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The 10 most shocking talk show moments


For decades, the coveted spot of a late-night talk show was the pinnacle of entertainment. While talk shows might not have the cultural cache they once had, they are still a hot ticket that every musician, actor or public figure wants to appear on despite their dwindling relevancy.

Appearing on a talk show can still open doors to an audience that you previously wouldn’t be able to reach if it wasn’t for the wondrous medium of television. In the US, millions still tune in on a nightly basis to a host of shows and, for many, it remains unmissable television and a cultural touchstone for watercooler adventures.

However, before social media, there was no bigger to promote a project than on a primetime talk show. These appearances had the power to make a break the success of an album or film, and there was immense pressure on the talent to impress.

Due to the fast turnover of these programmes, they are usually either aired live or recorded live, which means things often go wrong, and guests are left to look redfaced. Some of these horror-show moments have even turned out to be career-threatening, and below, we look at ten of the most shocking episodes to occur.

Most shocking talk show moments

David Bowie on Dick Cavett

When David Bowie’s appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in December 1974, he was clearly struggling with his cocaine addiction, and it gave him the demeanour of a madman throughout the interview. The Thin White Duke never looked thinner, and it was a car crash from start to finish.

His drug-taking had got out of hand, and it was clear for everyone at home to see. Bowie looked like a shadow of his former enigmatic Ziggy Stardust character, making for a sorry state of affairs. If it wasn’t for Cavett managing to hold court like a consummate professional, things could have been even more disastrous for the fidgety singer.

Madonna’s mouth runs riot

Even though talk shows air late at night, in the United States, it’s still seen as sacrilege to use profanities frequently, but Madonna didn’t get that memo when she appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1994. This incident is so notorious that it even has its own Wikipedia page.

Madonna entered the studio with one motive on her mind, which was to cause chaos. The ‘Queen of Pop’ was troublesome from the moment she walked on set and exclusively answered in innuendos when Letterman tried to quiz her about her private life. She also managed to say “f*ck” on fourteen occasions throughout the conversation, which left viewers’ jaws on the floor even before she refused to leave her seat.

Serge Gainsbourg makes an unwanted advance on Whitney Houston

When Whitney Houston appeared in 1986 on the French prime time show Champs Elysées, she was on top of the world after her debut album had climbed to the top of the US chart — and now it was time to take things international. However, Serge Gainsbourg didn’t show the young singer the respect she deserved and instead treated her like a sexual object.

At one point, an inebriated Gainsbourg turns to the 22-year-old and says, “I said, I want to fuck her”. She then replied, “What did you say?” before host Michel Drucker tried to rescue the show by claiming that Gainsbourg simply wanted to give her some flowers.

“Not at all,” Gainsbourg chimed back in, not for a second allowing Drucker to stop the car crash that was unfolding on live television. “I said I wanted to fuck her,” he repeated, this time in French rather than English.

“Are you sure you’re not drunk?” Houston asks Gainsbourg. “You’ve got to be!” she adds. It’s an uncomfortable moment to watch and a sad glimpse into the dark side of the late Frenchman.

Kanye West makes Ellen wince

When Kanye West turns up for an interview, everybody knows to expect the unexpected, and even a daytime chat with Ellen DeGeneres can descend into anarchy. He had no plans to let the host be in charge of proceedings, and Ye didn’t let Ellen get a word in edgeways.

After a simple question, Ye decided to deliver an epic eight-minute monologue where he lays out his plans for the universe. At one point, Ye said: “We got 100 years here. We’re one race – the human race – one civilisation. We’re a blip in the existence in the universe and we’re constantly trying to pull each other down. I feel I can make a difference while I’m here.”

In fairness, he does end his rant by apologising to the audience, remarking: “I’m sorry daytime television. I’m sorry for the realness.”

Marlon Brando makes hideous anti-Semitic remarks

Marlon Brando shocked viewers to their core when he went on a disgusting anti-Semitic rant on Larry King Live in 1996. He told viewers: “Hollywood is run by Jews. It’s owned by Jews and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of people who are suffering.”

Brando then went on to talk about Hollywood tropes and said: “We’ve seen the n***** and the greaseball. We’ve seen the Ch**k. We’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous J*p. We have seen the wily Filipino. We’ve seen everything. But we never saw the k*ke, because they knew perfectly well that that’s where you draw the wagons around.”

The acting legend then issued a weeping apology to a room full of Jewish leaders and explained his comments aren’t a reputation of his beliefs. Rabbi Hier was one of those in attendance and said it was a positive meeting. “I am satisfied, after spending three hours with the man, that Marlon Brando is not an anti-Semite,” Hier commented.

Joaquin Phoenix announces job change

When Joaquin Phoenix appeared on Letterman in February 2009 to promote the James Gray directed romantic drama, Two Lovers, he looked down and out. Letterman even hilariously joked, “So, what can you tell us about your days with the Unabomber?”

Phoenix made it clear he was finished with acting during his appearance and turned his attention to rapping. Unfortunately, it was all an elaborate prank for the mockumentary I’m Still Here, directed by fellow actor and friend Casey Affleck released in 2010, ‘documenting’ Phoenix’s transition from the acting world to an aspiring rapper.

Written by Affleck and Phoenix, it starred icons from the rap world like Sean’ Diddy’ Combs, who plays it straight as a producer annoyed with a pretentious actor’s insincere commitment to rap.

John Lennon says the FBI are watching him

Lennon’s appearance on Cavett in 1972 was a hostile affair. The former Beatles man was at the centre of a political storm and facing possible deportation for his outspoken stance on the Vietnam War.

In the clip, Lennon suggests the FBI have them under surveillance, which leaves the audience gobsmacked and in utter disbelief. While it sounded like tin-foil hat stuff, years later, it emerged he was telling the truth, and they were indeed being watched.

Historian Jon Wiener later brought to light that the FBI documented over 300 pieces of evidence on Lennon, with virtually none of it having any substance whatsoever.

Meg Ryan on Parkinson

Sir Michael Parkinson is a legend of British television, who was a stalwart of the screen for decades before retiring. However, his interview with Meg Ryan in 2003 was the undisputed nadir of his career, and Parkinson subsequently apologised for how he handled proceedings.

Ryan was allegedly rude to the other guests on the couch that evening and made it clear she wanted to be anywhere else but under the BBC spotlight. Additionally, she lost her temper at the host and aggressively shouted: “Wrap it up.” It remains one of the most awkward moments in television history.

Grace Jones attacks Russell Harty

Grace Jones shocked viewers when she physically lashed out at Russell Harty in 1981 after he repeatedly turned his back to her during their conversation, and she made him pay.

The incident was regrettable for both, and she put it down to bad quality cocaine. Jones wrote: “Bad coke was the last thing I wanted before I went on a live television show. The purest form, maybe, but anything else was not going into my body.”

She added: “I wasn’t attacking him because I was drunk or stoned. I was lashing out because I felt he was not being proper. You can see if you watch it. I am being sensitive rather than unruly. In fact, because I was tired and disorientated, everything was heightened. I never wanted to do these kinds of shows high. If anything, I get high afterward.”

Letterman comes clean

Usually, it’s the guests who are the ones that open themselves up and show their vulnerable side. However, David Letterman turned the tables and revealed that CBS News producer Robert ‘Joe’ Halderman had tried to blackmail him. He had discovered a diary that confirmed Letterman had been having an affair with a female member of his staff, Stephanie Birkett, who was romantically involved with Halderman.

“This morning, I did something I’ve never done in my life,” Letterman told his audience. “I had to go downtown and testify before a grand jury.”

Letterman revealed he received a package three weeks ago threatening to tell the public his secrets unless the host paid $2 million. He claimed the letter said: “I know that you do some terrible, terrible things and I can prove that you do these terrible things … and sure enough what was contained in the package was proof that I do terrible, terrible things.”

Audience members expected Letterman to tell the punchline, but there wasn’t one, and his reputation was left hanging by a thread.