist episodes, Gladden gets selected for a jury, hears a case, and delivers a verdict—all without catching on to the fact that he’s actually a modern-day Truman Burbank starring in his own TV show. Emmy voters have taken note of the feat, awarding Jury Duty with four nominations including outstanding comedy series. The show has also been a breakout for Amazon’s four-year-old ad-supported streaming service, but Heller says that because of the writers strike, there’ve been no official conversations about bringing it back for another season. “My hope is that the AMPTP can be a little bit more like Ronald Gladden and approach things with a little bit more humanity and that we can reach a fair deal soon,” she says.

With its hybrid scripted-reality format, Jury Duty was unlike anything Heller had worked on before. The veteran comedy writer, who cocreated the supernatural comedy Deadbeat and whose credits also include Wilfred and Kidding, says she was “shocked and flattered” when she got the call about showrunning and executive producing an inventive new project from The Office writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. “I did some soul-searching and was like, this is terrifying; there’s a true chance of failure,” she says. “But I was like, I want to do this.”

One of Heller’s first moves was to hire as many writer-performers as possible for Jury Duty’s writers room. That way, some of them—like writer and The Sex Lives of College Girls actor Mekki Leeper—could be cast in the show to help improvise new story beats on the fly based on how Gladden responded to what was being thrown his way. Another key early decision was to bring in writers and actors with actual legal knowledge—Alan Barinholtz, who played the judge, is a retired attorney, and father of actor Ike Barinholtz; and both attorneys (Trisha LaFache and Evan Williams) have real-life legal experience—to help make the court proceedings authentic. “My primary concern was, let’s build this village early on because it’s going to take a village to make this fake village for Ronald, our hero,” Heller says. “We got really lucky and found some incredible people, and I feel like it was lightning in a bottle.”

Though Gladden deals with some truly outrageous situations on Jury Duty—among them, James Marsden, Emmy-nominated for playing a heightened version of himself, calls the paparazzi and forces the jury to be sequestered—a lot of the footage on the cutting-room floor was much more mundane. Heller says that was by design. They needed to build up what she refers to as Gladden’s “reality bank” so that he’d believe he was experiencing real life and be more forgiving of some of the sillier things they threw his way. “We would have days where literally nothing funny would happen, and it would just be a boring court case all day long. That was us kind of putting money into the reality bank in order to then, the next day, be able to do something really funny and big,” she explains. “To keep that balance was a constant effort.”

Heller had a lot less control over Jury Duty than she would a typical scripted comedy. Though she had outlines from the writers for each episode, she was constantly assessing Gladden’s mood and adapting. At the end of each day, she would meet with the other executive producers and director Jake Szymanski to build out the plot beats for the following day, then the next morning, they would meet with the actors before Gladden arrived. “Everyone had to just be constantly on their toes, able to flip on a dime,” she says.

When filming began, there was a nonzero chance that Heller and the team could end up without a show. If Gladden caught on to the stunt, the project could have ended in a bust. Heller tells me she was relieved after Gladden agreed to be sequestered—an important step in preserving the secret because it would allow them to control his environment during filming. Another milestone was when the jurors went on a field trip to review evidence and then had an eventful night out at the local Margaritaville that ended with an expensive bill and a Marsden-Gladden arm wrestling match. “That was a huge day that required so much choreography and so many moving pieces,” Heller says. “That was another one where I was like, if we can get through this day, I will feel a lot calmer.”

Still, her nerves didn’t actually subside until all was finally revealed to Gladden. In Jury Duty’s emotional final episode, Barinholtz tells Gladden, “It was all fake, except for one important element, you.” He awards a stunned Gladden with a $100,000 check and calls him a hero as the entire courtroom erupts into applause. Heller says she was terrified leading to that moment. “This was never meant to be a prank show,” she says. “It was always meant to be a hero’s journey for this guy. We didn’t want to put him through a terrible experience. We didn’t want to traumatize him. We wanted this to be something fun for him. That was always top of mind for us. It was incredible to see how in real time, everyone truly did fall in love with Ronald.”

Once the cameras stopped rolling, Heller did finally get to meet her star. She’d seen him wear a Rick and Morty shirt so she mentioned that her fiancé, Dan Harmon, had cocreated the show and that she could hook him up with more merch. “It was very bizarre to get to know Ronald so well by watching him every day,” she says. “He felt like a celebrity to me, so I was trying to impress him.”

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