Generally speaking, a television show falls into one of two categories: drama or comedy. A celebrity cameo in a drama sees the celebrity usually portraying a character in such a way that the character isn’t seen as the celebrity. Take almost any cameo in Grey’s Anatomy, for example — the celebrity is in the hospital with some tragic disease with festering boils covering their face, or Questlove‘s cameo as a dead body on an episode of Law & Order: SVU (you might say his cameo killed). A comedy, on the other hand, sees the celebrity appear as a fictionalized comical version of themselves or as a character with a bizarre reason for showing up. And when it works, it becomes a touchstone moment in the history of the show.
Dr. Stephen Hawking in The Big Bang Theory
One of the great mysteries of The Big Bang Theory, apart from how waitress Penny (Kaley Cuoco) could afford such a nice apartment, is how the group often somehow crossed paths with celebrities like James Earl Jones or Elon Musk. But you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that thought not only would famed intellectual Stephen Hawking appear on the show, and frequently, but that he would be absolutely hilarious. From his verbal takedown of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) after beating him at Words With Friends to his painfully slow rendition of “Happy Birthday” (in an episode that also featured Batman himself, Adam West), Hawking’s self-deprecating and witty cameos were always a highlight of the show.
Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in Friends
Of all the celebrity cameos on Friends, by far the most memorable has to be the one-two comedic punch of legends Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in the opening scene of Season 3 episode, “The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion.” Playing Tomas and Tim, the two ask the group if they can make room on the sofa for them. Upon sitting, Williams and Crystal break into a hilarious conversation as Tomas (Williams) claims his wife is having an affair with her gynecologist, but it turns out to be Tim (Crystal). Tomas then storms out of Central Perk, with Tim sheepishly following behind. It’s vintage material from the two, who famously simply showed up on set and improvised the whole thing in one take.
The Vampiric Council in What We Do In The Shadows
Season 1, Episode 7 (“The Trial”) of FX’s What We Do In The Shadows series sees the vampires stand before an international vampire council on murder charges. Following a Suspiria-like dance sequence, the leader of the Vampire Council steps forward, removes her hood, and… it’s Tilda Swinton, styled after the vampire she played in Only Lovers Left Alive. Mind blown? Just wait. Soon the other vampires reveal themselves: Paul Reubens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Wesley Snipes (Blade) via Skype, and Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, and Jonny Brugh reprising their roles from the WWDITS movie. They also reference Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys), and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt (Interview with the Vampire) as being unable to make it. It’s completely out of left field as the show had largely eschewed cameos prior, so it’s not only a pleasant surprise but very, very funny indeed.
Snoop Dogg in Trailer Park Boys
Bizarre cameo, or mind-numbingly perfect? However you look at it, Snoop Dogg‘s arrival to Sunnyvale in Season 10 is a winner. Drawn to the park by the promise of “all you can smoke” weed, Snoop and his entourage (including Tom Arnold, along for the Trailer Park Boys “superfan experience”) show up, and it’s everything you hoped it could be, and more. Snoop rapping with Bubbles (Mike Smith) alone is worth the price of admission (Warning: Link is NSFW).
Bill Murray in Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation is no stranger to celebrity cameos, with heavy-hitters like Michelle Obama, Heidi Klum, even current President Joe Biden and his wife Jill. They scored a major coup, though, with the Season 7 appearance of the notoriously private Bill Murray (the story of getting him on board is worth a read). Murray would appear as the often alluded to, but never seen, Mayor Walter Gunderson in Season 7’s “Two Funerals” episode. In the episode, Mayor Gunderson has died, and at the memorial service there he lies, Bill Murray. A pre-recorded video message of Mayor Gunderson is played, where the deceased mayor speaks directly to the mourners. It was worth the six season plus wait to finally meet the mayor, as Murray is pitch-perfect in a mostly improvised role.
Al Gore in 30 Rock
Season 2 episode “Greenzo” sees Jack (Alec Baldwin) tasked with a way to make money from the “environmentalism trend,” leading him to cast Jared (David Schwimmer) as Greenzo, “America’s first non-judgmental, business-friendly environmental advocate.” Schwimmer is hilarious in the episode, taking Greenzo from success to “full mental Ross,” a self-absorbed, critical (and drunk) failure. It’s a great cameo… but not the best one of the episode. That plaudit belongs to Al Gore, who Jack tries to trick into replacing Greenzo. Gore is not above poking a bit of fun at himself as an environmental crusader, changing light bulbs in the studio, and in a perfectly delivered moment he listens into the air, boldly proclaims, “A whale is in trouble! I have to go”, and throws off his suit jacket, à la Clark Kent.
Bette Midler in Seinfeld
Bette Midler appears in “The Understudy” episode, playing, well, herself, and it is one of the greatest cameos in the history of Seinfeld. Midler is the lead in Rochelle, Rochelle: The Musical, and plays catcher for the Rochelle Rochelle team in a charity softball game against Jerry’s (Jerry Seinfeld) Improv team. She gets injured after George (Jason Alexander) runs into her, knocking her out and making her unavailable for the Broadway premiere. As she recovers in the hospital, Midler goes all out, playing the diva to pure comic extremes, a performer in her element.
This cameo lands squarely on the bizarre side simply because of how meta it is. Follow along! In the Season 2 episode “Critical Film Studies,” Community‘s Abed (Danny Pudi) mentions that he had been on the set of Cougar Town, and that the producers of the show let him be an extra for a scene. Abed then confesses that his hands went numb and he “pooped his pants” before the end of filming. Fast-forward two months, and in Cougar Town‘s Season 2 finale, Laurie Keller (Busy Phillips) and Travis Cobb (Dan Byrd) are seen sitting outside a Subway. Sitting behind them? That’s right, Abed, looking directly at the characters and rushing offscreen as the scene ends. Got it? To sum up, it’s a cameo by an actor as a character from another show in a different show. Easy peezy lemon squeezy.
Prince in New Girl
Another notoriously private celebrity, Prince appears as Prince in “Prince” in Season 3 of New Girl. Jess (Zooey Deschanel) and Cece (Hannah Simone) leave for a party at Prince’s house, after an awkward moment between Jess and Nick (Jake Johnson), the notorious I said “I Love You” and she didn’t say it back trope. Nick crashes the party and finds Jess, who is scared to admit she loves Nick too. Who comes to the rescue? Prince, who doles out advice, a makeover, a song performance, and a game of table tennis with Cece. The music legend proves to be a pretty good comic actor, something he showcased previously in an episode of Muppets Tonight in 1997.
Adam Sandler in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Adam Sandler makes a memorable cameo in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, playing himself in the Season 1 episode “Operation Broken Feather.” In the episode, Jake (Andy Samberg) and Amy (Melissa Fumero) are on the hunt for a jewelry thief, making a stop at an auction where Jake takes over as auctioneer, hoping to spot the main suspect. But he is bad at it, like monumentally so, leading to a tete-a-tete between Sandler and his That’s My Boy co-star Samberg. Sandler plays a quieter Sandler, making the scene that much funnier as he derides Jake’s auctioning skills, confesses to being a serious collector of antiquities, and is currently “writing a movie about the Russian Revolution” (with Kevin James as Trotsky).
Randall Park in The Office
The Office‘s cold opens offer up some of the best moments in the series’ run, particularly when they showcase Jim’s (John Krasinski) pranks on Dwight (Rainn Wilson). One of the greatest has to be in the Season 9 episode “Andy’s Ancestry,” a scene that makes a comic masterpiece, thanks to guest star Randall Park. Park is an exceptional comic actor, and in the scene he plays Steve, aka “Asian Jim.” Steve comes to work as Jim, looking the part, only Asian. Dwight is adamant that Steve isn’t Jim, but questions himself when “Jim” says he’s always been Asian (“Hats off to you for not seeing race”), knows the sales figures from the other day, and knows the real Jim’s voicemail password. And in a masterful moment, Dwight shuts down when Pam (Jenna Fischer) kisses “Asian Jim” and reveals a family portrait with Steve as Jim.
Jon Lovitz in Friends
The single greatest, most bizarre, hands-down best cameo ever has to be Jon Lovitz as Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) blind date in the Friends episode “The One With the Blind Dates”, with a close second to his cameo as a stoned restaurateur in “The One With the Stoned Guy”. No description does them justice.