Tom Cruise in Goldmember

New Line Cinema

There was a time when the comedic cameo was a special, timeless treat. It would blend fiction and reality in an irresistible way, one that that might accentuate the rant of a neurotic New Yorker, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, elaborate on the subtext of comic books like Stan Lee in Mallrats, set the scene of the narrative like the many grunge cameos in Singles, or embody the dream of every struggling college student when paper-subject Kurt Vonnegut pops up to give Rodney Dangerfield some help in Back to School.

The above are all contextual, rare and so particular that they’re still remembered all these years later. They were both a viewer treat and an addition that added legitimacy to the film’s message. But what about today?

Cameos have shifted from the exception to the norm – I Love You Man, This is the End, Veronica Mars, Zombieland and The Hangover are some of the many modern comedies that throw in a cameo just to have one (some good, others not so much). There are films that get away with it – one can’t blame the 21 Jump Street folks for wanting some source material cameos, for instance – but generally, it’s about a wacky pop culture fun.

Ten years ago it was already wearing thin. In a piece at Slate, Adam Sternbergh wrote of the rising ironic cameo culture during the release of Dodgeball, and concluded: “the satire fizzled. So many people were in on the joke that it stopped being a joke at all.” The exception has become the rule.

Cameos are no longer dictated by context, but absurdity. Step by step, the surprise is becoming the expected, the memorable disappearing for the fleeting and time-dependent smirk. Can the modern cameo hope to hold the same humor ten, twenty or thirty years down the line? Time will tell, but in the interim, here’s a look at 8 films that helped make cameos the comedic norm, and don’t seem as indelibly timeless as their predecessors.

Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore

If anything ushered in the new era of unexpectedly absurd cameos, it’s Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore. The original The Price is Right host plays himself, totally peeved to be teamed with Gilmore as the ex-hockey player lands them on the bottom of the tournament scoreboard. Happy wants to fight and Bob obliges, easily besting him.

The cameo relied on a double serving of surprise – that Barker appeared (his only big-screen role) and beat the crap out of Gilmore. The cameo became an opportunity for self-indulgence, to imagine an absurd scenario for a pop culture celebrity and make it a reality.

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Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

Before Jimmy Kimmel’s viral videos, Kevin Smith was the guy to remind us that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were just as goofy as they were Oscar-winning dramatic screenwriters. As Jay and Silent Bob set out to stop a movie, they find themselves on the set of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season. Affleck’s a goof, Damon is a badass, and along with a severe lack of help from Gus van Sant, they turn their Oscar winner into some sort of action film.

The true test of comedic willingness is whether Smith’s film gets a nod when Good Will Hunting becomes a television series. As for this cameo, it helped usher in the era of friendly pop-ups – the gigs that remind us of the male friendship networks feeding Hollywood (Rogen/Apatow, etc).

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Chuck Norris & David Hasselhoff in Dodgeball

It’s no wonder that 2004’s Dodgeball was the focus of Sternbergh’s piece. The comedy structured itself around cameos, from Lance Armstrong and his testicle trauma to the two guys who made this list. All are nods to a particular moment and pop culture landscape.

As Sternbergh wrote of Hasselhoff’s cameo, “the gag only works because we know about Hasselhoff’s outsized and somewhat comical popularity in Germany.” The film reframes the cultural cameo as one of the time, and Hasselhoff is the epitome of it – his nod not referring to his celebrity or work overall, but to his location-sensitive fame.

And then there’s Chuck Norris, who is there purely for indulgence, to give a thumbs up and inspire a few quotes and F-bombs – a habit that was becoming the norm after comedies like Happy Gilmore first relished in the mix of celebrity and vulgarity.

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Brett Favre in There’s Something About Mary

Brett Favre’s cameo might seem totally random in There’s Something About Mary, and that’s because it was. Though a cameo was desired to show just how far Cameron Diaz’s allure stretched, it wasn’t actually written for Favre. He was the plug-and-play sports pop up.

As Boston sports fans, the Farellys wanted to give the role to Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe, but having just come off a mosh pit scandal, he declined. Favre ended up in the role, but only after Steve Young passed as well. It might even be the one time a character voices the audience’s response: “What the hell is Brett Favre doing here?” Matt Dillon asks.

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Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

I wonder what it must be like to watch Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle for the first time today. Does it seem strange that Barney Stinson would be high on ecstasy and change a road trip into an insane adventure? Not likely.

Though NPH had never stopped working over the years, he was still Doogie Howser to the masses in 2004, but now all grown up and doing drugs instead of being a medicinal prodigy and avid computer journaler. The cameo was a hit and reinvigorated his career. In one year he got his gig on How I Met Your Mother, and now he’s an Emmy-winning actor, show host, song and dance man, take your pick.

The cameo was time-specific, and some ten years later, without long-running syndication, its resonance has changed entirely, the cameo becoming the career.

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David Bowie in Zoolander

What do many of these films have in common? Ben Stiller. Of course, that means his wonderfully ridiculous Zoolander would be no exception. In a world of male models, many cameos come into play, none more random than David Bowie in his “I can’t believe you nabbed the space oddity” cameo.

It’s cameo on top of cameo. Billy Zane announces there will be a walk-off before he puts a cork in it, then Bowie ups the ante, arriving to judge it. It’s purely a moment to boast, as Bowie pauses on screen as a line of his “Let’s Dance” plays, and his name flashes on the screen. He isn’t there as a character, or to play off his celebrity. He’s purely there to be a cameo.

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Tom Cruise in Austin Powers in Goldmember

Finally, Tom Cruise in Goldmember (or rather, “Austinpussy”) is another good example of how pop culture cameos change. Cruise played the quintessential hot Hollywood version of the less-than-hot real source material. The basic looks and lines are there, but more polished and alluring. The cameo, of course, was nodding to Cruise’s position as the action star of Mission: Impossible and Minority Report.

But it also came right before his image explosion where star power was replaced with Scientology drama and the Oprah incident. The cameo took on a different hue, a strange nod to a time before the tabloid sensation and absurdity placed on an already absurd joke. But now, as Cruise slips back into the action mold, it look like it will change the resonance yet again. Who knows how it will read in another ten years?

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