The Paul Reiser Show premieres tonight on NBC — but we surely don’t have to tell any of you, what with all those “watch party” invites we’ve been getting on Facebook. Reiser’s back, what what? Party like it’s 1993. At any rate, the premise of the show is such: Reiser is playing a fictionalized version of himself, a rudderless former sitcommer tooling around Hollywood getting himself into trouble. Sound familiar? The New York Times notes: “Mr. Reiser’s new series mostly proves what everybody already knows: Curb Your Enthusiasm really is inimitable.”
While the reviews for Mr. Reiser’s attempt at a meta-sitcom aren’t exactly glowing, one can’t blame him for the effort: in our celebrity-obsessed culture, several stars of stage and screen have taken the opportunity to send up their own image by playing themselves (or a comically exaggerated version thereof) on television and in film. We’ll rank a dozen notable examples, from worst to best, after the jump.
12. Chris Isaak, The Chris Isaak Show
Showtime’s first hit original series was the late ’80s cult hit It’s Garry Shandling’s Show , a brilliant send-up of sitcom conventions in which Shandling played himself, honing his simultaneously self-deprecating and narcissistic persona. The show lasted four seasons before folding up shop; Shandling took his next series, The Larry Sanders Show, to HBO. In 2001, Showtime attempted to recapture the magic with the three-season Chris Isaak Show, in which the “Wicked Game” crooner played himself (as did several members of his band). The show had its moments, but let’s face it, Chris Isaak was no Garry Shandling. He’s a likable dude and plenty charismatic, but his acting was a little wooden, and the show itself rather begged the question: was anyone all that interested in what Chris Isaak was up to off-stage?
11. Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld
Let’s be clear: We love Seinfeld. Love, love, love, love it. But we all must take a deep breath, join hands, and admit two things. 1) Jerry Seinfeld was the weakest element of the show that bore his name, partially because 2) Jerry Seinfeld was a pretty terrible actor. But here’s the great thing about Seinfeld: the writing and ensemble around him were so funny, it didn’t even matter.
10. Bruce Willis, Ocean’s 12
Steven Soderbergh’s second installment in the Ocean’s series garnered the least enthusiastic response from critics (it’s the only one rated “rotten” at Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences, with many pinpointing the unexpected meta-turn of its third act (in which the Julia Roberts character masquerades as… Julia Roberts) as a real misstep. But, as unpopular as this view might be, we kind of liked that sequence — if, for no other reason, than for the good-natured cameo by Bruce Willis. Willis, who was this close to being cast (as an actual character) in Ocean’s 11, pops up as himself; based on his few scenes, life as Bruce Willis mostly consists of being constantly besieged by people who claim to have figured out the twist in The Sixth Sense (“Everybody’s so freakin’ smart,” he mutters to Tess/Julia).
9. Matt LeBlanc, Episodes
In general, the post-Friends fates of that show’s ensemble cast have been, well, a bit scattershot. But Matt LeBlanc fared the worst after the hit series folded. He was immediately spun off to Joey, NBC’s blatant attempt at a Frasier-style follow-up, but the show tanked badly with critics and audiences, barely making it to a second season and almost single-handedly torpedoing NBC’s Thursday night dominance. He laid low in the years following the Joey debacle, only to reappear last year on the BBC/Showtime series Episodes, where he played “Matt LeBlanc,” a washed-up former TV star who wrecks the American version of a British sitcom. While his characterization of “Matt” isn’t all that different from his playing of dopey actor “Joey” (infer whatever you’d like about that), he’s awfully funny on the show — and is clearly having fun playing a Hollywood asshole (“Merc and I go way back, I’ve known him since he ran NBC Sports and used to get me Laker Girls”).
8. Paul Giamatti, Cold Souls
In Sophie Barthes’s 2009 comedy, Paul Giamatti plays himself, a well-known character actor struggling through rehearsals for a New York production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. In an attempt to extricate the heavy psychological baggage he’s bringing to the role, he undergoes an experimental procedure that gives him a short-term “soul transplant,” which then goes hilariously awry. Cold Souls doesn’t really do much with Giamatti’s specific persona — he’s more playing a “Paul Giamatti type” (exasperated, neurotic, put-upon, but with reserves of hope and longing) who happens to be an actor. But it’s still a terrific piece of work. The most interesting — and most challenging — aspect of the role is in the performance within the performance: as the actor playing Vanya, he must first be not quite good enough, then very bad, and then very good. He pulls all three off with aplomb (particularly delightful is the Shatner-esque quality to his bad Vanya).
7. Bill Murray, Coffee and Cigarettes
Several celebrities — Cate Blanchett, the White Stripes, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan — play themselves in Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch’s spotty but often uproarious collection of dry black-and-white vignettes, shot between 1986 and 2003. But the best segment is the penultimate one, in which RZA and GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan go out for herbal tea and run into Bill Murray, moonlighting as a waiter and swearing them to secrecy — though they continue to address him by his full name (somehow mashed into one word), i.e., “You can trust us, Billmurray!” and “That don’t sound too good, Billmurray!” And Murray, of course, knows exactly who they are, because he’s Bill Murray, and is awesome.
6. Daniel Radcliffe, Extras
Ricky Gervais played a struggling actor on the BBC/HBO series Extras, so he provided plenty of game celebrities with the opportunity to play themselves. Picking the best of the bunch isn’t easy — and there’s certainly an argument to be made for Kate Winslet’s dirty-mouthed turn, or the pure, lewd silliness of Patrick Stewart’s appearance — but we’re partial to Daniel Radcliff, who appeared in the second season and played himself as an obnoxious little shit, showing how “grown up” he is by pretending to be a smoker and coming on to every woman on the set (“I’ve done it with a girl… intercourse wise”).
5. Jean-Claude Van Damme, JCVD
No, seriously. Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD is a cleverly stylish and scrappily well-done slice of meta-moviemaking that causes us to rethink Jean Claude Van Damme, a screen presence who most haven’t considered in any terms for the better part of a decade. It’s no vanity project — this Van Damme is a washed-up, past-his-prime action star who can’t get a decent job anymore. He returns to Brussels to try to get his life back together, but a banking errand finds him inadvertently walking into a robbery in progress — and when police misinterpret him as the ringleader, the whole thing turns into a bit of a circus. Van Damme’s finest acting moment is a brutally honest monologue, straight into camera, that serves as but as a forceful poke in the eye to an industry that may have been underestimating the big lunk. Whether it’s the rare opportunity to work with good material or the comfort of speaking in his native tongue, Van Damme is genuinely good in this movie, which seemed to hint at a second act for the performer. (And then he followed it up with another Universal Soldier sequel.)
4. Neil Patrick Harris,Harold & Kumarmovies
Lest we forget, Neil Patrick Harris was still either Doogie Howser, MD or the guy from Starship Troopers when he stumbled into the backseat of Harold and Kumar’s car in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, sending up his goody-goody image by playing “NPH” as a dirty-mouthed, drug-crazed horndog (“the Doogie line always works on strippers”). He handily stole the movie — and suddenly Harris was hot again, landing a major role on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother and, of course, appearing in the sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.
3. David Duchovny, The Larry Sanders Show
Set behind-the-scenes at a fictional (but sometimes uncomfortably close to reality) late-night talk show, the HBO comedy The Larry Sanders Show included weekly appearances by real-life celebs: Sharon Stone, Ellen DeGeneres, Jim Carrey, Roseanne Barr, Sean Penn, Norm MacDonald, Carol Burnett, Alec Baldwin, and Jon Stewart (among many, many others). But no one made more of an impression than David Duchovny, who appeared several times as a perfectly nice version of himself who has a very awkward crush on Larry. The plotline came to a memorable conclusion with a Sharon Stone-inspired gag on the final episode.
2. John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich
Spike Jonze’s 1999 art comedy stars John as an unemployed New York puppeteer who works as a filing clerk on the 7 ½ floor of an office building, where he finds a portal behind a file cabinet that transports him into the brain of John Malkovich for 15 minutes before dumping him alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. (Twelve years later, it’s still fun to describe this movie.) Part of the reason the film works is Charlie Kaufman’s inspired screenplay; the other reason is Malkovich himself, who appears in one of the great self-mocking performances in movie history. He toys with his weirdo image, and his curious fame (everyone knows he’s an actor, but nobody can name any of his films), and the scene (above) where he tries the portal into himself is, quite simply, still one of the weirdest things we’ve seen in a narrative feature film.
1. Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David wasn’t exactly a “celebrity” per se when he made his HBO special Curb Your Enthusiasm, or when he began the series version shortly thereafter. Comedy nerds and eagle-eyed credit watchers knew him as the co-creator of Seinfeld, and that’s about it. But the semi-improvised series quickly made him as big a star in front of the camera as behind it. Curb showcases our curmudgeonly hero and his continuing adventures as the unhidden Id swimming through the pretty but shallow pool of Hollywood, offering up his unsolicited opinions and tactless reactions. It’s not that Larry doesn’t know how he’s supposed to act; he just doesn’t care, and his immense wealth and independence has allowed him the freedom to be exactly who the hell he wants to be. He’s perpetually put upon, but he brings so much of it on himself, he’s both the victim and the perpetrator. It’s a tricky line to walk — and one that not every viewer has cottoned to — but Curb‘s Larry David (no matter how close or far he may be from the real thing) is a brilliant comic creation.
Now it’s your turn. Which celebrities do you think do a good (or bad) job playing themselves?