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

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

Presented by

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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