In recent years, there’s been an interesting trend in actors playing themselves in guest roles. Old TV tradition has always had such guests being treated as special and wonderful people, always being treated as the largest star surrounded by the crazy regulars on the show and ultimately achieving some sort of star-ly victory (witness Sammy Davis Jr.’s grand appearance on All in the Family for the ultimate example.) The new TV tradition goes the other way – the As Themselves guest stars tend to play themselves as crude, obnoxious, desperate, and even somewhat deranged. The stars are poking fun at themselves and at stardom. I can’t say for certain when this took effect; the use of Jennifer Grey playing a venal, slutty (and for all I know, accurate) version of Jennifer Grey in the better-than-it-shoulda-been sitcom It’s Like, You Know… seems to me to be the watershed moment in this. Carl Weathers playing himself as a desperate, money-grubbing, food-grubbing acting coach in Arrested Development is the current example, and the somewhat rote feeling of its usage suggests to me that this whole trend may be saturated to the point where it’s losing its effect.
So it was good to see an As Himself put to another use. Jean-Claude Van Damme, perhaps not the most powerful of stars but certainly a recognizable one, played himself on last week’s Las Vegas. He played himself in part of a mystery plot – as the victim of murder. That’s right, they killed of Jean-Claude Van Damme. One wonders if as part of the great interlinked universe of TV shows Jean-Claude is now considered dead on Friends, where he had earlier played the same character.