Even though it was savaged by critics and underperformed at the box office, Zoolander No. 2 (which I will refer to as Zoolander 2 from here on out) is one of those “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” movies: Meaning it didn’t cost that much to make. When all is said and done, it will most likely make its “modest for a studio movie” $50 million budget back. So, Zoolander 2 won’t have a cultural impact either way, unlike something like Deadpool, which has already spurned 1,000 “How will this affect movies from now on?” thinkpieces. Zoolander 2 is such a small blip on the radar, that what you’re reading right now is probably one of the only “thinkpieces” devoted to this movie at all this week. This is just one of those movies that came and went. But, hopefully, it leaves one everlasting legacy: The death of the gratuitous cameo.
Look, I don’t hate all cameos. I just hate lazy cameos. You know the ones, where the famous person isn’t even playing a character? Remember in Wedding Crashers, another Owen Wilson movie, when Will Ferrell showed up unexpectedly? Yeah, that qualifies as a cameo. Why is this okay? Because he was playing a character named Chaz who actually has something to do with the story. He wasn’t playing “Will Ferrell.” One of my favorite cameos is in EuroTrip, of all movies, when Matt Damon shows up as the lead singer of a band that sings “Scotty Doesn’t Know.” This is a clever thing to do with Matt Damon. (Also, let’s go ahead and nominate “Scotty Doesn’t Know” as the “2016 Song of the Summer” right now.)
In Zoolander 2, Katy Perry show up, playing Katy Perry. The whole exchange is just Derek Zoolander acknowledging that this person is Katy Perry. Oh, heavens, a famous person is in a movie. Stop the presses. (This kind of thing happens about 25 times during Zoolander 2 and I’m not exaggerating.) I’m picking on Zoolander 2 because this movie is, by far, the biggest offender we’ve ever seen. Hopefully next time a filmmaker says, “You know, it might be funny if Lady Gaga showed up in our movie right now and said ‘hi,'” these filmmakers might catch themselves and stop themselves, “Oh no, we almost Zoolander 2’d this thing.”
On television, SNL used to be pretty bad about this, but is getting a little better. Put it this way: A couple of weeks ago, it would have been pretty easy for SNL to just have Bernie Sanders show up right as Larry David was doing his Bernie Sanders impression, but instead they created a character for Sanders to play on a sinking cruise ship. This is a good step forward.
There are ways to circumvent this laziness because famous people have appeared as themselves in movies and this has worked. Bruce Springsteen had a real purpose in High Fidelity and Alice Cooper was funny as himself in Wayne’s World. Oh yeah, there was also Bill Murray in Zombieland. But these were all clever! And these are all exceptions that prove the rule. (I’m going to be honest here, I only used “exceptions that prove the rule” because I found some examples of the thing I’m arguing against that I actually like. I have no idea if this “proves the rule” or not, but it always sounds like a smart thing to say in these situations. So, there’s a tip, if anyone ever points out a flaw in your theory, just say, “Yeah, but that’s the exception that proves the rule,” and everyone around you will nod and say, “good point.” Then change the subject.)
Remember the HBO show Arli$$? Robert Wuhl played a sports agent and every episode was filled with countless athlete cameos. And, for the most part, they were all terrible – and I kind of blame Arli$$ for being the patient zero of gratuitous, pointless cameos. This is because every cameo on the show went something like this:
Arliss: “Hey, it’s Scottie Pippen.”
Scottie Pippen: “Hi, Arliss.”
Arliss: “My man, Mike Piazza.”
Mike Piazza: “Hey, Arliss.”
The key was the name of the person who was doing the cameo was always said out loud, just in case there was any confusion, a trend that continued through pretty much every episode of Entourage and on through Zoolander 2. This is all nonsense meant to distract you from the fact that you’re watching something bad. And it needs to end. Be better. We all love Neil deGrasse Tyson, but we don’t need him in Zoolander 2… enough, already, with stupid, lazy, gratuitous, movie cameos.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.