Even TV dramas need comedy

Casting directors look for laughs in serious roles

Comedy is hard. Tragedy is easy. Especially when it comes to casting. When those jokes fall flat, they fall flat. It’s deadly. Simply put, finding the right comedic actor for a television comedy project is every casting director’s headache.

But casting today’s multifaceted dramatic leads is also no simple task. Actors need to portray layered characters as well as be able to handle light moments that produce a laugh no matter how serious the storyline. In fact, the trend is toward a comedic undertone for practically everything. From “Criminal Minds” to “The Office,” casting directors seek out versatile actors with a talent to handle any comedic moments thrown at them. Who would have thought autopsies and office memos could be so entertaining?

“When I’m casting a feature that is a drama, we often look for actors who have a good sense of humor because not everything is straight,” says casting director April Webster (“Lost,” “Criminal Minds”). “When I was working on a pilot for HBO about a cancer clinic, it was essential that the actors have a sense of humor. There is an ironic side to cancer. And when you’re doing a show like ‘Criminal Minds,’ about people who mutilate other people and bury them alive, you have to have a couple of moments where there’s a lightness just to break the tension.”

But the real challenge in drama for Webster is finding actors who will be real, believable. And not try to “act” it. Casting director Natalie Hart (“Heroes”) says: “Television is a much more intimate medium than film. The actor really needs to posses the qualities that the character innately needs.”

In one respect, there is more leeway in casting a comedy lead. “You usually have more freedom to not cast your perfect cookie-cutter gorgeous person because so much must come across in the personality of the actor,” says casting director Cami Patton (“Pushing Daisies,” “Las Vegas”). “But comedy is always going to be harder. There is another level than just coming in and being able to inhabit the role.”

Hart finds comedy to be “much more technical. When you’re doing comedy, it’s important that the actor has a comedic voice. In drama, it’s about who the person is. Seinfeld was such a big hit because he was that character and he had a certain comedic voice. That brought the material to a different level.”

If finding a comedic star is tough, it’s the small roles that can drive a casting director to distraction. “It’s like being a surgeon, it’s so specific,” Patton says. “Because often they’re counted on to get a laugh on one line. And they want to hit it out way of the park. It can blow a whole scene if they don’t.”

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