From mom-dancing to “Parks and Recreation”: Ranking Michelle Obama’s TV cameos

In honor of the first lady's role on last night's "Parks" season finale, we review her many TV appearances VIDEO

Topics: Video, Michelle Obama, Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation, puppy bowl, Jimmy Fallon,

From mom-dancing to "Parks and Recreation": Ranking Michelle Obama's TV cameosMichelle Obama on "Parks and Recreation" (Credit: NBC)

Michelle Obama may well be the most media-friendly first lady of all time, and not merely because there’s a lot more media for her to be friendly to than there was for, say, Julia Grant or Pat Nixon. But she’s also been incredibly — and increasingly — willing, over the course of her husband’s presidency, to make the occasional TV cameo. Nancy Reagan, who was a real-life actress early in her life, did just one sitcom appearance, on “Diff’rent Strokes”; the current first lady will have appeared three times on Nickelodeon alone by the time she leaves the White House. (Maybe more!)

And it seems she’s just getting started. Mrs. Obama has announced cameos on the Nick kids’ show “Jessie” and on ABC’s country-music soap “Nashville” before the end of the TV season. Last night, she had a guest spot on the season finale of “Parks and Recreation”: The first lady played herself, as the keynote speaker of a conference protagonist Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) attended — and when the two met by chance, Mrs. Obama’s chill sangfroid was a perfect match for Ms. Knope’s golden-retriever mania, and there was even a subtle (and by-this-point-familiar) plug for the “Let’s Move” program. The high-five the pair exchanged felt earned, a meeting of minds between two, to put it mildly, very different women in politics.

But “Parks and Recreation” has featured political cameos before — most notably Vice President Joe Biden, the object of Leslie Knope’s lifelong obsession. The Obama family famously watches the show, and Biden may well have assured Michelle Obama that this was a very safe space. But Michelle Obama’s TV cameo career has ranged wildly — after all, not every media outlet is a fit for a first fady. So here is the definitive ranking of her TV appearances since the 2008 election, from lamest to greatest:

8) The Puppy Bowl, 2014: Mrs. Obama was out of her element here. Her message to Americans that walking with puppies is a good way to get exercise is laudable enough (if a bit random) but her “Let the Puppy Bowl begin!” feels almost certainly like the result of a single take. Let me be clear: Michelle Obama is excited about the Puppy Bowl.

7) The Academy Awards, 2013: The first lady gets knocked down a few points for her choice of venue. Sure, she was likely excited to appear on a high-rated and glamorous broadcast in a new set of bangs just after her husband’s second inaugural, but from the choice of introducer (Jack Nicholson, who rambled to the point of incoherency) to category, the whole thing was risky. On the off chance that “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Django Unchained” had won the best picture trophy, the liberal and conservative press would have had a field day. But leaving aside worst-case scenarios beyond her control, Obama did exactly what she needed to: add a touch of gravitas to the proceedings of a thoroughly superficial awards show.

6) “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” 2013: There’s no way around it: Seeing the first lady play a be-braced teenager repeatedly yelling “Ew!” was deeply weird. The message seems to be that Mrs. Obama can play one character: herself. She may have presented at the Oscars, but she sure isn’t going to win one.

5) “The Biggest Loser,” 2012: Michelle Obama’s media appearances often seem designed to convey that she’s a regular person. Sometimes — as on Fallon — this doesn’t quite work out. But her pain and frustration during a workout on this weight-loss show were nicely humanizing, even if we never thought we’d see a first lady begging for a towel on network TV.

4.) “iCarly,” 2012: She genuinely seemed to be having fun with the cast of the kiddie show, and, unlike her “Fallon” appearance, she was able to remain the star of the show. She also wisely left the heavy comedic lifting to the professionals.

3) “Sesame Street,” 2009: This would have been her greatest performance of all if she’d managed to seem less annoyed at Big Bird’s childlike line of interrogation about whether she eats seeds. The rest, though, shows her using an appropriate venue to send a real message.

2) Billboard Music Awards (2011): Michelle Obama seemed genuinely moved delivering a video testimonial about Beyoncé. Where was this passion during the Puppy Bowl? This may be the greatest Michelle Obama performance of all time — both dignified enough to fit the office (somehow, given that she was introducing a Beyoncé performance on a Fox awards show) and fairly human in a way even a Beyoncé hater (they do exist) could endorse.

1) “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” 2013: “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” was Mobama at her best. It’s perhaps the most famous of her TV appearances, for good reason. The first lady gamely did the sprinkler and the shopping-cart — and if it seemed a little de-glammed, it was her, for once, in what seemed like what she’s told us, in interviews, is her comfort zone. She actually is a mom! And the only cause she was advocating was moving one’s body, not for exercise, but for fun. Perhaps it’s only in the very exact moment post-election that Michelle Obama could let her inner dork out. For now, we’ll just hope not to relive the Puppy Bowl.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...