If you’ve been on TikTok lately, you’ve likely encountered clips from “Jury Duty,” a unique documentary-style comedy where everyone on the show is an improv actor pretending to be part of a civil trial, except for one person who thinks he’s doing jury duty.
In other words, the prospective jurors, attorneys, plaintiff, defendant, judge, security personnel and bailiff are all hired actors improvising scenes in a courthouse for a fake civil trial. Ronald Gladden is the one regular guy who believes he is participating in a jury duty documentary in Los Angeles, California, where absurd things keep happening.
It’s a concept that could have been disastrous and cruel with the wrong regular person participating, but thanks to the wholesome, easygoing nature of Ronald Gladden, who accepts the eccentricities of the actors he believes are his fellow jurors with grace, the show works. Ronald witnesses wild antics but is never made fun of meanly. The show aired its finale recently on Amazon Prime’s free streaming service Freevee and has garnered many fans. On TikTok, the hashtag #jurydutyonfreevee has over 215 million views.
The show spoofs our real civic duty. The United States Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury in both criminal and civil cases, so being summoned for jury duty is a job many U.S. citizens get summoned to do every day. But “Jury Duty”’s premise works because although many of us will get the call to serve, few laypeople know exactly how the process is supposed to go.
To separate fact from fiction, HuffPost talked to people who were both attorneys and actors on the show, as well as other legal experts, to get the deal on if jury duty can be as wild as it appears on the comedy reality TV show.
Actors use wild excuses to avoid being selected, but that would backfire in real life.
One of the funniest parts of “Jury Duty” is the selection process, as improv actors try and fail to get out of their jury duty obligation.
Just as in real life, there’s a mix of reactions ― people like Ronald are eager to serve, while actors like Noah are willing to say anything to get out of it.
“It is one of the only real obligations we have, but that doesn’t mean that people are there happily. I would say they show up really resentful,” said Daphne Delvaux, a California-based workplace rights attorney who litigates pregnancy discrimination cases.
Questioning prospective jurors is a real part of jury duty known as “voir dire” ― French for “to speak the truth” ― where attorneys and judges can ask jurors certain questions about their backgrounds to assess their qualifications to serve on a trial fairly. But on “Jury Duty,” the questions asked are surreal.
Trisha LaFache, who has experience as an actual attorney and portrays the plaintiff’s fake attorney on “Jury Duty,” asks James Marsden, playing a snobbier version of himself, if he has ever served on a jury before. Marsden replies with a straight face that he has, and it was at “Cannes,” as in the French film festival.
“Everybody broke at a certain point, a little bit,” LaFache told HuffPost. “But I would say the overall thing was that we all cared about the show so much, and we just really believed in what we were trying to do. So I think nobody wanted to be the one who blew it.“
Pre-planned vacations and important director calls did not work for actors on the show to get out of jury duty, and it’s often subjective in real life what will work as an excuse, too.
The fake judge, played by Alan Barinholtz, is a strict stickler on the show who questions people’s vacation plans and does not permit people to just bow because “it’s just not for me,” as one juror attempted. Barinholtz said his performance, which helps anchor the show in reality, draws from what he has seen happen as a trial attorney.
“I’ve seen judges say, ’Have you booked it [the vacation]?” Barinholtz said, recalling an instance that worked with the judge because the person could prove they had a paid-for ticket in a week.
There can be exemptions from jury service, depending on your job, age, or if you are not a U.S. citizen, for example. In addition, the Jury Act allows federal courts to excuse a juror from service if they have undue hardship or an extreme inconvenience. But what is considered enough of a hardship or inconvenience to be excused from jury duty can be subjective from state to state and judge to judge.
Take being a caregiver as one real-world example, Delvaux said. “The burden of proving dependency is pretty high. You can’t just be a mom and say, ‘I can’t show up,’” she said. “You really have to show that. I mean, like, ‘You have a newborn baby, or you’re a single mom, and there’s like no one else who can take care of your kids at night.’”
The most cringy juror avoidance attempt is when actor Noah, who wants to go on his six-month anniversary trip with his girlfriend, tries to tell the judge he cannot serve because he is racist, following a conversation with Ronald in the waiting room in which Ronald mentioned an episode of “Family Guy” where it worked. Ronald, and the audience watching on TV, shake their heads when Noah tries to play the racism card.
Barinholtz, playing the fake judge, questioned if Noah was really racist, and Noah apologized, backed down, and said he was not racist and was made to stay on the jury. But admitting to being racist would have likely pushed Noah off from participating if this were an actual trial.
“If you said, ‘Yes, I’m racist,’ No. 1: You’re going to piss the judge off,”
“If anyone states that they have biases against a certain race or nationality — this was a real thing after 9/11 – the judge is required to inquire and seek an explanation,” said Vikrant Advani, an attorney and a labor and employment law expert in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Usually, at this point, the judge will likely have to excuse the juror. And, if the judge surprisingly doesn’t excuse the juror, the attorneys involved will likely make a motion to remove the potential juror for bias, or they will use one of their preemptive strikes to remove the juror.“
Sonia Chopra, an Oakland, California-based senior litigation consultant for jury selection, said in her experience judges can recognize when you’re just trying to get out of jury duty, and judges will not make it easy on jurors who say they are racist.
“If you said, ‘Yes, I’m racist,’ No. 1: You’re going to piss the judge off,” Chopra said. “And what I’ve seen judges do is... they’ll tell the lawyers, ‘Look, this guy’s just trying to get out, and it’s making me mad. And so obviously, I have to release him, but I’m going to make him or her sit here for the next two days of jury selection before I let him go.’”
Sequestering a jury is rare; being asked to fly in from another state for duty wouldn’t fly in reality.
The big plot twist of “Jury Duty” is that Marsden, the most famous actor on the show, sneakily calls the paparazzi to come to the courtroom, which leads to the fake jury being sequestered in hotels without phone access for weeks of the trial because Marsden is too distractingly famous. It’s critical to keeping the jig up: Without having more access to technology, maybe Ronald would have figured out something was not quite right sooner.
But in real life, it takes more unusual circumstances than a famous “X-Men” actor being followed by paparazzi to get a whole jury sequestered.
“I have never heard of a case where a juror’s celebrity status led to a sequestration order. A judge would much rather not seat a juror than cause such a distraction in the trial,” Advani said.
Sequestering a jury was more common in the past, but it’s fallen out of practice as it’s disruptive to jurors’ lives and expensive for governments to sustain. For example, the City of Los Angeles paid 12 jury members and two alternates to stay eight-and-a-half months at a hotel during the O.J. Simpson trial. It reportedly cost the city around $2 million.
“In state courts, sequestering a jury is an extraordinary remedy and not one that is used very often,” Advani said. “It costs a lot of money, which has to be borne by the government.”
On the show, the premise is that people from across the country could answer a Craigslist ad to serve on a jury trial in Los Angeles, even if they were not county or state residents. Thousands of regular people applied, which is how the producers narrowed down on Ronald’s submission. But being asked to serve on a state court case for a county different than where you are a resident would be one of the first major red flags that this may be fake to an attorney, said LaFache and Barinholtz.
For example, LaFache said the rules for Edy Modica’s character Jeannie was that she applied for jury duty pool through Craigslist like Ronald, but she came in from New York.
“I would’ve known immediately that a juror would have to be in the county where the court case was sitting, that we wouldn’t call somebody from a different state to be in a jury pool,” LaFache said.
This is not knowledge folks not in the legal field are expected to have, though. “I’m an attorney. I would never ever expect a layperson to know that,” Barinholtz said. “So I don’t fault anybody who applied.”
Despite certain jury duty procedures not being followed as they would in reality, what makes the show’s surreal world-building work is that the mix of jurors’ attitudes is only about a few degrees off from reality. Some of the antics, like a juror bringing in “chair pants” to trial, are beyond ridiculous, but how they generally act feels true to life.
“The wildest thing that’s happened to me personally is that I had like a few people fall asleep [during a trial],” Delvaux said, noting that in real life, a sleeping juror would not be excused until it’s really pervasive and a medical issue.
The sleeping issue came up on “Jury Duty.” Actor Barbara, who was nodding off throughout testimonies, didn’t get immediately excused; instead, Ronald, who was assigned as the foreman, was scolded by the judge to make sure she stayed awake.
Being a juror is a fun absurdity in the show. But it’s important and worth doing.
Jury duty can be tedious, heavy and a break from everyday reality all at once. And that’s not too far off from how jurors see it in real life, too.
Chopra said she had done a lot of post-trial interviews and said the vast majority of jurors she talks with enjoyed it. “Almost always, the jurors are very happy that they’ve served. I think you get to learn something that you don’t usually learn in your daily life,” she said.
And even if you are not thrilled about doing it, take heart that it’s essential. “You can use your power for good,” Delvaux said. “Society changes by virtue of these verdicts.”
In this way, “Jury Duty” feels true to the arc of emotions and experiences people can have when serving on jury duty: frustration, resignation, acceptance and sometimes a little excitement and pride at doing one’s civic duty.
“It’s pretty fair of a representation that some people don’t want to be there, to begin with, and then they feel involved,” LaFache said about the show. “I think they get into it, and then people really, really fight over what side they want to be on, and then ultimately want to go home.” So ultimately, if you get the summons, you may have a chance to postpone your obligation but know that serving can be life-changing.
“If you are ever a plaintiff or a defendant or a party in a lawsuit, you want to be judged by a jury of your peers. And if everybody wanted to get out of jury duty, the only people who couldn’t get out of jury duty would not be your peers, presumably,” Barinholtz said. “I think it’s everybody’s duty if they get called to show up.”
Who knows? What you may learn, whether it’s a real trial or a carefully orchestrated ruse for television, may surprise you.