On the popular app Cameo, users can pay celebrities to make videos saying hi to them and their friends. Now, with a few clicks, the famous can become a minor character in your own life (or, at least, that’s how it’s meant to feel). The outgrowth of the platform suggests an evolving status for celebrity, in which being remote and distant is no longer an effective way to cultivate popularity; rather than beguiling, stars must now be omnipresent. This is also true of TV shows and films which are more stuffed than ever with huge, buzzy ensembles and, of course, a seemingly endless run of name drops and cameo appearances.
The most notorious cameo of recent years, perhaps, is the surprise appearance of Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, for which Baldwin won an Emmy in 2017. As anyone with middle-aged, white, liberal Facebook friends can attest, his impersonation swept social media—as did those of the other celebrities who often joined his sketches—even as he recycled the same gestures, intonation, and pursed lips week after week. As many critics lamented, the whole bit became less about what was written for Baldwin to perform and more about the weight carried by his presence: Look, it’s Alec Baldwin playing Trump! Look what other celebrity is performing with him this time! The cameo here relied less on wit than on brand power, or simply on the idea of fame and notoriety itself.
Cameos have always been part of Hollywood’s DNA: American directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Tim Burton regularly appear in their own projects, sometimes as easter eggs for cinephiles. More recently, FX’s The Bear drew on appearances by in-demand A-listers like Jamie Lee Curtis, John Mulaney, Bob Odenkirk, and Olivia Colman to round out the second season and cement its prestige. Other times, cameos are a kind of ironic gag, like Brooke Shields’s guest spot on a 1996 episode of Friends, where she played Joey’s stalker. What is different about many cameos within the last year or so, however, is that they increasingly do not feature a celebrity taking on the role of a character, fictional or otherwise. Instead, they now tend to appear as themselves. Similar to Baldwin’s SNL cameo, the tenor of these appearances is something of basking in one’s own reputation, as if anticipating the exclamations of oh my god designed to resonate around screens across the world. This ascendancy of the cameo spells an ecosystem in which marketing, perhaps, has more of a hand than ever in shaping the content of our favorite shows and films.
Consider HBO’s The Other Two, a show that consistently found creative ways to make fun of the entertainment industry, boasting some of the silliest—and most specific—gags about the ins and outs of chasing the spotlight. Even here, the importance of celebrity and status was, whether satirically or not, the scaffolding on which The Other Two often relied. And, in this, the cameo was a telltale sign of the problem.
After their little brother catapults to Justin Bieber–level fame and their mom (Molly Shannon) lands a talk show, adult siblings Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke Dubek (Heléne Yorke) are left as the other two of The Other Two. Both now attempt to exploit their newly famous family name for their own slouching careers.
Yet even when the show mocks Brooke and Cary’s thirst for fame, it plies audiences with references to celebrity gossip. The final season alone featured prominent cameos by Kiernan Shipka, Ben Platt, Lukas Gage, Dylan O’Brien, Edie Falco, and Simu Liu (or as Shannon’s character continuously refers to him, “Marvel’s Simu Liu”). When a PR crisis is afoot, characters measure its severity by reciting who tweeted about it (Bowen Yang, Busy Philips, Judd Apatow, Julianne Moore). Even if the tenor of the scene is how ridiculous it is to track who said what, the show still relies on us caring about who is referenced in order for the bit to land. Getting the joke was often just a matter of knowing the name at the heart of the punchline—Justin Theroux’s spare apartment or Lil Wayne’s tequila launch—and it doesn’t matter what is actually being said, so much as who is being talked about or interacted with.
The show laughs at Hollywood’s obsession with itself. But it also feeds it back to us, relying on our own tuned-in sensibilities to make its humor—and, sometimes, even plot—work. This is sustained by the show’s extravagant turn to cameos of actors appearing as themselves.
Interestingly, the cameo-as-oneself is borrowed from the advertising world, from the land of celebrity endorsements that brand a given product as desirable or hip. Now, the product being bolstered is Hollywood itself: fighting for its identity in a mediascape that is increasingly decentered and volatile. When stars appear on a show today, what they are really endorsing is their own relevance, and by extension, that of celebrity more broadly.
This is where TV starts to feel as though it is an extension of the Internet. And because of streaming, it arguably is.
Now, when the “chronically online” viewer steps off of social media—a space where access to a celebrity’s vacation photos and questionable political views is seemingly limitless—and they enter the world of television, the transition is almost seamless. Streaming has made the line between film and TV increasingly blurred with other forms of content. Consequently, if the chronically online crowd is gushing over DeuxMoi, the anonymous celebrity gossip account with some 2 million Instagram followers, or thirstweeting about a new photo of Timothée Chalamet, perhaps streaming content is trying to keep apace, appealing to similarly voyeuristic, fame-oriented tendencies. Having access to celebrities is a part of the Internet ecosystem, and so they also crop up (left, right, and center) in streaming, making themselves available through every app on your phone or tablet (literally, as in the case of Cameo).
Likewise, actors are now often asked in auditions to share how many social media followers they have—Hollywood doesn’t so much inaugurate popularity as hunt for it, ready-made. As a 2021 article in Backstage magazine advised emerging performers: “A sizeable pool of followers doesn’t just look better than tweeting out to 40 or 50 people; it indicates that you know how to conduct yourself well online and that you’re an active user who knows your personal brand and the importance of staying in communication with others in the industry. You’re not closed off.” Being “open,” then, is considered a kind of virtue, a willingness to make oneself a public figure as a precedent to, rather than mere extension of, the acting job itself.
This is also where many celebrities confuse their need of the public with the public’s need of them—just take Gal Gadot’s disastrous “Imagine” video from the early days of COVID in North America, in which she stitched together a group of hoarse-throated celebrities—including Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig, James Marsden, Natalie Portman, Will Ferrell, and Sia—collectively singing John Lennon as a balm for the world. Widely ridiculed, Gadot’s video suggested a belief that the mere presence of famous people would be comforting, important, and essentially desired by the plebes, a consolation even to mass death and economic peril.
When stars appear on a show today, what they are really endorsing is their own relevance, and by extension, that of celebrity more broadly.
The Other Two may capitalize on this sensibility, but it is certainly not alone in doing so: plenty of films and TV shows have become veritable extensions of online celebrity gossip and fan culture, churning out references to famous people to propel their relevance. This seems particularly acute in media targeting Gen Z, as if a nod to Olivia Rodrigo or low-rise jeans will lure in viewers more assuredly than actual storylines; for instance, HBO’s (also recently canned) Gossip Girl reboot had its teen protagonists host a party to rival one thrown by Academy Award–nominee Lucas Hedges, and reminisce about friendships with everyone from rapper Princess Nokia to Annette Benning. It seems that this trend is also an attempted gesture of postmodern self-awareness, one increasingly typical in media about the über-rich—a way of signaling a character’s connectedness, while also trying to wink at it (though maybe a twitch is a fairer assessment). In last fall’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, there is a long spate of references to all of the famous people with whom tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) affiliates, including a running gag about an exclusive hot sauce brand started by Marvel actor Jeremy Renner. These bits are often deliberately obnoxious, pointing to how out of touch their characters are, enraptured by their own elite circle jerk—yet rhetorically, the compounded effect of continuous references shores up the relevance of the people ostensibly being mocked.
The Internet has created an inflated sense that we need to know everyone’s business, most of all stars’, whose proximity now appears less mediated—they are available to be personally known, ubiquitous and relevant in new ways, even if that relevance is often inflated or overstated. They themselves are content, an idea that is at stake in the SAG-AFTRA negotiations, where studios are gunning for the right to use generative AI to create and hold digital scans of actors’ likenesses. Casting is now at least in part an exercise in branding, and so names and faces take on the weight of signals, valuable synecdoches for cachet served up on a platter to savvy, fickle audiences. This is the case as well with the explosion of the ensemble project, where having dozens of stars is undoubtedly greater assurance of eyeballs and ticket sales than merely having two or three—in the trailer for Wes Anderson’s recent Asteroid City, 21 cast members’ names scroll past on a ticker, not to mention the stacked list of players in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, while shows like The White Lotus and The Afterparty cycle through a rotation of surprising new stars every season. In fact, the first 20 minutes of Glass Onion is spent watching characters meet, introduce themselves to, or reunite with other characters, a vehicle less for storytelling than for exhibiting the range of zeitgeisty cast.
Which brings us back to The Other Two. In the seventh episode of the final season, Brooke and Cary’s mother, Pat, begins dating Simu Liu—playing himself—who takes the family to dinner at a fake Applebee’s built on a soundstage to avoid being recognized.
Through a series of complicated technical snafus, Cary is made to record automated dialogue replacement (ADR) for an upcoming series while at the table, using Liu as a human pony to mimic his character speaking while on horseback. The image of Liu being ridden by Cary is of course part of The Other Two’s commentary on the absurdity of method acting, merged wittily with its exposure of the slapdash, less glamorous side of working in Hollywood.
But it’s also a moment for Liu to cultivate his image in the real world. In participating in this commentary, he is attempting to draw a line between himself and the likes of the “Imagine” crowd. To cameo in this way has the odd effect of being accessible, not out of touch but, rather, down to clown.
Yet Liu’s appearance can only read as self-deprecating if we understand that he is, generally speaking, above this behavior. He is, viewers understand, a superhero, deigning to appear on TV and act foolish. In the landscape of celebrity, self-awareness only becomes a virtue when someone is elevated to the status of important in the first place: a status on which cameos rest, and which they reinforce as shared belief.
In its final season in particular, The Other Two is obsessed with staging these kinds of goofy celebrity insights. In an earlier episode, Brooke has decided to leave the entertainment industry, but she cannot stay away for long. When she sneaks into Ellen DeGeneres’s birthday party in the Hamptons, now as an outsider, she finds that she can—literally—neither be seen nor heard by any of her former coworkers, or anyone whom she thinks is “cool.” Instead, she is only visible to lawyers, social workers, plus-ones, and men with bald patches. Overhearing yet another agent titter, “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I can’t believe DaBaby did that,” Brooke screams at him to tell her what happened to the controversial rapper, to no avail. Since she is no longer in entertainment, Brooke is invisible, and takes to desperately writing on the bathroom mirror: “What Did DaBaby Do?” Her words appear slowly to a horrified crowd of industry executives who are briefly convinced that the party is haunted (by a very gossip-deprived ghost).
This scene describes an ecosystem that revolves around the power of the star—an industrial apparatus that The Other Two often successfully chided, exposing its machinations as bizarre, narcissistic, and sometimes meaningless. And yet, here, again, the joke depends on a name drop, a further bolstering of the fame industry it criticizes.
What success The Other Two’s satire did have was undercut in June, when reports emerged of serious HR turmoil caused by the show’s creators, SNL alumni Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider. Writers and crew alleged that Kelly and Schneider were verbally abusive and cultivated a toxic work environment: the kind of hierarchical, ego-driven behavior that the show claimed to have in its crosshairs. An emphasis on this double standard underwrote the rumbles of abuse, suggesting that a cult of superiority behind the cameras was ironic, a foible contradicting what the show was really about. Self-aware humor, many admitted, did not correspond to actual self-awareness.
Yet even this criticism does not adequately address the ways in which, more often than not, The Other Two used satire to indulge a cultural obsession with the Hollywood machine, not to meaningfully challenge it.
This obsession was most evident in its recurrent name drops and cameos, which not only indicate a problem within content or story, but larger structural tendencies in the industry. For instance, a cameo is one star’s brief flirtation with a project that gets fawned over; meanwhile supporting actors, extras, and crew get little credit or compensation for equal or greater work. The spate of strikes in the entertainment industry in 2023 point to a disparity wherein the most recognizable writers and actors are renumerated wildly, while the majority live in a state of severe financial insecurity. I want to stress here, then, that my criticisms of television are not meant to kick writers and actors while they are down, but to demonstrate how the gulf between the most famous, overpaid, and overly lauded people and, well, everyone else, seems to be more naturalized than ever—and it often surfaces under the banner of name drops, cameos, and satirical, winking self-awareness. Driven by the greed of corporations like those in AMPTP, Hollywood as a system is deeply invested in the production and maintenance of fame—which is to say, the idea that some people more than others deserve our attention and our money—and joking about that fact might sometimes do more to reinforce than to undermine it.