In film, cameos by musicians are usually played for laughs. It’s a bit different in TV.
Plenty of TV shows shoehorn performances, be it Roy Orbison on The Dukes of Hazzard, The Flaming Lips at 90210‘s Peach Pit, or even a surreal performance by Motorhead on The Young Ones. More rewarding (and more like their film counterparts) are those unlikely cameos that involve some sort of self-parody.
Here are 10 of the most unusual television cameos by musicians, whether animated or live action. While artists usually play a fictionalized version of themselves, watch out for musicians as mythology professors and mental patients, as well.
Iggy Pop in The Adventures of Pete & Pete (1994-5)
Nickelodeon’s cult-favorite Pete & Pete often featured rock icons that the intended audience wouldn’t recognize, but their parents or older siblings would. Among Michael Stipe, David Johansen (New York Dolls), Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes), and Kate Pierson (the B52s), no cameo was more subversive than that of Iggy Pop. The punk firebrand featured in several episodes as James Mecklenberg (a name suspiciously close to his own, James Osterberg), the overprotective father of Little Pete’s best friend Nona (Michelle Trachtenberg). Of all his appearances, Pop’s turn as school-dance-crooner is the weirdest.
Eddie Van Halen in Two and a Half Men (2009)
Eddie Van Halen’s regrettable appearance on the deplorable Two and a Half Men is the opposite of his brother’s blink-and-miss-it cameo in Robocop: the guitar god shows up — for no reason — to deliver a laugh track pleasing bathroom joke that may have presaged his recent colon surgery.
Britt Daniel in Veronica Mars (2006)
The Spoon and Divine Fits frontman shows up as a singer in a karaoke bar. Daniels sings — what else? — Elvis Costello’s ‘Veronica.’ The song is actually about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, not a sassy teenage detective.
Tool in Mr. Show (1995)
The first episode of the seminal sketch show also featured the first appearance of Puscifier, the name of Maynard James Keenan’s “creative subconscious” (or “side project” for everyone else). Keenan and Tool guitarist Adam Jones play a bit of ‘Ronnie Dobbs,’ a thrash song dedicated to one of David Cross’ most memorable characters.
Patti Smith in Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2011)
The Poet Laureate of Punk Rock shows up as Cleo Alexander, a mythology professor who helps out the detectives on everyone’s least favorite Law & Order spin-off.
Bob Dylan in Dharma and Greg (1999)
What does Chuck Lorre have on Bob Dylan that he appeared on this, one of the most banal sitcoms ever broadcast?
Radiohead in South Park (2001)
The dour bandmates took a break from self-seriousness for this brief animated cameo: taunting their biggest fan and calling him a crybaby. What a bunch of creeps.
Yoko Ono in Mad About You (1995)
Yoko Ono played herself in this episode of the standard-issue sitcom. Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt) meet Yoko to discuss a potential film project (“I want you to film the wind”) while avoiding awkward discussions about The Beatles. By the credits, she ends up in bed with the couple and pays tribute to the bed-in’s ‘Give Peace a Chance.’
David Bowie in Extras (2006)
A chance encounter with the Thin White Duke results in the fame-hungry Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) becoming the subject of an improvised song. Bowie distills the essence of the sad sack Millman in a brilliant self-parody reminiscent of ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ the irresistible ‘The Little Fat Man with the Pug-nosed Face.’
Michael Jackson in The Simpsons (1991)
The King of Pop voiced mental patient Leon Kompowsky, a “big white guy who thinks he’s the little black guy” (with the irony of Jackson’s altered appearance looming large). A fan of the show, Jackson offered to do a guest spot before celebrity drive-bys were a Simpsons staple. While Kompowsky’s singing was voiced by a sound-alike, Jackson did write ‘Happy Birthday, Lisa.’ For contractual reasons, he was credited as John Jay Smith and his appearance was not confirmed until later.