Casting director Allison Jones used to get her best ideas while watching Law & Order.
“You'd see all the New York actors,” she recently told Refinery29 over the phone. “I was constantly writing down actor’s names and trying to see the credits really fast to see who played whom. But that’s how we all did it back [then]. There was no other way to look [anyone] up. It was a lot more detective work than it is now.”
If Nina Gold is the queen of drama casting, then Jones is the unrivaled empress of comedy. With three Emmy wins and 12 nominations, including one for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series for her work on the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2020, she’s been largely responsible for shaping the comedy landscape over the last 35 years.
Jones’ credits include The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Freaks and Geeks (for which she won one Emmy), The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Borat, The Good Place, Veep (two Emmys), The Office, and Netflix’s Space Force, which reunited Steve Carrell and Greg Daniels once more.
“When I got into casting I didn’t even know it was a real job,” she said. “My first boss did a lot of comedy, and I’ve always been a comedy geek, so it was accidental but it worked out really well.”
That first boss was casting director Judith Weiner, who took Jones on as an assistant in the mid-1980s, after she graduated from the American Film Institute.
“From her I learned that just instinctively, you just go with funny people — but you have to go through a lot of actors to get naturally funny people,” Jones said. “It's much harder to cast comedy than drama because the additional factor of really being really DNA funny is tough.”
The first project Jones ever worked on was Benson, a sitcom starring Robert Guillaume as a Black butler working for a dysfunctional wealthy family. Then came Family Ties, the sitcom that launched Michael J. Fox’s career as a young Republican trying to relate to his former-hippie liberal parents. But some of Jones’ best memories from her early career come from casting The Golden Girls pilot. “That was a blast,” she recalls.
Many things have changed in the casting world since those days. The abundance of new talent, not to mention a glut of content to showcase them, is one. Jones’ days of casting through Law & Order episodes are long past. “I used to watch everything,” she said. “Now, it’s impossible.”
But other elements have been slower to shift. One aspect of the business Jones would really like to do away with is the sexist and stereotyped descriptions she still finds attached to women’s roles.
“It used to be that someone was ‘shockingly beautiful’ or “‘shockingly beautiful, even without makeup!’ Maybe somebody will be a little more conscious of it now, but I’ve not really noticed a huge change. ‘Breathtakingly beautiful AND really smart.’”
“People still don’t cast women the same age as men,” she continued. “It’s so annoying. There’s still men 20 years older than the women they’re married to. It’s not even considered an issue. You just make a list of younger women to play opposite all the big male stars. I think it’s just a given that you don’t cast someone their own age to play the wife. That’s never changed.”
Jones tries to present studio executives with the best possible choices for the role, but ultimately, the final decision lies with them. As a result, Jones says she has started to gravitate towards comedies starring women in recent years, mostly because there are so many more of them to choose from. Bridesmaids, Lady Bird, Booksmart, Eighth Grade, and Wine Country all have her to thank for putting together such indelible ensembles.
So, who’s the funniest person on her radar right now?
“Dan Stevens. Just look how good he is in Eurovision! The first time I saw him was doing Shakespeare about 15 years ago. He’s a funny guy in person, too. He’s got that British charming Hugh Grant thing — self-effacing, but hilarious.”