Guest Stars Then & Now

– By Gran2

The plethora of Season 22 guest stars filled me with rage. This show is bad enough already without Danica Patrick, Paul Rudd or Mark ‘Facebook’ Zuckerberg turning up to dig it even closer to Earth’s core. I dreaded hearing Al Jean rattle off next season’s list at Comic-Con (spoilers: It included Michael Cera).

The point is: guest stars suck now. The really obscure ones suck because you have no idea who they are, or why they are there (pretty much every guest star from seasons 11 and 12 falls into to this category, or maybe that’s because I’m British). But the really famous ones suck as well.

Whoever they are, whether they’re a sportsperson, a singer or even a professional actor their acting is always so awful, reading the awkward dialogue that normal people would never actually say, and appearing to have been recorded on their first take. They have no reason to be there, yet they either have the episode built around them rather than a plot, or they appear for one line only. But all get to enjoy their own little ego-massage courtesy of Lisa ("Look, it’s J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. You’ve turned a generation of kids onto reading!"). They just throw them on because guest stars represent one of the very few times this show ever gets any press attention anymore. It was the only thing they discussed at Comic-Con last year. It’s literally all they have to say.

Guest stars didn’t used to suck. They used to be great. They belonged in the episode; they had a purpose to the story or, you know, voiced a character. Whether as themselves or as a character they felt like they belonged in Springfield, just as the episodes they were in belonged on television.

Their appearance first and foremost made sense: they were both relevant to the plot and their presence in Springfield wasn’t ridiculous. It makes sense for Springfield to have celebrities visiting. It’s home to Krusty the Clown, one of the most famous entertainers of all time. Why wouldn’t he be friends with Bette Middler and Johnny Carson? There’s a clear difference between that and people like James Caan just suddenly appearing there. Guest stars appear to present an award for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence or to open a monorail and when they were there, they were funny ("A solar eclipse. The cosmic ballet goes on"). And they didn’t just then vanish. Most of them appeared in more than one scene, so actually have some kind of character progression. Guest stars rarely, if ever, actually were the focus of the plot as themselves. Instead, their most substantial parts were when they were playing characters. Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, John Waters, Danny DeVito, Dustin Hoffman. All excellent performances and playing excellent characters.

The philosophy of guest parts has clearly changed since the good old days. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein picked most of their guest stars because they had unique voices which actually led to good characters. The fact that R. Lee Ermey and Lawrence Tierney were going to be appearing was never really going to draw viewers but they did a damn site more memorable job than big stars like Seth Rogen or Sacha Baron Cohen. Furthermore, they actually dropped guest stars if they didn’t fit. Collette the waitress from "Flaming Moe’s" was supposed to be voiced by Catherine O’Hara. She actually recorded the part but they replaced her with Jo Ann Harris because, in the words of Mike Reiss on the DVD commentary "Something about her did not animate correctly. The voice did not work for our purposes." And it wasn’t just her. Maggie Roswell was selected over Julie Andrews to voice Shary Bobbins due to her great reading, likewise Hank Azaria over William H. Macy for Frank Grimes. Hell, Bill and Josh said in their NoHomers chat that they wanted Robert DeNiro to guest star; in the end he didn’t, because they couldn’t find a good enough part for him. Nowadays they’d just shove him in.

Now to stop me rambling on, here are three clear examples of why guest stars used to be great. Robert Goulet. The baseballers in "Homer at the Bat". And the Ramones.

Robert Goulet’s appearance in "$pringfield" is a perfect guest spot. He doesn’t dominate the show, it makes sense he’s there (he’s flown in after being hired for a gig at Burns’ Casino) and he’s funny. But above all, they make fun of him.

Goulet: You from the casino?
Bart: I’m from a casino.
Goulet: Good enough, let’s go.

Goulet: Are you sure this is the casino? I think I should call my manager.
Nelson: Your manager says for you to shut up!
Goulet: Vera said that?

In six lines, they make Goulet seem unprofessional and then they tell him to shut up. Perfect.

The baseballers in "Homer at the Bat" are also a perfect example of good guest stars. Along with "Krusty Gets Kancelled" this episode shows that lots of guest stars in one episode doesn’t have to suck. Again, their presence makes sense. Why wouldn’t an evil old billionaire cheat in order to win a bet? But what really made them great was their performances, which are all much better than, for example, John C Reilly’s. Let’s just emphasise that: a bunch of professional baseballers give a better, more emotive and more believable performance than an Academy Award-nominated actor. Now, as said, I’m British, and have absolutely no interest or knowledge of baseball whatsoever, but that doesn’t affect my love for this episode. When these nine players die I won’t remember them for however many points they got (if that’s what you get in baseball?) I’ll remember because they were great in this episode. Particular praise to Don Mattingly, Mike Scioscia and Darryl Strawberry.

And finally, a comparison between old and new guest stars, with very similar parts, which have vastly different results. First, the good one. The Ramones appearance in "Rosebud" is brief, but outstanding.

Smithers: Here are several fine young men who I’m sure are gonna go far. Ladies and gentlemen, the Ramones!
Burns: Ah, these minstrels will soothe my jangled nerves.
Ramone 1: I’d just like to say this gig sucks!
Ramone 2: Hey, up yours, Springfield.
Ramone 1: One, two, three, four!
Happy Birthday to you! (Happy Birthday!)
Happy Birthday to you! (Happy Birthday!)
Happy Birthday, Burnsey,
Happy Birthday to you!
Ramone 3: Go to hell, you old bastard.
Ramone 4: Hey, I think they liked us!
Burns: Have the Rolling Stones killed.
Smithers: Sir, those aren’t —
Burns: Do as I say!

They are there for a clear, logical reason: to play for Burns’ birthday party. And every single line in that scene builds on the previous one to make it one of the most hilarious scenes ever.

And now Coldplay, from season 21’s craptacular "Million Dollar Maybe":

Chris Martin: [sings Viva la Vida]
Bart: Wait, I have to go to the bathroom.
Martin: So, where are you from Homer?
Homer: Here.
[They start again]
Homer: Wait.
Martin: Yes Homer.
Homer: Do you think you could use someone like me in your band?
Martin: Yeah come on up, you can play the tambourine.
Homer: I said someone like me, I didn’t say me.
[They sing again]

They are there because Homer paid them, because he won the lottery, for some reason. It’s sterile, humourless and they couldn’t even be bothered to write parts for the other band members.

In conclusion, mono means one, and rail means rail. Guest stars are yet another example of something that used to be great, but is now terrible. And that concludes our intensive three-week course. Good day and I apologise for wasting your time.

16 Responses to “Guest Stars Then & Now”

  1. 1 Pepito, the Biggest Cat in the Whole Wide World
    26 July 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Sometimes relatively non-heralded actors do pretty well. It may be a marginally controversial episode as far as DHS (and their cadre of fanatics) are concerned, but I thought the Murderhorn episode with Brendon Fraser and Steven Weber from “Ehh who cares” played their roles well as Brad and Neil from PowerSauce. Why? because I thought they were Hank Azaria, so little was made of their celebrity and instead their – THIS JUST IN POWER SAUCE IS AMAZING.

  2. 26 July 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Very succinct analysis. In the golden years, even really quick guest spots were more memorable, like Steve Allen as “Bart” on the witness stand in a fantasy in “Separate Vocations.” It’s a twenty second scene in a dream sequence, but it sticks with me so well, but that’s the power of a great performance and well utilized guest star. “Aye carumba!”

  3. 3 Shane
    26 July 2011 at 10:53 pm

    As far as insulting/deprecating guest spots go, Dick Cavett’s would have to be up there. He knows Woody Allen!

  4. 4 Alec Beeeeeerg
    27 July 2011 at 2:09 am

    Funny that you say “And they didn’t just then vanish” right after mentioning Nimoy in “Marge vs. the Monorail” hehe. Okay, technically, I guess he teleports, but still :P

    I’ve been lurking for a while, I like this a lot.

  5. 5 fudge
    27 July 2011 at 5:19 am

    Great post.

    I’m too lazy to look so I just gotta ask… John C Reilly was nominated for an award at some point in his career?! That’s… surprising.

    • 6 Thrillho
      27 July 2011 at 11:03 am

      Yeah, he was nominated for his supporting role in Chicago. He was snatched up by the Frat Pack so quickly that people forget that he actually started out as a dramatic actor (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Magnolia, Gangs of New York, etc.)

      In regards to the post, I’m particularly disatisfied with the way bands have been featured. Compare the Smashing Pumpkins in Homerpalooza where each member gets a few funny things to say to the one with Blink 182 where each member has only one or two lines which aren’t very funny and prove that they have almost no reason to be there.

      • 7 fudge
        27 July 2011 at 3:28 pm

        Now that you mention it, I remember him being great in MAGNOLIA, HARD EIGHT, and CASUALTIES OF WAR. But you’re right, he’s kinda lumped in with Ferrel etc so it’s easy to forget he’s not a bad actor. Thank you for reminding me.

  6. 8 Peter Bakare
    27 July 2011 at 11:05 am

    You know that you have pointed it out it does seem to be the case.

    Guest appearances in the earlier seasons did have a meaning and actually added to the plot, whereas now it’s more a case of throw them in because they are the hot topic.

    Dare I say with the lack of episodes ideas flowing maybe it’s the only way the show can feel fresh if they throw in a new voice.

  7. 9 Chris
    27 July 2011 at 1:35 pm

    It all makes sense once you realize that the people running the Simpsons don’t actually care anymore. Why do they have so many sucky guest appearances nowadays? Because they don’t care about the show, they just care about meeting as many celebrities as possible. Once you stop thinking that the writers and show runner are actually trying, and start realizing that they’re simply going through the motions, the current state of the show makes a lot more sense.

  8. 10 Lovejoy Fan
    27 July 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Excellent post. The newer seasons rely too heavily on guest stars, in my opinion. Hell, I actually like two of the upcoming guest stars – Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite writers, and Jane Lynch is great – but I couldn’t care less if they were on the show or not.

  9. 11 D.N.
    27 July 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Gran2, I don’t have much of anything to say except that your article is excellent, and I agree with everything you wrote.

  10. 12 Thrillho
    27 July 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Another thing I wanted to talk about was how you said the voice acting from guest stars is awful now. Even when something like that happened in the glory days, it somehow worked. The best example is Deep Space Homer, where Buzz Aldrin has a rather Shatner-ish vibe reading his lines (I’ll excuse it since he’s not a professional actor), but there’s something very charming about hearing Aldrin say “Careful…they’re Ruffled!” Nowadays, when a guest star does an unconvincing job, it’s painful because the dialogue they’re given sucks.

    I also hate how they pluck up talented young starlets to voice Bart’s love interests but fail to give their characters personalities that set them apart from the previous love interest.

  11. 13 kokairu
    28 July 2011 at 4:13 am

    One of the main things that gripes me is the way any media article reporting on the upcoming guest slot will suck up to everyone involved, trying to enforce the idea that the show is a prestigious comedy by virtue of its longevity. It makes me want to scream… any guest star who thinks it’s an achievement to get on The Simpsons now clearly has no idea or no principles.

  12. 14 SailorSonic
    29 July 2011 at 10:01 pm

    The only reason Simpsons has guest stars now is for press coverage, not because they actually add to the plot of the episode. It’s sad, really.

  13. 1 August 2011 at 9:13 am

    Thanks for all these comments guys, I really appreciate it and I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

  14. 16 baconkong
    31 January 2012 at 4:22 pm

    “The really obscure ones suck because you have no idea who they are, or why they are there (pretty much every guest star from seasons 11 and 12 falls into to this category, or maybe that’s because I’m British)”
    Actually, I’m an American I don’t know who half the guest stars are half the times. One of the things that pisses me off the most about Zombie Simpsons are the large amount of obscure references that feel like the writers are trying to flex their intellectual cred. It seems like the only purpose Lisa serves anymore is to name-drop some novelist or musician or whatever the writers happened to hear about on NPR that week. But then again, I spend most of my time on cartoon, comic, and video games related activities, so maybe I’m just a pleb afraid of intellectualism.

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