Comedy is hard. Not everyone can do it, and yet sitcoms, sketch and variety shows often engage in shameless stunt casting. “Stunt casting” refers to the practice of filling a role in a television, film, or theatrical production with an unconventional figure as a gimmick or publicity stunt. Sometimes this involves casting an ultra-famous actor in a production they would typically never be considered for, like Tom Cruise as the sleazy movie producer, Tropical Thunder. More often these roles are filled by non-actors such as musicians, professional athletes, or politicians. Stunt casting can range from the creatively stupid to the unforgivable platforming of truly vile people. More often than not, these people serve as a blight on a production in more ways than one. We’ve compiled a list of a few risks in comedy that didn’t pan out.
There was never going to be an adequate solution to Steve Carell’s departure from The Office, but Ferrell’s four episode stint in season seven as the new boss was a giant mistake. On paper, it was a perfect set-up. The two comprised one-half of the Channel Four news team, Anchorman, one of the biggest comedic films of the ‘00s, but nothing about Ferrell’s DeAngelo Vickers clicked. There was a huge disconnect between his character’s personality, clumsily jumping from toxic and domineering to Scott-like levels of naivety and childishness. Vickers felt completely out of place at Dunder Mifflin and ultimately was a forgettable chapter in the celebrated show’s quick descent into mediocrity. While Ferrell at least earns the distinction on this list of being an actual comedic actor, his former onscreen relationship with Carell was seemingly the only rationale for his inclusion in the series.
LeBron is one of the most entertaining figures in American culture and one of the few millionaires that actively uses his power and influence for good. Lakers jersey aside, he is impossible to root against as he is one of the most talented basketball players the NBA has ever known… but again, he is a basketball player. For Amy Schumer’s 2015 film Trainwreck, producers took an unconventional route when casting the role of a friend and patient of sports doctor Aaron Conners, played by Bill Hader. They picked James, an actual professional baller, to play a fictionalized version of himself. He didn’t do a bad job, but that doesn’t mean his performance was good. Critics and fans gave him major props for his performance but the bar is quite low for LeBron, an athlete with no formal training acting in his first movie. Nobody expects athletes, or any non-actor for that matter, to turn in an amazing performance, so when one does the bare minimum it’s treated like a stroke of brilliance. But LeBron’s film persona is formulaic at best as writers lazily just flip the cliche of a professional athlete on its head: a manly athlete is soft and romantic, a serious competitor is carefree and goofy. It’s Oppositeland! But Oppositeland is tired and ultimately the role could have been better served under an actual actor. Gone are the days of black and white television sets where a cameo by a celebrity is a thrill for audiences. It’s not a surprise to see a celebrity share the screen with other celebs and as much as I like King James, basketball is not a skill that transfers over to acting. It’s not just an odd creative decision, but a bad business decision to take a role away from an actor and give it to a wealthy athlete who doesn’t need it. Bill Hader is not an actual doctor, his patients didn’t need to be actual athletes.
You may have forgotten about Kim K’s appearance on the acclaimed NBC sitcom 30 Rock, and I can’t blame you for that. Not because it was a forgettable cameo, which it was, but because you won’t find her episode streaming anywhere today after the creators took it and three other episodes down for depicting characters in blackface. Oh, but Pepperidge Farm remembers. In the West coast version of the series’ second live episode “Live from Studio 6H,” Kim is one of two big surprise celebrity cameos. She is on screen for maybe one whole minute in order to walk across Jack’s office towards a bathroom and then later hold a phone in front of her face. How many employee sick days did that cost them? While the East coast was treated to Paul McCartney, neither of these cameos were necessary. Again, it is not a surprise or a thrill to see wealthy celebrities mingle together. That’s their people, that’s their arena. Kim’s casting was only surprising in a “wow, really?” sort of way considering Tina Fey previously wrote about how she disliked working with rich socialite Paris Hilton on SNL, calling her “dumb” among other things. So it’s surprising that the 30 Rock creator felt Kardashian’s cameo added value. Tomayto and tomahto.
Clinton deserved to be criticized for her policies, but also deserved to have been our president after winning millions more votes over an absolute racist idiot. Still, the overbearing “yas queening” of her is still its own special kind of cringe. Her appearance on the Comedy Central sitcom was so out of place, so awkward to see these two young women gush and gag over a politician like she’s Beyoncé. It’s try-hard levels of pandering and embarrassing to watch in the same way watching local actors rap about the dangers of drugs at a school assembly is unbearable. Politics is not cool and it doesn’t need to be. In our attempts to entice young, apolitical citizens into being active participants we start to dumb down the real life effects of government. You can sensationalize something to death in both a negative and positive direction. We see that as our media routinely obsesses over the candidates’ favorite beer, the clothes they wear, or the way they stand instead of focusing on policy and rhetoric. Clinton’s cameo wasn’t bad in principle, but it was a bad creative decision to Kidz Bop-ify a presidential candidate’s campaign. It felt so transparently bought, like Krusty the Clown hocking SUVs. You could drag and drop any politician in her place and this scene would still be lame.
In a show filled with political cameos, this one will likely earn the most scrutiny moving forward. I wonder how much Leslie Knope’s wild crush on the train-loving politico from Scranton has influenced (and possibly skewered) people’s perception of our potential new president. The show never put Biden under a critical lens, but it didn’t really have to. He was solely a punchline, a weird crush for it’s eternally optimistic liberal protagonist to madly adore. Knope idolizes the very idea of government and politics, but this was mostly a surface joke, making an unlikely heartthrob out of an average looking older man instead of the more obvious choice of famous model or conventionally attractive A-list celeb ala Chris Evans. But the show ruins its own running joke by giving Biden a cameo. The idea was that our beloved lead would finally meet and humorously lose control when confronted with her celebrity crush, turning what was just a picture on her desk into a realized what-if scenario. But by doing so they normalized what was supposed to be a weird crush and took all the absurdity out of it. Biden worked as a silly fantasy to call back to whenever we needed reminding of the small town politician’s lofty ambitions. Having them meet made her larger-than-life ideals seem average and suddenly easily accessible from the supposed podunk town of Pawnee. Where’s the fun in that?
Now the tide turns from innocent miscasting to shameless brown-nosing. Again, politicians are not new to TV though it is rare for them to pop up outside of news programs or the late night circuit. It’s rarer still to do so outside an election season, which is what made Newt Gingrich’s appearance in the fifth season of Parks and Recreation so baffling. Not only was Gingrich not in the running for president at the time but he doesn’t even represent the state of Indiana, home of the fictional city of Pawnee the show is set in. According to show co-creator Mike Schurr, his casting was complete “random chance” as the politician just happened to be dining at the same restaurant they were filming a scene for the episode “Two Parties.” “You can’t pass up an opportunity like that,” Schurr says. Oh, you absolutely can. Gingrich had always been nationally known as a toxic member of congress and made headlines sensationalizing partisan battles, name-calling Democrats, and stirring up conspiracy theories to get what he wanted (sound familiar?). This was a man many knew for allegedly divorcing his second wife while she was in the hospital battling cancer and the producers thought snagging him for a few seconds was a steal. His cameo is short and pointless and provides zero commentary nor comedy. As a host informs Jerry that he has mistakenly taken Gingrich’s table, Jerry makes a lame remark regarding the similarity in the two surnames suggesting they may be related (seriously?) only for Newt to retort a familiar, “I don’t think so, Jerry.” Shows like to think that giving problematic people space on their platform isn’t automatically an endorsement, but in this context it is. You’re making a spectacle of their appearance in addition to giving their onscreen version a win. It’s one thing to never give your show’s infinite punching bag a break, it’s another thing to let a worm like Gingrich score off of him. Jerry deserved better.
Crenshaw’s appearance on SNL was sad to see not only because the show essentially turned their backs on their own cast member but because they also platformed a politician who once ran a white supremacist Facebook group. Crenshaw first drew the attention of Pete Davidson and his coworkers during a weekend update segment that tasked Davidson with roasting various candidates for office. In regards to Crenshaw, Davidson says he’s surprised he’s a congressional candidate and not “a hit man in a porno movie,” followed up with a “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war or whatever.” For all the baseless crying over the PC police, this was a rare incident of someone actually getting in trouble for a real, benign joke. Like everything on the show, Davidson’s joke had to be passed by multiple people but he alone served as the face of controversy. Instead of standing by their employee and the joke that they approved, the powers that be essentially forced Davidson to apologize on air to Crenshaw, according to the comedian. In his Netflix special, Davidson reflects on the incident and essentially rescinded his apology, saying “I didn’t think I did anything wrong… it was like words that were twisted so that a guy could be famous.” And it worked. Crenshaw rocketed into the spotlight and the proud Trump supporter is now a highly sought after conservative talking head who went on to vote against the Violence Against Women Act and the Equality Act, which was written to protect people from gender and sexual orientation-based discrimination. You could say, hey, the SNL brass couldn’t have known he would go on to do those things, and that’s true, but what purpose did you have to bring a comedy show to a dead halt in order to showcase a politician you didn’t properly vet or endorse? And it is a tacit endorsement to let Crenshaw roast Davidson on air, thus painting him in a positive light. There is nothing wrong with apologizing for a joke that you feel crosses the line or whose impact greatly veered off of its intent, but there was nothing sensational about Davidson’s jab. He didn’t say anything worse than what politicians say about each other on Twitter or even what Crenshaw supporters have said about his eyepatch. And the show definitely didn’t need to do it on-air. The show’s lack of solidarity with one of their own serves as a grim reminder that even “cool” workplaces can throw you under the bus at will while this segment will forever serve as a prime example of the impact giving anyone a platform can have.
Seriously, what the fuck was that? The Comedy Central Roasts really went off the rails when it pivoted from honoring beloved comedy icons to roasting cultural pariahs. The daises became a bizarre pairing of experienced stand-ups with random celebs like Martha Stewart, Caitlyn Jenner, Peyton Manning, and Jewel. But Coulter, Coulter will forever be one of the most insane casting decisions in the history of TV. As she points out in her turn behind the podium, the night was just as much a roast of her bigotry as it was a roast of Lowe. Some choice soundbites include:
“One of the most repugnant, hateful hatchet bitches alive, but it’s not too late to change, Ann — you could kill yourself.” — Jimmy Carr
“Last year we had Martha Stewart who sells sheets, and now we have Ann Coulter who cuts eye holes in them.” — Pete Davidson
“I haven’t seen you laugh this hard since Trayvon Martin got shot.” — David Spade
You see, the joke is that Coulter is a blatant and proud right-wing racist who was and still is spewing hate for profit. The nicest thing anybody has ever said about her is that she looks like Skeletor. Seriously, why was she there? She can’t write a joke nor could she take one that night, which alone should be disqualifying. The audience booed her as she promoted her latest pro-Trump book and the remaining members of the dais watched her try in similar disgust. It was a true slap in the face to see a network prioritize hate-watch views over the comedians that serve as the lifeblood of their programming. Ann Coulter does not deserve an ounce of screen time on any show.
Sorry Jimmy, we’re going to keep talking about this. It was a pretty big deal to have the host of a late night TV stalwart tousle the hair of the man who ran a presidential campaign on bigotry and telegraphed corruption. In an interview with Rolling Stone, fellow late night host Stephen Colbert defended Fallon, saying “that’s a completely unfair critique of Jimmy Fallon’s show. You do not go to Jimmy Fallon’s show for political satire or even political discussion. He’s an entertainer and he’s brilliant.” He also said in regards to a Trump presidency, “Nothing about Trump and Putin, nothing about his caging children, nothing about him saying, ‘There’s good people on both sides.’ Nothing about his handing the reins of power over to just a rogues’ gallery of anti-regulation, pro-pollution, anti-union, anti-women (officials) in any way surprises me. It’s all what I thought would happen. Which is why I was truly horrified.” If you were horrified by this person, why would be ok with him A) being invited on a comedy show and B) the host tousling his hair? I’m sorry, but you don’t get to have it both ways. Either this is a person you fear and despise or this is a prop for trivial entertainment. While Colbert may have been fine with it, Fallon later said he regrets his decision. People make mistakes, this list is full of them. A good person can ask the world to forgive but it doesn’t get to ask us to forget and it is incredibly hard to forget the time one of the worst people on the planet got treated like a harmless poodle. It’s not just bad comedy, it’s a complete lack of integrity.
This one really takes the cake. As bad of a creative decision having with a host with zero comedic skill is, the problem is first and foremost the morality of platforming a proud bigot who just told the world that Mexican immigrants are rapists. Politicians from both parties have made passing cameos on the show, and a few had hosted before, but none were openly touting racist, fascist policies. That’s what makes Trump’s appearance so significant. As bad as a few minutes on Fallon’s armchair was, centering an entire episode of one of the most iconic comedy shows of all time around Trump was a mind blowing act of normalization. He who was once a punchline on the show was invited to be in on the joke and inducted into the cool kids club alongside Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, and Scarlet Johannsen. It wasn’t even the first time he hosted the show. While that first episode was before he showed any political aspirations, it doesn’t make for a good reason to bring him back for a second spin. Just as they must abandon certain liberties before taking office, candidates’ past relationships in entertainment also must go out the window. They cannot be treated like any other actor because at the end of the day, these people are real politicians and not fictional characters. You can say what you want about them, but giving them screentime comes with a certain responsibility to the public in how they are portrayed, a responsibility nobody seems to want to own. I doubt many people were happy about Trump’s hosting gig but it seems to be still mostly downplayed as people try to divorce their actions from this man’s repugnant reputation. But try as they may, their fingerprints are all over the place. If having a bigot as host says nothing of a show’s character, then bringing back their beloved alumni wouldn’t be special either. But we know that’s not the case.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.