When it comes to great actors, you can never get a true sense of who they are as they leave all that behind to embody their characters. Which is why we love TV shows that let them play themselves.
There have been several TV shows like this—including Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Life’s Too Short—where A-list actors show up on screen as themselves (or slightly altered versions of themselves).
Sometimes it’s hammed up and fictionalized, with personas that lean into the narcissism and avarice we might expect from show business talents, yet always with an undercurrent of humorous irony.
Here are some of the best and funniest times when well-known celebrities played themselves on TV to gut-busting effect.
9. Val Kilmer (Life’s Too Short)
When Val Kilmer appeared in Life’s Too Short alongside Warwick Davis, he gave license to both Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to adapt him to their brand of bohemian narcissism.
Val Kilmer, wearing a Batman mask, walks into Warwick’s secretary’s office, claiming it as a bit he does. The secretary incorrectly names all the other men who have portrayed Batman, forgetting Val entirely.
It’s one of the best moments of a celebrity having fun with themselves, as Kilmer’s disappointment in her lack of recognition is palpable.
8. Salman Rushdie (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
When Larry David goes on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and tells the audience about a new comedy play he’s written, he proceeds to mock the Ayatollah—leading to the Ayatollah to issue a Fatwa ordering Larry’s death.
Scared, Larry goes to see somebody who understands his situation: Salman Rushdie, who calms Larry by telling him about the benefits of having a Fatwa hanging over his head.
Rushdie isn’t known for his appearances in comedic TV shows, so seeing him actually pop up in Curb Your Enthusiasm is a surprising treat. His delivery of the material makes the sequence all the more fun to watch.
7. Ricky Gervais (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
As one of the people who helped invent the modern idea of alternate celebrities on comedy shows, Ricky Gervais’ appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm has more meaning than most.
Gervais comes across as a know-it-all cerebral comedian who uses his British innocence to make Larry look foolish, all before stealing Larry’s girlfriend from him as they started dating.
Gervais knows how to play this type of comedy backwards and does it with aplomb, using his appearance to comedic effect.
The ending scene, where Larry saves Ricky in the subway from a mugger using a stale stick of bread, gives Gervais the ending he usually reserved for celebrities in his other shows—and that’s all part of the joke.
6. Kate Winslet (Extras)
Kate Winslet has never taken herself too seriously, so when she appeared in Extras, her acting talent brought a dramatic weight to the show that made it all the more fun.
Far from a one-scene wonder, Winslet plays a big part in her episode, regularly making sex jokes about Sam Mendes’ (her then-husband) Oscar and discussing why she hadn’t yet won one.
When Winslet is caught being rude by another extra, she immediately comes clean about the meaning of her jokes and becomes sheepish—something which endears her to the audience even more.
5. Sir Ian McKellen (Extras)
Sir Ian McKellen’s appearance on Extras has become one of the best-loved renditions of an actor portraying themselves.
When Andy Millman wishes to earn a part in a play directed by McKellen, he misunderstands the play’s homosexual leading romance, all because the names used aren’t gender-specific.
Then, when Andy meets with McKellen, Sir Ian gives him a quick lesson in acting, using McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. The scene is a British comedy classic, and the episode sees one of the series’ best performances by the pushy McKellen.
4. Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
A performance of its own kind that has been sustained for over 20 years, Larry David’s comedic masterpiece Curb Your Enthusiasm has seen many actors portray humorous versions of themselves over the years—but Larry’s own performance still shines.
As the ultra-neurotic and selfish version of himself, Larry continually questions the dogmas of modern society, and more often than not gets into trouble for his societal hot takes.
Larry David’s show may have a stellar cast around him, but there’s no substitute for Larry himself, who makes the show so enduring.
3. Liam Neeson (Life’s Too Short)
He may have only appeared in the one sequence, but Liam Neeson’s performance as an incredibly serious, deadpan version of himself who wishes to become a stand-up comedian is comedic rhodium.
The premise follows a fictionalized Neeson as he meets with Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais, and Warwick Davis to discuss the kind of jokes he can use. Then, they start a quick bout of improvisational comedy.
The problem is that Neeson keeps bringing in dark subjects like AIDS, bowel cancer, African prostitutes, and “unnamed homosexual actors”—all resulting in one of the funniest bits that British TV has ever produced.
2. Michael J. Fox (Curb Your Enthusiasm)
Few actors are willing to discuss physical disabilities and terrible disorders in a comedic way. Fortunately, Michael J. Fox and Larry David do not know such bounds.
When Larry moves to New York for a while, he ends up living in the apartment below Michael J. Fox—and Fox is immediately annoyed by David’s presence, so he cooks up a revenge campaign.
Fox starts banging around with his heavy boots on and other such activities, purely to aggravate Larry. And when Larry complains to Fox about it? Fox uses his Parkinson’s disease to get out of any confrontation, as well as manipulating the other tenants against Larry.
The use of Fox’s illness to get out of situations is not only fun because Fox is so good at it, but it also helps raise awareness of the disease—something Michael J. Fox has been doing since his diagnosis, raising over $100 million for research in the process.
1. David Bowie (Extras)
Described by Rolling Stone as “The greatest rock star ever,” David Bowie became reclusive to the media in his later years, though still putting out albums that showcased his genius. But it’s his appearance on Extras that allowed Bowie to do what he loved doing most: have fun.
When Bowie enters the VIP section of a bar, Andy Millman is immediately thrown out before bribing his way back in.
When Andy then meets Bowie, he discusses selling out, something Bowie doesn’t understand—as the iconic musician then turns to the piano and writes a song about Millman called “Chubby Little Loser.”
The mercurial genius of Bowie is played with by Bowie himself, who gives his fictional personality a detached sense, which makes his appearance all the funnier and memorable.