The highs and lows of celebrity cameos in television

We trace the varying degrees of success of musicians who wander into the TV realm

FX7K7R Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me Year: 1992 USA Director: David Lynch Kyle MacLachlan, David Bowie, Miguel Ferrer. Image shot 1992. Exact date unknown. Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
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Viewers of Twin Peaks were recently presented with the mesmeric sight of David Bowie on their screens, making a surreal, surprise acting appearance from beyond the grave in David Lynch's cult TV show.

Around a month earlier, in mid-July, Ed Sheeran made a widely streamed cameo in the seventh season of Game of Thrones.

These two appearances, by two of the most  famous music stars in the world today, could hardly have been more different in the ways they came about – or how they were perceived by viewers and critics.

Rather than supernatural forces, it was archive footage that allowed Bowie to unknowingly reprise his role as FBI detective Phillip Jeffries. Lynch raided the vaults, using scenes shot for the 1992 spin-off film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me – in which a blond-haired, loose-suited Bowie played the same character – to assemble a meandering dream sequence for episode 14 of Twin Peaks: The Return, which premiered on August 13.

The episode was dedicated to the iconic musician's memory and, coupled with news that before his death last year Bowie had agreed to appear in the critically revered series revival – which picks up from the original's classic 1990-91 run – fans were thrilled by the cameo.

In contrast, Sheeran's Game of Thrones turn was widely derided. Inviting this year's best-selling musician to act in 2017's most-watched TV show smacked of cynical corporate manoeuvring, while the omnipresent pop star's campfire singalong chimed as a pointlessly jarring digression in a show many felt was "above" the celebrity cameo trick.

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And what an old, fraught, risk-laden trick it is. These two examples represent polar extremes – in the best situations, musician cameos can be a natural, empathetic fit, offering a playful riff on the star's perceived character and giving the series in question a jolt of pop culture relevance.

Yet at their worst, poorly timed or executed cameos can leave musicians embarrassed or shipwrecked, out of their depth and the butt of jokes for years to come. And thanks to the invention of YouTube, even the most forgotten moments of TV mediocrity can be dug out of the hinterland for a fresh round of laughs at the click of a button.

Naturally, some TV genres and musical personalities prove a better fit than others. Comedy allows an easier suspension of disbelief than drama – leaving writers free to playfully mock audience perceptions about a guest star. Again, Bowie emerged a ripe subject when caricatured in Ricky Gervais's short-lived sitcom Extras, in which each of its 13 episodes were pegged around a different celebrity. For his series-stealing spotlight, Bowie emerges sitting at a piano, improvising a merry singalong which bitingly dismisses Gervais's character as a "pathetic little fat man".

Despite its worthier-than-thou reputation, Games of Thrones has hardly proved immune from calling in star power in bygone days. Earlier episodes featured the atmospheric Icelandic indie bands Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men, with both proving fittingly rustic, windswept musical accompanists, while Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody, Coldplay drummer Will Champion and members of Mastodon have all made passing cameos.

However, none mentioned attracted anywhere near the same attention – nor mirth – as Sheeran's appearance, presumably because they passed without half as many people recognising them.

The part which really wound up audiences may have been the way Sheeran's dream-come-true appearance came about. The 26-year-old singer is reportedly a big fan of the show and it was only by exploiting his fame that he was able to indulge in a whim and to get on camera. Because, it seems, where there's a superstar with a will, there's quite often a way.

Exhibit A: Prince's appearance on New Girl in 2014, two years before his death. The Purple One was apparently such a fan of the quirky sitcom he called the producers and simply asked. They wrote in a weak plot line that lovers Jess and Nick gatecrash a Prince party, providing the superstar with a chance to make the lead characters faint in the presence of his superstardom, and for Zooey Deschanel – who is a singer-songwriter in her own right – to perform the awkward duet Fallinlove2nite, which was later released as a download-only single.

As a renowned artistic omnivore, Bowie had a wealth of dramatic experience to call on, previously attracting praise for various film roles including The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth and The Prestige. He was the most successful crossover star of his peer group – vintage rockers from Mick Jagger to Ringo Starr variously tried their hands at film, with drastically differing results – the former's role in Nicolas Roeg's Performance is hailed as a classic.

But it was Roger Daltrey who was to prove the most prolific – or, perhaps, persistent – on the small screen. Following The Who's initial retirement in 1983, the frontman went on to make numerous appearances in dubious stateside serials, including the sci-fi and fantasy romps Sliders, Highlander: The Series and Witchblade, as well as straddling into horror with Tales From the Crypt and playing a Superman villain in the mid-1990s spin-off Lois & Clark. On home turf in the UK, he appeared in long-running police drama The Bill, and took a recurring lead role in the BBC schools drama Buddy.

In each of these cases, it was difficult for viewers to get over the fact that they were watching Roger Daltrey, the famous rock star, acting – however convincing his performances might be. The perversity is that the less famous a musician is, the easier it is to pull off a "celebrity" cameo – one wonders how Sheeran's stunt would have been perceived if he were a niche singer-songwriter recognised only by those 'in the know'.

Although it is renowned in the genre, it is only country music fans who may have noticed Steve Earle's recurring role as a recovering addict in the groundbreaking cop drama The Wire, and only hip-hop heads might have clocked Method Man's role in the same series as a gang chief. And it is certainly only keen-eyed Americana listeners who will have spotted singer Grant-Lee Phillips on Gilmore Girls, where he played an aloof musician, conveniently singing songs by his band Grant Lee Buffalo.

For the universally famous, a safer bet is to appear playing a version of yourself, maximising audience reach and removing the requirement to do any actual acting. Notably, Sheeran's big-screen turn in the comedy sequel Bridget Jones's Baby, playing himself, was far better received than the Game of Thrones stunt.

Another example is Stevie Wonder's memorable appearance on The Cosby Show. Needing a plot device to introduce the superstar into the characters' lives, the writers wound Wonder up in a minor automobile accident with principles Theo and Denise, who were then invited back to Wonder's apartment for a heart-rending sing-song of I Just Called to Say I Love You.

Less successful was Bob Dylan's 1999 appearance on odd couple American sitcom Dharma & Greg. It remains to be seen why the notoriously media-shy legend consented to the daft premise that Dharma would audition to perform as a drummer in his band. Nor why he would sit through the laboured onscreen jam and jilted dialogue which followed.

A final, almost embarrassment risk-free approach for musicians is to appear in cartoon form – a cameo genre almost the exclusive reserve of a single, monolithic show – The Simpsons. It might prove easier to list the A-list acts that have not 'appeared' in its 28-year history, with authorised, animated cameos made by everyone from Keith Richards to Barry White, Dolly Parton to Britney Spears, Plácido Domingo to Snoop Dogg, and Little Richard to Lady Gaga, with many more notable omissions.

One can pluck out a multitude of reasons why Matt Groening's yellow universe has proved so attractive to special guests: the offbeat tone; knowingly referential conceit; the quality of the writing; and the fact musicians need only record voices – rather than act on camera – have all helped The Simpsons to become, arguably, the most fertile playground for stars to sheepishly poke fun at themselves.

Yet the biggest coup may be that once the ball got rolling and the series was established as an iconic institution, every personality of any walk of life was impelled to queue up for a ritual ribbing at Homer and Bart's expense – if for no other reason than to cement their celebrity and to prove to the world that they had a sense of humour, after all.