The title of the new Disney Channel series “Just Roll With It” appears to be as much a directive for its cast and crew as it is a description of the multi-camera hybrid sitcom, which is part scripted and part improv.
The plot revolves around the blended Bennett-Blatt family — strict mom Rachel (Suzi Barrett), radio host dad Byron (Tobie Windham) and their tweenage kids (Kaylin Hayman, Ramon Reed).
At three junctures during the show a horn sounds and the actors are sequestered backstage as the studio audience determines what happens next, voting from among three outrageous options — for instance, whether an aerialist suddenly enters the scene, a cast member must eat strange food combinations, or one or more of the thesps wind up drenched by something wet and messy.
For the union crew members who work on the show, the unscripted elements mean they must prepare for a minimum of nine possible scenarios each episode, only three of which will make it to the screen.
“There are so many permutations of how one option can impact the rest of the show,” says costume designer Joyce Kim Lee.
Crew members receive insert pages so they can do their prep work, but no one knows what’s going to happen until shoot night. And the cast has no idea where the breaks will occur in the script, or what the options are when the audience begins to vote. “It’s part CIA covert operation,” jokes Lee.
In one episode, the audience was instructed to choose from a long list of combinations of actions, props and costumes to determine the outcome. There were so many blends that Lee and prop master Jill Parry hired a background actor for the day so they could prep for the various possibilities. “Even then we couldn’t do every combination,” says Lee.
In another installment, one of the scenarios winds up with Reed wearing a three-piece purple magician’s suit. Since the following episode was to feature a school play with animals, Lee pretended the fitting was for that episode instead, so that she wouldn’t give away the possible option for the current episode. “It was the first time I created an alternate truth,” she says. “I felt horrible all weekend, but when he found out the next week, he said, ‘No, Ms. Joyce, it’s OK. It’s part of your job.’ He gets it.”
Once cast, the actors filled out questionnaires about their allergies, sensitivities and fears. “We try not to totally gross them out,” says Parry. “We don’t want to be mean; we’re making comedy.”
But nothing is quite as it seems. “We did some stuffed jelly doughnuts,” Parry recalls. “Tobie loved the fact that it was sweet and thought he’d lucked out. Then, he got a bite of a cricket [stuffed inside].”
The audience learns which option wins the vote at the same time as the cast. “They go wild when it’s revealed,” says Parry. “The best part of my job is show night when the hard work pays off.”