First, for those of you who are new here (i.e. just about everyone), thanks for stopping by. Sadly, not all my entries are written as letters to Damon Lindelof. Most are about television, though, and hopefully with a touch of humor here and there. And that’s exactly what you’re about to read. Or ignore. Your choice.
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts at work yesterday, NPR/Monkey See’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I highly recommend this particular podcast to anyone who cares about pop culture analysis and/or enjoys laughing. One of this week’s topics was stunt casting, defined by tvtropes.org as “hiring of a big-name actor to play a supporting role.” In my mind, this can only go one of two ways: very, very well or very, very poorly. I don’t have the sunniest view of stunt casting in general. I think it has the potential to distract from whatever else is going on in the episode, and pretty cheaply at that. However, there are times that it works beautifully. Here are some examples of both.
Jon Hamm as Andrew Baird, 30 Rock
Jon Hamm’s rise to prominence in the entertainment world is a fairly recent development, thanks entirely to his role as the irresistibly charismatic ad executive Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men. Because of this, it can be difficult to see him outside that persona. But Hamm proved his comic chops with his turn as the ridiculously handsome but semi-idiotic Andrew Baird on 30 Rock. A great comic foil for love interest and lead Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Hamm showed that he can be funny and has a sense of humor about his role in pop culture.
Jack Black as Buddy, Community
It’s close to impossible to think of Jack Black as anyone but Jack Black. But in Community, he was able to perfectly embody a role: Buddy, a Greendale student desperate to join the stars of the Spanish study group. This leads to an excellent cold opening, a well-crafted B-plot, and a bit of even crazier stunt casting with Owen Wilson as the leader of a cooler study group. Community’s stunt casting is generally quite good, with Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) ex-husband in a Cosby sweater and LeVar Burton as himself and Troy’s (Donald Glover) greatest hero. But this one was the first, and may well have been the funniest.
Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni as themselves, The X-Files
As with Community, The X-Files does well with stunt casting, whether it’s Michael McKean as a swarthy secret organization’s operative or Luke Wilson as a charming Texas ranger and vampire. But the best example comes with what might be referred to as one 42-minute stunt, the delightfully goofy “Hollywood A.D.” There’s a movie being made about FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni, playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, have been cast as the leads. Shandling’s eccentricity and Leoni’s crush on her real life husband Duchovny make for yet another entertaining set piece in a great bit of X-Files history.
John Hodgman as Dr. Gerard, Battlestar Galactica
Make no mistake: I really appreciate John Hodgman and his contributions to geek/pseudo-intellectual culture. But I think it was a misstep on the part of BSG’s producers to recruit him for a one-off role as a neurosurgeon in “No Exit,” what is otherwise a pretty somber episode. Sam Anders (Michael Trucco) is almost completely brain dead, Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) explains that one of the Cylon models is forever extinct, and then there’s Hodgman, yukking it up in the corner. His presence is distracting, and the people behind BSG were wise to never try something like this before or again.
Jennifer Lopez as Anita, How I Met Your Mother
HIMYM loves stunt casting. It loves it too much. And this was never more obvious than when Jennifer Lopez came around to play a relationship expert and potentially have sex with Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). “Of Course” was an episode that generally fell flat, with a bizarre song break for Ted’s (Josh Radnor) “Super Date” and the strangeness of Robin (Cobie Smulders) showing what might have been misplaced emotional vulnerability. But Lopez was the weakest part. There was nothing about her performance that didn’t shout, “Look, it’s Jennifer Lopez!” And that’s the biggest mistake a stunt casting choice can make.
Stephen Tobolowsky as Professor Sheffield, Community
What, you thought I didn’t have it in me to critique Community? I don’t think it was Tobolowsky’s fault that his appearance as a Who’s The Boss? scholar fell flat. Tobolowsky is a brilliant character actor, but in “Competitive Wine Tasting,” he was wasted (no pun intended). His was relegated to a C plot and got approximately 5 minutes on screen to be wacky and move along. Between this and Katharine McPhee, Community isn’t perfect at casting recognizable celebrities in random roles.