When Jay Whittaker landed a role in the Disney Channel’s made-in-Utah series “Andi Mack,” he injured himself.
“I live in a basement apartment with low ceilings,” he said. “I jumped and I literally hit my head because I was so excited.”
It was just a bump on the head. The stand-up comedian/self-described “starving artist” remains thrilled about his recurring role as the basketball coach on “Andi.” And he suddenly found himself as sort of an unofficial consultant for this week’s episode, which strikes close to home for him.
In the episode (Friday, 5:30, 7:45 and 10 p.m., Disney), Andi’s friend Buffy (Sofia Wylie) is on the basketball court. She’s surprised when her mother, who’s in the Army, unexpectedly returns from an overseas deployment. It’s a scene that Whittaker himself has lived many times.
“I’ve returned from long deployments and short deployments,” said Whittaker, who is the single father of a 10-year-old boy. “But returning home and being a part of your child’s life is always a big thing.”
The California native, who now calls Salt Lake City home, first came to Utah when he joined the Air Force and was posted to Hill Air Force Base. Since then, he’s been deployed everywhere from Iraq to Qatar to Mississippi.
He was “in the background” of the scene when Buffy’s mother returns, “but I needed a minute to gather myself. I got chills.” And he made a point to approach executive producer Michelle Manning, who directed the episode.
“I said, ‘The way that you guys wrote that and the way that you shot that, that’s exactly how those moments should be captured,’” Whittaker said.
Manning said that, to get the scene right, she watched “thousands” of YouTube videos of kids being surprised by parents returning from deployment.
“I just wanted to make it feel right,” she said. The cast, crew and everyone else on the set got caught up in it.
“Even the extras just went crazy,” Manning said. “Every take, it was the same enthusiasm. It was really special.
“And it was even more special for Jay to come over and say, ‘You guys got that so right.’”
“Andi Mack” has alluded to Buffy’s missing mother without ever explaining where she’s been. It’s one of many storylines that creator/executive producer Terri Minsky and her team have come up with that ground the show in reality.
“You might think — what’s the big deal? She came home. Whatever,” Whittaker said. “No. Those moments are very real for a lot of children that have parents in the service.”
When the show began, 13-year-old Andi (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) learned that her older sister, Bex (Lilan Bowden), is actually her mother — that she gave birth as an unwed teen and moved away, leaving Andi to be raised by her grandparents.
More recently, Andi’s friend Cyrus (Joshua Rush) has begun to accept that he’s gay.
“It’s going to be one of those shows that’s talked about for a long time,” Whittaker said. “It’s so current with what’s going on right now. Addressing biracial families. Addressing veterans. Addressing pubescent relationships.
“It’s one of Disney’s most progressive shows, ever. It’s kind of mind-blowing.”
Whittaker — who “grew up watching Disney shows” — was planning to move back to California when he got the part on “Andi Mack.”
“I started out as a comedian, just yelling jokes in bars. And now I get the opportunity to be part of something more legit,” he said. “And even if it’s a small part, it’s Disney. It’s cool.
“I get to say Mulan and Pocahontas are my cousins,” he added with a laugh.
He’d like to do more episodes. Which seems to be a possibility.
“I love him. Adore him. He’s wonderful,” Manning said.
“It’s a small, recurring role, but at the same time, as long as Sofia is playing basketball, I’ve got a job,” Whittaker said with a smile.