Culture

Jon Hamm, King of Cameos

The Actor's Appearance on HBO's Barry Shows Why He's the Master of the Form

By Sam Eichner ·
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AMC

On last night’s episode of the HBO hitman comedy, Barry, Bill Hader’s titular assassin, who has fallen in love with a talented blonde named Sally in his acting class, entertains a brief vision of his perfect future life, wherein he and Sally are hosting a barbeque for their fellow Hollywood friends. Featured in this fantasy is Jon Hamm, playing Jon Hamm, who jovially asks Barry if he can take a shit in his house.

This is a classic cameo from the reigning king of cameos, Jon Hamm. Its meaning is twofold: it both subverts the old Hollywood masculine ideal of Jon Hamm, by way of Don Draper’s long, trench-coated shadow, for comedy—“Jon Hamm showed up at a neighborhood barbeque?!? And he’s asking to drop a deuce?!”—and, in a meta sense, describes Hamm’s career post-Mad Men—“Jon Hamm showed up on your TV show? And he only has a few lines?!?”

If anything is true of Hamm, it’s that he’s game to play against the public’s perception of him, and game to do it often. Since Mad Men began, in 2007, he’s eagerly leased his persona out to comedians from Tina Fey, for whom he played Liz Lemon’s too-good-looking love interest, Dr. Drew Baird, on 30 Rock, to Kristin Wiig, for whom he played the loathsome lothario in Bridesmaids, to David Wain, for whom he parodied a textbook CIA assassin, the Falcon, in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer prequel, to Rob Corrdry, for whom he portrayed a troubled male alter-ego/hospital heir Derrick Childrens (and his father, Arthur Childrens) on the absurd and brilliantly wacky Adult Swim series, Childrens Hospital. In addition to his more high-profile film roles, he’s also had small, recurring roles on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Web Therapy and Parks and Recreation; on SNL, which he’s hosted three times, he’s become a cast-favorite, perhaps because of his willingness to both lean into and wildly depart from his fundamental Hamm-ness. Few actors of his caliber or profile have so frequently and generously offered themselves up to the whims of talented funny people. And none have done it with such gusto.

One gets the sense that Hamm genuinely enjoys doing comedy, but also that it’s been a conscious attempt to chip away at the steely facade of Don Draper. And yet this strategy has been somewhat counterintuitive: far from divorcing Hamm from his Draper persona, the incongruousness that is often the source of his comedy has, in some ways, strengthened his tether to it. As Teo Bugbee puts it on MTV News, “For Hamm, there is the benefit of working alongside some of Hollywood’s finest and most respected comedians, and for the shows themselves, Hamm’s star power and considerable chops as an actOR [sic] add a touch of class to the proceedings. Hiring Jon Hamm to show up at a late hour to storm the kitchens and make an alliance with a talking can is a joke that requires little set-up [sic]. So long as the writing for Hamm acknowledges the anachronism of his presence, the audience will laugh because they’re watching one of the most respected actors in television act the fool.” By continuing to play against his public self for laughs, Hamm makes that self harder to outrun.

These cameos are certainly part and parcel to a film career that has been relatively lackluster in comparison to his success on Mad Men. Despite ostensibly juicy roles in movies like The Town and his latest, the well-received spy drama, Beirut, Hamm has not managed to match his bravura on the small screen. Angelica Jade Bastién argues in an essay for Vulture that, “without strong writing and the steady hand of creator who understands his skills, Hamm doesn’t disappear into roles, but disappears entirely.” And while he may look the part of a “leading man who moves with unquestionable confidence...he doesn’t have the physicality for it. This is a prime example of how his wariness of being a sex symbol works well for Don Draper, but becomes a hindrance elsewhere.” (This isn't necessarily true of his more serious roles on TV, including a standout episode of Black Mirror and the dark British comedy, A Young Doctor's Notebook.)

Though Hamm may never be a movie star, I don’t think it’s because of a lack of talent or acting skill. The parts he’s been given with a whiff of prestige—like the boring-good FBI agent in The Town or the compliant hologram in Marjorie Prime—have not exactly been roles Hamm could sink his teeth into. But his frenetic chemistry with Eiza González, in Baby Driver, was incandescent; his character exhibited an animalistic brutality and sexiness reminiscent of, yet totally distinct from Don Draper. It was the first time since Mad Men Hamm has truly disappeared into a role—the first time he hasn’t just been an iteration of Jon Hamm acting.

But as much as I’m rooting for Hamm to do more movies like Baby Driver, it’s been his dearth of memorable film performances, coupled with a relative un-seriousness, that has made his career so compellingly unique. A good celebrity cameo, like Johnny Depp showing up at the end of 21 Jump Street, tends to wink at the source of one’s celebrity; it’s a clever jab at the artifice of filmmaking. And that’s why Hamm’s are so effective: by resisting (or failing to solidify) a definitive second act, he is in constant conversation with his own persona—whether it be as a charlatanic cult leader, caricatured villain or traditionally handsome love interest.

It’s this dialogue, more than any raw comedic talent on Hamm’s part, that make his cameos so funny—and so quintessentially cameos. They are a jolt of reality, plugged into a story, in the form of a man, who used to be on Mad Men.

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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