Every Time Someone Played Themselves on ‘Seinfeld,’ Ranked
Seinfeld may have been a show about nothing, but its lead characters were far from nobodies in their world. Jerry was a famous comedian; Elaine worked for a prominent clothing magazine; Kramer had bizarre connections with all different kinds of people; and even George, the biggest loser of the bunch, was employed by the legendary New York Yankees. Because of this, numerous famous people showed up on Seinfeld, many of whom played themselves.
Some of these appearances became iconic, like those of Keith Hernandez, Regis Philbin and Marisa Tomei. Others were forgettable, like those of Fred Savage and Jay Leno. While some were so strange that they take on a whole new meaning today, a la those of Rudy Giuliani and Jon Voight.
With nearly 20 notable celebrities playing themselves on the show, we decided to gather a council of Seinfeld experts to rank them from the most memorable to the absolutely forgettable. It may not be highly scientific, but it’s definitely a “bonkos” list of famous faces.
Episode: “The Shower Head,” Season 7, Episode 16
Why He Shows Up: Leno makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo when Jerry appears as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he proceeds to make fun of his Uncle Leo.
Why It’s a Clunker: “When is Jay Leno on the show?” asks Adam Crouch, who runs @seinfeldepisodes on Instagram.
Episodes: “The Finale,” Season 9, Episodes 23 and 24
Why He Shows Up: Rivera is a reporter covering the trial of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer.
Why It’s a Clunker: “He’s mostly there to give some context for the trial in the series finale,” explains Brendan Kellam, creator of Champagne Video Store. “You see Geraldo, and you start thinking of the O.J. trial, the Menendez Brothers and other court cases that became media circuses. He might be the least funny cameo, but I suppose he’s there to let the viewer understand the magnitude of the case.”
Episode: “The Trip, Part 1,” Season 4, Episode 1
Why He Shows Up: When Kramer moves out to L.A., he spots Savage in a coffee shop and pitches him his screenplay.
Why It’s a Clunker: “I mean, he’s fine,” says Adam Pacecca, co-host of The Place to Be: A Seinfeld Podcast. “He does a good job seeming uncomfortable around Kramer, but there’s not much to it.”
Episode: “The Non-Fat Yogurt,” Season 5, Episode 6
Why He Shows Up: Giuliani appears on TV during his mayoral run to promise he’ll crack down on yogurt being falsely sold as non-fat.
Why It’s a Clunker: “Giuliani was meh,” says Eric Dobin, Pacecca’s co-host on The Place to Be: A Seinfeld Podcast.. However, Pacecca adds a bit of trivia, explaining, “This scene was shot two ways — one with Giuliani if he won, and another scene with an actor playing Mayor David Dinkins’ spokesperson if Mayor Dinkins was reelected. That actor was Phil Morris, who would later play Jackie Chiles. So, had Dinkins won, they would have aired the version with Morris, which means he may not have been able to play Jackie Chiles later on.”
Episode: “The Puffy Shirt,” Season 5, Episode 2
Why He Shows Up: Jerry appears on the Today Show, hosted by Gumbel.
Why It’s a Classic: “The way Gumbel keeps interrupting Jerry to remark about the puffy shirt is perfect,” says Kellam.
Episode: “The Abstinence,” Season 8, Episode 9
Why It’s a Classic: “It was pretty rare for Letterman to make any cameos, so his appearance here is pretty special,” says Kellam. “His weird little anecdote about the monitor lizard is a nice little dash of Late Night humor, too.”
Episode: “The Friar’s Club,” Season 7, Episode 18
Why He Shows Up: At the Friars Club, Jerry is chewed out by Cooper for not returning a jacket he had borrowed.
Why It’s a Classic: “As an Italian, I just love Pat Cooper. He’s a comedy legend,” Pacecca tells me. “I love when he snaps at George, ‘Are you an entertainer? No? Then why am I talking to you?’”
Episode: “The Cigar Store Indian,” Season 5, Episode 10
Why He Shows Up: In a chance meeting on the subway, Roker steals a gyro from Jerry and hits on Elaine.
Why It’s a Classic: “Roker’s cameo is pretty brief, but having him play a creepy version of himself on the subway is good for a nice laugh,” says Kellam.
George Wendt and Corbin Bernsen
Episode: “The Trip, Part 1,” Season 4, Episode 1
Why They Show Up: When Jerry is a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he brings George along. Backstage, George tries to spark up conversations with Leno’s other guests, including Cheers star Wendt and L.A. Law star Bernsen.
Why It’s a Classic: “I love when they’re both on The Tonight Show talking about George being some nut backstage,” says Pacecca.
Various New York Yankees
Episodes: Too many to list out
Why They Show Up: Since George was the Assistant to the Traveling Secretary of the Yankees, there were plenty of reasons for members of the Bronx Bombers to appear on Seinfeld.
Why They’re Classics: “All the Yankees on the show were in such different situations, but Paul O’Neill was definitely the best of those appearances,” says Lee, creator of Constanzagrams on Instagram. “His acting wasn’t good, but I still enjoyed it. The way he says, ‘How the heck did you get in here?’ when Kramer gets into the locker room was a great delivery.”
Episode: “The Understudy,” Season 6, Episode 23
Why She Shows Up: Jerry dates a woman who is Midler’s understudy in a Broadway play.
Why It’s a Classic: “Midler had a pretty good sense of humor to portray the diva version of herself,” says Kellam. “Whether she’s trash-talking George or getting pampered by Kramer, the character works and they leverage her celebrity well.”
Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford
Episode: “The Opposite,” Season 5, Episode 22
Why They Show Up: Kramer is a guest on Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee to promote his coffee-table book about coffee tables.
Why It’s a Classic: “I love when Regis and Kathie Lee are on the show,” says Dobin. “I’m sure it was planned, but when Kramer kisses Kathie Lee, it feels improvised — her reaction is so funny. Regis, who was a huge fan of the show, was very excited to be there, and he told a very funny story about his appearance. Larry (David) and Jerry kept having him say ‘bonkos’ on the show and, apparently, he thought he was bombing because the audience wasn’t laughing at that word. I laugh every time he says it, though. ‘Bonkos’ makes no sense, but it’s very funny.”
Episode: “The Summer of George,” Season 8, Episode 22
Why She Shows Up: When Kramer is a seat-filler at the Tony Awards, he gets whisked on-stage and is given a Tony for a play starring Welch. He is later propositioned by the producers of the play, where they tell him he can keep the Tony if he fires Welch.
Why It’s a Classic: “You can’t beat a cat fight between Elaine and Raquel Welch,” says Crouch.
Episode: “The Jimmy,” Season 6, Episode 19
Why He Shows Up: Tormé is the headliner at a benefit for the mentally challenged. Because Kramer is numb from novocaine, he is mistaken for being mentally challenged and Tormé sings “When You’re Smiling” to him.
Why It’s a Classic: “Tormé seems like the biggest sweetheart in his scenes with Kramer,” Kellam says. “The closing scene, where he serenades a seemingly mentally challenged Kramer, could have been disastrous if they didn’t nail down the right tone. Tormé’s sincerity is a big reason why everything clicks. You’re not laughing at mentally challenged people, you’re laughing at how absurd this scenario is. Evidently, Tormé’s acting was so convincing that some of the cast incorrectly suspected that Tormé wasn’t aware Michael Richards didn’t really have a disability.”
Episode: “The Mom and Pop Store,” Season 6, Episode 9
Why He Shows Up: After George buys a car that might have been owned by Voight, Kramer happens to spot Voight on the street. Kramer then shouts and runs after him to see if George’s car did indeed belong to him. However, Voight feels threatened and bites Kramer on the arm.
Why It’s a Classic: “Jon Voight is a big one for me even though the guy is a total wack job now,” says Crouch. “That appearance actually gets better with age, given what we know about Voight now. Like, if I turned on the news today and it said, ‘Jon Voight bit somebody,’ I’d think, ‘Yeah, that sounds about right.’”
Episode: “The Merv Griffin Show,” Season 9, Episode 6
Why He Shows Up: When Kramer assembles the old set of The Merv Griffin Show in his apartment, he invites wildlife expert Fowler on as a guest.
Why It’s a Classic: “The fact that Kramer gets a real wildlife expert to come to his apartment for The Merv Griffin Show set is really funny. Just the way Jim Fowler says, ‘Where are the cameras?’ is so perfect and funny,” Lee tells me.
Episode: “The Cadillac, Part 2,” Season 7, Episode 15
Why She Shows Up: When George meets one of Elaine’s friends, they mention that he’d be a perfect match for her friend: Oscar-winning actress Tomei. George eventually manages to meet Tomei, even though he’s engaged to Susan.
Why It’s a Classic: “I do love Marisa Tomei’s scenes on Seinfeld,” says Dobin. “She’s super memorable. Apparently, they picked her as a guest star because they liked saying her name over and over again in the episode.”
Episodes: “The Boyfriend,” Season 3, Episodes 17 and 18
Why He Shows Up: When Jerry and George are at the gym, they spot former Met Hernandez, who then approaches Jerry and tells him he’s a fan of Jerry’s act. From there, Jerry and Hernandez become friends.
Why It’s a Classic: “Keith Hernandez somehow fits into the world of Seinfeld seamlessly,” says Kellam. “He plays a part in every plot in probably the show’s best two-parter. He doesn’t have many lines that are particularly funny on their own, but they’re often hilarious within the episode’s context. For example, his explanation of the second spitter is a highlight of the series, without being particularly jokey. He was such a natural fit that they even brought him back for the series finale.