The art of the ironic movie cameo.

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July 15 2004 4:36 PM

Chuck Norris As Himself

The art of the ironic movie cameo.

Historic irony: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!
Historic irony: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!

Whatever claims it might have on cinematic immortality, Dodgeball must be the only film in history to end with someone cursing the name of Chuck Norris. The line, delivered by Ben Stiller, is a reference to an earlier cameo in which Norris appears as himself and, serving as a member of a dodgeball judiciary board, casts the deciding vote against Stiller's team. When the camera first pans to reveal Norris, the audience instinctively laughs. Why? Because it's Chuck Norris—playing himself. In the last decade, the ironic cameo—that is, the cameo in which a celebrity shows up to mock his or her own celebrity—has proliferated to the point that no mainstream comedy seems complete without one. In Stuck On You, Meryl Streep played Meryl Streep. In 2001's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon played Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The new Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman is packed with surprise cameos, and though the celebrities aren't literally playing themselves, the intended effect is the same. In Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Roberts (David Spade) hung out with an unending string of actual former child stars, from Corey Feldman to Emmanuel Lewis to Leif Garrett. Charlie Sheen turned up in Being John Malkovich as an oily, vaguely creepy Lothario—a cinematic entity most of us instantly recognized as "Charlie Sheen."What's interesting about the "as himself" cameo is that it's no longer just a gag—as it was when Frank Sinatra popped up as the piano player in 1956's cameo-studded Around the World in 80 Days. These days, the cameo has become a kind of product placement for celebrities. Just as characters routinely swig Diet Pepsi or drive Cadillacs in implicit product endorsements, celebrities are popping up in films to hawk the one product most crucial to their success: themselves. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the ironic cameo became an obligatory go-to joke, but surely Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's role in Airplane! (1980), as a pilot who insists he's not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was a seminal advance in the field. The watershed moment may have been Robert Altman's 1992 satire The Player. The film holds some sort of record for ironic cameos: Over 60 actors, including Steve Allen, John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Burt Reynolds, and Cher, are listed in the credits as playing "himself" or "herself." For Altman, the appeal of casting so many real-life stars was obvious: It lent the film an air of verisimilitude and insider credibility. Who better to portray world-famous movie stars, after all, than actual world-famous movie stars? Even as Altman satirized Hollywood's slavish allegiance to celebrity (as with the recurring joke that no movie gets a green-light unless it stars Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis), he was able to show off just how many celebrities he could corral for his film (as with the appearances, at film's end, of Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis). With the success of The Player, this type of cameo metastasized, spreading to hip TV shows like The Larry Sanders Show. Why were big stars suddenly so willing to make fun at themselves? Because the self-mocking cameo acts like a Get Out of Jail Free card. In The Player, for example, celebrities got to portray themselves as clueless, self-absorbed stars, thus slyly saying to the audience, "We're not like the rest of those clueless, self-absorbed stars." When David Hasselhoff appears as himself in Dodgeball, berating the German dodgeball team with Teutonic curses, the gag only works because we know about Hasselhoff's outsized and somewhat comical popularity in Germany. But the joke, ironically, also flatters Hasselhoff—by mocking his own cheesiness, he seems to us a little less cheesy and a little more fun. Our relationship with celebrities also depends on our assumption that we can know what they're "really like"—and therein lies the real appeal of the ironic cameo. The cameo feels like the most intimate moment we can share with a celebrity—a moment that suggests a glimpse at their true personality. (In fact, of all the cameos in Dodgeball, Chuck Norris' is the least effective, largely because he seems oblivious as to why his appearance is funny in the first place.) When you read about Charlie Sheen's sleazy exploits in the press, you might think he's simply creepy. But when you see him making fun of that reputation in Being John Malkovich, you can't help but think he's kind of cool. He gets the joke, too, even if he's the punchline. That's the irony of the ironic cameo: While stars seem to be poking fun at our perception of them, they're actually working hard to improve that perception.

As with any joke, though, the ironic cameo becomes less and less funny with each retelling. Cameos that once seemed daring and slightly subversive—as when David Duchovny played himself as a malevolent, psychosexual stalker on Larry Sanders—now feel like mini public-relations campaigns. Once every celebrity in Hollywood has made an ironic cameo—and it feels like we're getting close—what exactly will these cameos be spoofing? Two years after The Player, for example, Altman released Ready To Wear, a satire of the fashion world. That film was also studded with cameos by models and stars, from Naomi Campbell to David Copperfield, and while it made for a great parade, the satire fizzled. So many people were in on the joke that it stopped being a joke at all.

Adam Sternbergh is a contributing editor for New York and Vulture and the author of Shovel Ready.

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