1. Nathan Fillion, Castle
Fans of the ill-fated Firefly weren’t able to let the short-lived series slip into oblivion without a fight. And while Nathan Fillion, who played the show’s wisecracking spaceship captain Malcolm Reynolds, moved on to play the novelist-turned-detective Richard Castle on ABC’s Castle, he clearly still has a soft spot for Firefly. In the episode “Vampire Weekend,” Fillion shows off his Halloween costume to his teenage daughter Alexis—a getup that looks suspiciously like Mal’s. When Alexis asks what he’s supposed to be, Fillion shrugs and answers, “Space cowboy,” while a sly approximation of Firefly’s incidental music plays in the background. Alexis retorts, “Didn’t you wear that, like, five years ago? Don’t you think you should move on?”
2. John Travolta, From Paris With Love
One of the most memorable bits of dialogue in Pulp Fiction comes early in the film when John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discuss the cultural differences between America and Europe. “You know what they call the Quarter Pounder With Cheese?” Travolta asks Jackson. After taking a second to scoff at the metric system, he answers his own question: “The Royale With Cheese.” Travolta played an even crazier—though far less charismatic—tough guy in 2009’s From Paris With Love, but he felt the need to heat up that leftover quip by making another crack about the Royale With Cheese—you know, seeing as how he was in Europe and all.
3. Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
In “The Bracket,” a How I Met Your Mother episode heavily hyped by CBS during the 2008 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Neil Patrick Harris’ horndog character Barney Stinson tries to narrow down which of his former conquests is sending him threatening messages. His method? Entering all their names into a bracket, March Madness style, and pairing them off to see who hates him most. “The Bracket” is a funny episode, making good use of all the HIMYM hallmarks: an unusual storytelling structure, a mythology-rich take on mundane youthful indiscretions, and so on. And then there’s the stinger: “The Bracket” ends with Barney writing about his experience while staring thoughtfully off into the distance, just as Harris used to do in his role as teen doctor Doogie Howser. In the background, the Doogie “wrapping up” music cue plays—though the lessons Barney’s learned about his life probably shouldn’t be repeated.
4. Bruce Willis, Cop Out
In the referential buddy-cop comedy Cop Out, Tracy Morgan takes to the interrogation room, ready to play bad cop for the suspect. Bruce Willis warns viewers that Morgan’s version of bad cop is simply a hodgepodge of his favorite lines from movies and TV, and it’s true: Morgan riffs on everything from Heat and Star Wars to Schindler’s List and Beetlejuice, with cuts back to Willis, who interprets the scenes for the audience as if the two are playing charades. The punchline comes in one of Morgan’s final choices: Bruce Willis as officer John McClane from 1988’s Die Hard. Willis’ response from the observation room, after Morgan shouts, “Yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker”? “I’ve never seen that movie.” It’s every bit as groan-inducing and lifeless as it sounds.
5. Henry Winkler and Scott Baio, Arrested Development
Arrested Development loved to have fun with the onscreen history of its cast; its writers deployed sly metahumor the way Three’s Company leaned on mistaken-identity plots. Jason Bateman’s real-life sister, Justine, was brought in to play a character who might have been his character’s sister. Producer and uncredited announcer Ron Howard showed a vested interest in defending the honor of Andy Griffith. And Dan Castellaneta shows up as a doctor who says “D’oh!” when he makes a mistake. But the best wink at the show’s TV-savvy audience involved the casting of Henry Winkler, famous for playing Arthur Fonzarelli on Happy Days, as Bluth family attorney Barry Zuckerkorn. At a critical moment in the stellar second season, he enacts one of the most legendarily disastrous moments in television by literally jumping over a shark. The casting also set up another great moment later on, when Scott Baio came in (as attorney Bob Loblaw) to replace the incompetent Zuckerkorn—and to confess that it wasn’t the first time he replaced Winkler, to “skew younger.”
6. Alan Alda, 30 Rock
Like Arrested Development, NBC’s 30 Rock frequently makes self-referential gags about its cast and guest stars. (One great bit involved an aging comedy writer played by Carrie Fisher yelling “Help me, Liz Lemon! You’re my only hope!”) But the one that got the biggest laugh may have been the appearance of Alan Alda, the onetime star of TV’s M*A*S*H, as Jack Donaghy’s father. Wandering around the study in time to halfway-hear a story being related by Tracy Jordan, he asks: “A guy crying about a chicken and a baby? I thought this was supposed to be a comedy show!” Fans who tuned into the last episode of M*A*S*H—and critics who fretted over 30 Rock’s sometimes-clumsy attempts to incorporate drama into its humor—took a few seconds to get the joke, then gave it the huge laughs it deserved.
7. John Lithgow, 3rd Rock From The Sun
One of the elements that rescued 3rd Rock From The Sun from being a sitcom mediocrity was its extremely game cast, and no one was more up for any old absurd scene the writers could dream up than lead actor/ham sandwich John Lithgow. He seemed to take special pleasure in sending up characters he’d played elsewhere; at various points in the show’s run, he goofed on his roles in The World According To Garp, recited his character’s speech from Footloose word for word, and—alongside William Shatner, no less—discussed a frightful airline incident reminiscent of the Twilight Zone story in which both starred—Shatner in the ’60s and Lithgow in its ’80s big screen remake. Lithgow always seemed to be enjoying himself in such moments, and especially in the multi-part second-season arc where he played both his own character and “Evil Dick,” a sinister figure who constantly mocked his predecessor’s mild-mannered demeanor. It worked great on its own, but was especially funny for those who saw Lithgow do essentially the same routine in Brian De Palma’s underrated Raising Cain, playing an evil character who constantly mocks the sort of pleasantly sensitive types that Lithgow usually takes on in other movies.
8. Dustin Hoffman, The Simpsons
Not surprisingly, The Simpsons is the television champion of the self-referential game. From Sideshow Bob's brother, Cecil (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), invoking the name of Maris to Lisa Simpson snickering about a joke she saw on Herman’s Head, the show did meta before meta was a tired, frequently misused buzzword. Its best effort was when Dustin Hoffman—uncredited in his role as Lisa’s substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom, which made viewers work a bit harder to penetrate the joke—runs into an amorous Edna Krabappel, who tries to lure him into a tawdry affair. Echoing the most famous line his character spoke in The Graduate, Hoffman says “Mrs. Krabappel, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?” as the animators deliver a perfect visual nod to the famous scene. But Mr. Bergstrom gets a very different answer than The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock.
9. Dan Castellaneta, L.A. Law
Dan Castellaneta’s 1992 appearance on L.A. Law came at an odd juncture for both the venerable legal series and The Simpsons. The latter was still a white-hot phenomenon; the former had started a long dive in the ratings after years of being one of TV’s most talked-about shows. Castellaneta appeared in L.A. Law’s seventh-season première, the first under new co-executive producers John Tinker and John Massius, late of St. Elsewhere. Charged with reviving the show, they decided to take it in a lighter direction. They also, by necessity, had to deal with the 1992 riots that flared up during the show’s hiatus. Thus, to balance out all the violence and racial strife, viewers also got the tale of an amusement-park worker (Castellaneta) suing for wrongful termination. His specialty character? Homer Simpson, which allowed the show to put the voice of Homer inside a Homer costume. Tinker and Massius lost their jobs at mid-season.
10. Marlon Brando, The Freshman
In one of this 1990 Andrew Bergman comedy’s sharpest twists, it’s revealed that the character of Carmine Sabatini (played by Marlon Brando) served as the inspiration for Don Corleone in the Godfather movies. Brando does little more than recreate one of his most famous roles here, but he gives it the full treatment—cotton balls in the cheeks and all—with hilarious results. It’s a treat for Godfather fans, who also get to watch a snooty film professor take apart The Godfather Part II. Brando even takes another meta-leap toward the end of the movie, when his character starts paraphrasing the big speech from On The Waterfront while talking to a komodo dragon.
11. Efren Ramirez, When In Rome
The Kristen Bell theatrical vehicle When In Rome is such a weak, formulaic romantic comedy that a self-referential sight gag partway through almost qualifies as clever by its low, low standards. Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder plays an overwrought street magician, one of a number of cartoony sadsacks ensorcelled into instant love with Bell, and determined to win her heart via the most ridiculous gimmicks imaginable. While Heder’s rivals ply her with gifts and braggadocio, Heder breaks into Bell’s apartment and attempts to stage a trick to impress her. When Bell shows up, she’s horrified at Heder’s protestations of love, his breaking-and-entering, his incompetently performed trick, and the furniture he smashes. She’s also shocked by the presence of a second invader, Efren Ramirez—a.k.a. Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. Ostensibly, he’s there to videotape Heder’s escape, but he’s dressed like Pedro, he acts like Pedro, and he gives the audience a grin to let them know that yes, he’s just there as a Napoleon Dynamite joke.
12. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Maverick
By 1994, when Maverick came out, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover had already starred in three Lethal Weapon movies together as mismatched cop partners on crazy adventures. That’s why when they meet up in Maverick, as entirely different characters, they both seem taken aback. Gibson is playing a slick gambler trying to collect on a debt; Glover is a masked bank robber who breaks in on Gibson and his debtor to take their wallets before blowing the bank safe. Even though he’s being held at gunpoint, Gibson seems more curious than frightened, and pulls off Glover’s mask to examine his face. They look deep into each other’s eyes as Lethal Weapon music plays—then shake it off, both muttering “Naaaah…” Then they look at each other searchingly again. Wait, is it possible they’re really long-acquainted Los Angeles cops instead of Old West outlaws? No, they shake it off a second time and go about their business. Of course, that doesn’t prevent Glover from coming out with his familiar Lethal Weapon catchphrase.
13. Dirk Benedict, The A-Team and Amazing Stories
TV’s The A-Team pulled a similar quickie sight gag, which wound up in the series’ opening credits. Dirk Benedict, as “Faceman,” the team’s charmer, didn’t get up to much of interest in the four years between his co-starring role as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica and his A-Team gig. Which may explain why a second-season A-Team episode took a moment to reference that show. After infiltrating a television convention, Benedict lounges around then watches as someone dressed as a Battlestar Cylon walks past. Much like Gibson and Glover, Benedict makes a gesture as if he’s about to say something, then shrugs it off. Several years into The A-Team, Benedict showed up on an Amazing Stories episode, still playing Face. When henpecked nebbish Sydney Lassick gets a magical TV with a remote control that can change reality, he turns his terrifying wife (named Grendel, no less) into a scantily clad hottie and his obnoxious Hare Krishna son into Benedict, who promptly begins griping about what the other A-Team members are up to. (A minute later, Lassick’s other twerpy son becomes Gary Coleman from Diff’rent Strokes.)
14. John Ritter, Stay Tuned
And speaking of TV parodies and magical remote controls… The 1992 film comedy Stay Tuned spends its first half spinning its wheels while building up to the second half, where hapless, unhappily married suburbanites John Ritter and Pam Dawber are sucked into their Satanically warped television and forced to use a magical remote to channel-surf through a series of film and TV parodies as they try to find their way out. After stops on Northern Overexposure, Dwayne’s Underworld, Driving Over Miss Daisy, and a Chuck Jones cartoon, Ritter’s character winds up back where Ritter himself spent so many years: On Three’s Company, where he revisits his old fall-over-the-couch gag. Then the Three’s Company theme starts, Chrissy and Janet look-alikes show up and bellow “Where have you been?” and Ritter shrieks in horror and zips off to his final confrontation with the devil, inside a Salt N Pepa video.
15. Julia Roberts, Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day, Garry Marshall’s star-studded tribute to Love, American Style, feels unmistakably like a giant Hollywood self-congratulation session. So it’s only fitting that Marshall’s Pretty Woman leading lady Julia Roberts offers a wink, wink, nudge, nude allusion to her past work with Marshall. Late in the film, a limo driver asks Roberts—who famously showed up the snobs on Rodeo Drive in Pretty Woman—whether she ever shopped on the famous street. Roberts quips that she has, but only once, and it was a big mistake. Ha! We get jokes! And references! And leaden semi-joke references!