TV shows generally rely on boosts to ratings and excitement by throwing in a surprise guest star. It could be a true celebrity like Mark McGuire or Yoko Ono on Mad About You, George Stephanopoulos or Roger Clemens on Spin City, Barry Manillow on Will and Grace but often it is a well-known actor testing their comedic chops on someone else's sitcom. Ben Stiller and Fred Willard, for example, have each appeared in a number of guest-star roles and are fairly chameonlike in them. In another category, it's also interesting to see a future star appear in a sitcom, likely as a means to take in a paycheck or two. Heroes' Masi Oka was on Scrubs, The O.C.'s Tate Donovan was on Friends, and Bryan Cranston had a bit role on Seinfeld playing the dentist who wanted to convert to Judaism so he could use the jokes.
The shows that I've listed were shows that I've either viewed myself or were ones that I was familiar with and new they often used guest stars. Many of the shows that do the most shameless self-promotion are NBC, and that's also where most of the shows on this list come from.
Arrested Development: Judy Greer, William Hung, Henry Winkler, Scott Baio, Liza Minelli, Charlize Theron, Zach Braff, Mo Collins, Amy Poehler, Judge Reindholt (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Heather Graham, Andy Richter (Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Ed Begley Jr. (Christopher Guest’s films), Ben Stiller, Carl Weathers (Rocky), Alan Tyuduk (Dodgeball), Jeff Garlin, Julia Louis-Dreyffus, Frankie Muniz, Christine Taylor (Dodgeball), Martin Mull (Sabrina the Teenage Witch), Justine Bateman (Family Ties)
Highlights: There are so many brilliant ones to chose from but some fairly clever uses of just inserting celebrities in the right places: Judge Reindholt plays a judge on a Judge Judy copy-off TV program, becuase his first name is Judge. Carl Weathers, of all people, becomes an acting coach to Tobias. Liza Minelli is hillarious as a rival of the family matriarch who's prone to vertigo. Julia Louis-Dreyffus plays an attorney pretending to be blind and love interest to Michael. Amy Poehler has a fling with her on-screen husband. After much lobbying by her brother, Justine Bateman got to guest star right at the end of the series.
Friends: Bruce Willis, Jon Favreau, Elliot Gould, Morgan Fairchild, Hank Azaria, Reese Whitherspoon, Tom Selleck, Julia Roberts, Ben Stiller, Adam Goldberg (A Beautiful Mind), Elle McPherson, Giovanni Ribisi, Jean Claude Van Damme, Alec Baldwin, Tate Donovan (The O.C.), Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd
Highlights: Jean Claude Van Damme plays himself as someone wanting to go out with Rachel (or Monica, I honestly can't remember). Ben Stiller does his closeted psycho schtick as one of Rachel's boyfriends.
Mad About You: Yoko Ono, Mark McGuire, Kevin Bacon, Mel Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Fred Willard, James Carville, Ed Asner, Lisa Kudrow, Hank Azaria, Ryan Stiles (Whose Line is it Anyway)
Highlights: Mel Brooks is pretty unforgettable as Paul's senile Uncle Leo, and Ellen Degeneres and Hank Azaria both ably play their recurring roles as a babysitter and dog walker, respectively.
Kevin Bacon is used brilliantly in one episode: Paul and Jamie are having a baby and while Jamie wants to deliver the news to some of their friends, Paul warns that if they tell just some of their friends because it will be disastrous. Citing the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon game, Paul tries to explain that people are so connected to each other that everyone in their social sphere will find out through the grapevine if just one person is told. Feeling an urge to tell someone, Jamie uncontrollably blurts to a stranger in the elevator that the two of them are having a baby. Pretty soon, word spreads out and a disastrous chain reaction of angry parents and syblings who wanted to be the first ones notified sets in, and at the end of the episode, Kevin Bacon (who turns out to be friends with the random woman in the elevator) pops up and says "hey guys I heard you're having a baby. That's great." The Kevin Bacon guest-starring appearance was an absolutely hillarious and completely unpredictable moment that demonstrates what an effective cameo can do.
Frasier: Laura Linney, Amy Brenneman (Judging Amy), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), Woody Harrelson, Tea Leoni (The Naked Truth, Spanglish), Patricia Clarkson, Zoey Deschannel (Elf), Rene Auberjoinis (Boston Public, Star Trek, The Patriot), Ted Danson, Patrick Stewart (Star Trek), Viktor Garber (Alias), Saul Rubineck (Unforgiven), Wendie Malick, Felicity Huffman
Highlights: Most of the notable guest stars come from Frasier's girlfriends, and it's quite funny that first-time nominees for the Oscars in 2003 (Patricia Clarkson), 2004 (Virginia Madsen and 2nd time nominee Laura Linney who technically doesn't count), AND 2005 (Felicity Huffman) all played a love interest of Frasier's at one point. In terms of the best guest stars, I might be tempted to hand the award to the bombastic Patrick Stewart in a one-episode stint as a gay symphony conductor that Frasier gets into a sticky situation with. Wendie Malick provides much of the heart of the final season as Martin's companion.
Scrubs: Stephanie D’Ambrosio (Avenue Q), John Ritter, Tara Reid, Heather Graham, Brendan Frasier, Richard Kind, Michael J Fox, Masi Oka (Heroes), Christa Miller (Drew Carey Show)
Highlights: As hard as it is to believe, I might say Tara Reid gives a fairly complete and charming performance as Dr. Cox's ex-sister-in-law and JD's love interest. Broadway star Stephanie D'Ambrosio provides the singing chops for the musical episode last season. John Ritter plays JD's dad early on.
Spin City: Queen Latifah, Roger Clemens, Scott Wolff (Party of 5), Jennifer Garner, Meredith Baxter (Family Ties), Alyssa Milano, Conan O’Brien, John Stewart, Raquel Welch, Denise Richards, Heidi Klum, Farrah Fawcett, Martin Sheen, Christopher Lloyd, George Stephanopoulos
Highlights: Michael J Fox's character has had two visits from two of his closest colleagues in the professional world and they both reappear in Spin City unchanged in the roles that Michael J Fox is associated with them. His co-star from Back to the Future, Christopher Lloyd, comes back as one of Mike's mentors, who's now gone crazy. He utters the line "I'll see you back to the future" at the end of the episode in a memorable homage. In a casting move that would call for some deep Fruedian psychoanalysis if Spin City were a drama instead of a comedy, Fox's TV mom from Family Ties (Meredith Baxter) plays Mike Flaherty's mom and complicates things by sleeping with the mayor. In addition, Jennifer Garner is pretty funny in a one-episode stint as James' needy childhood sweetheart and for Late Night with Conan O'Brien fans, our re-headed hero pops up in one episode as a really wierd guy in a zoo. Also, Raquel Welch exploits the humor of biological impossibility as Paul's unrealistically hot mom.
Will and Grace: Michael Douglas, Jack Black, Woody Harrelson, Harry Connick Jr., Alec Baldwin, Debbie Reynolds, Rosie O’Donnell, Sydney Pollack, Katie Couric, Gregory Hines, John Cleese, Barry Mannilow, Jeff Goldblum, Sara Gilbert (Roseanne), Molly Shannon, Rip Torn, Parker Posey (Christopher Guest films), Lily Tomlin, Steven Webber (Wings), Dave Foley (Newsradio)
Highlights: As I said in my last post, the only reason I've ever watched Will and Grace was because of the stunt casting. I've never seen Michael Douglas do comedy better than when he played a closeted gay cop with a crush on Will. Jack Black was hillarious as a doctor hitting on his nurse, who was also his sister. Sydney Pollack takes us back to the days when he was an actor through his spots as Will's dad. Lastly, I think Alec Baldwin first demonstrated his grand presense in the sitcom world from his role in Will and Grace. He was just so intensely serious in his delusional thinking and had such deadpan delivery that I just had to marvel at that level of genius.
30 Rock: Will Arnett, Nathan Lane, Isabella Rosselini, Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman Show), Jason Sudeikis (SNL), Will Forte (Saturday Night Live), Rachel Dratch (SNL), Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Parnell, Rip Torn, Edie Falco, Wayne Brady, Conan O’Brien, Jerri Shephard (The View), Sean Hayes (30 Rock)
Highlights: Except for Edie Falco and Jerry Seinfeld, think of the fact that this impressive list comes from just one season, so 30 Rock is without a doubt the king of well-placed guest slots. As an Arrested Development fan, I loved Will Arnett as a gay executive praying on Kenneth. Chris Parnell is actually funnier on 30 Rock as a highly immoral doctor than pretty much any skit he's been on in his SNL days. Paul Reubens was absolutely hillarious and Wayne Brady was just so loveably outrageous as a character. And it is hard to forget Jerry Seinfeld being digitally inserted into Heroes, Deal or No Deal, Law and Order and Milf Island.
Just Shoot Me: Judy Greer, Mark Hamill, Carmen Elektra, French Stewart (3rd Rock from the Sun), Fred Willard, Rebecca Rojmain-Stamos, David Cross, Brian Dennehy, Ray Liotta, Cheri Oteri, Paula Marshall, Tyra Banks
Highlights: In terms of recurring characters, Brian Cross as a guy pretending to be retarded was pretty funny and character actor Brian Dennehy made for a very interesting version of Dennis Finch's dad. Mark Hammill teaches an invaluable lesson to Dennis Finch and all Star Wars' fans (mainly, "Get a life") in a way more effective way than William Shatner did on SNL and Ray Liotta really sunk his teeth into a guest spot as Maya's girlfriend. Lastly, it is difficult to omit French Stewart's brilliantly concieved guest spot as a children's TV show host, who would act like a perfect gentleman on a series of dates with Maya but express subtext (including his dislikes of her and his desire to sleep with Nina on the side) through the characters that he pupeteered.