Plenty of television shows have their stars, often comedians, playing fictionalized versions of themselves — it’s the simplest way to translate a stand-up act or other public persona to a scripted situation, from “The Jack Benny Show” to “The Cosby Show” to “Everybody Loves Raymond.” But someone taking a regular gig that’s centered around skewering him- or herself is a more contemporary phenomenon. Maybe it’s because in this showbiz-savvy, invasive tabloid-happy era, we feel iike we have more a sense of an actor’s private self (merited or not) and so are in on the joke, or maybe it’s because there’s no one you get freer rein to come down hard on than yourself.
The latest performer to embrace this idea is James Van Der Beek, who plays “himself” on the new sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” the smarmy friend of Krysten Ritter’s Chloe, still using his “Dawson’s Creek” fame to get girls and lower-tier acting gigs (in real life, Van Der Beek’s married with two kids and, you know, is a regular on a new network comedy). Here’s a look at some other shows that have featured actors playing nastier, more inconsiderate, less successful or more embarrassing versions of themselves — and not just in self-mocking cameos, but as cast members.
The “Seinfeld” co-creator took that show’s abrasive themes to even greater highs and lows when staring in his own series on HBO in which he plays “Larry David,” a semi-retired TV guy who doesn’t know the meaning of letting something go. Much, if not all, of the action in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” depends on David’s unwillingness or inability to change his behavior for the benefit of other people. It’s both excruciating and fun to watch, but if someone were to act like that in real life, it could only be excruciating. As David told Rolling Stone, “As crazy as this person is, I could step into those shoes right now, but I would be arrested or I’d be hit or whatever.”
Jennifer Grey in “It’s Like, You Know…”
Created by Peter Mehlman, another “Seinfeld” alum, this short-lived sitcom starred Chris Eigeman as a devoted New Yorker who heads to L.A. to stay with his well-to-do friend and write a book trashing the town. That friend’s neighbor? “Dirty Dancing” lead Jennifer Grey, whose career never recovered from her getting a nose job that changed her appearance enough to leave her unrecognizable. That fateful rhinoplasty became part of her character’s storyline on the show, though the joke lost a lot of its lustre when it became evident the series wasn’t going anywhere — self-deprecation’s easier to laugh at when there’s clear evidence countering it.
Louis C.K. in “Louie”
Louis C.K. takes sad sackery to some glorious places on his FX series, one of the best things on TV. Like him, his character is divorced, splits custody of his two kids and does stand-up. But his on-screen self always seems at ragged ends, whether in trying to buy a new apartment only to be reminded by his accountant that he has just $7,000 in the bank, or in having a date end with the woman getting into a helicopter to escape from him, or having an encounter with a girl at the bar who says she like older men like him because they smell like “dying.” His willingness to bear the brunt of these multiple humiliations is balanced by the show’s underlying warmth.
Warwick Davis in “Life’s Too Short”
The 3′ 6″ tall Davis (of “Return of the Jedi,” “Willow” and many others) co-created this BBC/HBO series with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant with the intent to poke fun of the life of a “showbiz dwarf.” The result lets neither Davis, who plays himself as simultaneously arrogant and insecure while being so desperate for money that he takes on a series of degrading gigs, nor anyone else, from a journalist who makes the star stand on a box in order to be more easily interviewed to Gervais himself, playing extra pompous. The result is too cruel for my taste, though there are occasional moments of genius from guests like Liam Neeson.
Coogan’s a maestro at subtly self-lacerating self-portraits, and in Michael Winterbottom’s six-part series (which was also cut down into a feature film) he builds on the version of himself he played in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” an actor who’s constantly being reminded of the ways in which his personal and professional life are not matching his aspirations. The relationship his character has with Rob Brydon, his best frenemy, speaks volumes — literally, as the two have nothing to do but talk and eat on their journey through northern England. Coogan constantly slights and holds himself over Brydon, but of course can’t help but give into endless duels over impersonations, and it’s implied that Brydon, in putting up with the abuse, pities the man.