Casting a Sitcom Is No Joke

Assembling a cast for a TV sitcom is like staffing a fast-growing company.

Assembling a cast for a TV sitcom is a lot like staffing a fast-growing company. The quality of the people you recruit is the critical factor in the success of the enterprise. The speed with which you have to move, without sacrificing quality, is dizzying. And casting, like hiring, is a contact sport. During pilot season (January 15 to May 1) scouts for all the major networks, plus scores of independent producers, engage in hand-to-hand combat for talent.

Deborah Barylski and Jonell Dunn, principals of Deborah Barylski Casting in Burbank, California, have spent nearly 15 years assembling talent for feature films, television movies, and (mostly) TV series and sitcoms. For the last 5 years, they've cast the ABC megahit "Home Improvement." Most recently they assembled the cast for the Dan Aykroyd program "Soul Man," scheduled to run this fall on ABC.

How does Barylski describe the glamorous work of casting sitcoms? "It's a feeding frenzy," she says only half jokingly. "And there's lots of grunt work. We get a huge influx of pictures and résumés and people who put themselves on tape. You have to wade through all that stuff, and then look elsewhere. You can't leave any stone unturned."

Casting new shows is a race against time. Barylski and Dunn got the assignment for "Soul Man" last December. The "table read" was scheduled for March 10. So they had three months to identify an entire cast of characters: a big star, several supporting players, and four children. Barylski and Dunn just barely made their deadline. They signed the last actor at 10:30 p.m. on March 9. "There's one role in every pilot that manages to go to the brink," Barylski says.

What's the best way to move fast on hiring? For a new sitcom, as for a fast-growing company, the answer is to build the buzz. A hot concept can attract interest from a big star, whose interest, in turn, can draw queries from top agents. Barylski offers a simple axiom: "A good script attracts good talent."

When Dan Aykroyd read a script about a widowed Episcopalian minister with a taste for fast motorcycles and offbeat church services, he decided to sign on. His decision unleashed a wave of interest from agents. Barylski and Dunn got background material from 800 hopefuls for the children's roles alone.

But how to evaluate so many prospects? By developing rigorous criteria for the characters, quickly rejecting candidates who don't meet the criteria, and refusing to settle for less. To play the role of the bishop, Barylski and Dunn looked for an actor who could exude a sense of career ambition and clash with Aykroyd's character — without becoming too unsympathetic. The other major adult character was a tough-talking reporter who could become a love interest for Aykroyd.

Of course, finding great individual talent isn't the end of the story. The real challenge is to select specific actors with an eye toward the entire cast. In a sitcom, as in a company, group chemistry is critical. That test comes in the full-cast audition, also known as the dress rehearsal. The "Soul Man" dress rehearsal took place in front of an audience of 200 — not the viewing public, but representatives from ABC, Disney Television, and Wind Dancer Productions. The crowd liked what it saw; casting was complete. "That's the adrenaline rush you work so hard for all these months," says Dunn with a smile — and an audible sigh of relief.

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