As television gained popularity in the mid-20th century, so too did the talk show: a holdover from the radio era that offered the masses access to celebrities, thought-provoking discussions on social issues, and more.
Over the last seven decades or so, charismatic hosts have weathered (or initiated) their fair share of high-shock-value moments—and they’ve done it with an audience that sometimes numbers in the millions. From Oprah’s meme-able car giveaway to Geraldo Rivera’s broken nose, here are 20 unforgettable incidents from the annals of American talk show history.
On September 13, 2004, Oprah kicked off season 19 of her show by staging what might have been the most benevolent fake-out of all time. After surprising a handful of audience members with free Pontiac G6s, the remaining spectators were each given a wrapped box and told that one contained keys to yet another free Pontiac G6. The room then devolved into one happy mass meltdown as everyone—all of whom had been chosen to attend that day because they each needed a new car—realized every box contained keys. Though the 276 vehicles were donated by Pontiac, the fact that the new owners ended up owing some several thousand dollars in income tax did retroactively rain on the parade. But what people more often remember is Oprah’s repeated shouts of “You get a car!”—a refrain which has been memed into immortality.
Marlon Brando had become something of a recluse by the 1990s, so the fact that he’d agreed to an interview on Larry King Live in October 1994 was news enough. So was the interview itself, which King conducted from Brando’s home. The Godfather star was promoting his new book, Songs My Mother Taught Me, and he and King got so chummy by the end of the 90-minute segment that they closed it out with a duet: “Got a Date With an Angel.” And then they kissed—still very much a pearl-clutching move at the time, and one for which producer Wendy Walker took some heat. When CNN’s then-president Tom Johnson called to ask why she let it happen, she said, “I guess I forgot … to tell them that if they were having a really good time that they shouldn’t kiss at the end of the show.”
Sloths have occupied a prominent place in American culture for years now, in part because the Ice Age franchise refuses to die and also because the slow-moving mammals are the mascot for everyone’s favorite cardinal sin. But if you had to pinpoint a single moment that pushed the sloth craze to its peak, it would probably be Kristen Bell’s January 2012 interview on Ellen. Bell recounted the story of how partner Dax Shepard surprised her with a sloth for her birthday, inciting a tear-filled panic attack of excitement. Not only did viewers get to see footage of the incident, but they were also treated to an encore performance: Bell again began to cry when Ellen jokingly implied that a sloth was on set.
If 2000 was the biggest year for Tyra Banks’s acting career—Love & Basketball, Life-Size, and Coyote Ugly all premiered then—2010 was the second biggest, for that was the year she pretended to have rabies on her talk show. After monologue-ing about contracting the disease from a dog bite earlier that day, Banks began to foam at the mouth and bark belligerently; she even went so far as to lunge toward a nearby guest, who smiled through what looked like terror. Banks wasn’t trying to raise awareness for rabies, which—need we say it?—does not cause people to act like Cujo. She was just indulging in some good, clean “Tyra Pranks.”
Of The Jerry Springer Show’s near 5000 episodes, its eponymous host remembers one as the wildest: A 1998 installment titled “I Married a Horse.” In it, a man named Mark Matthews calmly explained that he did, in fact, marry his horse—or more accurately, his Shetland pony. The pony, Pixel, then clip-clopped out onto the stage, leaving the audience aghast. Springer was equally shocked, as he didn’t know that the wife in question wasn’t human. As Springer told Meredith Vieira years later, he was never allowed to know what the show was about. “All my card has on there are the names of the guests … And then I’m supposed to ask questions that you would ask sitting at home watching, and then make jokes.” So Springer’s surprise was genuine. And if you think Matthews’s relationship was all for show, take his book, The Horseman: Obsessions of a Zoophile, as evidence to the contrary.
The day after Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced his HIV diagnosis in 1991, he appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show to discuss it further. Hall hadn’t wanted to do the interview. “I remember telling him, ‘I’ll go with you, let’s do it elsewhere. Go to Larry King,’” Hall later said, explaining that his close friendship with Johnson made him feel too emotional to be the right interviewer. Johnson convinced him that it was precisely their friendship that made The Arsenio Hall Show the ideal outlet for him to share his story. During the segment, the two tackled misconceptions and misinformation about HIV/AIDS, kickstarting Johnson’s decades-long crusade to raise awareness for and dismantle the stigma around the virus and its disease.
In late 1973, Wisconsin congressman Harold V. Froehlich sounded the alarm about an impending toilet paper shortage, mostly based on news that pulp paper was growing scarce and that fewer toilet paper suppliers than normal had bid on a certain federal government contract for TP. Media began to report on the claims, but the general public wasn’t really affected until December 19, when Johnny Carson mentioned it on his show. Though Carson’s tone was joking, phrases like “acute shortage” and “it is serious” made the situation seem, well, serious. People flocked to stores to stock up on toilet paper while they could, and Carson’s mention of a possible nationwide shortage became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Things died down in early 1974 as people learned that TP manufacturers weren’t actually struggling with production quotas; and Carson helped put the country at ease by explaining that he’d exaggerated the story. “For all my life in entertainment, I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare,” he said.
In 2009, when a blackmailer (Robert “Joe” Halderman) threatened to expose David Letterman’s misdeeds unless he forked over $2 million, the talk show host took the case to authorities. And then he preempted the publicity by confessing said misdeeds on air—sort of. Of the 10 minutes Letterman spent telling the tale, nearly eight focused on the process of finding the blackmail package, figuring out what it meant, and neutralizing the threat with legal help. Finally, near the end, Letterman admitted that “the creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.”
His self-deprecating jokes kept the audience laughing and clapping, and he offered nothing in the way of an apology for his behavior. That came the following week, when Letterman apologized for an unintended consequence of his earlier admission, saying:
“It did not occur to me last week when I was discussing having had sex with women who worked on this show, that then what would happen is reporters and newspaper people and radio and TV would start hounding the staff and saying, ‘What do you say?,’ ‘Are you?,’ and this and that. It was very, very unpleasant and I would just like to set the record straight: No, I’m not having sex with these women, those episodes are in the past. So my apologies to subjecting them to that vulnerability.”
Though that apology was met with some skepticism, as not everyone believed that Letterman wouldn’t have anticipated the media frenzy that would follow his earlier statement, it’s a notable incident in which a conduit for news became the news.
What might be the most morbidly ironic incident in TV history occurred during a June 1971 taping of The Dick Cavett Show. Jerome Rodale, a septuagenarian health guru nicknamed “Mr. Organic,” appeared on the show touting unorthodox health hacks—like urine-soaked asparagus, which he actually had in tow—and confidently asserting that he’d reach the age of 100. Then, as Cavett was interviewing the next guest (journalist Pete Hamill), Rodale seemed to fall asleep right beside him. It soon became clear that he wasn’t just sleeping, and Cavett called for help. Rodale left on a stretcher, and it was later confirmed that he had died of a heart attack. The episode never aired, but Cavett later wrote about the experience at length for The New York Times.
On January 22, 1985, an audience member fainted at Phil Donahue’s feet while trying to share her views on “gay senior citizens,” according to the Associated Press. Six other guests soon passed out, too, prompting Donahue to empty the seating area and finish the show sans crowd. The odd occurrence was chalked up to some combination of how hot the room was, how little the fainters had eaten beforehand, and how nervous they may have been about being on TV. But within a couple of weeks, one fainter confessed that they had all been hired by known hoaxer Alan Abel, who confirmed that the stunt was staged in support of an organization called Fight Against Idiotic Neurotic Television (yes, FAINT). Abel thought the state of TV was deplorable, and he wanted to “raise the consciousness of the public by going unconscious.”
When Ellen DeGeneres tried to tease Dakota Johnson for not inviting her to Johnson’s 30th birthday party on a November 2019 episode of Ellen, Johnson wasn’t having it. “Actually, no, that’s not the truth, Ellen, you were invited,” she said, before asking producers to confirm the invitation. “You were out of town,” one producer called out. The relatively good-natured exchange could have easily disappeared into oblivion had not the internet seized upon it as feud fodder. The racket intensified when people realized that DeGeneres’s widely criticized outing to an NFL game with George W. Bush had taken place the very day after Johnson’s party—suggesting that DeGeneres had, if unintentionally, chosen to hobnob with a former president over partying with Johnson and company.
In May 2005, Tom Cruise appeared on Oprah to promote his latest movie, War of the Worlds, and instead approximated a toddler fresh off a six-course meal of candy. The ostensible cause of Cruise’s alarming level of energy—which he let off by hopping on and off the couch, kneeling on the floor, and even manhandling Oprah—was his love for then-girlfriend Katie Holmes. The interview occurred just shortly after the launch of YouTube, and it helped define what “going viral” meant in the internet era. But the most chaotic clips got the widest circulation, and critics would later point out that Cruise’s behavior seemed considerably less eccentric with proper context. Oprah had, after all, pressed him for details about his relationship, and the audience members had been screaming their heads off since the moment he arrived. Oprah herself even called the context-less distribution and public fixation on the episode “really, really, really unfair.”
When the world first met Danielle Bregoli, she was a combative 13-year-old colloquially known as the “Cash me outside girl,” a nickname earned after her 2016 appearance on Dr. Phil. Bregoli was there to work through her strained relationship with her mother, but that fact—and basically the entire interview—got lost in the noise of Bregoli’s unforgettable suggestion that the audience catch her outside (as in: She will fight you). She leveraged her fame into a surprisingly successful rap career as Bhad Bhabie, even earning a 2018 Billboard Music Award nomination for top female rap artist, alongside Cardi B and Nicki Minaj (Cardi B won).
Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer had acted as foils to each other in the literary world since the 1950s, but their biggest—and most public—clash didn’t come until 1971. Vidal took Mailer to task for misogyny in a piece for The New York Review of Books, going so far as to lump him in with Charles Manson (and Henry Miller). Mailer was incensed, and when both writers were invited to duke it out on The Dick Cavett Show, they rose to the occasion spectacularly. Or rather, Mailer—affecting a puzzling Irish brogue, as he was known to do—shot barb after barb at a somewhat amused Vidal, who responded levelly.
In November 1988, Geraldo Rivera and his producers invited a number of white supremacists on Rivera’s tabloid talk show Geraldo to help people grasp that such radical racism still exists in the country. Roy Innis, the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, appeared on the panel as the voice of reason. The discussion escalated until one of the white supremacists directly insulted Innis, at which point the guests launched into a brawl that audience members joined, too. Nobody was seriously harmed except for Rivera, who took a chair to the shoulder and a blow to the face that broke his nose.
In 2014, Chelsea Handler closed out seven years of Chelsea Lately by proving, once and for all, that she really does have a ton of celebrity best friends. Virtually every famous face you’ve ever seen—Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler, 50 Cent, Miley Cyrus, Dave Grohl, Tim Gunn, and so on—joined the final episode and sang her off with a parody of “We Are the World” called “Goodbye to E!”, which featured lyrics like “She can’t go on faking every day that Chelsea cares about Kim and Kanye.” A real “Don’t cry that it’s over—try to name as many celebrities as you can during wide shots” moment.
We see your Adele Dazeem and we raise you one Dula Peep, courtesy of Wendy Williams. The talk show host first mispronounced Dua Lipa’s name in May 2018, and the pop star’s fans immediately embraced the moniker. Williams again struggled to say “Dua Lipa” during a segment a couple years later, eventually deciding—much to everyone’s pleasure—just to stick with “Dula Peep.” Dua Lipa herself laughingly described the sobriquet as “kind of cute” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, essentially giving the world license to call her that for all eternity. Even close friends like Bella Hadid have adopted it.
The 2010 controversy over late-night talk show spots was difficult to follow even for those involved. What basically happened is that NBC promised that Conan O’Brien could take the reins from Jay Leno, let him do just that, and then reneged on the deal seemingly because O’Brien’s ratings failed to impress. The main 11:35 p.m. slot was returned to Leno and O’Brien was offered a show at 12:05 p.m., which he refused. Hosts outside the conflict had strong opinions about it, and Jimmy Kimmel made his feelings clear in no uncertain terms during an interview with Leno himself: Leno asked Kimmel a series of questions, which Kimmel answered with unsubtle references to how unfairly O’Brien was treated. The Kimmel-Leno feud continued for years. Moreover, the incident serves as a reminder that the pre-streaming era—when people cared a lot about (or at least knew) when and where shows aired—wasn’t that long ago.
On March 11, 2014, then-president Barack Obama appeared on Zach Galifianakis’s Funny or Die talk show Between Two Ferns. He responded to Galifianakis’s ribbing with his own amiable jibes (mostly about The Hangover movies) and eventually steered the conversation toward the Affordable Care Act, tacitly answering the question that hung heavy over the room: Why is the president on a goofy internet talk show? The idea had come from the show’s co-creator Scott Aukerman during a brainstorming session that presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett had convened in order to come up with ways to promote Obamacare to the nation’s new adults. It may have seemed like a shot in the dark, but it actually worked; HealthCare.gov enjoyed a 40 percent increase in traffic that day.
Comedian Ziwe made a name for herself in the early days of the pandemic by inviting buzzy and somewhat controversial internet figures like influencer Caroline Calloway and chef Alison Roman to participate in Instagram Live videos. Her deadpan questions on racism and other hot-button issues often left her so-called “iconic guests” squirming (or just oblivious), and the series proved so popular that Showtime gave her an actual talk show.
Even with the new, and bigger, format, the so-awkward-you-have-to-laugh nature of the interviews didn’t change. Ziwe’s most memorable moment to date is arguably the time she asked Andrew Yang, then running for mayor of New York City, to list his top four favorite billionaires. Instead of taking the opportunity to address the wealth gap and maybe earn a few Millennial votes, Yang just went ahead and listed his favorite billionaires, starting with … Michael Bloomberg. (To be fair, he did redeem himself slightly by naming a couple universally beloved high-earners: Oprah and Michael Jordan.)