Here's the Stephen Sondheim guest-voice spot from tonight's episode of The Simpsons.
The way they incorporate celebrities playing themselves has, sad to say, become kind of tiresomely predictable. It always seems to involve several of these jokes:
- Regular Simpsons character hasn't heard of guest
- Regular character thinks guest is famous for something someone else did
- Guest acts like a total suck-up
- Guest, if he's highbrow, does something lowbrow (or vice-versa)
- Guest turns out to be a total sell-out
In fairness, a lot of these things were fresh and different at the time The Simpsons -- and a few other shows -- started doing them. When famous people guest-starred as themselves, it was traditional for them to be treated very respectfully. Look at all the guests on Lucille Ball's various shows: they poked mild fun at themselves, but basically they were shown to be as wonderful as we'd expect them to be, and Lucy would freak out with glee at every celebrity appearance. Or look at Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family: that's a great episode, but Sammy is never the butt of the joke at any moment; Archie is always the butt of the joke.
So in the late '80s and early '90s, in a sort of backlash, guest stars started being asked to play themselves as mean, or selfish, or miserly, or stupid. Instead of being sucked up to by the regular characters, the guests would suck up to them. Instead of being happy to see the stars, the regulars would find them annoying or claim they'd never heard of them. And that's how you get Leonard Nimoy as a crazy freak on The Simpsons, or Homer threatening to punch out Dick Cavett for being so boring. But what used to be a reversal of the standard prime-time guest star appearance is now, in itself, the standard prime-time guest star appearance. Maybe if a show went back to doing Here's Lucy-style guest shots, that would be considered fresh and different now.