Funny Thesps Work to Throw Off Typecasting

Transitioning between comedy and drama isn't getting any easier

Katy Segal

Katey Sagal has more than 30 years of experience in Hollywood, but when she was up for a role on “Lost,” she had to audition. “It was a big deal to get this little arc,” recalls the actress, who prior to her current stint on “Sons of Anarchy” was largely known for her comedy chops. “It’s a mixed blessing: You’re doing one thing for so long people like you that way, but as a creative person you want to break out.”

Transitioning between comedy and drama jobs (and the other way around) for actors and writers seems like it should be getting easier. Dramedies like “Glee,” “Nurse Jackie” and “White Collar” provide space for both genres to blend, but writers and actors alike note very little change in the system when it comes to trying to cross over.

“I do feel like it’s about proving your mettle again and again,” says Garret Dillahunt (“Raising Hope”), who has been lauded for his dramatic work in features like “Winter’s Bone” and “No Country for Old Men.” Recently, Dillahunt says his agent heard a director wonder aloud, “Yes, but can he do anything other than comedy?’ ”

Veteran status helps when it comes to writers who earn the right to exercise some muscle. Jane Espenson is a consulting producer on ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” and executive produces “Husbands” for CW Digital — one comedy, one drama each. Her resume includes “Game of Thrones” and “Gilmore Girls.”

“It’s gotten easier for me as I’ve climbed up the ranks, not because anything has changed,” she says, noting that earlier in her career, her agent explained that a jump from comedy to drama would drop her salary and that she’d be perceived as “demonstrating a lack of focus.”

But perhaps things are getting better by degrees. Mike Royce — who co-created former TNT series “Men of a Certain Age” and this past season was showrunning NBC’s 1600 Penn — says the growing number of successful dramedies is helping pave the way for a little more flexibility: “There’s a lot of different tones on these shows, where it might have been more rigid before,” he says. “Stuff is all over the map now.”

And then there’s Ryan Murphy, who has had such successes as “Glee” and “American Horror Story” and now has a new pilot deal with HBO. His crossover success is a beacon for both writers and actors who want more freedom to travel between genres without penalty.
“Ryan is very comfortable whatever he does,” says HBO programming prexy Michael Lombardo. “There are comedic elements in all of his shows, and that’s not unusual any more. But I wouldn’t know how to define him.”