Neil Patrick Harris goes wherever God takes him, or so he led us to believe in his career-reviving turn as himself in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Playing an ecstasy-fueled horndog on the hunt for what he affectionately calls “fur burgers,” Harris reminded viewers how much we missed the then 30-something child star. Not because he was still Doogie Howser, M.D., but precisely because he wasn’t.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Harris discussed how his respect for his work on Doogie Howser nearly led him to pass on the cameo, giving his career a sharp boost at the right time. He didn’t even know he would be in the movie until a friend auditioned for a part in Harold & Kumar and mentioned that Harris was cast. “I panicked because I thought I was gonna be just the butt of a joke in a movie,” he said. “I was conflicted. I called my agent. They sent me the script. I read the script, and it was funny.”
“I put a rider in my contract that they couldn’t do any comedy about me without me approving it. I’m pretty protective of the Doogie Howser canon, and I stand by the content of that show, so I didn’t want Harold & Kumar making it seem like I was disrespectful of my past.”
As funny as it is, Harris’ performance allowed him to break away from any assumptions about him as an actor. He wasn’t the boy genius anymore, and the chance to let audiences see a less severe side of him would pay off: “Three days work, and my whole career took a nice pivot.”
Though he had appeared in movies like Starship Troopers, Harris had not yet become Broadway’s poster boy. His second generation-defining television role, Barney on How I Met Your Mother, a part that is seemingly based on his cameo, was still a year away. Harold & Kumar revived his career, gave him a good audition tape for HIMYM, and reinvented the celebrity cameo in American comedies, popularizing the meta “as themself” jerk persona.
While the celebrity cameo was nothing new by the time Harris hit the screen, it did signal a change in how celebrities presented themselves and communicated with their audience. “We had this in anything from like I Love Lucy, with Maurice Chevalier and various sort of entertainment folks coming in to do cameos,” Stefania Marghitu, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film and Digital Media at Loyola University New Orleans, said to the A.V. Club in a phone interview. But in these performances, Lucy would fawn over the celebrities and the audience would cheer for their entrances. They’d essentially appear as a celebrity greeting fans. Sammy Davis, Jr., for example, was the good guy when he met Archie Bunker on All In The Family.
Television played a major role in how audiences came to relate to celebrities, feeding a desire for more information, according to Professor Jocelin Anderson, an assistant teaching Professor at Thompson Rivers University and author of the book Stars and Silhouettes: The History Of The Cameo Role In Hollywood. “It gives an opportunity for audiences to kind of participate in affirming their knowledge of celebrities, of the film industry, of their investment as fans in these small, brief moments in films where they’re allowed to compare the imaginary world to the real world,” Professor Anderson told The A.V. Club by phone.
As audiences became more sophisticated with celebrity culture and show business, edgier variety shows like Saturday Night Live offered a space for celebrities to stretch their wings and play with their star persona. To that same end, a Simpsons cameo was a right of passage for Hollywood royalty; Ron Howard, for example, had the chance to play against type and his public perception. They have their cake and eat it: the opportunity to poke fun at themselves while also acknowledging their massive fame. By the time Harold & Kumar came out, Carl Weathers had already begun hunting for food scraps on Arrested Development.
Harris acknowledges his past while upending any notions about his character. It relies on the viewers’ expectations and prior experience with the star to enjoy the performance. He was essentially doing a TV cameo in a movie, and his jerk persona has roots in classic Hollywood, Professor Andersen told The A.V. Club. The Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road pictures, while not exactly cameos, helped define meta persona for comedy stars, where they could poke fun at their celebrity.
“They were doing exactly this. The road movies were seven films. They’re in different scenarios in each one, but they’re half-playing these performer types, playing a version of Bob Hope and a version of being of Bing Crosby,” said Dr. Andersen. “They are Frenemies. Bing Crosby doesn’t like working with Bob Hope and Bob Hope doesn’t like working with Bing Crosby. They attack each other. They break character all the time. They’re showing a limited joke persona, as much jerk as they could get away with it at the time. I think that’s where we see the cameo change.”
However, this would take time. Film cameos in the 60s and 70s were similar to the ones we saw on I Love Lucy. The Muppet Movie and Young Frankenstein tap into a similar idea, where simply the excitement of seeing the celebrity in a strange place was enough, or in the case of Young Frankenstein, simply trying to figure out what Gene Hackman was doing in the movie in such a small role was part of the joke. Hope and Crosby’s pairing helped forge a space for a more meta approach to Hollywood stardom on screen, one where the cameo is the joke, rather than Greta Garbo or Buster Keaton popping up in a scene as a marketing gimmick, “shining a bit of star power on a lackluster cast.” The cameo evolved out of the road movies, becoming much more of how modern audiences see it, with that “punch of insight for the fans,” which is what we saw in droves after 2004.
In the years that followed Harold & Kumar, random celebrity cameos where stars play ridiculous versions of themselves were damn-near expected in Hollywood comedies and would serve as some helpful PR. In 2009, Bill Murray would regret Garfield in Zombieland, and Mike Tyson would knock out Zack Galifinakis in The Hangover. Both were massive successes for the stars, particularly Tyson. The Hangover allowed audiences to somehow accept a guy who was last seen biting his opponent’s ear off as a comedy star. Five years later, he was starring in Mike Tyson Mysteries on Adult Swim. Meanwhile, Bill Murray got to play on his real-life persona as well.
“We also see Bill Murray kind of making cameos in people’s everyday lives suck,” said Professor Marghitu. “He’ll go to a wedding or the infamous Bill Murray giving you a noogie at a Cub’s game. It’s a way for big celebrities that maybe don’t need some kind of image making but want to do something like that.”
“As themselves” cameos would live on through the movies of Judd Apatow. In Knocked Up, Judd Apatow gives some lines to an impatient, hangry Ryan Seacrest. Apatow would get even more famous friends to appear as crappy versions of themselves in Funny People, a smorgasbord of cameos all put to shame by an exchange between Eminem and Ray Romano.
All this came to a head in This Is The End, the Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg comedy that stands as one big Neil Patrick Harris-esque cameo. Even with the cast playing themselves during the apocalypse, Michael Cera takes a douchebag supreme performance to new heights, stealing the movie in the first scene.
But it all goes back to Harris, whose Harold & Kumar cameo remains the standard-bearer. With just a few short scenes, Harris’ innate likability and unpredictability pushed the little stoner comedy filled with outrageous moments over the top. As a result, NPH became a Chuck Norris (who did a little cameo that year in Dodgeball, a cameo that surely would’ve been longer had it come out after Harold & Kumar): a meme-worthy diety to the 2000s internet.
These cameos allow stars to own their celebrity and make it part of their stage persona, creating a connection with the audience through a form of self-deprecation. People like watching Celebrity Game Night and Dancing With The Stars because it gives them a chance to see a different side of stars and see them as people. These cameos offer something more: It’s a chance to see stars as funny.