When it first launched as an animated featurette on the now long-forgotten Tracy Ullman Show, The Simpsons was subversive. Here was an unabashedly dysfunctional family; a counterpoint to the quirky-but-perfect nuclear families that were a staple of 1980s sitcoms. Now, The Simpsons are a television institution, and if they don't seem subversive today, it is only because society has caught up with them.
The Simpsons' reliance on pop culture to provide the basis for many of their episodes, along with the absurdist reality of Springfield, has allowed the show's producers to feature hundreds of guest stars during the its nearly quarter-century run. Guest stars will either voice one-off roles created for a specific episode, or, in some cases, will appear as themselves in cameo roles.
Trying to then pick the best cameos from a pool of 500+ episodes is a daunting task, so for the purpose of the following list, one criteria is that the cameo needs to be more than just a celebrity drop-in to the Simpsons' world. Instead the cameo role needs to be central to the episode's storyline; the other criteria is that the appearance has to be funny. So, without further adieu, here are the top six Simpsons cameos:
1. Mark Hamill (“Mayored to the Mob,” Season 10)
In this episode, Homer begins yet another second career, this time as a bodyguard. He soon becomes the personal protection to Springfield's thoroughly corrupt mayor, Diamond Joe Quimby. Homer escorts Quimby to a local dinner theater, where Mark Hamill is staring in a presentation of Guys and Dolls. But the theater owner is less interested in Hamill's acting chops than he is of Hamill's legacy as Luke Skywalker, sending him onstage in the musical about Detroit gangsters dressed in his Jedi garb (complete with light saber) to sing “Luke Be a Jedi Tonight.” Hamill later helps Homer save the mayor by advising him to “use the forks” during a fight with mob boss Fat Tony's henchmen.
2. Red Hot Chili Peppers (Episode: “Krusty Gets Kanceled,” Season 4)
Krusty the Klown's TV show gets canceled and Krusty hits the skids (as if Krusty is ever very far from the skids anyway...). Bart and Lisa step in to dry Krusty out and relaunch his career with a comeback TV special. This early episode features multiple cameos, including Johnny Carson and Hugh Hefner, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers stand out as the musical guest, particularly in the scene where Krusty — in an homage to Ed Sullivan's infamous encounter with The Doors — suggests new, less suggestive, lyrics for their song “Give It Away.” Unlike Jim Morrison, Flea responds to Krusty's suggestions with: “Wow, those are lyrics everyone can enjoy!”
3. Buzz Aldrin (“Deep Space Homer,” Season 5)
To revive flagging interest in the space program, NASA decides to launch the “averagenaut” program to send an average citizen into space, and who is more average than Homer Simpson? The second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, serves as one of the crew on this most fateful trip to the stars. Homer, of course, botches the mission, releasing ants from a science experiment prompting Springfield news anchor Kent Brockman to declare his allegiance to Earth's “new insect overlords.” Unlike many Simpsons' cameos, Aldrin appears as a main character throughout the episode, sending up the space program. Aldin also inadvertently switches the credit for saving their doomed mission from Homer to an “inanimate carbon rod.”
4. Steven Hawking (Four episodes, including “They Saved Lisa's Brain,” Season 10)
There's just something odd in thinking that one of the world's great scientific minds is also a Simpsons fan, but Professor Steven Hawking has proved it by appearing in not one, but four, Simpsons episodes. His best cameo is in the episode, “They Saved Lisa's Brain” when Lisa's attempts to rule Springfield in a benevolent dictatorship with a cabal of fellow Mensa members including Dr. Hibbert and Jeff Albertson (a.k.a. “Comic Book Guy”) predictably goes horribly awry. But that's ok because Hawking is there to save the day — and Lisa — with the help of his tricked-out wheelchair, which includes helicopter blades, a grappling arm, and spring-loaded boxing glove.
5. Gary Coleman (Four episodes, including “Grift of the Magi,” Season 11)
Like Hawking, Gary Coleman (Arnold from Diff'rent Strokes) also has appeared in cameos in four episodes. His best turn is playing himself as a slightly-demented security guard in the holiday-themed episode, “Grift of the Magi.” Like Hawking, Coleman also saves Homer, Bart, and Lisa from certain doom, this time with a display of his mad karate skills. Coleman then engages the Simpsons family in a spirited philosophical debate over the merits/pitfalls of the over-commercialization of Christmas, before wrapping the episode with an homage to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
6. Mel Gibson (“Beyond Blunderdome,” Season 11)
A bad review of his tender, soulful remake of the political classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington prompts Mel Gibson to seek out the person he regards as the one honest critic of his work. That critic, of course, turns out to be Homer Simpson. Like Buzz Aldrin's cameo, Gibson's is especially noteworthy since he appears as a major character throughout the episode. Mel eventually takes some bad advice from Homer, tacking a Lethal Weapon-inspired, blood-soaked finale onto his Mr. Smith remake. Mel and Homer then steal one of the vehicles from Mad Max for a getaway chase from angry movie studio executives.