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The friends of Friends: 17 gimmicky cameos intended to boost TV ratings

1. The friends of Friends

Although Friends was a hit right out of the gate, that didn't stop the show's writers and producers from littering the series with guest stars and cameos by other famous folk. In the first season, Monica and Rachel went to the ER and met sexy doctors played by George Clooney and Noah Wyle; in season two, the gang hung around the set of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Once, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal played characters in Central Perk for one lame gag. The likes of Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, and Sean Penn had one-off appearances in bit roles, and Tom Selleck and Bruce Willis played characters that stayed on the show longer. And when Jennifer Aniston was still shacking up with Brad Pitt, the Sexiest Man Alive took his turn on the show. But by then, the Friends guest-star-go-'round wasn't about cross-promotion or profile-boosting; it was mainly about megawatt celebrities flocking together.


2. The Beach Boys, Full House ("Beach Boy Bingo")

By Full House's second season, the show hadn't quite yet honed the formula that would eventually make the sitcom a long-running hit: heart-to-heart talks broken up by toddler catchphrases, "Cut it outs," and jokes about John Stamos' hair. Back in 1988, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen barely had the vocabulary to utter "You got it, dude!," and Dave Coulier had yet to use hilarious family-friendly hand motions to work his way into America's heart. Basically, the show needed the kind of ratings boost that only the bland island riddums, easy-listening saxophone, and soft steel drums of "Kokomo" could provide. So after Candace Cameron wins tickets to their concert, the Hawaiian-shirted, middle-aged Beach Boys (and Brian Wilson, who wasn't part of the "Kokomo" Beach Boys) personally show up at the Tanner house and sing their hit not once, but twice with the Full House cast. From there, the show essentially became a Beach Boys concert video, with (what else?) more "Kokomo," and Bob Saget, John Stamos, Dave Coulier, and their TV children joining the band onstage for the worst live rendition of "Barbara Ann" ever heard outside of a karaoke bar.


3. Britney Spears, How I Met Your Mother ("Ten Sessions")

Fans of perhaps the best traditional three-camera sitcom on television were understandably concerned when Britney Spears appeared recently as part of a mutual back-scratching deal: In exchange for providing the troubled pop star with the first step on a long road toward career rehabilitation, the ratings-starved sitcom got a much-needed shot in the arm, and perhaps enough momentum to force a fourth-season renewal order. Win-win, right? Surprisingly, yes. Britney's performance as a bubbly secretary with a crush on Ted (Josh Radnor) was as broad as her Mickey Mouse Club sketches, but it let viewers forget the head-shaving, child-neglecting, stripper-pole Britney and imagine her more innocent days of stinking up the screen in Crossroads. And the ever-savvy HIMYM found a way to integrate her in the least distracting way possible while showing off the zippy one-liners and inventive chronology that make the show great.


4. Kerri Strug, Beverly Hills 90210 ("Pledging My Love")

Following her climactic performance in the '96 Summer Olympic Games—where her dramatic vault on a gimpy ankle sealed the U.S. team gold—gymnast Kerri Strug appeared on the usual talk shows, but also Saturday Night Live, MADtv, and most awkwardly, Beverly Hills 90210. She was shoehorned into a scene where Brian Austin Green has trouble getting the classes he wants at his university's registrar office. "What do you have to do to get a class you want around here?" he exclaims. "Win a gold medal?" Cue Strug, who stiffly quips, "Wouldn't hurt." Some awkward dialogue follows, with Green asking Strug about her gold. "If I wore a gold medal, I think I'd have it bronzed," he says. Now that's good writin'.


5. Yoko Ono, Mad About You ("Yoko Says")

When NBC moved its hit comedy Mad About You from Must-See-TV Thursday to Ho-Hum-TV Sunday in 1995, the network resorted to a barrage of stunt celebrities to lure viewers to the new night, and none were stranger than Yoko Ono. The artist inexplicably hires Paul Reiser to direct a documentary about the wind, although as she herself admits, "It is virtually impossible to film the wind." After comic misadventures and an accidental encounter with the white "Imagine" piano, the closing credits manage to combine a standard MAY trope—Paul and Jamie reading the paper in bed—with a reference to John and Yoko's famous Bed-In for peace. Christ, you know it ain't easy.


6. El DeBarge, The Facts Of Life ("Doo-Wah")

Languishing in its seventh season, far past its prime and swathed in glittery polyester of ever-increasing yardage, The Facts Of Life resorted to the old standby "famous rock star looks for backup singers" plot in 1985. The girls (along with pint-sized manager Andy and hunky pal George Clooney) enter a teen-magazine contest that could put them on vinyl with their hero, El DeBarge—the culmination of a lifelong fandom that viewers had never heard about before and would never hear about again. In the final three minutes of the show, the soft-spoken singer shows up and lip-syncs a surefire hit with the whole FOL gang, known in their professional singing career as "Sexy Lingerie." If there was any sexy lingerie under those harem pants and oversize shirts, we don't want to think about it.


7. America's Next Top Model challenge winners, Veronica Mars

When UPN forced a Paris Hilton cameo only two episodes into its run, Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas had to know that he was going to take some abuse, but that wasn't the half of it. Using its sole ratings hit to prop up the most loveable of its many losers, the network started using ANTM's "acting" challenges as an avenue to egregiously stilted guest appearances on Veronica Mars. Thomas did what he could to limit the damage: One episode stacked a cameo by ANTM challenge winner Kim on top of another cameo from Buffy creator (and Veronica Mars superfan) Joss Whedon, and others gave Cycle Four champ Naima and Cycle Six also-ran Furonda even less time to embarrass themselves. The arrangement worked out well for ANTM, which could add another in the many layers of delusion that had contestants believing they'd have modeling careers after their Covergirl contracts expired. For Thomas and Veronica Mars, it was a cruel reminder of the crosses a network bottom-dweller has to bear.


8. Ben Stiller, Freaks And Geeks ("The Little Things")

Yes, Freaks And Geeks had uncommonly insightful writing and an excellent ensemble cast, but it didn't have a hilariously twitchy, neurotic funnyman as a guest star until its penultimate episode. Ben Stiller appeared as a (surprise!) hilariously twitchy, neurotic Secret Service agent accompanying the vice president on a visit to McKinley High. He ends up bonding with hippie guidance counselor Mr. Russo after flagging him for his protestin' past, allowing for the requisite Stiller-esque rants about the downside of guarding the second most powerful man in the world. Stiller's turn came after it was too late to save the much-loved, little-seen series, and his pre-Meet The Parents star power wasn't potent enough to make much of a difference anyway. But at least his shoehorned guest slot didn't disrupt the show's delicate comedic equilibrium as it eased off into the sunset.


9. Adam Sandler, Undeclared ("The Assistant")

Before Judd Apatow was anointed overlord of Hollywood comedy, he was regularly abused on network TV, pouring his heart into short-lived original shows like The Ben Stiller Show and Freaks And Geeks, which couldn't survive on their sizable cult followings alone. Premièring just two weeks after 9/11, his doomed campus sitcom Undeclared suffered many last-minute preemptions, time-slot changes, and other indignities before Fox finally pulled the plug. Still, Apatow employed his powerful friends to give the ratings a boost, including a hilarious Will Ferrell as a meth-driven townie who writes term papers for college kids, and Ben Stiller as the father of a student's deranged ex-boyfriend. But he scored a real coup when he convinced Adam Sandler to appear as himself in a painfully funny episode about the awkward nature of celebrity. When the freshman dorm-dwellers get a chance to "hang out" with Sandler after a show, it seems like a dream come true, but their star worship completely paralyzes them.


10. Jerry Seinfeld, 30 Rock ("Seinfeldvision")

Nabbing one of the biggest sitcom stars of all time normally would be a major coup for a struggling TV show. But when Jerry Seinfeld appeared on the season two première of 30 Rock, one of the best sitcoms on television became yet another cog in the obnoxiously ubiquitous ad campaign for Seinfeld's middling animated feature Bee Movie. The low-rated 30 Rock hardly seemed like a smart choice for a man looking to cram his cute li'l insect movie down the throats of every man, woman, and child in America, but 30 Rock came out on the short end of the deal, with the Bee Movie backlash finally making the seemingly untouchable Seinfeld unlikeable and, worse, unfunny.


11. Milli Vanilli, Sister Kate ("Eugene's Feat")

Is there a better time capsule for 1989 then a pre-scandal Milli Vanilli lip-syncing "Blame It On The Rain" for a pre-90210 Jason Priestley on the short-lived sitcom Sister Kate? Also starring British acting institution Stephanie Beacham and featuring a theme song by Christian-music phenomenon Amy Grant, Sister Kate had a can't-miss, blockbuster pedigree. But NBC decided to grease the wheels by inviting Milli Vanilli to "perform" one of the monster hits off the mega-successful album Girl You Know It's True. Shockingly, this comedy about a nun running an orphanage and occasionally hosting impromptu concerts by supremely silly pop stars lasted only one season, and Milli Vanilli would be disgraced as phonies the following year.


12. Quentin Tarantino, All-American Girl ("Pulp Sitcom")

Quentin Tarantino made his name by spinning pop-culture trash into arthouse-approved gold, though he actually seems content with just the trash, as his checkered IMDB entry shows. Rivaling his stint as a celebrity judge on American Idol as the least distinguished entry on his résumé is his role as criminal video supplier Desmond Winocki on Margaret Cho's forgettable mid-'90s sitcom All-American Girl. Humbly recognizing that Pulp Fiction was a slightly more important cultural touchstone than All-American Girl, the show didn't bother integrating Tarantino into its well-worn family-sitcom fabric. Rather, the show tried to integrate itself to Tarantino, spinning off a series of lame references to his movies already picked over by every sketch-comedy troupe in the country. (The mysterious briefcase! The twist contest! The samurai sword!) All-American Girl lasted just one more episode.


13. Casey Kasem, Saved By The Bell ("Dancing To The Max")

There's no rhyme or reason for why the producers of Saved By The Bell would have considered American Top 40 host Casey Kasem a "get" for its Saturday-morning kids' show: By the time Kasem cameoed in 1989, he had already handed the reins of his syndicated radio program over to Shadoe Stevens and more or less retired to a lifetime of voiceover acting and the occasional co-hosting gig on Jerry Lewis' telethon—hardly something that would appeal to SBTB's primarily preteen demographic, who were no doubt wondering what this funny old man with the oddly familiar voice was doing in The Max. Nevertheless, Kasem guest-starred as himself, playing the host of the world's smallest dance competition and giving props to "The Sprain"—a last-ditch effort of awkward choreography necessitated when Lisa injures herself—while the kids of Bayside High fawn over him as though he were Johnny Dakota. Kasem must have enjoyed the attention: He returned two years later to narrate "Rockumentary," an extended dream sequence in which Zack fantasizes about achieving rock stardom. Hey, in a world where Casey Kasem counts as a "star," anything's possible.


14. Robin Williams, Homicide: Life On The Streets ("Bop Gun")

The first season of Homicide ran for nine episodes in the winter and spring of 1993, and in spite of critical raves and the showcase of a post-Super Bowl première, ratings started low and then dropped into the sub-basement. Nevertheless, NBC renewed the show for a four-episode run in January of '94, in large part because executive producer Barry Levinson promised the network that he could convince his friend Robin Williams to appear. In a role far more substantive—and dramatic—than NBC probably expected, Williams played a vacationing man whose wife is shot and killed. It's a powerful performance in a heart-wrenching episode, though not exactly audience-friendly fare. Nevertheless, the guest-shot kept Homicide in production at a critical juncture, which helped earn the show a full-season order for the fall. So without Mork, no Meldrick.


15. Jay "The Critic" Sherman, The Simpsons ("A Star Is Burns")

In what was effectively a reverse-engineered ratings-boosting guest-shot, the lead character on Fox's animated series The Critic showed up in Springfield to judge a film festival—and to use the cachet of Fox's most popular show to raise the profile of one of its least. Simpsons creator Matt Groening, whose punk sensibility often put him at odds with network business decisions, hated the idea of a crossover so much that he took his name off the credits and refused to sit in on the commentary track for the season-six DVD set. He's also publicly called "A Star Is Burns" his least-favorite Simpsons episode, which, given how lousy some of the episodes have been over the last decade, is really saying something. But on its own merits, "A Star Is Burns" is a funny episode, which shouldn't be surprising, given that The Critic was a funny show. Plus, it gave movie-writers everywhere our own catchphrase: "It's not that tough being a film cricket."


16. Sparky Anderson, WKRP In Cincinnati ("Sparky")

How could a TV series set in Cincinnati not invite one of the mechanics for "The Big Red Machine" to make a guest appearance? Sparky Anderson had jumped from managing the Reds to managing the Detroit Tigers by the time he showed up on WKRP In Cincinnati, and to some extent, the episode feeds off the mutual hurt feelings of Anderson and his former favorite city. Hired to be the host of a new sports call-in show on WKRP, Anderson (playing himself) proves to be terrible at the job, and yet station manager Mr. Carlson (played by Gordon Jump) can't bring himself to fire one of his heroes. "Sparky" is a smart, funny look at the limits of hero worship and the trials of leadership, as well as what it's like to go from being a VIP to persona non grata.


17. C+C Music Factory, Blossom ("You Must Remember This")

With her vests and funky clothes patterns, Mayim Bialik's eponymous character from the early-'90s sitcom Blossom†suggested in every way that she was a determined non-conformist. So what musical act made her passionate enough to recruit her best friend Six into camping out all night for tickets in a 1992 episode? Pearl Jam? L7? Tad? †No, it was pre-fab dance hitmakers C+C Music factory, who rewarded Blossom's devotion with a cameo in which they may or may not have made her sweat.