The 20 Most Shocking Live TV Moments

The 20 Most Shocking Live TV Moments
The 20 Most Shocking Live TV Moments

As Super Bowl LVIII nears, it’s another Big Game — or more specifically, its notorious halftime show — that is celebrating a milestone today.

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Feb. 1 marks the 20th anniversary of the infamous Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake performance during Super Bowl XXXVIII, which ignited a firestorm when Timberlake ripped away a piece of Jackson’s costume, exposing her breast to viewers in the stadium and at home.

But that wardrobe malfunction is hardly the only shocking incident to have happened on live television. Below, TVLine has gathered 20 of the most unexpected moments that blindsided unsuspecting audiences during live broadcasts of award shows, sporting events and more. Our picks range from stunning snafus involving mispronounced names and wrongly announced winners to truly shocking instances of violence featuring slapping and biting. Plus, we’ve included a memorable kiss, a leg break and two musical disasters.

Note: The following roundup encompasses live programs, but not live TV news events such as the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase or Lee Harvey Oswald being shot on television.

Review TVLine’s list of the most shocking live TV moments, presented in chronological order, and press PLAY to relive them, then hit the comments to share which ones had your jaw on the floor.

1. Streaker Puts on a Show at Oscars

1. Streaker Puts on a Show at Oscars
1. Streaker Puts on a Show at Oscars

Airdate: April 2, 1974

When conceptual artist and gay rights activist Robert Opel bounded on-stage in the altogether just ahead of the Best Picture category, it fell on David Niven — co-host of the 1974 Academy Awards — to move the show past the revealing romp. The Brit eventually quipped, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” —Matt Webb Mitovich

2. Joe Theismann’s Leg Is Broken, His Career Ended

2. Joe Theismann’s Leg Is Broken, His Career Ended
2. Joe Theismann’s Leg Is Broken, His Career Ended

Airdate: Nov. 18, 1985

Washington QB Joe Theismann was in the midst of a flea-flicker when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor came crashing down on him, during a November 1985 match-up. At first glance, the nature of Theismann’s incapacitation was unclear, but a slow-motion, reverse-angle replay revealed, in very graphic detail, the compound fracture he sustained. One paper called the career-ending play “The Hit That No One Who Saw It Can Ever Forget” — and they were right. —Matt Webb Mitovich

3. Sinead O’Connor Rips the Pope’s Photo

Airdate: Oct. 3, 1992

During her now-infamous appearance as Saturday Night Live’s musical guest, the late Sinead O’Connor left viewers stunned when, during an a cappella performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” she held up a photo of Pope John Paul II and ripped it into pieces. “Fight the real enemy,” O’Connor said as she tore the photo, a choice that was met with complete silence from the studio audience. In her 2021 memoir Rememberings, O’Connor later detailed that she had shown a photo of “a Brazilian street kid who was killed by cops” during SNL dress rehearsal, which no one protested. But she had always known she would rip the Pope’s photo during her actual performance; the picture, which she’d removed from her late mother’s house, “represented lies and liars and abuse,” O’Connor wrote. —Rebecca Iannucci

4. Mike Tyson Bites Off Evander Holyfield’s Ear

Airdate: June 28, 1997

We’re used to witnessing acts of brutality in the boxing ring, but nothing quite like this: In a 1997 rematch between the two heavyweight greats, Tyson flew into a rage and bit a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear. Tyson was disqualified — the first boxer to be disqualified from a title fight in more than 50 years — and later had his boxing license revoked, with the bizarre incident cementing him as one of the most feared fighters in history. —Dave Nemetz

5. Britney and Madonna’s VMAs Kiss

Airdate: Aug. 28, 2003

Tabloid covers and early-Internet headlines could focus on nothing else for weeks after this opening to the MTV Video Music Awards, in which a medley of Madonna’s hits — performed by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the Queen of Pop herself — was punctuated by Madonna kissing both women on the lips. Aguilera’s lip-lock didn’t get nearly as much attention, though, since the cameras had predictably cut to Spears’ ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake after she and Madonna shared the performance’s first smooch. —Rebecca Iannucci

6. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl Mishap

6. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl Mishap
6. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl Mishap

Airdate: Feb. 1, 2004

If you erase the last 10 seconds of Janet Jackson’s headlining performance during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, it would be considered a resounding success. After crowd-pleasing renditions of “All for You” and “Rhythm Nation,” the legendary singer brought out Justin Timberlake for a tantalizing duet of his single, “Rock Your Body.” But as Timberlake crooned, “Better have you naked by the end of this song,” he ripped a piece from Jackson’s patent leather bodice, exposing her pasty-covered breast to world and sending viewers into a tizzy. The incident, dubbed “Nipplegate,” resulted in the FCC fining CBS and its affiliates $550,000 (which was later tossed out by the Supreme Court), and Les Moonves — then CEO of CBS — blacklisting Jackson (but not Timberlake) from Viacom radio stations and TV programming. —Keisha Hatchett

7. Jon Stewart Calls Tucker Carlson a ‘D–k’ on Crossfire

Airdate: Oct. 14, 2004

The then-Daily Show host went on the live CNN talk show to promote America: The Book but soon found himself begging hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to stop fomenting partisan discord through political theater, particularly in an election year. Throughout the multi-segment appearance, the vitriol — particularly between Stewart and Carlson — built, until Carlson remarked that the comedian was funnier on his Comedy Central series. The broadcast went to commercial, but not before Stewart shot back, “You’re as big a d–k on your show as you are on any show.” —Kimberly Roots

8. Ashlee Simpson Lip-Syncs on SNL

Airdate: Oct. 23, 2004

In an episode hosted by Jude Law, Simpson first performed her single “Pieces of Me” — which went fine! But when it came time for her planned second song, “Autobiography,” Simpson’s vocals for “Pieces of Me” bizarrely began playing again before she’d even lifted the microphone to sing. What followed was a painful minute in which Simpson did an awkward jig, shrugged helplessly and exited the stage, leaving her band to play until a merciful commercial break. At the end of the episode, Simpson said her band had started to play the wrong song, leaving her confused; it later came to light that Simpson had lost her voice due to acid reflux complications, prompting her to lip-sync for her SNL performances. —Rebecca Iannucci

9. Ron Artest Fights a Fan in ‘The Malice at the Palace’

Airdate: Nov. 19, 2004

What started out as a typical NBA game became a dark day in basketball history when Pacers player Ron Artest got into a fight on the court that spilled over into the stands after a fan hit Artest with a drink. Artest ran after the fan, with his teammates backing him up and throwing punches, resulting in a wildly chaotic melee. The NBA called the incident “shocking, repulsive, and inexcusable,” and any fan watching live would add another word: unforgettable. —Dave Nemetz

10. Kanye West Calls Out President Bush During Hurricane Katrina Telethon

Airdate: Sept. 2, 2005

We will never forget the surreal moment Kanye West went off script during NBC’s telethon to raise funds for Hurricane Katrina survivors and called the president racist. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” the Grammy-winning artist said after an impassioned rant critiquing FEMA’s delayed response, among other things. A stunned Mike Myers did an open-mouthed double take, and frantic producers quickly cut to Chris Tucker, who also looked taken aback. West has since apologized for the outburst, and Bush — who was Commander in Chief during 9/11 and the Iraq War— said it was the worst moment of his presidency. —Keisha Hatchett

11. Kanye West Interrupts Taylor Swift’s VMAs Acceptance Speech

Airdate: Sept. 13, 2009

Taylor Swift was shocked when she won her first MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video — and she was even more shocked when Kanye West took to the stage and grabbed the microphone from her during her acceptance speech to declare that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” The audience, rightfully, erupted into jeers, and even Queen B — who later invited Swift to finish her speech during one of her wins — looked like she wanted to slink away from Kanye’s outburst. —Vlada Gelman

12. Miley Cyrus Twerks to ‘Blurred Lines‘

Airdate: Aug. 25, 2013

After performing “We Can’t Stop” at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, Cyrus stayed onstage to assist Robin Thicke with a racy and wild rendition of his hit single “Blurred Lines.” The singer’s twerking not only took the world by storm and helped her escape her wholesome Disney star image, but by the time the last few notes were played, Cyrus had viewers and press alike asking, “Robin who?!” —Nick Caruso

13. John Travolta Introduces ‘Adele Dazeem’ at the Oscars

Airdate: March 2, 2014

Confidence and accuracy are key when presenting at an award show, but Travolta had all of the former and none of the latter when introducing a special performance from Frozen’s Idina Menzel — or should we say Adele Dazeem — at the 86th Academy Awards. The way he boldly gassed her up as “the Wicked-ly talented, one and only,” before completely butchering both her first and last name was simply dumbfounding. Could he not read the teleprompter? Did he not practice saying her name out loud, even once? To borrow a phrase from Menzel’s Disney persona, we’re never letting this one go. —Andy Swift

14. Steve Harvey Announces the Wrong Miss Universe

Airdate: Dec. 20, 2015

The global beauty pageant’s live 2015 broadcast fell into disarray after host Steve Harvey mixed-up the names of the top winner and the first runner-up. Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez, whom Harvey had announced was the new Miss Universe, had already donned the sash and started her victory walk when Harvey came back onstage and said, “I have to apologize.” He explained that Miss Philippines Pia Wurtzbach was actually the new beauty queen. “Unfortunately, a live telecast means that human error can come into play,” the Miss Universe Organization later said in a statement.

15. Anti-Ryan Lochte Protestors Interrupt Dancing With the Stars

Airdate: Sept. 12, 2016

After getting mired in a legal/public image mess of his own making at the Rio Olympics, American swimmer Ryan Lochte thought taking part in Season 23 of ABC’s ballroom competition would help clean up his reputation. That proved harder after two men wearing anti-Lochte shirts walked onto the dance floor during a live broadcast, causing chaos. (The men, Sam Sododeh and Barzeen Soroudi, were arrested for trespassing; a group of fellow protestors were escorted from the studio.) “He embarrassed Americans on a world stage, and this was our form of protest against him,” Soroudi later said. (Note: The video above is from a behind-the-scenes feed. DWTS quickly went to a commercial when the protest began.) —Kimberly Roots

16. Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve Catastrophe

Airdate: Dec. 31, 2016

ABC’s live countdown to 2017 memorably went awry during Mariah Carey’s performance of “Emotions,” when she seemingly couldn’t hear herself via her in-ear monitors and instead vamped for the song’s duration while a pre-recorded track played for the crowd. “We didn’t have a soundcheck, but it’s New Year’s, baby!” she said while her backup dancers gamely performed their entire routine in the background. Her subsequent performance of “We Belong Together” was only marginally less uncomfortable; when she finished, surrounded by feathered fans, Carey sarcastically remarked, “It just don’t get any better” before leaving the stage. —Rebecca Iannucci

17. The La La Land/Moonlight Best Picture Fiasco

Airdate: Feb. 26, 2017

It was unprecedented and unbelievable. At the 89th annual Academy Awards, presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty wrongly announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner after being handed the wrong card. It was Moonlight, however, that actually won the award, only the error wasn’t corrected until La La Land producers were almost finished with their speeches. Mass confusion abounded on stage that night, and the snafu will surely live on forever in Oscars (and television) history. —Nick Caruso

18. Wendy Williams Faints During Live Broadcast

Airdate: Oct. 31, 2017

The Wendy Williams Show’s annual Halloween costume contest took a particularly scary turn in 2017 when the host suddenly dropped to the floor, eliciting panicked gasps from the studio audience as the broadcast quickly cut to a commercial. Williams rebounded, returning after the break to explain that she simply “overheated” in her heavy costume under the studio’s bright lights, but that didn’t make it any less frightening. —Andy Swift

19. Alexandra Trusova Melts Down at Olympics

Airdate: Feb. 17, 2022

Much of the drama at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing involved Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva and the doping scandal surrounding her. But her ROC teammate Alexandra Trusova proved just as memorable for all the wrong reasons: After placing second in the women’s figure skating competition, Trusova broke out into angry tears and started exclaiming in Russian her displeasure with the results, even initially appearing to refuse to participate in the podium ceremony. It was equal parts shocking and heartbreaking (Gold medal winner Anna Shcherbakova was left to sit on her own in the chaos), as well as a sign of a much larger problem within the Russian figure skating regime. —Vlada Gelman

20. Will Smith Slaps Chris Rock at Oscars

Airdate: March 27, 2022

It was the slap heard around the world: While presenting at the Oscars, Chris Rock told a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, who is bald and who has previously spoken publicly about her hair-loss condition, alopecia. “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2 — can’t wait to see it,” Rock quipped, which didn’t go over well with Will Smith, although he appeared to laugh at the joke at first while his stone-faced wife rolled her eyes. Smith then walked on stage and slapped Rock across the face. As viewers wondered if it was all a bit, a stunned Rock remarked, “Wow, Will Smith just smacked the s–t out of me,” while Smith exclaimed from his seat, “Keep my wife’s name out your f–king mouth!” Smith later tried to explain his behavior in his acceptance speech for Best Actor and during a subsequent apology tour, but it didn’t take the sting out of the unexpected and violent altercation. —Vlada Gelman

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