TV's Celebrity Guest Star Epidemic: What's in It for Them?

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Stunt casting TV shows is hardly new. "Name" actors have been part of some of the biggest moments in TV history (there's Sammy Davis, Jr. famously kissing Archie Bunker, and Oprah Winfrey's turn as the therapist Ellen comes out to on her '90s sitcom). And aside from contributing their celebrity spotlight to TV milestones, stars rack up ratings. It's arguable that Britney Spears single-handedly saved How I Met Your Mother from cancellation—her 2008 appearance on the series pulled a then-series-high 10.6 million viewers, led to a regular uptick ratings, a renewal at the end of the season, and ultimately a 2009 Emmy nod for Best Comedy Series.


But led by current shows like Glee, 30 Rock, and Entourage, TV seems to be in a sort of guest-star golden age. Recent episodes of these shows featured the likes of Oscar-winner Matt Damon, Michael Phelps, and even Princess Leia, and the list of celebrity cameos (both rumored and confirmed) for next season gets longer by the day. The news that Javier Bardem will appear on an episode of Glee, as a rock star who mentors one of the gleeks, follows previous rumors that everyone from Justin Timberlake to Susan Boyle to Julia Roberts will guest on the show--possibilities that are only borderline outlandish given the recent trend of big-named guest stars.

It's not just the shows that can't get enough star wattage; the celebrities themselves are angling for these short-term TV gigs more fervently than ever before. The benefits of a major guest star for the shows are fairly evident—drumming up press ink and increasing ratings—but now with the A-listers themselves so vested in scoring these spots, maybe it's time to wonder: What's in it for them?

Five theories:

1.)  Controlling Their Image

In this TMZ world, stars have little to no control over how the media and, consequently, the public perceive them. Lacking the time or—more likely—the patience to respond to the constant, often negative press about them, a one-off stint on a TV show can do wonders for image redemption.  Comedies specifically allow these celebrities to play heightened versions of themselves, simultaneously tackling misconceptions while proving to be good sports with a solid sense of humor.  

Matt Damon, for example, played a hyperbolic version of himself in a 2009 episode of Entourage. Skewering his reputation as an avid charity fundraiser, he bullies Adrian Grenier's character, moviestar Vince, into writing his charity a fat donation check. It's a brilliant parody of the celebrity do-good culture, and certainly won Damon more than a few fans in Entourage's target bro demo.


Other self-parody examples: Oprah heading to 30 Rock at the peak of its coolness for a send-up of her trademark Favorite Things; Zac Efron paying homage to his boy-next-door/sex symbol status by negotiating to appear shirtless on a Disney lunchbox on Entourage; Al Gore giving environmental tips on 30 Rock before running off because he hears a whale in trouble.


2.) Being Relevant

Appearing on the right show can also be the key to the Holy Grail for celebrities: staying relevant. The combination of Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and super smart writing catapulted 30 Rock to the forefront of industry cool, despite its low ratings. In fact its low ratings only add to its "coolness"—the thinking that it's so smart that only an exclusive audience can truly appreciate it. Hence the rare television appearances by the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Steve Martin, Oprah, and Carrie Fisher (in a particularly meta appearance as a bipolar aging writer). 30 Rock attracts major stars to its little show, but it may be that little show that's doing those stars a favor. In the brief downtime from their busy schedules, they can head over to Silvercup Studios, film for a few hours—a couple of days at most—and when their episode airs, bask in the buzz about how hip they are.

And you can't mention buzz without bringing up Glee, which exploded with it this past TV season. Seemingly every day a new star is jockeying to be part of the show. It's easy to see why: after years of critical respect, Emmy and Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth may finally be a household name thanks to her turn on the series. Olivia Newton-John may have at last transcended "that girl from Grease" status to the new generation, and Neil Patrick Harris—if possible—is even more beloved after their respective appearances. So for stars like Katie Holmes and Jennifer Lopez, who are rumored to be in talks for guest spots, and the already confirmed (and currently mired in scandal) John Stamos, it's the ideal show for career resurgence.


3.)  Winning Emmys

It's appropriate that 30 Rock has an entire arc devoted to Tracy Morgan's character's quest for EGOT—winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony—considering the show has become the stop for actors needing to pick the E part of the quartet. It's gotten 16 Guest Acting nominations across its four seasons. And though 30 Rock has had a recent stronghold, the Emmys tend to favor famous actors in this category in general. Stars like Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts scored their only Emmy nominations as guest actors. Glee even scored three noms in the category this year. It may not be the reason big stars head to TV, but the notion of being introduced as "Emmy nominee..." for the rest of their lives likely lurks in the back of their minds. Plus, it's a whole lot easier to nab that statue for trading a few one-liners with Alec Baldwin than it is for anchoring 26 episodes of an hour-long drama.

4.)  Showing Off

By the time the McKinley High choir of misfits hit the final notes of "Don't Stop Believing" in the Glee pilot, every Broadway star, musician, and musical theatre fan was calling up their agent. For the first time in a long time, there's a venue in Hollywood for showcasing that particular brand of talent. The casting of New York theater vets Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison had Broadway fans giddy, eventually leading to Tony nominees Idina Menzel and Jonathan Groff landing their first major TV roles. Musically inclined actors and acting inclined musicians are chomping at the bit to join the ranks of Neil Patrick Harris and rap star Eve as guests on the hot show. In the case of Javier Bardem—who was originally set to play Daniel Day-Lewis' part in the musical Nine—it's the opportunity to show the full range of an actors' talents. And as Mad Men star Jon Hamm's stint on 30 Rock proved, a guest spot can help actors largely known for dramatic work prove they have comedic chops as well.

5.)  Making Money

It shouldn't be a surprise that big stars command big paychecks, and guest acting is no exception. Hollywood agent Jamie Gold told E! Online: "It's a case-by-case basis, but the charge can be $10,000 to $1 million. Even more." Gold also says that even actors who claim only the Screen Actors Guild day rate for a "major performer" rake in between $3,000-$6,200. So though it's very sweet of Lisa Kudrow to help out "Friend" Courteney Cox by guest starring on Cougar Town, Phoebe doesn't work for free. It could also explain why people like Pauly Shore and Ralph Macchio agree to playing largely unflattering versions of themselves on Entourage.


As it becomes increasingly popular, the celebrity casting craze is being met with its far share of criticism. 30 Rock's been accused of going overboard with its use of guest stars, particularly after the Megan Mullally-Oprah-Jen Aniston-Steve Martin four episode run last season received mixed reviews. It will certainly be interesting to see how Glee manages yet more characters amongst an ensemble cast so bloated I'm not certain some "regular" characters even have names. But despite concerns that it sacrifices quality, the celebrity guest star trend shows no sign of slowing. Richard Dreyfus is heading to Weeds, Ricky Gervais will be on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Joe Jonas, Betty White, and Joan Cusack have all announced guest spots on various shows. It's only a matter of time until Lady Gaga sings "Imagine" on Glee.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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