Casting directors typically work offscreen, sifting through dozens, if not hundreds, of self-taped auditions and in-person sessions to find the perfect performers for each pivotal role. But what if the perfect performer is the casting director? What if they’re asked to act on not one, but two Emmy-nominated HBO comedies? What if, rather than sitting behind a desk, they’re asked to sit behind a desk in front of a camera?
Well, if you’re Allison Jones, you do your job — even if its unconventional accompaniments aren’t exactly enticing.
“She approached it somewhere between getting a lethal injection and a root canal,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” showrunner Jeff Schaffer said about Jones’ appearance in Season 11. “She’s like, ‘Really? You don’t need me to do this.’ We’re like, ‘No, no, we do. We do.'”
In her day job, Jones is an industry titan. She’s responsible for the ensembles of “Freaks and Geeks,” “The Office” (U.S.), “Curb,” and “Veep” — and those are just her shows with Emmy nominations. (She won three times: first for “Freaks and Geeks” and twice for “Veep.”) Jones also worked on “Parks and Recreation,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” “The Good Place,” and “Arrested Development,” plus steered casting for films like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Borat,” “Superbad,” “Bridesmaids,” “Eighth Grade,” “Booksmart,” and “Lady Bird.”
But as an actor, her prior work was limited to a cameo in “The Office” finale as “Woman Guarding PBS Swag at the Warehouse” and another blink-and-you-miss-it stint on “Arrested Development.” In a 2013 interview with The AV Club, Jones said both televised gigs were favors to the showrunners, Mitch Hurwitz and Greg Daniels, and “not my cup of tea.”
For the betterment of each program, Jones can be seen in recent episodes of “Barry” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” first reprising her role on Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s dark comedy and then appearing for the first time on Larry David and Jeff Schaffer’s iconic sitcom. Both shows take place in Los Angeles, and both skewer the entertainment industry, but Jones is only the casting director for “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Her role in “Barry” came about thanks to its casting director, nine-time Emmy nominee Sherry Thomas, as well as the Hollywood satire’s dedication to meta humor.
Back in 2019, Jones played herself in Season 2, Episode 7 of “Barry,” aptly titled “The Audition.” Her scene sees Barry (Bill Hader) auditioning for a comedy film Jones is working on with Jay Roach, the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” director.
“We just thought, ‘Oh, this is a comedy and who’s the guy that would be directing it? It would be Jay Roach,'” Berg said. Roach, Hader, and Berg had known each other “just forever,” but Thomas said there may have been another reason his name was at the top of the list.
“Sometimes it just comes down to the sound of a name that’s funny to them,” she said. “They think hearing Barry say the sound of this name is funny. Bill and I have a really interesting way of working together. Most of the time I’m like, ‘Well, so do you have a prototype? Is there anybody?’ He’ll talk through the character points, and then more often than not, he does the voice of the character. So I have the notes of the character and then he does the voice and the cadence and the sound. That really connects me to the character. And I go, ‘I know who it is.'”
Casting Jones came down to common sense. In the scene, Roach would naturally be joined by his casting director and their associate to help make a decision, and Thomas, Hader, and Berg all thought Jones would make the most sense to play a top-tier casting director of high-profile comedies. Before reaching out to Jones, Thomas said they did consider other actual casting directors, but faced repeated and emphatic resistance.
“When I approached a different casting director, she was like, ‘I don’t do on-camera, and I never will,'” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘OK, thank you so much.'”
Jones had a similar first reaction. “We’re casting directors for a reason,” Thomas remembers Jones saying when first approached about acting. Eventually, she came around, though no one knew her part would return and expand in future episodes.
Merrick Morton/ HBO
Casting real-life figures as themselves is both a joyful and necessary aspect of the job, but it can get complicated. Jon Hamm, for instance, has played Jon Hamm in both “Barry” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — appearing in a fantasy sequence during the former’s inaugural season and as an actor studying to portray Larry David in the latest edition of “Curb” — and his comical contributions proved to be an irreplaceable delight. But actors are used to popping in and out of productions, their itineraries regularly shifted by managers and agents. Other calendars are more rigid, and Jones’ schedule is often dictated by the multiple shows she’s working to fill. Her docket isn’t a day here or a half-day there; it’s working until the show is ready to shoot, no matter how long that may take.
“We’re really busy,” Thomas said. “People don’t understand the inner workings of what we do as casting directors. That is a working office, nonstop. So I’m sure [taking time to act in ‘Barry’ and ‘Curb’] affected a lot of the labor that’s happening in there.”
To further compound the commitment, Jones’ role in “Barry” Season 3 was bigger than before.
“When I saw the drafts of Season 3, I just was like, ‘Oh my God. This is an actual scene,'” Thomas said. “It wasn’t like just sitting there next to [Jay Roach]. So I called her and I said, ‘You’re a recurring character now. And you have, like, a scene.”
“I think what she said was, ‘This is too much, I cannot do this. This is an actual scene,'” Thomas said. “But Bill and Alec are so smart. They just write within what is supposed to be happening. If there was a struggle on any level, they would just modulate it. They would just tailor the scene to both of them. They were great.”
“Both of them” meaning Jones and her decade-plus casting associate Ben Harris. Just like in actual auditions, Harris can be seen reading with actors in scenes of “Barry” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“We put Ben on the show a while ago,” Schaffer said. “Because he would always read [in casting sessions,] and the people are like, ‘You’re great. You should just [act.]’ So we’d throw him in.”
Harris is not in Season 3 — when Barry approaches Jones at her office, trying to negotiate a part for Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) — but he is in the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” premiere, recommending candidates to Larry (Larry David) and Allison (Allison Jones). The team is trying to cast Larry’s onscreen daughter in his semi-autobiographical Netflix show, but Ben and Allison are in the dark about one key factor: Larry is being blackmailed. If he doesn’t want to be sued, he has to make sure Maria Sofia (a terrible actor played by the hilarious Keyla Monterroso Mejia) gets the part.
John P. Johnson / HBO
“So Alison, when we told her about this idea, we’re like, ‘Why not just get Alison and Ben to do it?’ She was like, ‘Oh I had to do this on ‘Barry’ — which we didn’t know about,” Schaffer said. “But we’re like, ‘Yeah, you have to do this, you should do this.”
For Schaffer, Jones was the only person for the part.
“She’s done this so much, she can operate on instinct,” he said. “She’s seen that scenario so many times: of seeing people you like, and then Maria Sophia was so terrible and so odd. All Allison had to do was be Allison Jones. And she was, which, by the way, isn’t always easy. It’s not always easy for people to just be who they are. She and Ben, they were great. Their reactions were so honest, as opposed to an actor playing a casting director. That’s what I really appreciated.”
Such authenticity is what Hollywood satires like “Barry” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” need to succeed. Not only does the meta layer of hiring a real actor, producer, or casting director add an exciting Easter egg for comedy fans, it also grounds the extreme actions of both shows in a world indistinguishable from our own. Maybe there’s not a trained assassin showing up to Hollywood auditions in between hits, but “Barry” needs you to invest in that reality in order for its characters and commentary to resonate. And while no human being could possibly create as many awkward, embarrassing scenarios as Larry David, the wish fulfillment side of his antics only satisfies if we recognize some truth in his intentions, in his choices, and in Larry himself.
Elite casting directors like Sherry Thomas and Allison Jones know this. It’s how they do their jobs so well, day in and day out. So when it’s their turn to sit under the lights, they know they have to do it. After all, it’s what’s best for the show, and to them, that’s always the first priority.
“Barry” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are available from HBO.