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From the Magazine: In Search of the Perfect Nerd

Allison Jones '77, Hollywood casting agent, and actor Steve Carell of "The Office"
Allison Jones '77, Hollywood casting agent

Allison Jones' casting office sits on the third floor in Hollywood's historic Sunset Gower Studios. Driving north on Gower Street toward Sunset Boulevard, you get a clear view of the landmark Hollywood Sign, a bit of poetic symbolism not lost on Jones. Most of the people coming to see her are dreaming about finding fame and fortune, and making an impression on Jones is not a bad way to start.

“Seeing that sign used to crack me up,” Jones ’77 says from her windowless office. “I remember watching The Rockford Files as a kid and seeing the Hollywood Sign in the opening credits. I never would have imagined I’d be working in show business because, as a kid, I never had a concept that you could actually work in it. I didn’t have a clue.”

Since working with Judd Apatow on the short-lived but insanely influential 1999 television show, Freaks and Geeks, Jones has become the most celebrated comedy casting director in Hollywood. To look at her credits is to examine the evolution of the way we’ve laughed this past decade—the early mockumentary-style tone of the television sitcom Arrested Development, the great, geeky, irony-steeped Apatow movies (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), the improv-heavy black humor of Larry David’s HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, the acidic satire of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and the quintessential workplace TV comedy, The Office.

Jones peopled these projects with comedians she has championed for the past 25 years. Some began their careers with a line here, a line there in a Jones-cast program or movie and eventually became Hollywood A-listers headlining their own projects. Chances are, if you can make her laugh, you’ll have a career.

“One of Allison’s greatest attributes is her fearlessness when it comes to casting,” says Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz. “It’s very easy to follow the crowd in casting and chase people who have already been established as a certain type for a certain role. She’s willing to go out on a limb and fight for someone she believes in. She doesn’t care who’s hot. Instead, she’s inventive and trusts her own reactions.”

Adds actress Amy Poehler, who has worked with Jones on her NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation: “She’s really open-minded. And she has great taste in comedy. I always talk to casting directors about people and Allison’s one of the few who knows everyone I’m talking about. Everyone! She doesn’t miss a thing.”

Becoming a comedy tastemaker isn’t something Jones set out to do. Raised in the suburbs outside of Boston, Jones spent more time following hockey than movies. She loved Peter Sellers and the Three Stooges (she’s stoked that her office is a stone’s throw from where the Stooges made their film shorts), Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. But she didn’t come to Pomona to be close to Hollywood. She came because California seemed liked the coolest place in the world.

“Growing up in the ’60s, I’d watch Gidget with Sally Field and see her surfing after school,” Jones says, laughing. “I have to shovel the rink and here she is surfing. It blew my mind.”

Pomona had a huge influence on Jones’ comedy tastes. Living first in Harwood Court and then Mudd-Blaisdell, Jones came to admire what she calls “pure geek existence.” New friends introduced her to Monty Python and Firesign Theatre comedy albums, and together they watched Saturday Night Live make its network debut. When she graduated with her major in visual arts, Jones had a more developed sense of humor, but no clearer sense of purpose. She enrolled in UCLA’s business school purely out of practicality, she says.

“I thought I’d get a job that way,” Jones says. She did, working in advertising in New York for a year. But she didn’t like it and returned to Los Angeles to attend the American Film Institute. Shortly after graduating, Jones found her calling in casting work.

“I just completely happened into it,” Jones says. “And I liked it so much, I was happy to stay in it.”

The comedy landscape looked much different when Jones began as a casting assistant, working on sitcoms like Family Ties and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Jones spent a good chunk of her early career casting television pilots for stand-up comedians. The shows would rarely be picked up because the mediocre writing didn’t consider the singular style of the comedian.

Meanwhile, Jones was spending all her free time going to clubs like The Comedy Store and the Improv, memorizing comedians and catching the early acts of people like Jim Carrey, Sam Kinison and Denis Leary. These were the comedians who made her laugh, but she could never convince network executives and producers to hire them.

“The problem is, most comedians and sketch people can’t audition at all,” Jones says. “They just go over the top, and they’d be the first to admit that, too. So it has taken a long time for producers and directors to come to understand this. And the other thing is that networks want pretty people … at least they did back then. But it’s funny people, not pretty people, that keep shows on the air.”

The breakthrough for Jones--and for everyone involved, really--was Freaks and Geeks, a poignant, funny and painfully honest coming-of-age comedy-drama set in a suburban Michigan high school. NBC canceled the series before it even completed its 18-episode run, but it still managed to launch the careers of Apatow and co-creator Paul Feig and cast members James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini, among many, many others.

“When I got the chance to do The Office, I knew I wanted to hire the person who cast Freaks and Geeks,” says Office co-creator Greg Daniels, whose career also includes writing and producing The Simpsons and co-creating King of the Hill. “Now having worked with her, I can tell you that Allison is an artist. She has an amazing ability to find people who are funny and soulful and blend well together. And she’s constantly bringing in people for small roles who end up becoming stars. It’s a recurring thing with her: ‘If you don’t want to make them a series regular, you’re going to have to say goodbye to them.’”

Notable examples include Jenna Fischer, who Jones touted (and cast in small parts) for years before she landed the lead role of Pam on The Office, and actors like Paul Rudd, David Schwimmer, Amy Adams, Ken Jeong and Zachary Levi.

“There are really hundreds of examples of people she advocates before anyone else,” Hurwitz says. “She’s always finding people a project or two before they come to mainstream attention.”

Finding the time to discover these people has become more difficult for Jones, not because of the volume of work (when we spoke, she was casting three movies), but because agents and managers often convince studio executives and producers to insist that she see actors that she knows aren’t right for the parts. What she really needs is time to search and think and remember. She doesn’t need to look at actors just because they share the same agent as the movie’s producer.

Jones does have one thing in her favor. Beyond the work day, she still spends much of her time in the realm of movies, television and comedy. She even makes annual pilgrimages to Chicago’s long-running improv theater, Second City, both for scouting and just the pure enjoyment of laughing herself silly.

And though she doesn’t see herself doing her job forever (“It’s already been too long,” she says), Jones does seem determined to stick around to take care of what she sees as unfinished business. Comedy has evolved to the point where geeky-looking schlubs like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill can headline movies. Now Jones wants to see their female counterparts get their due, too.

“Networks want women to be beautiful and, if they have to fake the comedy, so be it,” Jones says. “So many people make a career out of being fake-funny, and that’s just not right when there are so many truly gifted women out there who understand comedy.”

“So I’ll just keep bringing people in until they get work,” Jones adds with typical low-key determination. Is she optimistic? “You know, I take a small measure of satisfaction out of the way things have evolved in the past 30 years. Very small, but I do. I’m kind of surprised. Nothing was ever planned. These were just the people I thought were funny, and now here they are, the big-dog, funny people.”

Big Finds

Actress Amy Poehler puts it simply: “Allison Jones has found more talented people than anyone I know.” Here are three finds that show how Jones’ constant searching pays dividends:

Jonah Hill

Now a regular in producer/director Judd Apatow’s comedies, Hill, 26, came to Jones’ attention five years ago when he managed to wrangle a meet-and-greet while she was casting Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

“It wasn’t even an audition. He was just so anxious to meet Judd. He was sweating profusely, but he was really sweet and very funny. There were a couple of little parts and we brought him back for those. It took awhile, but Judd looked at his tape and said, ‘Let’s hire him for that kid in the eBay store.’ You know, the one who wants to buy the boots with the goldfish in them? Now he’s had this colossal rise, from a part where he had only one line and he turned it into something more with his facial expressions and quick wit.”

Dakota Fanning

Jones says her job’s greatest challenge is finding talented kids. But every once in a while, one drops from the sky.

“I used to cast Spin City. We were looking for a six-year-old girl who had to play an orphan in a Christmas episode. And (casting associate) Phyllis (Smith) was pre-reading kids and said, ‘Allison, come in and listen to this girl read. She’s amazing.’ And it was Dakota Fanning. She had one line but she read it so naturally. One little line … and then she got really famous! But we weren’t surprised. She blew us away.”

Christopher Mintz-Plasse

Finding the nerdy teenager who would morph into McLovin in the hit teen comedy Superbad led to what Jones calls the “most painful six months of my life.”

“That was just old-school legwork. We put signs up, had people send their pictures in and just read, read, read. It’s tedious and, at times, unpleasant, because you’re not getting any results. It’s much harder to find a big nerd than a beautiful person because nerds don’t necessarily pursue show business. And a lot of people can look like the biggest nerd in the world, but they can’t act.

“Christopher was a little over-the-top when he came in and we had to tell him to bring it down. But he had some natural talent and he really did look perfect for the part. But no one was sure of him until they finished the movie. You take a risk and trust your instincts.”