For seven seasons, Gilmore Girls filled its audiences’ homes with a barrage of references to popular culture — familiar and otherwise. Most of these playful, off-the-cuff mentions of Jack Kerouac’s novels and Paul Anka’s duets came in the form of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and the writing staff’s rich, witty dialogue. Yet the series took this even further with numerous celebrity cameos that, as the Los Angeles Times noted at the time, “bypassed the usual sitcom fare” for “the likes of Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim and Norman Mailer.” More than any other show before, during and after its time, Gilmore Girls celebrated the modern intelligentsia — politicians, writers, scientists — the same way sitcoms prized pop culture’s darlings. In doing so, Sherman-Palladino’s creation became television’s representative for the smartest people in the room, but never at the viewers’ expense.
Of course, the familiar faces that popped up in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut weren’t always established pop icons. Googling “Gilmore Girls cameo” or “Gilmore Girls celebrity cameo” produces countless articles detailing guests who were already famous (Marion Ross of Happy Days) and those who weren’t famous yet (Danny Pudi of Community). But some of the most memorable cameos drew from a different source. Sure, the Bangles made an appearance, but so did former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Public figures who were (and still are) rightly celebrated, but mostly unknown by the 18 to 34 demographic prized by The WB (and then The CW).
Judging by the prevalence of cameos made by diplomats (Albright), journalists (Amanpour) and other celebrities whose renown originated outside the entertainment industry, Sherman-Palladino preferred a healthy dose of intelligence with her pop culture. (Even the program’s occasional insertion of fictional cameos, like Rory Gilmore’s [Alexis Bledel] Nobel Prize-winning macroeconomics teacher at Yale, Professor Coppedge [Robert Arce] in “You’ve Been Gilmored,” argued for brainpower as star power.)
Most celebrity cameos have more to do with the guest’s accomplishments than with series itself. Guests tend to come and go without offering much insight into the characters or their world. The same cannot be said for Albright, the former ambassador turned first female Secretary of State who served under President Bill Clinton. By the time her role in season six’s “Twenty-One is the Loneliest Number” came around, she had already left politics behind, though her accomplishments were what drew Rory to her, and the main reason why she dreamed Albright was her mother while estranged from her real mother, Lorelai (Lauren Graham).
“I think you’re a great, cool kid and the best friend a girl could have,” Albright tells Rory while they cuddle together Rory’s childhood bed. “It’s so hard to believe that, at exactly this time many moons ago, I was lying in exactly this same position.” Rory retorts, “Oh boy, here we go,” as Albright-as-Lorelai recalls her daughter’s birth — complete with references to “swearing like a sailor on leave” and a description of labor as “doing the splits on a crate of dynamite.”
The dream sequence lasts no longer than a minute and a half, but with the two Lorelai-focused scenes that bookend it, the bit helps expand one of the show’s more important storylines in sixth season. Rory and Lorelai aren’t speaking with or seeing each other, and it’s secretly eating away at both of them. “Twenty-One” amplifies matters with references to a grandiose girls’ night the two had been planning for Rory’s 21st birthday, and the fact that their separation prevents it from happening. The scene’s ludicrousness is obvious, whether viewers recognize the diplomat or not, but the way in which Gilmore Girls adds Albright into the plot is far more complex than a simple shoehorn. It plays directly to the central story and never hinges on Albright’s fame, which aside from Rory’s waking up and saying “I just had a dream that Madeleine Albright was my mother,” is never referenced.
Then again, Gilmore Girls did include many celebrity cameos whose appearances had plenty to do with their accomplishments, like Norman Mailer in the season five’s “Norman Mailer, I’m Pregnant!,” in which the famous writer suffers several run-ins with Dragonfly Inn co-owner and chef Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy). Mailer’s celebrity placed him among the kinds of famous people television viewers are more accustomed to seeing, and the literary reasons for his fame suited the show perfectly. Even if, as Mailer told the Los Angeles Times in 2004, “most people who watch sitcoms don’t know who… I am.” Mailer and Sherman-Palladino explained the cameo only came about because Gilmore Girls cast the former’s son in the journalist role, but considering Lorelai’s literary dreams for the Dragonfly, it made perfect sense.
“Norman Mailer’s back for the third time this week!” Lorelai exclaims after seeing him at a table again. Sookie, however, isn’t pleased: “I’m thrilled and delighted that Norman Mailer is coming in here every day and sitting at a table for four and ordering nothing at all but tea.” Billy Joel, on the other hand, would “pack it away” at the Independence Inn, where Sookie worked before opening the Dragonfly. Tea notwithstanding, the lack of business from Mailer proves to be a major foil for Sookie, whose irritation with the celebrated author quickly overlooks everyone else’s fondness for him.
The four scenes that feature Mailer emphasize his fame, as he’s sitting with a journalist at his “table for four,” drinking his tea and answering questions with all kinds of rhetorically stunning, if not clichéd, lines. (“A novel is like a secret affair, and you don’t bring other people in on it.”) Mistaking her irritability for anger at Mailer’s poor manners instead of hormones triggered by her pregnancy, Sookie finally interrupts the conversation toward the end of the episode and ridicules him.
While Mailer’s status as a famous author is an actual component of his guest spot, it ultimately serves as a means to an end. That is, a bit of plot misdirection for the story involving Sookie’s unhappiness with the Dragonfly’s poor business and her pregnancy revelation. Though Sherman-Palladino couldn’t resist a final punchline to conclude the then 81-year-old writer’s presence in her show, thereby giving him a final appearance as a table-occupying, tea-drinking customer at Luke’s Diner.
Gilmore Girls wasn’t the first to do this. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has practically made a second career for himself by guesting on shows like The Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Vice President Joe Biden recently made a highly publicized appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Even so, their Gilmore Girls counterparts stand out for how much less of a high profile they had as entertainers. And instead of using celebrity intellectuals like Tyson for the sake of a show gag, Sherman-Palladino featured the likes of Albright, Amanpour and Mailer in the hopes of elevating them to the level of pop culture icon without negating the series’ intelligent character or audience. The result was a smart show with smart people that didn’t talk down to its audience, and that’s a key, and sometimes overlooked, element of its enduring appeal.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premieres Friday, November 25 on Netflix. Check out our review here.