A fact of life in New York — and therefore, on Girls — is that you never know who you might bump into. Narratively speaking, that means Hannah Horvath and company have spent six seasons enduring random, undesirable run-ins with former classmates, co-workers, friends, and lovers. Casting-wise, the show’s surprise encounters have proven to be a lot more fun. Celebrity cameos have always been a Girls staple; we tallied nearly 90 of them over the series’ 62 episodes, including major recurring characters like Caroline (Gaby Hoffmann), Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), David Pressler-Goings (John Cameron Mitchell), and Hannah’s (sorry — “Banana’s”) parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari). But what really gave Girls its frisson of cool-kids cachet was when a star unexpectedly popped up in a smallish, one- or two-episode role. It’s a tiny thrill akin to a drive-by (or walk-past) celeb sighting on the streets of New York.
In honor of that, what follows are our better to best rankings of our 25 favorite Girls guest stars.
25. Janice (Jenna Lyons) and Karen (Jessica Williams)
Here’s a perfect example of how Girls’ casting acumen made for its own memorable moments. Although Jessica Williams was arguably underused as the low-key Karen, who didn’t squee upon seeing the erstwhile Daily Show contributor working with Hannah in GQ’s advertorial department? Playing alongside them, J. Crew’s recently departed creative director Jenna Lyons proved more than capable of portraying a Miranda Priestly–lite type of boss.
24. Patty (Marissa Jaret Winokur)
Like any series shot in New York should, Girls took advantage of its proximity to Broadway (and delighted the theater-geek segment of its fan base) by booking guest stars from the Great White Way. Meta-case in point: This season, Hairspray Tony winner Marissa Jaret Winokur played a Broadway casting director who casts Elijah (Andrew Rannells) in another movie turned musical, White Men Can’t Jump.
23. Chelsea (Chelsea Peretti)
Tragically hip media figures were commonplace on Girls, but as an editor at something called SlagMag (god, what a barf-worthy title), Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Chelsea Peretti out-postured them all when she told Hannah in season six, “I already love your writing, but even if I didn’t, I mean, we’re basically hiring you for your look.”
22. Chandra (Desiree Akhavan)
Even by Girls standards, almost all of Hannah’s colleagues at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were pretty loathsome. Chandra, played by actress and indie filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, may have given Hannah bad advice about bicycle security, but she’s the one we’d totally want to hang with in real life.
21. Chastity (Selenis Leyva)
On the verge of Orange Is the New Black stardom, Leyva (who plays Gloria on Netflix’s prison dramedy) delivered a brief but hilariously memorable season-one turn as Hannah’s legal firm co-worker, as blunt with an opinion as she is with an eyebrow pencil. Judging Adam’s unsolicited dick pic, Chastity opines, “I like a dirty pic, but this, right here? Is weird.” When Hannah then likens Adam’s sexting to the handsy nature of their boss (Richard Masur), Chastity shuts it down. “That’s a hella different,” she declares. “A hella different.”
20. Lob (Grace Dunham)
In Lena Dunham’s pre-Girls indie film Tiny Furniture, her real-life younger sister Grace portrayed her fictitious younger sister Nadine. None of that will prepare you for Grace’s two-episode guest spot in season five as Lob, the gender nonbinary barista with a buzz cut and a chip on their shoulder who works at Helvetica. With all due respect to Lena and Grace’s mother Laurie Simmons, who cameoed as an art-world doyenne in season two, Grace has got the family’s most ferocious comedic chops.
19. Bebe (Bridget Everett)
Ballsy, blue-humored chanteuse Bridget Everett would be one of the best guest stars on literally any program, including Sesame Street and the nightly news. Even though she doesn’t get to sing as Marnie’s wedding makeup artist, at least she knows how to achieve a “Selena Gomez meets Jesus” look for the bridal party.
18. Melanie Shapiro (Ana Gasteyer) and Melvin Shapiro (Anthony Edwards)
Have you ever met a friend’s family and instantly realized, “Ohhhhh, so that’s why you are the way you are?” As Shoshanna’s acrimoniously divorced, constantly bickering parents, Edwards and Gasteyer flesh out her entire backstory in a single, minute-long, terrifically passive-aggressive shouting match.
17. Tandice Moncrief (Lisa Bonet)
Bonet, who can play ethereal dream-girl in her sleep, effortlessly complemented Desi’s sleepy-eyed yet manic energy as his post-divorce guru in season five.
16. Ace (Zachary Quinto)
Quinto, who can play aloof yet secretly stalkerish weirdo in his sleep, casually picked at Adam and Jessa’s insecurities as Mimi-Rose’s ex-boyfriend in season four. (Fun fact: A few episodes before Quinto’s appearance, Shosh marvels that rising star Adam is “auditioning with, like, Zachary Quinto or, like, Armie Hammer even.”)
15. Marlowe (Joy Bryant)
Bryant’s Poughkeepsie junk-shop proprietor resembles Lisa Bonet’s aforementioned Tandice in both personality and skin tone (which speaks quite succinctly to the limited range of roles inhabited by performers of color on the show). The intriguing thing about Marlowe’s scene, which Bryant plays with delectable self-assuredness, is how it’s taken on more importance in the weeks since it first aired. A self-proclaimed clairvoyant, Marlowe foreshadows Hannah’s departure from the city as she pursues a more meaningful upstate existence.
14. Charlie (Christopher Abbott)
Yes, this one’s a bit of a cheat, since Abbott recurred during the first two seasons as Marnie’s reliably boring boyfriend, Charlie. On the other hand, Charlie’s history on Girls (as well as Abbott’s choice to quit the show) is precisely what makes his one-episode callback in the fifth season — where he’s heavier set, slower talking, and, oh yeah, a heroin addict — such compelling TV. Virtually all Girls guest stars provide comic relief from the main characters’ navel-gazing goings-on, but Charlie’s return is more like a harrowing, slow-moving car crash.
13. Thadd (Bobby Moynihan)
Few genuine dweebs exist in the Girls universe, yet somehow socially awkward Thadd managed to sneak into the first-season finale and officiate Jessa’s wedding to Thomas-John (Chris O’Dowd). So endearingly adorkable is Thadd that by the end of the reception, a cake-covered Marnie enthusiastically sucks face with him.
12. Daisy Eagen (herself)
Girls went through the looking glass in its final season when Adam and Jessa produced a short film about Adam’s relationship with Hannah, which Adam co-starred in with “Daisy Eagen,” played by real-life Tony winner and Lena Dunham look-alike Daisy Eagen. Her take on Hannah is a bit more playful and coquettish than the real thing, and by all appearances, her performance is the high point of the seemingly morose and self-indulgent Full Dis:closure. Even better, Daisy finally knocks some wisdom into a knocked-up Hannah when she rightly tells her about parenthood: “Kids are super easy. It’s being an adult that’s hard.”
11. Cloris (Carol Kane) and Angie (Amy Schumer)
Girls books lots of of-the-moment performers, but few honest-to-god legends. They got one of each when Carol Kane took on the role of Cloris, who introduces herself to Adam at AA and insists he ask out her daughter, Natalia (Shiri Appleby; see No. 3). Seriously, who else but Kane could convince the recalcitrant Adam to take a girl on a blind date — and even make him giggle while doing so? After Adam and Natalia’s breakup, Amy Schumer rattled Adam’s cage in spectacular, chicks-before-dicks fashion as Natalia’s loyal friend, Angie. Angie wouldn’t just take a bullet for Natalia; she’d concoct an entire fake pregnancy for her!
10. Pal (Danny Strong)
And you thought Elijah was catty? Hon, twasn’t nobody bitchy-witchier on Girls than Elijah’s ex, who shows up during season three’s pivotal “Beach House” episode and offhandedly clobbers Elijah’s self-esteem by telling everyone he doesn’t know what “inertia” means. Pal (played by Danny Strong, a.k.a. Doyle from Gilmore Girls) makes an unwelcome return in the fourth-season premiere at Marnie and Desi’s jazz brunch with a coterie of his own straight gal pals (it’s like bizarro Girls!) and a vicious barb for Marnie, suggesting she’s best suited to perform as a Good Wife courtroom extra. Elijah replies by telling him what we’re all thinking: “I’m glad we broke up.”
9. Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone)
Equal parts charming and heinous, Booth Jonathan was the founding member of Girls’ Jaghole Artists With Two Names Club. (Hey there, Mimi-Rose!) His reprobate brand of evil was all the more deceptive because he was played by Lonely Island cutie pie Jorma Taccone. Rarely has a sexual invitation been delivered as slyly as when Booth Jonathan warns Marnie, “The first time I fuck you, I might scare you a little, because I’m a man, and I know how to do things. See you later.”
8. Patti LuPone (herself)
Unlike its HBO predecessor Sex and the City, Girls almost never showcased actual New York celebrities. (A-listers aren’t much for Bushwick warehouse parties.) That’s just one reason why Patti LuPone’s two-episode self-cameo, which comes when Hannah interviews her for GQ, is such a delight. When Elijah tags along on a follow-up interview, he finally gets to live out his dream of sassing it up with a brash Broadway diva, a.k.a. “fucking Corky’s mom!”
7. Sandy (Donald Glover)
Because when you wanna sell something as dubious and potentially problematic as a black 20-something Republican in New York, you need someone as all-around swoon-worthy as Donald Glover to play the part.
6. Abigail (Aidy Bryant)
Dammit, someone on Girls deserves to be unapologetically happy all! The! Time! That someone is Shosh’s former boss, Abigail, who quickly becomes Ray’s new love interest in a sweet, lighthearted final-season story arc. Amid this show’s miserable-millennial milieu, Abigail’s outgoing nature and ever-sunny demeanor are as simple and pure as a spin on a merry-go-round.
5. Joshua (Patrick Wilson)
“One Man’s Trash” was a bottle-episode treasure, as 40-something hottie Patrick Wilson went toe to toe (and every other body part to every other body part) with Lena Dunham during a two-night “sexit” from the real world at his character’s Brooklyn brownstone. Wilson is always great at playing attractive, sort-of-oblivious dudes (see: Young Adult, Little Children, etc.), but the actor gets bonus points for the way his real-life wife, actress Dagmara Dominczyk, responded to criticism that a guy that smokin’ would never do a girl like Dunham. “Funny, his wife is a size 10, muffin top and all,” Dominczyk tweeted in 2013. “He does her just fine.”
4. Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed)
Riz Ahmed’s surfer dude/water-ski instructor Paul-Louis is many things. He is Hannah’s soon-to-be baby daddy who is super-psyched to learn she doesn’t expect anything from him as she prepares to birth their child. He is the world’s most sublime Keanu Reeves impression. He is a remarkably good rapper. He is a plot device, setting the final season’s pregnancy story into motion. He is, as far as a smitten Hannah is concerned, a “really special person” whose trite truisms (“love gives vibes,” lol) compel her to momentarily envision a less complicated, more blissful future. He’s like no other character who’s ever been on Girls — dim-witted, patient, open-minded (perhaps too much so) — and he’s proof that, in many ways, Lena Dunham has saved her best ideas for Girls’ last season.
3. Natalia (Shiri Appleby)
Arguably no other guest star on Girls was given something as impossible to play as Shiri Appleby. What could a young woman as well-adjusted as Natalia see in a rapey Neanderthal like Adam? Yet to her great credit, Appleby’s chemistry with Adam Driver is palpable, believable, even buoyant. When Adam then chooses to torpedo their burgeoning romance by submitting Natalia to his “On All Fours” sex fantasy, her pained expression illustrates every sad, shocked, dismayed, disgusted, enraged impulse we feel.
2. Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys)
As famous jackass novelist Chuck Palmer, The Americans’ Matthew Rhys delivered the only one-episode performance on Girls that can rightly be called a tour de force. Rhys’s acting is challenging, multifaceted, and captivating, which really makes up for the fact that his character is a smart, alluring, sick, twisted, self-serving, ghoulish dickwad. Palmer spends his half-hour of screen time circling Hannah like prey, going for the kill when he lays his purplish penis on her thigh. Somewhere out there, a feminist drama and/or comparative-lit professor is planning to teach “American Bitch” alongside David Mamet’s Oleanna. (p.s. Honorable guest-star mention to Tracey Ullman, who appears one episode later as Palmer’s fiery female counterpoint, a fun, frenzied writer named Ode Montgomery.)
1. Tally Schifrin (Jenny Slate)
She is Hannah’s nemesis, but only because she is Hannah’s ideal. She shares Hannah’s quirkiness, but hers comes wrapped in a more photogenic package. Hannah loves to loathe her, yet secretly admires her — mimicking the toxic mix of self-hatred and narcissism that befouls Hannah’s own relationship with herself. She’s Tally Schifrin, the comely, corkscrew-curled success story whose very existence serves as a microcosm for all that Hannah wants and thinks she wants, and she’s played by everyone’s favorite make-believe BFF, Jenny Slate. After Hannah bristles through Tally’s book party in season one, Tally gets the show’s most perfect encore in season five when she rolls back into Hannah’s life (literally, on a bicycle) for a second go-round through Hannah’s tortured psyche. This time, though, Tally’s there to convince Hannah that living for praise and controversy is “exhausting and boring at once.” Here’s hoping the next time Hannah and Tally see each other, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship.