If you’ve ever made a horrendously embarrassing mistake at school or work, just imagine how much worse it would be if there was a live camera pointing at you and millions of people watching at home. Well, wonder no more, because below, you’ll find some of the cringiest public gaffes to ever grace the screen, from award-show snafus to the most butt-clenchingly awkward musical performance in the history of Saturday Night Live.
What could be lurking inside Al Capone’s mysterious vault in the basement of Chicago’s Lexington Hotel: Gold? Stockpiles of long-forgotten bathtub gin? A fully operational casino full of zombie gangsters playing games of chance? This was the premise behind a two-hour live special from April 21, 1986, that featured host Geraldo Rivera and a camera crew opening the famed mobster’s decades-old vault and revealing its contents to the 30 million people watching at home. The production legitimately had no idea what was going to be inside, so they were as surprised as anyone when they got in after hours of build-up and found… nothing. OK, not nothing. There was some garbage, after all. Along with plenty of egg on Geraldo’s face.
Americans have seemingly all but given up on their political leaders being able to spell—and you can probably thank former vice president Dan Quayle for resigning an entire nation to its fate. This highly publicized flub went down in 1992, when the veep traveled to an elementary school in New Jersey to help officiate a PR-friendly spelling bee. During the contest, a 12-year-old student named Michael Figueroa was tasked with properly spelling potato on the chalkboard. All seemed fine on the surface; that is until Quayle told the student he’d have to add an e to the end of the word to get it right.
Turns out, Quayle was provided flashcards by the school with the “correct” spelling of each word—but somehow, potatoe made it through quality control and forever tainted a political career more than 25 years in the making. Quayle would later write of the incident: “It was more than a gaffe. It was a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind. I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was.” Should a vice president instinctively know how to spell potato? Probably. Should they know enough not to try to spell anything while cameras are rolling? Definitely.
Howard Dean’s presidential campaign was on the ropes in January 2004. He had just finished third in the Iowa Caucuses behind John Edwards and John Kerry, and he needed to rally the troops in a last-ditch effort to prove he could still win in November. Taking the Knute Rockne approach, an increasingly excited Dean decided to deliver a fiery speech that promised his campaign was going to continue battling from state to state until the bitter end, saying:
“Not only are we going to New Hampshire … we’re going to South Carolina! And Oklahoma! And Arizona! And North Dakota! And New Mexico! We’re going to California! And Texas! And New York! And we’re going to South Dakota! And Oregon! And Washington and Michigan! And then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House.”
Maybe he could have salvaged something if he hit the brakes right then and there, but the impassioned politician capped the whole thing off with a shrieking “Yeaaah!” (fist pump and all) that was soon lambasted by comedians, commentators, and pundits on both sides of the aisle. The primal yelp—known as both “The Dean Scream” or the “I Have a Scream” speech—turned the plucky underdog into a Leno punchline, and by the next month, his campaign had folded up shop.
Pop star Ashlee Simpson had no intention of actually singing during her big SNL musical guest spot in 2004. And for the first half of the night, the plan worked—she performed the song “Pieces of Me” with the help of a vocal track, and viewers at home were likely none the wiser. But when Simpson and her band took the stage for the second song of the night, “Autobiography,” things went south just a few seconds in.
Shortly after the opening chords were played, the unmistakable sound of Simpson’s voice could be heard over the speakers—but she was singing “Pieces of Me” again. This, despite the fact that she was on stage with the microphone at her side, lips clearly not moving. Someone had apparently played the wrong vocal track; the jig was up.
In a panic, and still acutely aware she was on live TV, the singer sought to cut the growing awkwardness by performing what could only be described as a hoedown in front of an increasingly uncomfortable audience. The inexplicable ditty went on for a good 15 seconds before she slunk off-stage, leaving her band to aimlessly jam until the commercial break. At the end of the episode, Simpson actually blamed the debacle on her band for playing the wrong song, followed by a different excuse a few days later when acid reflux became the source of her issues.
Tom Cruise’s relationship with Katie Holmes was a tabloid obsession in 2005, so when the actor joined Oprah for an interview that summer, everyone wanted their fill of juicy tidbits about the couple. What they got instead was a man suddenly transformed into a cartoon wolf in heat. At the mere mention of Holmes’s name, a manically jubilant Cruise spasmed with delight, cackled without shame, and repeatedly shook Oprah by the shoulders and wrists as he gushed about his new relationship. Then, he decided to top it all off by professing his love for his beau while jumping on Oprah’s pristine couch, leading the host to accurately remark: “He’s gone. He’s gone. The boy is gone.”
The behavior went from quirky to worrisome by the time his feet hit those cushions, and it foreshadowed years of controversies for the actor, ending with his much-publicized divorce from Holmes in 2012.
In April 2012, a story broke that Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard was angling to get his head coach, Stan Van Gundy, fired from the team. In response, Van Gundy took the opportunity to be open and honest about the situation during an impromptu press conference in front of members of the media. “I was told it was true by people in our management,” Van Gundy told reporters about the story. “When it comes out that one of the highest-profile guys in the league has asked his coach to be fired, it’s going to be a story.”
Moments after those words left his mouth, the 6-foot-10 frame of Howard came into view behind his beleaguered skipper. Unaware that Van Gundy was talking about him, Howard proceeded to put his arm around his definitely-not-six-foot-10 coach for a little playful banter with reporters. Everyone was aghast except for Howard, who remained blissfully ignorant about the whole thing for a painfully uncomfortable 30 seconds. Once Van Gundy stormed off, reporters filled Howard in on what his coach had just told them—his once-beaming smile wasn’t seen in Orlando for the rest of the night. Both Van Gundy and Howard would be gone from the organization by the following season.
Unless you can throw a heater down the middle like George W. Bush (or this nun, apparently), it’s best to just politely decline the invitation to toss out the opening pitch at a baseball game. If you need more convincing, just look at the monstrosity of a throw that rapper 50 Cent imposed upon the world before a Mets-Pirates game in 2014. It came closer to the dugout than a catcher’s mitt and forever solidified a place on Citi Field’s blooper reel.
John Travolta had one job at the 2014 Academy Awards: Introduce Frozen’s Idina Menzel so she could belt out a rendition of “Let It Go” and light up the room. Instead, more than 40 million viewers watched as the former Vinnie Barbarino waltzed on stage, got to the mic, and introduced… Adele Dazeem?
Flubbing Menzel’s name is embarrassing enough, but Travolta went the extra mile by seemingly conjuring up and assigning Menzel a completely new name right on the spot (and one that still confuses Google’s search algorithm). In 2015, Travolta explained the whole thing away by saying the production crew spelled Menzel’s name out phonetically on the teleprompter so that he, hilariously, wouldn’t mess it up.
With all those microphones on set, there was no way Mike Ditka would get away with farting live on the air during ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown (and on co-host Cris Carter, to be more specific). But, then again, it didn’t look like the legendary Chicago Bears coach really tried to hide it, either: He quite literally leaned into it. So, maybe the embarrassment was only felt by anyone who had to watch Ditka’s flatulent malfeasance in real-time. (To be fair, it’s never been definitively proven that Ditka did indeed float an air biscuit, but Carter’s reaction should be all the evidence you need.)
Everything seemed fine when host Steve Harvey announced to the world that Miss Colombia had won the 2015 Miss Universe competition: The music played, the confetti fell, and the crowd showered the winner with all the adulation a person could ever want. The problem is that Miss Colombia didn’t win; that honor was supposed to go to Miss Philippines. Harvey, to everyone’s horror, had read the wrong name.
The comedian would later claim that plans had changed from rehearsal and he was given the names out of order while on stage. But he said the real mistake came when he skulked back on stage and sheepishly corrected the error while the cameras were still rolling, rather than make an announcement the next day. “We feel so badly, but it’s still a great night,” Harvey told the crowd as a humiliated Miss Colombia had the crown removed from her head and placed on the real winner.
Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve performance from 2016 had it all: Rampant lip-synching, technical problems galore, a confused crowd, and an enraged pop star shouting orders in the middle of it all. For six minutes, Carey labored through three songs in the heart of Times Square—three songs in which she barely sang a note. Instead, she spent most of her time openly complaining that she couldn’t hear anything coming through her earpiece and doing some half-hearted dance moves while a vocal track belted out the tunes for her.
In the aftermath, Carey’s manager put the blame squarely on Dick Clark Productions, the company behind the show, telling Us Weekly that, “I will never know the truth, but I do know that we told them three times that her mic pack was not working and it was a disastrous production. I’m certainly not calling the FBI to investigate. It is what it is: New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Mariah did them a favor.”
Next time you’re revealing a winner at the Academy Awards, double-check that the envelope you’re reading from is actually for the right category. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty learned this valuable lesson in front of a live crowd when they presented La La Land with the award for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars. The problem is that Beatty and Dunaway were actually handed the envelope for Best Actress in a Leading Role, which went to La La Land star Emma Stone, rather than for Best Picture, which was supposed to go to Moonlight. This led to Beatty awarding the big prize to the wrong movie. Oh, the mistake got corrected, but not before the La La Land producers made a soon-to-be-pretty-awkward acceptance speech that you can watch above.
Remember what we said earlier about never throwing out the opening pitch at a baseball game? Apply that same lesson to being asked to sing the National Anthem, lest you end up like Fergie when she belted out an indecipherable rendition at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. The performance was snake-bitten from the start, with the singer warbling through a slower, jazzier version of the piece that clocked in at an interminable two minutes and 10 seconds. As the camera panned to the NBA stars in attendance, their thousand-yard stares echoed the flabbergasted crowd in the stands. Well, except for Golden State Warriors power forward Draymond Green, who couldn’t hold back his laughter right around the time Miss Fergalicious got to the whole “for the land of the free” (or “land of the brie,” as she appeared to sing it) part.