Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Introducing Keith Hernandez: 20 athlete cameos that aren’t totally unwatchable

Brett Favre, loving his Wrangler jeans, in There's Something About Mary

1. LeBron James, Trainwreck

Given the sheer volume of professional comedians that appear in the film—the cast list includes Bill Hader, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Randall Park, Colin Quinn, and of course star Amy Schumer—it comes as quite the surprise that the biggest laugh-getter in all of Trainwreck might actually be LeBron James. In his first big-screen role, the Cavaliers all-star plays a version of himself, one who supplies customary rom-com best-friend advice to Hader’s smitten sports surgeon. That could have amounted to a glorified, self-congratulatory SNL cameo, were it not for the loopy character James develops—a celebrity totally convinced that he’s just another one of the guys, despite the fact that his attempts to commiserate with his buddy often end with inspirational stories to which only a rich-and-famous professional athlete could relate. (There’s also a great gag about him refusing to pick up a check, out of fear of things changing between him and his much-less-wealthy friend.) It’s an effortlessly amusing performance, precisely because it finds James playing against his stardom with naturalistic aw-shucks sincerity. [A.A. Dowd]

2. Metta World Peace, Key & Peele

The world of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele is crowded with outsize personalities, sharp parodies, and characters full of unexpected pathos. Still, none of these categories contain the enigma that is former NBA forward Metta World Peace, the host of Key & Peele’s sporadic infotainment program Metta World News. The segments are never longer than a minute, as Metta World Peace blinks into the camera and, playing off his reputation, delivers some of the writers’ most ridiculous and random lines in a perfect deadpan: “Well, that wraps things up for Metta World News, this Wednesday, April Hurricane Slipknot. I’m Metta World Peace. Goodnight.” [Caroline Framke]

3. Mike Tyson, The Hangover

Despite what shows like Being: Mike Tyson and Taking On Tyson would have you believe, convicted rapist Mike Tyson is a hard guy to love. Somehow, though, The Hangover managed to do it, setting up the former heavyweight champ in a Vegas hotel suite and getting him to croon Phil Collins’ hit “In The Air Tonight,” complete with air drums. He also punches the shit out of Zach Galifianakis’ Alan, but that’s just because he and his drunk asshole buddies stole Tyson’s Bengal tiger. Thus, totally understandable. [Marah Eakin]


4. Reggie Jackson, The Naked Gun

When non-actors participate in a film, a common criticism is that they’re robotic. Fortunately, this works in Reggie Jackson’s favor in The Naked Gun, as villain Ricardo Montalbán’s sinister plot involves hypnotizing the Hall Of Fame slugger to kill Queen Elizabeth, in town to catch a ballgame. Jackson repeats his only line, “Must… kill… the queen” with the right amount of monotone detachment, and slips right into the role of a California Angels outfielder, a role he had played in real life two years earlier. Like star Leslie Nielsen, Mr. October never let his deadpan facade crack to belie the silliness of the situation. While Jackson had made a few prior TV appearances, usually as himself, he didn’t have a future in Hollywood, with only one more role on his resume—a baseball coach in the Macaulay Culkin adaptation of Richie Rich. [Mike Vago]


5. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Airplane!

One of the great things about Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s appearance in Airplane! is his repeated insistence that he’s actually Roger Murdock, airline pilot. Flying the plane right up until the moment food-poisoning disaster strikes, Jabbar is roused from his purportedly secret identity by young Joey, who assures Murdock he’s seen him play. Murdock continually denies being Jabbar, but the kid keeps insisting, until finally Joey points out that his dad says Jabbar doesn’t really try, “except during the playoffs.” At which point the basketball great whips around, fixes Joey with an indignant glare, and sputters, “The hell I don’t!” It’s not a game-winning dunk, but it’s a scene-winning laugh. [Alex McCown]


6. Lance Armstrong, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace has been so absolute, it’s almost startling to remember there was a time when he served as legitimate inspiration to others. And inspire he did in Dodgeball, where he met Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn) directly after the other man’s fear of failure led him to quit right before the championship match. Armstrong quickly turns the tables on Peter by pointing out he rebounded from three different kinds of cancer to win the Tour De France five times, his matter-of-fact delivery and utter lack of judgment somehow making Peter feel even more ashamed. “Well, I guess if a person never quit when the going got tough, they wouldn’t have anything to regret for the rest of their life,” Armstrong shrugs. He departs confident that this decision won’t haunt Peter forever—a line that’s unintentionally tragic and ironic, given the decisions that would haunt and destroy Armstrong almost a decade later. [Les Chappell]


7. Dan Marino, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

One of the most common problems with athlete cameos is that they have no experience with acting for the camera (as opposed to the occasional show put on for an umpire or referee). Thus, even if they’re just being themselves, it ends up somewhat akin to what it would look like if little aliens seized control of a human body, and were still figuring out how to work the controls, clumsily pushing the dial to 10 for every expression. Thankfully, there’s a way to compensate for this: make sure everyone else in the movie is hamming it up just as much as the star athlete. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective goes so far in the direction of overacting, it goes through a looking glass and comes out the other side, into a world where a bug-eyed cameo from the football legend fits right in. A conversation between former Miami Dolphins’ quarterback Dan Marino and Jim Carrey’s talking ass would have been totally believable—although Carrey is talking out of his ass in other ways these days. [Alex McCown]


8. Detlef Schrempf, Parks And Recreation

In a superb second-season episode of Parks And Recreation, the acting ability of the athlete is almost irrelevant. Retired basketballer Detlef Schrempf is primarily present for two reasons: to be a weird local Indiana sports hero, and to act as the straight man as his handler, Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford, grows increasingly irresponsible. Schrempf—tall, gangly, and incredibly German—is game for all this, with a knowing smirk and reaction shots that might rival future cast member Adam Scott’s. It’s enough to make it all seem like a big awkward joke, until he shows up at the end of the episode with a donation for the telethon that salvages the main storyline, and a comfort in front the camera that says he was brought in for more than just being tall, awkward, and German. [Rowan Kaiser]


9. Brett Favre, There’s Something About Mary

Long before his misadventures in sexting, Brett Favre was showing his stuff in There’s Something About Mary, where he played Mary’s good guy ex-boyfriend who showed up in the end to win her back. Favre’s performance in the film was game and made all the more impressive considering that he was ultimately the Farrelly brothers third choice for the role. When Drew Bledsoe (a.k.a. Tom Brady 1.0) had to turn the role down due to his partying ways and Steve Young passed, thanks to his wholesome Mormon values, Brett Favre was ready, willing, and able to be put in from the bench and deliver a solid performance. He’s a gunslinger, y’all. [Libby Hill]


10. Keith Hernandez, Seinfeld

One of the things that made Seinfeld such a remarkable show is how they were willing to play around with the typical sitcom form. One of the most famous examples of this was “The Boyfriend,” which delved into a JFK spoofing the re-creation of an alleged spitting incident dubbed “the magic loogie.” Central to “The Boyfriend” was the performance of MLB first baseman Keith Hernandez as (a version of) himself. Hernandez gives one of the finest athlete performances of all time in the episode, both by being genial and winning, while also exhibiting self-deprecating issues of self-esteem. He’s the man men want to be and women want to be with, and does it all because “I’m Keith Hernandez.” [Libby Hill]


11. Kevin McHale, Cheers

The brilliance of Sam Malone’s history as a sports star is that it allowed Cheers plenty of opportunities for guest stars, perhaps none so hilarious as that of Celtics’ legend Kevin McHale. First appearing in season nine’s “Cheers Fouls Out,” McHale is hired by Sam to be a ringer in the latest bar war with Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern, a three-on-three game. McHale working behind the bar only serves to exacerbate Woody’s imaginary grudge match against Larry Bird, who apparently goes to great lengths to run down the good name of Woody’s home town. McHale is a natural comedian and an easy fit in the Boston-based world of Cheers, making his reappearance a year later, in “Where Have All The Floorboards Gone,” all the sweeter. [Libby Hill]


12. Everyone in “Homer At The Bat,” The Simpsons

There are few things on television as perfect as the best episodes of The Simpsons, of which “Homer At The Bat” is one. Featuring the voice talents of a murderers’ row of baseball talent, the episode follows just what happens when Mr. Burns stacks the power plant’s softball team with ringers and boots the members of the team who’d done so well up to that point. With Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey Jr., Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, and Mike Scioscia all giving voice to themselves, the animated nature of the show allows for a wide swath of non-actors to give great performances without the burden of, you know, acting. Sure, much of the episode’s humor is based in the visual gags of Griffey Jr.’s gigantism or Don Mattingly’s “sideburns,” but none of that works without the known entity of baseball’s biggest stars to work with. Bonus: The episode also features the greatest song known to man. [Libby Hill]


13. Bill Buckner, Curb Your Enthusiasm

Long after Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner misplayed a grounder and allowed the winning run to score in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, the error remained a sore subject—both with Buckner and with the Red Sox fans who sent him death threats. But by the time he popped up in the 2011 Curb Your Enthusiasm episode “Mister Softee,” Buckner had made peace enough with his past to mock it. The key to Buckner’s Curb Your Enthusiasm performance is his overall gameness. He plays “Bill Buckner” as a happy scapegoat, unperturbed by the people who shout obscenities at him in the street, and sanguine even as he fumbles a valuable signed Mookie Wilson baseball and lets it sail out the window of a New York City apartment. This episode reimagines Buckner as an inspirational figure, not an infamous bonehead. [Noel Murray]


14-18. Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson, Space Jam

While Michael Jordan probably doesn’t get enough credit for turning in a half-decent lead performance as a non-actor playing alongside a mostly animated supporting cast, let’s instead focus on the five players whose basketball skills are stolen by the alien Monstars. The quintet get their chance to shine in this montage, set to a Barry White and Chris Rock cover of the Cheech And Chong song “Basketball Jones” (all of which is just incredible). The scenes positively drip with pathos—look at Charles Barkley’s quiet heartbreak as he realizes he can’t even hold his own in a pickup basketball game, then promises God he’ll never date Madonna again in exchange for his returned talent—and all five throw themselves into the goofy comedy of the thing. Shawn Bradley deadpans about his farming and missionary skills, Larry Johnson gamely convulses as he acts out the jolting experience of his talent being stolen, Muggsy Bogues wisecracks about his affection for his mama and the alignment of the planets, and Patrick Ewing makes it damn clear there are no other areas in which he’s struggling to perform. Plus, three NBA giants hitting their heads on a doorframe and falling straight backward while the 5’3” Bogues walks through unimpeded is pretty much the zenith of all physical comedy. (Sorry, Buster Keaton.) [Alasdair Wilkins]


19. Hank Aaron, Futurama

The former home run king pulls double duty in the 2002 episode “A Leela Of Her Own” as both his own preserved head and his distant descendant Hank Aaron XXIV, the worst player of all-time in blernsball, baseball’s 31st century successor sport. While the episode itself tends to be one of the worst-regarded of Futurama’s original run, Aaron is a highlight here, particularly in how he differentiates Aarons I and XXIV. The future Aaron is a sweet, bumbling idiot, mispronouncing “hologram” as “holly-gram” and proving so inept that he can’t even coach Leela to be slightly less awful than he is. In one of the most inspired bits of silliness, he even takes a swig out of another baseball great’s head jar, observing, “Ah, Wade Boggs goes down smooth!” Aaron’s performance as the original Hammerin’ Hank is much smaller, but he plays his preserved self with a kind of seething dignity, proudly proclaiming that he was the home run king and angrily lambasting his terrible descendant at every opportunity. It’s an inspired dual performance, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Aaron was by all accounts uncertain he even wanted to be in the episode and had to be persuaded to participate by fellow guest voice Bob Uecker. Whatever reluctance Aaron might have had, none of it shows up in the finished episode. [Alasdair Wilkins]


20. Ronda Rousey, Entourage

The Entourage movie is difficult to get through because of its sexism, obviously, but it’s also difficult to get through because it’s just straight-up boring. There is, however, one very small part of the film that makes it worth the watch… almost. That beacon of hope in an endless tunnel of bro-ness is Olympian Ronda Rousey. Rousey has been making her rounds on the big screen this year, contributing to one of the best fight scenes in Furious 7. But in Entourage, Rousey doesn’t just play some nameless muscle woman. She plays herself in all her confident, assertive glory, and watching her go up against the entourage is as delightful as watching her fight in the UFC. Getting to see her take out Turtle with ease is like a little gift to viewers for sitting through this movie. We probably deserve more than that, but we’ll take Rowdy Ronda Rousey punching dudes any day. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]


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