Monday 25 September 2017

Fresh meat

Ed Power

Ed Power

Lady Gaga is the latest celeb to play themselves in 'The Simpsons', says Ed Power

Spare a thought for Lady Gaga. For a while there, you couldn't open a newspaper without having your eyeballs seared by images of the 'Poker Face' singer dressed as an alien/wearing meat/glowering from deep within a giant plastic egg.

Then she releases a duff second album and -- puff! -- the zeitgeist deserts her.

So with her profile plummeting even as she embarks on the biggest tour of her career (she stops by the Aviva in September), Gaga has struck upon a predictable but nonetheless ferociously effective strategy for crowbar-ing her name into the headlines: appearing in a celebrity cameo.

From the singer's perspective, her upcoming turn as herself in 'The Simpsons' is the ultimate no-brainer. Sending yourself up on television is a win on multiple levels.

First, you communicate to the public that you are a regular person who doesn't take themselves seriously. Second, you show off the acting chops nobody knew you had.

Third, and most important, you are proclaiming to the world that you have a sense of humour.

The birth of the modern celebrity cameo can be traced to HBO's early 1990s showbiz parody, 'The Larry Sanders Show'. Chronicling the farcical goings-on at a fictional Letterman-esque chatshow, Larry Sanders broke ground in encouraging celebs to go off the leash as exaggerated versions of themselves.

Usually so wooden onscreen, here 'The X-Files' star David Duchovny was hilarious as a would-be seducer of Sanders (Garry Shandling).

Jim Carrey, likewise, won us over by playing himself as an ADD control freak, while mullet-rock poster child Michael Bolton revealed previously unhinted at thespian depths in his role as an insecure he-diva named, well, Michael Bolton.

Ever since, celebs have looked at the TV cameo as a ticket to rehabilitation.

When she makes her debut on 'The Simpsons' in the weeks ahead, Gaga will join a club of literally hundreds of celebs who have graced the world's longest-running animated series.

Among the first was Michael Jackson, as a mental-hospital inmate who believes he is an international pop star.

It is a charming performance from the singer, who seems to have done it because he thought it would be a hoot, rather than out of some calculated desire to boost his cred (at his request the performance was credited to John Jay Smith).

The biggest pop star in the world would eventually be joined by the biggest band in the world (at the time).

In 1997, U2 starred in season nine's 'Thrash of the Titans'. They are performing on their Pop Mart tour when Homer dashes on stage to announce he is running for sanitation commissioner of Springfield.

To support his bid, U2 record 'The Garbage Men', a parody of Willy Wonka song 'The Candy Man'. All four members appear, as does manager Paul McGuinness.

Three of the four Beatles have turned up. In season two's 'Brushed With Greatness', Ringo Starr answers a fan letter from Marge decades late ("we do have hamburgers and fries in England, but we call French fries 'chips'.").

Season five's 'Homer's Barbershop Quartet' has George Harrison watching The Be Sharps singing on the roof of Moe's tavern ("It's been done," he scoffs, referencing The Beatles' show on the roof of Apple records).

Two years later, Paul and Linda McCartney pop up praising Lisa for her commitment to vegetarianism.

The best 'Simpsons' cameos are often a product of happenstance.

Who would have predicted that pairing astronaut Buzz Aldrin and folkie James Taylor would yield comedy gold? ("With all due respect, Mr Taylor, this isn't the best time for your unique brand of bittersweet folk rock," says Aldrin, as Homer sends their rocket hurtling earthwards).

Yet not every cameo has been a success. As a poorly disguised version of himself, Ricky Gervais jarred with the tone of 'The Simpsons'; it didn't help that Gervais also wrote the script.

Similarly, you found yourself wincing through Tony Blair's walk-on part in the 'Regina Monologues' in 2003, arriving, as it did, mere months after he sent Britain to war against Iraq.

And does anyone today remember Johnny Cash providing the voice of a supernatural spirit-guide in 1997's 'The Mysterious Voice of Homer'? At the time, 'Simpsons' creator Matt Groening described it as "one of the greatest coups in the history of the show".

In fact, the episode was terrible and did little to burnish the man in black's legacy.

Curiously, the 'Simpsons' cameos that leave the deepest impression are often those tending towards the obscure.

We are thinking of infamously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon, drawn with a paperbag over his head (confirmed sightings of Pynchon are rare to non-existent).

And of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who has appeared on four occasions and, initially, feared viewers might think he was a figment of the writing room's imagination rather than a real person.

Just a few weeks ago, meanwhile, the producers cajoled one of the world's most elusive men, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, into popping his 'Simpsons' cherry.

"We specialise in finding people who can't be found, so we thought it would be unique for the 500th episode," 'Simpsons' producer Al Jean said of Assange's spot. "We had to record him over the phone. It was a cloak-and-dagger kind of thing."

Will Gaga's 'Simpsons' turn put a rocket under her profile at the very moment she could do with a publicity jolt? Either way, anyone expecting her to step outside her public persona is likely to be underwhelmed.

"I play a little bit of a slut," she said. "The apple doesn't fall far from my artistic tree."

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