1. Barbra Streisand on Coffee Talk
As far as I’m concerned, this is how an SNL cameo should be done: Let a star character (Linda Richman, in this case) sing your praises, then let two other big celebrities gawk over you too (Madonna and Roseanne) before appearing onscreen for a split second as a shock-of-a-lifetime cameo. Clearly Mike Myers, Madonna, and Roseanne had no idea Barbra would be appearing, and you see looks of glee, terror, and utter fanaticism creep across their faces. In fact, Madonna seemed to be the most overjoyed about the whole thing. And then what do you do while they’re still fawning? Tip your beret and walk away. Perfection.
2. Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci on The Joe Pesci Show
Both De Niro and Pesci have hosted SNL, but their surprise appearance alongside Jim Breuer and John Goodman — who were enacting extreme and violent impressions of the two Oscar winners — was downright scary. Pesci approached with a calm, but threatening composure, and De Niro eventually lightened the mood by uttering the show’s trademark De Niro catchphrase, “A lil’ bit.”
3. Madonna with Lady Gaga
In 2009, we still had a couple years before a semi-real feud between Madonna and Lady Gaga could escalate. But before that happened, we got to see Gaga and surprise guest Madonna gyrate for approval in a “Deep House Dish” musical segment with Kenan Thompson. A catfight breaks out right after Madonna snipes, “What the hell is a disco stick?”
4. The new five-timers club with Justin Timberlake (and Steve Martin, Paul Simon, John Goodman, Candice Bergen, Tom Hanks, Martin Short, and bartender Dan Aykroyd.)
The five-timers club is a very funny conceit for repeat SNL hosts, and when we get a glimpse inside that lush study (which Tom Hanks first invited us into 20 years ago), it’s a decadent moment. On this occasion, we not only got to see longtime inductees and cameo veterans Paul Simon and Steve Martin, but Candice Bergen and Dan Aykroyd (not a five-timer, but a fiiine waiter here) too.
5. Janet Reno on Janet Reno’s Dance Party
Not only did Janet Reno appear to boogie down with Will Ferrell during one of his more ridiculous sketches, but she burst through a wall to do it. Sometimes cameos on SNL feel more obligatory than funny, but Reno’s go-for-broke commitment to basement dancing was a major highlight of the show’s late ’90s era.
6. Hillary Clinton visits Amy Poehler
What I love about Hillary Clinton‘s appearance during an election special in 2008 was both her self-deprecating humor in an editorial comment about the SNL‘s perceived candidate bias (“Last week’s debate sketch] wasn’t an endorsement of one candidate over another. I can say this confidently because when I asked if I could take it as an endorsement, I was told, ’Absolutely not.’”) but how it pointed out the true farcical nature of Poehler’s impersonation. Her crazy laugh! Her high-strung resentment! Plus, just look at those two. They belong in the same fabulous frame.
7. Alex Trebek on Celebrity Jeopardy!
SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches forever recast the image of television’s most popular quiz show and its host, even if Sean Connery (Darrell Hammond, in these sketches) never actually appeared as a celebrity contestant. When Alex Trebek finally arrived to announce to his doppelganger Will Ferrell that it was, indeed, his “final Jeopardy!,” Alex’s foreboding tone put the deadpan impressionist right in his place.
8. Anderson Cooper as Stefon’s husband
Yes, it was pretaped as part of a psuedo-Digital Short, but you have to hand it to Bill Hader for marrying the most prized gay gent in New York, Anderson Cooper. Though he’d be punched out by a jilted Seth Meyers, he still looked dapper as hell next to the Smurfs, Tribbles, and screaming babies in Mozart wigs.
9. Judge Judy with Cheri Oteri
Not a day goes by where I don’t think about Cheri Oteri’s nutty characters, particularly her ratatat impersonation of Judge Judy. “You are a liar, ma’am,” Judy (as played by Cheri) once told a losing plaintiff, “and a whore.” The day the real Judge Judy came to instill order in the court in ’98, Cheri stood back and let the real fearsomeness take over. This reminds me: Judge Judy has been a phenomenon for a looong time.
10. Sarah Palin ambushes Tina Fey
Though inevitable, the very brief exchange of glances between Tina Fey and Sarah Palin was one of the more thrilling versions of celebrity cameo we’ve seen on the show. Fey so thoroughly (yet fairly) skewered Palin in late 2008 that the onetime VP nom could claim “good sport” status just by showing up. Even as Fey abruptly left the stage, she did it using that most trusted method of transport: fancy pageant walkin’.
While watching Lady Gaga grind with surprise musical collaborator R. Kelly on this past weekend’s edition of SNL (which was often very funny), I realized that the show’s overuse of surprise celebrity guests is sort of killing the art of a surprise cameo. But then I remembered these 10 cameos, the best SNL surprise celebrity appearances ever, and I remember that sometimes an unexpected visitor can be a titillating and marvelous thing.