GAIMAN: But what I tried to make clear is something I actually learned from the world of comics that, talking to people seems to apply outside of the world of comics as well, which is how you keep work as a freelancer. What I was saying to people is - what I'd learned is that you can be - there are three things you can be. You can get the work in on time; you can be good, really good; and you can be easy to get along with. And as long you get two out of three of these right, you will continue to work.The only thing I'd add to that is the idea of niches, certain relatively specific roles that come readily to mind and are perceived as useful. People who fit these niches are amazingly employable, though they can have a great deal of difficulty advancing or changing careers.
CONAN: Oh, so people will put up with your unbearable personality if you get your work in on time and you're very good.
GAIMAN: Absolutely. And by the same token, if you're really nice and you're really good, they'll probably forgive you for being late.
GAIMAN: But, you know, the problem is when you drop down to one out of three, that's the point when they're going, I don't really want to - yes, his work is good, but he's not very nice; he's always late - why should I bother. So it's that two out of three thing.
I suspect there are niche-fillers in all professions but they are particularly easy to spot in entertainment. Certain actors and, to a lesser extent, writers, directors and producers happen to mesh with what the industry thinks the public wants or a project needs. The allure of matching elements to these preconceptions is remarkably strong.
Here's my favorite example. A few years ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was following a new show and my friend recommended not getting too caught up in it because it starred an actress named Paula Marshall and shows that starred Marshall didn't stick around very long.
I had seen Marshall in other shows but given the high mortality rate of television series I'd never noticed anything special about those featuring her. After that though, I started to pay attention and I noticed not only that shows starring her tended to do very badly but that there were a surprisingly many of them.
In the past twenty years, Wikipedia lists Paula Marshall as having had a main role in seven different TV shows:
Wild Oats Main role (6 episodes);
Chicago Sons Main role (13 episodes);
Cupid Main role (15 episodes);
Snoops Main role (10 episodes);
Hidden Hills Main role (17 episodes);
Out of Practice Main role (21 episodes);
Gary Unmarried Main role (37 episodes).
For an actor with little name recognition and no-well known roles, snagging seven leads is remarkable (and that doesn't count pilots that weren't picked up). Add to that recurring roles on other shows and numerous guest shots and you have an extraordinarily active career.
I don't want to pick on Marshall. She's a competent actor with a smart career sense and she may yet have a big break-out role, but that's really beside the point. There are certain character types that show up frequently in TV shows and Paula Marshall almost perfectly matches one of those types. There are actors working in television who could have done something more surprising with the roles Marshall got (Melanie Lynskey, Missi Pyle, and Gina Bellman to name just a few) but surprise would defeat the purpose.
The point of filling a niche is to be something people expect, to fit in well with an existing framework. The appeal of this meshing is often, somewhat counter-intuitively, much stronger for the people making the shows than for the people watching them. Audiences generally like to be surprised (fans, on the other hand, usually don't, but that's a topic for another post). That's why breakout characters tend to deviate from type in one or more significant ways.
[be advised, working from memory in this paragraph] Perhaps the best known breakout character, Fonzie from Happy Days, was originally written as tall and physically imposing. When she met the diminutive Henry Winkler, Marion Ross asked creator Gary Marshall if he was right for the part. Marshall replied that Winkler "acts tall."
You can make the case, both commercially and critically, for the expected returns of casting someone who doesn't neatly fit a type, such as a Mayim Bialik, rather than one who personifies it the way a Paula Marshall often does, but that sort of rational decision making doesn't come easy for executives facing the insane stress of trying to sell a TV show.
On top of that, unconventional casting calls attention to itself. If you make an unconventional casting choice and a show fails, people will zero in on that choice to explain the failure; if you make a conventional choice and the show fails, people will be much more likely to dismiss the failure as 'one of those things.: