Celebrity cameos are a tricky business. Sure, they can provide an initial surprise for the audience, but if a television series isn't careful, they can end up feeling as awkward and forced as Fonzie jumping over a shark or Indiana Jones flying through the air in a fridge. Plus, few things date a project quicker than a forced cameo, particularly when it's clear that said project is wearing thin on content, and attempting to hide it by throwing celebrities on the screen and making it the basis of entire subplots. They may as well have a giant neon sign that read "get it!?" whenever they appear.
Several of the cameos on the list below exemplifies this. From misplaced attempts to capitalize on popular acts to seemingly harmless appearances made sinister by time. Fortunately, we also have cases of cameos done right, where the celebrity in question has placed their tongue firmly in their cheek and delivered a standout episode.
Here are 8 Celebrity Cameos That Completely Hurt Their TV Shows (And 8 That Stole The Show).
As the most recent entry on the list, Ed Sheeran’s stint on Game of Thrones is one of the more confounding instances of a celebrity cameo. Mostly, because Game of Thrones, with its tight narratives and dense characterization, seems like the last show on television that would try to cram in a popular face. Yet, here we are. Sheeran plays a young soldier who says a few lines, and then, rather appropriately given his pop credentials, sings a song. It's actually not a bad performance on Sheeran’s part, as his looks and soulful vocals fall in line with the somber tone of the series, but the problem lies with the presentation of his performance.
It's impossible to watch the episode and not be instantly taken out of the story by seeing the guy who sings “Shape of You” and is BFFs with Taylor Swift.
There’s no getting around it. As a condolence prize, however, the internet promptly exploded with Sheeran memes, gifs, and reaction videos, extrapolating hours of entertainment from one mildly interesting scene. Not a bad exchange.
Prince, one of the greatest musicians of all time, was also one of the most selective. He rarely licensed his music out and when he appeared onscreen, it was usually as the star of his own directorial efforts (Under the Cherry Moon, Graffiti Bridge). The one notable exception to this was when he appeared in a 2014 episode of New Girl. The Purple One was reportedly a huge fan of the Zooey Deschanel comedy, to the extent that it was actually him who contacted series creator Liz Meriwether regarding a guest spot.
The results, as anyone who's seen the episode (simply titled “Prince”) can attest, are hilarious. Jessica Day bumps into the singer at a party and opens up to him regarding her fear of romantic commitment. Prince, who reportedly contributed to the script, is just as smooth and just as strange as you hoped he would be. He inexplicably teaches Day to accept herself by beating her at ping pong, playing dress up, and, in one of the most Prince-ish moments ever, instructing a butterfly to land on his shoulder. Celebrity cameos don’t get much better than this.
Kevin Federline, or K-Fed as he’s
affectionately known to some, has a long list of cameo roles to his name, including stints on Will & Grace and One Tree Hill.
None were cause for celebration, but compared to his brief, utterly cringe-worthy turn in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, they seemed downright Emmy-worthy.
Federline plays a punk by the name of Cole Tritt (a perfect name for a punk), who decides its a good idea to taunt members of the CSI team during an investigation. It doesn’t take long for one of them to haul off and punch Tritt square in the face, a cathartic experience no doubt, but one that causes Tritt to cry police brutality and invite further provocation. Tritt is eventually revealed to be the culprit, though even as he’s led away in handcuffs, he continues to irritate by making squealing pig sounds. We’ll admit there’s some fun in seeing the former backup dancer play this role, but it comes at the expense of taking the rest of the episode seriously.
The circumstances under which Michael Jackson appeared on The Simpsons episode “Stark Raving Dead” are fascinating. Jackson asked that he not be credited by his real name, but by the alias “John Jay Smith.” To make matters even stranger, the character he voices, Leon Kompowsky, is a patient at an insane asylum because he believes himself to be The King of Pop. Jackson recorded all of Kompowsky’s dialogue, but when it came time for the character to sing renditions of “Billie Jean,” “Ben,” and, an original song, “Happy Birthday, Lisa”, he refused. He wanted an impersonator, Kipp Lennon, to sing them, because he thought it would be funny.
To further complicate things, CBR reports that Jackson also recorded the songs, causing some fans to insist that it is his voice on the official episode. Regardless, “Stark Raving Dad” is a classic Simpsons episode largely in part to Jackson, who brings his eccentricities and his energy to the cartoon world without missing a beat.
As the world’s first attempt at Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton pioneered many a bad modern trend, from faux-singing careers to gaudy cameos in film and television. We could essentially pull up her IMDb page and pick her entry at random, but we ultimately decided to go with her brief appearance in the Supernatural episode “Fallen Idols.” Hilton plays a pagan goddess named Leshii, who shape-shifts into the idols of her victims in order to eliminate them and obtain the sacrifices it needs to survive.
The cast are convincing enough in their fear, but at the end of the day, it is Paris Hilton, so the threshold for taking her scenes seriously is fairly low.
And while it is kind of funny to see Hilton riff on her own public image (“People adored me, they used to throw themselves at me!”), it's an image that’s so vapid and lifeless that there isn’t much to wring from it after a while. She wears out her welcome before her brief time onscreen is over. Definitely “not hot.”
While Matt Damon killed whenever he showed up on 30 Rock, we’d like to point to his hilarious turn on Will & Grace as his best celebrity cameo. In the 2002 episode “t”, Damon plays Owen, Jack’s (Sean Hayes) rival for a spot in the esteemed Gay Men’s Chorus. Jack will stop at nothing to win and hits the jackpot when he discovers that Owen is not gay, but in fact a straight guy who just likes choral music. The scene where he’s outed is especially hilarious, as the chorus catches him putting the moves on Grace (Debra Messing).
Damon tackles the role with gusto, keeping up with Hayes’ motormouthed antics while cleverly skewering his own movie star persona. Seeing the guy who would play Jason Bourne sing and dance to showtunes is funny enough, let alone a hilarious meta-joke where, upon intense questioning, Damon says his boyfriend is a high school sweetheart named Ben; a playful nod to his famous BFF, Ben Affleck.
There was a time in the mid-2000s when Chris Brown was the nice guy of R&B, when his boyish falsetto and infectious smile made him the safe alternative to adult bad boys like Usher. Needless to say, times have changed. Brown has spent the last decade becoming the posterboy for troubled artists, with countless arrests and controversies to his name. All remnants of his prior charm have become insufferable, but perhaps none more so than his stint on the teen drama The O.C.
During the show’s fourth season, Brown plays high school student Will Tutt, a lonely band geek who gets bullied despite the fact that he looks and behaves exactly like a pop superstar.
Even if the “Loyal” singer were a capable enough actor to pull the role off (he’s not), he’s forced to deliver groan-worthy lines like “I'm not like the other guys at this school. I don't play water polo” and “All books should be written from the point of view of a dog.”
While The Big Bang Theory may be grating to some, there’s no denying the all-star list of celebrity cameos they’ve amassed over the years, from Leonard Nimoy and Stan Lee to Stephen Hawking. The one that tops them all, however, is a dual effort from Star Wars actors James Earl Jones and the late Carrie Fisher. The episode “ gives both a chance to flash their dazzling comedic chops. “Let me guess, you like Star Wars?” Jones bellows at a stunned Sheldon, “You know, I’ve been in other movies!”
Still, the biggest laughs come when Jones and Sheldon go to Fisher’s home and attempt to prank her (“She’s a little crazy so get ready to run!”). The always sharp Fisher brings it home with a bitter “It’s not funny anymore James!” Though the scenes are brief, they are utterly delightful, especially given that Jones and Fisher were officially introduced on the set, after decades of not knowing one another. The result, especially in light of Fisher’s recent passing, is a charming tribute to both of them.
Who thought this was a good idea? By itself, Friends was a charming show that managed a surprising number of memorable cameos. By himself, Jean Claude Van Damme was a capable, if stoic, action star that managed a surprising number of trashy classics (Bloodsport, Hard Target, Timecop). Putting these two together was like mixing mayonnaise with peanut butter, and the episode, that resulted was just as unpleasant. In “The One After The Superbowl Part 2”, Van Damme plays a fictionalized version of himself who catches Monica’s (Courtney Cox) eye, only to reveal that he has the hots for Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) instead.
The chemistry between Van Damme and his leading ladies is virtually nonexistent, a fact that’s compounded by one of the worst meet-cute scenes in any show, period.
The Muscles from Brussels is so obviously at his best when he’s talking less and fighting more, and by reversing this very simple rule, Friends showed a side of him we never really cared to see. All jokes aside though, go check out Van Damme in the superb 2008 film JCVD.
Far from the finest actress, Britney Spears’ standout cameo in How I Met Your Mother is an example of what good timing and funny writing can do. The pop singer had just come off her infamous public breakdown in 2007 and was in the midst of rebuilding her brand, to the extent that a television appearance was seen as something of a comeback. Spears made the most of it, playing a vengeful and ditzy receptionist who was once engaged to Barney (Neil Patrick Harris).
Members of the cast praised her comedic chops, with Jason Segel saying “She came up with stuff that had everyone laughing, she’s definitely a comedian.” Audiences seemed to agree, as the pair of episodes she appeared in, “Ten Sessions” and “Everything Must Go”, drew strong ratings across the board. Series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas even credited Spears for helping stave off cancellation. “It can’t be overstated!” Bays explained, “Britney rescued us from ever being on the bubble again.”
Baywatch wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of television acting back in the day, but some guest stars made David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson look deep by comparison. We could’ve given this spot to a number of celebrities, but the one that takes the cake, by virtue of sheer force, is the combination of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. The WWE legends wipe out big time in the episode “ and if the sight of shapely lifeguards carrying Hogan to safety isn’t enough to break you, than The Hulkster’s lame pickup lines after waking up (“What do you know? I did get to heaven!”) will be.
The cheese levels reach unfathomable levels after that, as Hogan and Savage team up with the Baywatch crew to take down The Nature Boy himself, Ric Flair.
There’s something about Flair wanting to close down the local center for troubled youth,and being generally sleazy. It’s all just an excuse for the boys to take their trash-talking out of the ring and onto the beach, a crossover that doesn’t compliment either side.
Whereas Jean Claude Van Damme was a masterclass in how not to cameo on Friends, Winona Ryder is an example of how to do it right. The Oscar-nominated actress was reportedly a huge fan of the show and jumped at the chance to play the flighty, lovelorn Melissa Warburton, an old college chum of Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston). Their relationship is a tenuous one, as the episode title “The One With Rachel’s Big Kiss “ might imply, but the chemistry between Ryder and Aniston is superb, and makes for great recurring jokes throughout.
As fans have been quick to point out, however, Ryder’s appearance as Melissa does cause a bit of a continuity issue, as Ryder the actress exists within the Friends universe. In “The One With The Ultimate Fighting Champion,” Ross (David Schwimmer) calls a restaurant and tells them that they reservations under the name Winona Ryder and in “The One With Frank, Jr.” Ross includes her on a list of celebrities he was allowed to sleep with while dating Rachel. Maybe it's a just coincidence?
In the hypothetical rankings of *NSYNC members who can act, Lance Bass places at the bottom. It's not that JC Chasez or Joey Fatone are talented thespians or that Justin Timberlake’s acting career isn’t largely excused because he was in The Social Network, but Bass’ permanent smirk and halting delivery are impossible hurdles to get over. Anyone who thinks otherwise clearly hasn’t seen his turn on 7th Heaven.
In this painful display of favoring trendiness over performance, Bass plays Rick Palmer, a character defined in large part by his green v-neck sweater and his frosted tips.
As the internet has pointed out, however, Bass’ performance does result in a few moments of unintentional comedic gold. The incredibly cheesy bit about Rick joining Habitat for Humanity had he known about all the cute girls who would be involved is a fan favorite, but it's tough to compete with the stoner babble wisdom of the line “Friends don’t kiss friends.” The lack of awareness, the weird conviction, the pause that follows-- it's a zen moment in the pantheon of bad cameos.
Despite countless incarnations in film and television, Christopher Reeve remains, for many, the definitive Superman. His tenure as the Son of Krypton captured all that was inspirational and kind about the character, while maintaining an inner-struggle, a depth, that lent gravitas to his actions. Reeve’s career was tragically cut short in 1995, when a horseback-riding accident paralyzed him from the neck down, but that didn’t stop Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar from casting him in the episodes “Rosetta” and “Sacred.”
Reeve plays Dr. Virgil Swann, a reclusive scientist who informs Clark Kent (Tom Welling) of his extraterrestrial lineage. The scenes between him and Welling are packed with emotion, as we are watching one Superman pass the mantle to the other. “You won’t find the answers by looking at the stars,” Swann affirms, “ It’s a journey you’ll have to take by looking inside yourself. You must write your own destiny.” Reeve died in October 2004, making the character a touching, and ultimately fitting, swan song.
It seemed like Donald Trump was everywhere in the 80s and 90s, with appearances in hit films as well as shows like The Jeffersons, The Nanny, and Sex and the City. None of them have aged particularly well, as is to be expected, but the one that seems to linger the worst is when Trump drops by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to give some advice in the 1994 episode “For Sale by Owner.”
The future President causes such a stir, in fact, that Carlton Banks (Alfonso Ribeiro) faints at the sight of him.
Excluding the fact that Trump was, and will always be, an awkward screen presence, his lines range from the painfully unfunny (“I like keeping a low profile”) to the uncomfortably prophetic, like when he says “Everybody’s always blaming me for everything.” The scene is over and done with before we even have time to process it, leaving us with a strange, ill-fitting ending to an otherwise enjoyable Fresh Prince episode.
While Johnny Depp’s career as a leading man has been bumpy over the past few years, there’s no denying his knack for cameo work. He nearly stole the show from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in the 21 Jump Street reboot and promptly sent the internet into a frenzy when he (or at least, his likeness) appeared in a 2016 episode of The Walking Dead. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Rick Grimes looks down at an arrangement of decapitated heads on the floor. The first head is of football player Hines Ward, the second was of musician Scott Ian, but it is the Oscar-nominated Depp, as head number three, who leaves the biggest impression.
After fans speculated as to whether it was actually Depp, special effects artist and Walking Dead producer Greg Nicotero confirmed it in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble if I say this, [it] was Johnny Depp. I think we had sculpted an emaciated version of a dummy head for something and we used Johnny Depp’s head as a basis for a clay sculpt.” Cleverly done, especially considering the actor didn’t even have to be on set.
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