Two movies came out last weekend that tried to wring comedy from cameos. Two movies failed.
The more blatant was “Absolutely Fabulous,” a big-screen adaptation of a British television series that wasn’t at all reliant on guest stars for its humor. No matter, the movie paraded out fashion’s most fashionable, including Stella McCartney, Kate Moss, Jerry Hall, Lily Cole and Alexa Chung, not to mention Jon Hamm and Gwendoline Christie. The other movie was “Ice Age: Collision Course.” You wouldn’t expect to see a cameo in an animated kid’s movie set in Paleolithic times and yet there he was: Neil deGrasse Tyson voicing the character of a scientist named Neil deBuck Weasel.
That was the famed astrophysicist’s fourth cameo in 2016 – and quite possibly the least funny, which is saying something. He also had a bit role in “Zoolander 2,” which was less a movie and more a 102-minute conveyor belt of celebrities. There was Benedict Cumberbatch as the gender-fluid model All, Sting and Anna Wintour playing themselves and Jim Lehrer, of all people.
A tiny percentage of these cameos was worth even a sympathy chuckle. Putting Fred Armisen’s head onto a kid’s body was pretty amusing, and there were movie-goers who were pleased to see Justin Bieber get whacked. But otherwise? The overall effect was exhaustion rather than elation.
It’s odd that this needs to be said: The sight of a famous person is not inherently funny. You have to actually do something with them. Yet again and again, movies randomly insert big stars with no purpose other than to urge viewers to say to themselves, oh yeah. I know that guy.
That kind of fleeting, utterly useless familiarity is flooding just about every comedy. The rock-doc spoof “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” got every musician from T.I. to Ringo Starr to weigh in on the crooning main character; “Pitch Perfect 2” had a slew of Green Bay Packers pretending to be singers; Selena Gomez was a sorority house president in “Neighbors 2”; and 50 Cent played himself in “Spy” with barely a word of dialogue.
Cameos weren’t always this way. There have historically been many different types and all are more interesting than the current filmmaker crutch, which you might call the “recognition cameo.”
To name a few:
The Easter egg: The blink-and-you’ll-miss-them flashes include George Harrison in “Life of Brian” (which he financed) and Cate Blanchett, who showed up in “Hot Fuzz,” unrecognizable behind a hat and medical mask. Huey Lewis didn’t just sing on the soundtrack of “Back to the Future” but also appeared in a quick scene as a dweeby megaphone-wielding Battle of the Bands judge. Spotting these people is like finding Waldo.
The tribute: Best used when a filmmaker wants to pay his or her respects to some inspiration or source material. See: Leonard Nimoy in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” or Stan Lee in “Iron Man,” “Thor,” The Incredible Hulk,” “Spider-Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and, well, you get the point.
It doesn’t always succeed, and if you’ve seen the “Ghostbusters” reboot you know why. The brief scenes with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man feel more dutiful than inspired.
The wink: After a slimy monster popped out of John Hurt’s stomach in “Alien,” Mel Brooks cast the actor in “Spaceballs,” where he has the same fate. “Oh no. Not again,” he says before the tiny beast dons a top hat and starts singing an old-timey ditty.
Equally amusing: Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise tearing off disguises to reveal their faces in the movie version of “21 Jump Street.” The actors were reprising their roles from the television series, but it was also a good way to poke fun at Depp, who so often relies on heavy make-up and prosthetics in his roles. Digging deeper, Buster Keaton and other luminaries of the silent film era popped up in “Sunset Boulevard,” a movie about faded Hollywood stars.
The auteur hiya: Alfred Hitchcock’s appearances were basically Easter egg cameos, though some directors give themselves more substantive parts. Martin Scorsese proved he could act with his turn as a cab customer in “Taxi Driver” and Wes Craven paid tribute to himself in “Scream” by playing a janitor who looked suspiciously like a less withered Freddy Krueger. And who could forget Roman Polanski giving Jack Nicholson’s nostril a brutal slice in “Chinatown”?
The you-don’t-know-me: The recognition cameo can work when the script goes a step further and lets actors play against type. That’s why “This Is the End” came across more as funny than self-indulgent. Michael Cera, who seems like such a harmless guy, gets handsy with Rihanna and Emma Watson threatens people with an ax. Other examples: Matt Damon in “Eurotrip” with painted nails and multiple piercings, headlining a Blink-182 knock off band, and Bob Barker as a salty brawler in “Happy Gilmore.”
We get tastes of this kind of cameo in a lot of the recent comedies that rely on the lazier stuff. Kiefer Sutherland was silly as Hansel’s spurned lover in “Zoolander 2” and Justin Timberlake as a creepy, nerdy chef is one of the high points of “Popstar.” Another good example is Martha Stewart, who shows up as a Jell-O shot aficionado in “Bad Moms,” out this week.
The image overhaul: You know what made convicted rapist and facially tattooed ear biter Mike Tyson a lot less scary? Seeing him sing along to “In the Air Tonight” in “The Hangover.” It’s amazing what a comedic moment can do for someone’s career. Tom Cruise’s professional life was flagging after that couch-jumping incident until his well-timed turn as Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder.”
With so many funny types of cameos, why do movies keep relying on the uninspired bits?
You might blame Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell and their crew. These kinds of cameos really became popular around the time of “Zoolander” in 2001. Then came similar gags in “Starsky & Hutch,” “Dodgeball” and, most egregiously, “Anchorman.” The surprise walk-ons in that comedy show up during a massive fight between Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy and a bunch of other news crews led by Stiller, Tim Robbins and Luke Wilson. The scene was a hit with viewers, though you have to ask yourself whether it was funny because Robbins was in it or because his character was a pipe-smoking, turtleneck-wearing public news guy.
Really, these cameos seem to be more about how many famous people a director or lead actor is friends with than delivering laughs. “Anchorman 2” did essentially the same fight scene, though it upped the ante with Kanye West, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jim Carrey, Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford and Will Smith.
If it looks like bragging and it sounds like bragging, does that mean it is bragging? Maybe. But it’s definitely not comedy.