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Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 6: The Cameo


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I also am a huge fan of cameos, and I will try not to repeat the excellent observations already made. The one TV show that mastered cameos was Police Squad, as the guest star was killed during the opening credits. Laugh-in had outrageous cameos including Richard Nixon saying, "Sock it to me!"

 

Also coming to mind are Dom Deluise in "Blazing Saddles", Ethel Merman in "Airplane", and Burt Reynolds (also Paul Newman and Anne Bancroft) in "Silent Movie".

 

Cameos add a famous and usually well-liked personality to the cast, and adds to the enjoyment of the film.

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Cameos bring out fan interest, fan curiosity in trying to "spot them all" and cameos lend mystery as to who else might show up in the film. One estimate places the number of cameos in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." at 48. Imagine the work and coordination required to get that many comedians together in one film for a cameo. Imagine the work with the various studios, agents and the ego's of the stars ( some still box office and some not). Many times the cameo stars don't even have to say a word. As shown in the clip when the 3 Stooges materialize as fireman, you know there will be allot more crash then rescue team! (Nyuk Nyuk) In the film history of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." several stars couldn't get out of TV show filming schedules, couldn't agree on a contract amount or had other contractual requirements that prevented them from appearing in the film. Can you imagine between the cast and cameos the amount of slapstick comedy power assembled on the face of the earth in this film?

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. . .

 

I love the Howard Cosell cameo in Bananas. It reminds me of another one of my fave slapstick films of the 80's "Better Off Dead". Where John Cusack always runs into these two Asian brothers who want to race. . . .

 

Better Off Dead is a favorite of mine, too. John Cusack is very funny, with his deadpan reactions. I still laugh at this one, and it's probably more than 30 years old now (ouch!).

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As all three clips give a different variation on how cameos can be used, the idea behind them is essentially the same... they all stop the viewer in their tracks of the movie, thinking "Wait a minute... isn't that?"  The cameo appearances arrive when you least expect it....and I'll bet we all smile every time.  Hitchcock's cameos get me every time.  Even though I know they are there... as I've watched Hitchcock films hundreds of times, I find myself glued to each scene, waiting for his cameo.  What a great movie-going effect!

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Better Off Dead is a favorite of mine, too. John Cusack is very funny, with his deadpan reactions. I still laugh at this one, and it's probably more than 30 years old now (ouch!).

So great, right? Its another I quote often. 

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Film cameos rely on allusions to people, movies, etc. outside of the movie at hand. Therefore they are generally funniest for contemporary audiences and are susceptible to dating. To a modern film viewer who has not studied classic films, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would still be funny because of the situation and comic acting. However, the Jack Benny cameo would likely not resonate with them since they don’t have years of experience with his persona on radio and television like audiences did in 1962. Jerry Lewis driving crazily would still be funny because knowledge of his other films is not necessary for the comedy. And the Three Stooges’ cameo has always felt a little sad. You know they’d like to be running around, botching up a fire rescue, but they’re relegated to standing stoically. Perhaps it’s an honor, as Richard Edwards suggests, but it’s not funny.

 

A modern filmgoer who was not alive during Howard Cosell’s reign as a sportscaster would not get the irony of his presence, but his HOWard CoSELL CAdence could still seem funny, like an exaggeration of sportscaster delivery. We’ll have to wait a couple decades to see how the Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller cameos age in Anchorman. Like Jerry Lewis in IAMMMMW, Ben Stiller’s bit is done as slapstick and will probably still be funny whether audience knows who he is or not.

 

Comic cameos were staples of film comedy, and not necessarily slapstick, for decades. Other Paramount stars often popped up in the 1940s-‘60s Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” movies. Hope and Crosby show up in the circus audience at the otherwise dramatic The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Around the World in 80 Days (1956) was wall-to-wall cameos, from Frank Sinatra to Marlene Dietrich. Would a modern audience (again, who did not study classic film) get the significance of a Sinatra or Dietrich cameo? It’s hard to say, but they would probably respond to them in terms of performance, not allusion.

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The cameos make me smile and gasp because of the surprise interruption to the story. Cameos don't necessarily forward the plot. They are just comedy relief. It's rather generous of the star to offer his time in support of the movie. What makes cameos work is the knowledge of who the star is or what his or her schtick is. Without that the cameo falls flat. I enjoy cameos--their appearance is like finding a treasure. They also keep you interested in the movie, waiting and wondering if someone else is going to appear.

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Film cameos rely on allusions to people, movies, etc. outside of the movie at hand. Therefore they are generally funniest for contemporary audiences and are susceptible to dating. To a modern film viewer who has not studied classic films, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would still be funny because of the situation and comic acting. However, the Jack Benny cameo would likely not resonate with them since they don’t have years of experience with his persona on radio and television like audiences did in 1962. Jerry Lewis driving crazily would still be funny because knowledge of his other films is not necessary for the comedy. And the Three Stooges’ cameo has always felt a little sad. You know they’d like to be running around, botching up a fire rescue, but they’re relegated to standing stoically. Perhaps it’s an honor, as Richard Edwards suggests, but it’s not funny.

 

A modern filmgoer who was not alive during Howard Cosell’s reign as a sportscaster would not get the irony of his presence, but his HOWard CoSELL CAdence could still seem funny, like an exaggeration of sportscaster delivery. We’ll have to wait a couple decades to see how the Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller cameos age in Anchorman. Like Jerry Lewis in IAMMMMW, Ben Stiller’s bit is done as slapstick and will probably still be funny whether audience knows who he is or not.

 

Comic cameos were staples of film comedy, and not necessarily slapstick, for decades. Other Paramount stars often popped up in the 1940s-‘60s Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” movies. Hope and Crosby show up in the circus audience at the otherwise dramatic The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Around the World in 80 Days (1956) was wall-to-wall cameos, from Frank Sinatra to Marlene Dietrich. Would a modern audience (again, who did not study classic film) get the significance of a Sinatra or Dietrich cameo? It’s hard to say, but they would probably respond to them in terms of performance, not allusion.

I absolutely agree with cameos having more of a significance if the viewing audence knows the people doing the cameo. 

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I enjoy cameos especially if I recognize who's doing the cameo. Kind of important for a cameo. I absolutely agree with cameos having more of a significance if the viewing audence knows the people doing the cameo. All films rely on the viewing audence having some knownledge of who's who currently for the impact they are shooting for. And as great films age the use of cameos at the time made are more successfull if the viewing audence has aknowledge of the past.

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     As Cellini and Edwards state, a cameo is defined as a madcap moment that provides a humorous interlude.  It hits and is gone, leaving no mark on the storyline. The person doing the cameo can be either “in character” or “as they really are.”  Cameos can take several approaches:  as a stand-alone gag, a break in the narrative flow, an inside joke and even a break in the fourth wall.

 

     The examples from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) demonstrate this well.  All three involve the actors in character.  Jack Benny appears in his radio & TV persona, with his facial gestures, old car and drawn out “Well!”  It breaks the narrative flow, adds nothing to the story and is an inside joke.  Jerry Lewis mugs for the camera and runs over the hat.  It doesn’t advance the story; it is a stand-alone gag made funnier by our knowledge of who he is.  The Three Stooges as firemen is an inside joke that recalls their glory days (I agree it is bittersweet) while leaving the storyline unaffected.  I have more difficulty with the Howard Cosell cameo from “Bananas” (1971).  This is either a big cameo or a small role. It’s a cameo, in the sense that Cosell is playing himself, but it is involved with and advances the story by announcing in his unique style the arrival of the el Presidente.  As I recall, he returns at the end of the movie to provide play-by-play coverage of the consummation between the characters of Woody Allen & Louise Lasser (including the post-coital interviews).  I don’t recall if he is credited in the movie; if he is, I don’t consider it a cameo.  Another often mentioned cameo is Gene Hackman in “Young Frankenstein” (1974).  I do not consider this a cameo, it is a small role that is important to the storyline.  A parody of the Frankenstein movies would not be complete without this blind hermit scene.  Additionally, Hackman is listed in the credits.

 

      For me, the clip from “Anchorman” (2004) makes a reverse point that others mentioned about context.  It was pointed out that, for instance, the Jack Benny cameo in “Mad, Mad…” would have no meaning to someone young enough to be unfamiliar with him and his shows on radio & TV.  This clip means nothing to me as a cameo, because I don’t know who these people are and what they are known for.

 

     Other great cameos have been mentioned, including the wonderful series of them done by director Alfred Hitchcock.  The most unexpected one was in “Lifeboat” (1944) where a walk-on was not possible.  One of the shipwrecked is reading a newspaper; on the back is an ad for a weight reduction program with “before and after” pictures. Hitchcock is the “before” picture.

     Another example of creative cameoing is the use of Bing Crosby in several Bob Hope movies.  It became a long-standing inside joke playing on their partnership in the “Road Series,” and their frequent feuding on their respective radio shows.  Three examples demonstrate the various forms  that these cameos take.  Possibly the first Crosby cameo came in the middle of “My Favorite Blonde” (1942) when Hope walks by a guy in the crowd (Crosby) who gives him a casual greeting.  There is no gag associated with it; it is an inside joke based on their partnership in the first two Road movies.  The next cameo, in “The Princess and the Pirate” (1944),  was more elaborate and came at the end of the movie as a final gag that also breaks the fourth wall.  After he and the princess are rescued by the king’s ship, she declares to her father her love for a commoner.  Hope, assuming she means him, prepares for her embrace.  She walks by him and embraces one of the sailors of the line. It is Crosby.  Hope complains bitterly, as the film ends, that he works hard for nine reels and some bit actor from Paramount comes in and takes the girl.  Finally, in the “Son of Paleface” (1952), the cameo is front-loaded at the very beginning.  As Hope narrates the introduction of this western spoof, it cuts to footage of Crosby in modern clothing driving a car.  Hope comments on “this old character actor on the Paramount lot that we try to keep working.  After all, he has a large family to feed.  But, I guarantee that he won’t be in the show tonight.”  It is an inside joke (based on their association) that is a gag (based on Hope’s characterization of Crosby).  Though it does not interrupt the story (because it has not yet started), it does break the fourth wall and the time period of this western spoof.

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The dangerous and somewhat sad outcome of a cameo, especially like the ones in Anchorman is the joke can become outdated very quickly.  In this course, we have enjoyed 100 year old gags, that are still universally funny today.  Something tells me that in 90 years, there will be no humor when Tim Robbins steps on the screen for the rumble.

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As noted non-comedies can have cameo appearances as well, Hitchock being a great example of this. Stan Lee is a current example, showing up in most Marvel Comics SuperHero movies.  Both add "extra value" to those who know who they are, but lose nothing for those who dont.

       Which of course is one of the problems with cameos.  What audience is the modern filmmaker making the film for?  Originally movies didnt expect to have long lifetimes, and certainly one could only base the sucess on how well the contempary audience reacted (and how many tickets they bought). 

One need not worry about setting up and explaining who a famous person is, or a popular catch-line.  

       The clips show an excellent example of setting up a cameo to explain who Babe Ruth is.  Part of this is becasue his role is almost close enough to a guest appearance than a cameo.  But one knows from the start that he is famous, and then baseball, Yankees, Stadium are added to ensure that we know who he is, and not just exposition. 

       The clips on Mad, Mad, etc, World have various different takes on cameos.  We don't know who Jerry Lewis is, it's still funny as he runs over the hat - the mugging is funnier if we know who he is.  We don't know who the 3 Stooges are, it's unimportant to the storyline.  We don't know who Jack Benny is,  ... well, that does impact the storyline.  Should it have been eliminated, or does the expected initial  audience reaction make it worthwhile?   No right answer, although one could say that it is a teaching moment - to expand one's knowledge of American 1930s-1960s humor. 

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