TV has been shocking people since it was first successfully demonstrated by Philo T. Farnsworth in 1927. But over the years, some events have been so shocking that they have woven their way into the public consciousness, becoming part of the pop culture fabric.
The most shocking of these moments make us instantly recall where we were when they happened, who we were with when we watched them on TV. Some shocked simply because they depicted something so crazy, so transgressive, that it didn’t matter if 100 people were watching or 100 million. Others shocked because they happened on such a large stage that almost literally everyone in the world bore witness to them.
It is through weighing these critical components of shock TV – the incident itself combined with the size of the audience and its cultural impact – that we came up with this, the 50 most shocking moments in television history.
Moments 50 through 46
50. Stephen Slaps Irene on ‘The Real World’
It wasn’t exactly a savage beat-down, but it was one of those moments that made everyone sort of pause and ask “Wait, did I just see a dude hit a woman?” Yes. Yes, you did. It shocked simply because, well, you just don’t do that sort of thing, and that a dude would do that on camera, where he knew that everyone would see, was perhaps the most shocking thing of all.
49. Miley Goes Full Twerk
People are used to ridiculous things happening at the various MTV award shows, but no one was quite fully prepared to see Miley Cyrus – aka children’s icon Hannah Montana – grind her ass all over Robin Thicke’s junk while the camera panned to her contemporaries’ eyes in the audience all bugging out like they just saw, well, like they just saw Hannah Montana attack Robin Thicke like a cat in heat. It was one of those moments that made people wonder whether they were seeing a crass marketing stunt gone wrong or a genuine breakdown, and that’s always shocking.
48. Snooki Gets Knocked the F Out
Jersey Shore was just another reality show in the great MTV scrap-heap when an obnoxious little Oompa-Loompa got a right cross from a drunk bro and suddenly, everything got kicked up a notch or twenty. It was the true starting gun on Jersey Shore’s run of inane insanity, a show in which anything can – and often did – happen, including a sub five foot tall girl getting punched in the face by a meathead asshole.
47. Madonna Makes Out With Britney Spears
This was so staged and so cynical that a part of me doesn’t even want to acknowledge it, but still, there was Madonna kissing Britney Spears on TV which isn’t exactly a thing that most people were expecting. Christina Aguilera also got in on the action, but the cameras mostly missed it, which is somehow fitting because the main event was the symbolic passing of the ingénue provocateur torch from Madonna to Britney via – what else? – their tongues.
46. Martin Lawrence Gets a Little Too Live on ‘SNL’
You can find virtually every moment in Saturday Night Live history just as it originally aired. One of the few exceptions is Martin Lawrence’s insanely raunchy opening monologue when he hosted in 1994. It was so nasty that it was censored and stripped from all future airings and earned Martin a lifetime ban from the show. Look, you can get a little risqué at 11:30 on a Saturday night, but network TV is still network TV and no one was expecting this.
Moments 45 through 41
45. Kanye West Interrupts Taylor Swift at the MTV VMA’s
This is perhaps the ultimate example of Kanye just being Kanye, which is code for “being a ridiculous jackass.” It was a moment that instantly became part of the pop culture fabric, a moment so bizarre and surreal that nobody was quite sure if what they were watching was real or just a gag. But sadly, Kanye isn’t self-aware enough for that, and so we were all left to watch as poor Taylor Swift stood there, humiliated, probably wondering if she could write a song about it even though Kanye was never her boyfriend.
44. Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech
This was shocking if only because it was the first time in American history when a politician appeared on live TV to bitch and complain and grovel like we just take for granted today. Naturally, it was Nixon who was involved, and it set the stage for a whole new era of political theater. Thanks, Dick!
43. Marlon Brando Boycotts the 1972 Academy Awards
There’s awkward and then there’s having to watch as a Native American woman accepts Marlon Brando’s Oscar because he’s protesting the ceremony because we live in a nation that has horrifically mistreated her people. Politicization of something as fluffy as an awards show is always uncomfortable, but this transcended mere discomfort and genuinely shocked people because it was pretty much a total repudiation of both the show and the culture as a whole by perhaps the most famous actor on the planet following maybe his most iconic performance of all in The Godfather.
42. Tom Cruise Goes Crazy on Oprah
Prior to this, Tom Cruise was maybe the most beloved actor in the world, with the whole crazy man thing just a skeleton in his closet. This, though, ripped the doors off that closet and let all the crazy out for everyone to see. The whole thing climaxed with Cruise surfing Oprah’s couch like a crazy person, and nothing was ever the same again.
41. Robert Opel Streaks the 1974 Academy Awards
While debonair actor and host David Niven was on stage, ready to introduce Elizabeth Taylor, a dude named Robert Opel ran past him, buck-ass naked, flashing a peace sign. Look, anytime a dude shows up on TV with his dong hanging out, it’s going to be a little shocking. Niven, to his eternal credit, proved why he was one of the coolest people in the world when he immediately quipped “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” Well played, David. Well played.
Moments 40 through 36
40. Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase Trade Racial Slurs on ‘SNL’
It was a simple word association sketch in which Chevy Chase was interviewing Richard Pryor for a job. The words became increasingly nasty, until finally, Chase was dropping N bombs and Pryor was shouting about dead honkeys. If this happened today, the Internet would melt down. But this was 40 years ago! That’s how shocking – and cutting edge – SNL used to be.
39. Yolanda Bowersley (and Her Boobs) Come on Down
During a taping of The Price is Right, contestant Yolanda Bowersley was told to come on down. Naturally, she was excited, and she rushed down in her tube top. Yeah. Physics took over, her boobs made an unexpected guest appearance while the audience laughed and screamed and both Bob Barker and announcer Rod Roddy acted like lecherous fiends. It was the 70s, after all.
38. Joe Theismann Breaks His Leg on Monday Night Football
It wasn’t just that he broke his leg, it’s that when Lawrence Taylor folded the dude’s leg backwards, it was immediately clear to everyone watching that Joe Theismann’s career was over. It was one of the nastiest sports injuries in history, and it came with a national audience watching on Monday Night Football. No one expects to see that kind of shit in primetime.
37. Kevin Ware Breaks His Leg in the NCAA Tournament
The Theismann injury held the record for most shocking sports injury until Louisville’s Kevin Ware snapped his leg like a chicken bone during the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Seeing a compound fracture to an exposed leg in HD isn’t something that anyone watching will ever forget. His own teammates were in hysterics on the bench, his coach sickened, and everyone watching knew that they had just seen the most nauseatingly shocking injury in live sports TV history.
36. Charles Rocket Says ‘F-ck’ on ‘SNL’
Look, there are just some things that not even SNL will do, and breaking out the dreaded lord of curse words is one of the big ones. That didn’t stop Charles Rocket from letting it fly anyway in the midst of the insipid 1981 season, which was probably the show’s low point. It was brazen and it was obviously planned by Rocket, who was immediately fired – along with most of the cast – as the show went into hiatus and was nearly cancelled altogether.
Moments 35 through 31
35. Jodon F. Romero Commits Suicide
Most police chases end with the police cuffing the dude, but every once in a while, things get way out of hand, and the cameras don’t quite cut away in time. That’s what happened in the case of Jodon F. Romero, a carjacker who realized it was either prison or a bullet to the dome. He chose the bullet, all while TV host Shepard Smith narrated the damn thing. It was a reminder that sometimes that promise of violence that keeps us glued to these things actually gets fulfilled.
34. Ron Atkinson Commits Career Suicide
News pundits’ careers end all the time because of an ill-timed or poorly chosen remark, but no one has firebombed their own career quite as spectacularly as English soccer pundit, Ron Atkinson. During a game featuring Chelsea player Marcel Desailly – who is black – Atkinson thought his microphone was off. It, uh, it wasn’t. And that meant that everyone watching got to hear him say the following about Desailly: “he is what is known in some schools as a f–king lazy nigger.” Yeah, that’ll do it.
33. The Sex Pistols Taunt Bill Grundy
Venerable English TV interviewer Bill Grundy made the mistake of taking his stuffy, pompous style to an interview with the Sex Pistols in 1976. The interview quickly became a shocking farce, as the Pistols and Grundy bated and taunted one another until they were calling him “a dirty old man” and “a dirty f–ker” on live TV. They then trashed the studio while Grundy looked on helplessly. His show was immediately canceled, his career was over, and the Sex Pistols and punk rock took over pop culture.
32. Sinead O’Connor Tears Up a Picture of the Pope on ‘SNL’
During a typically mundane episode of Saturday Night Live, Sinead O’Connor decided to liven things up a bit with a protest. This consisted of standing in front of the camera and ripping up a picture of the Pope. Naturally, this shocked and appalled all the church ladies out there, and Sinead was banned from SNL. It was, in retrospect, kind of tame and very, very ridiculous, but at the time it drove people crazy, so crazy that when Joe Pesci later hosted the show, he spent his entire monologue bitching about the event and yelling at Sinead. Troll so hard, Sinead. Troll so goddamn hard.
31. Kanye West Tells the World ‘George Bush Hates Black People’
During a telethon for Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West decided to go all Kanye again when he dropped this bomb. It just came out of nowhere and was said so matter of fact, that it had an immediate impact. You can see the shock of that impact on the face of Mike Myers next to him. It was one of those moments that immediately became part of the cultural fabric, and part of the ridiculous fabric of Kanye West.
Moments 30 through 26
30. Dale Earnhardt Crashes and Dies at Daytona
The only reason this doesn’t rank higher is because no one knew that he had actually died during the crash. All they knew was that he was hurt. Still, this has to be on here because I mean, come on, perhaps the most popular and famous NASCAR driver ever was killed on live TV.
29. Daniel V. Jones Commits Suicide
AIDS patient Daniel V. Jones decided to publicize his plight by leading police on a chase that ended with him blowing his brains out on live TV. What made it even more shocking, though, is that schoolchildren were watching the chase live from their classroom because, uh, well, you’ll have to ask their teachers, who I’m guessing didn’t win any teacher of the year award.
28. Tommy Cooper Has a Heart Attack and Dies
English comedian and magician Tommy Cooper was well known for goofy tricks that would backfire on him and so when he collapsed and died following a heart attack on live TV, many in the audience laughed, thinking that it was just another gag. It wasn’t, and insanely, the show went on even though Cooper’s feet could be seen sticking out from beneath a curtain in the background. That’s showbiz, I guess.
27. Black Power Salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics
1968 was perhaps the most controversial year in that controversial decade of the 1960s, and so it perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising that amidst almost constant racial strife at home, black Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos decided to protest the American national anthem with the infamous black power salute. Still, it was a shock to everyone watching that they actually went through with it, and a reminder that maybe, just maybe, things had gotten a little out of hand.
26. Walter Cronkite Denounces Vietnam
Staying in 1968 for a moment, that year also saw Walter Cronkite, the voice of America, go on air following the infamous Tet Offensive and tell the whole country that the war was basically an unwinnable mess. It shocked a country used to winning everything, and caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to remark “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Moments 25 through 21
25. 1989 California World Series Earthquake
Just prior to Game 3 of the 1989 World Series in San Francisco, an earthquake struck while Al Michaels and Tim McCarver were narrating highlights from the previous game. The feed started to go wonky and then Michaels said, “I tell you what, we’re having an earth-” and right at that moment the feed was lost. Now that’s some scary shit. I guess not even God wanted to listen to Tim McCarver call a game.
24. 2000 Presidential Election
This was perhaps the moment when everyone realized that the country’s political structure was completely broken. It was a theater of the absurd, one long and terrible soap opera that confirmed everyone’s worst fears about politics in America. It’s one thing to suspect it, but it’s something completely different – something shocking – to have it so brazenly thrown in everyone’s faces like that. It was the night Fox News was truly born in all its hideous glory.
23. The Miracle on Ice
Shocking doesn’t have to mean bad. Take, for instance, the Miracle on Ice hockey game in which the U.S. beat the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics. It shocked an entire nation, but in an entirely good way that gave it a much needed boost of pride. It was a shock, alright, like a defibrillator shocking a heart back into beating again.
22. Christine Chubbuck Commits Suicide
In 1974, a Florida newswoman named Christine Chubbuck calmly turned from reading the news and said “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.” She then shot herself in the head live on air.
21. Owen Hart Falls to His Death
During a WWE pay-per-view, wrestler Owen Hart, in the guise of his comedy character, the Blue Blazer, decided to make a grand entrance by zip-lining down to the ring from the rafters. The line broke, and Owen fell over 60 feet and landed with a sickening splat in the ring. He died as paramedics tried to revive him and then the show went on, his friends wrestling only feet away from where his blood still stained the mat. It shocked an entire industry, and fans everywhere who had just unwittingly paid $50 to watch one of their favorite wrestlers die.
Moments 20 through 16
20. Budd Dwyer Shoots Himself
In 1987, disgraced politician Budd Dwyer called a press conference the day before his sentencing on bribery charges. He ended the press conference in unforgettable and shocking fashion by sticking a loaded gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. The incident later inspired Filter’s hit song “Hey Man, Nice Shot.” Seriously.
19. Inejiro Asanuma is Assassinated
During a 1960 televised debate in Japan, a protestor rushed the stage with a samurai sword and stabbed socialist candidate Inejiro Asanuma to death. Just read that again. Goddamn!
18. Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Halftime ‘Show’
During halftime of Superbowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake decided to cap off his performance with Janet Jackson by, uh, ripping her top open and exposing her titty. How in the hell did he not catch more heat for this? As it was, the incident caused a mass freakout and led to the FCC clamping down on indecency on TV. This is perhaps the prime case of a shocking moment meeting a worldwide audience and creating a massive pop-culture shaking event.
17. Apollo 13
The Apollo 13 mission to the moon hit a snag, as the astronauts were all stranded in space, on the edge of death with no way to get home. Now that’s high drama. We all know thanks to Tom Hanks how it all played out, but for the people watching as it unfolded live via the news, they thought they were following the story of American heroes dying in space. That’s, uh, that’s a big deal.
16. Boston Marathon Bombing
The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing was so shocking because it was absolutely insane. Everyone watched as the police hunted down the bombers, the news and Twitter and Reddit and every other social media site began feeding off one another and it became a weird living thing, like we were all in the middle of the world’s most messed up reality show. It was a harbinger of a new era in TV coverage, one in which we all have an active part, for better or for worse.
Moments 15 through 11
15. The Fall of the Berlin Wall
After nearly 50 years of constant tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Berlin Wall, that enduring symbol of the divide between the two countries’ spheres of influence, was torn down on TV by the people of Berlin. It was a shocking moment, rife with symbolism, and just like that, the Cold War was essentially over.
14. The LA Riots
Following the Rodney King verdict, everyone in America got to watch live as racial tensions boiled over in L.A. People were, uh, well, they weren’t happy. Perhaps the most shocking moment came when truck driver Reginald Denny got pulled from his rig and smashed in the face with a brick. Meanwhile, King bellowed the infamous “Can’t we all just get along?” It turns out that, no, no we cannot.
13. Richard Nixon Resigns
Just over 20 years after Nixon kicked off the modern TV and politics marriage, he ended his own career by going on TV to resign the Presidency thanks to Watergate. It was the first – and only – time a U.S. President was forced to quit, and he had to do it in front of an entire nation already reeling from a decade of chaos and cultural tumult. It was one last aftershock of the Vietnam era before the sad, depressing 70s took over for good.
There have, sadly, been too many school shootings to count over the last decade or so, but none resonated quite as much as the Columbine massacre, and that’s because everyone in the nation got to watch it unfold live on TV. It shocked everyone, and anyone who watched it live remembers just sitting there with their mouth hanging open, eyes transfixed in horror as a new and terrible threat made its presence known – even our schools had become warzones.
11. The Massacre at Munich, 1972 Summer Olympics
The world watched in horror as Palestinian gunmen took the Israeli Olympic delegation hostage. The footage itself wasn’t explicit – it was mostly just a study in horrified tension – but that maybe made it even more terrifying. The mind imagines the worst when it can’t actually see the monsters, after all. It was one long, drawn out shock to an already battered global emotional system.
Moments 10 through 6
10. Japanese Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown
Yeah, anytime the words “nuclear meltdown” show up, people are going to be shocked. And they were as Japan was hit by a massive tsunami and then the news just kept getting worse and worse until people were picturing Godzilla and openly worrying about eating radioactive seafood for the next 100 years. It was yet another case where the aftermath of the initial event became the story, and it just kept getting more and more shocking the longer it went on.
9. The OJ Verdict
Almost everybody reading this knows exactly where they were when the OJ verdict came in. A big chunk of you – myself included – were kids sitting in a classroom. Everyone knew he was guilty (uh… allegedly) and so there was a collective gasp when he was found not guilty. I remember racist white dudes absolutely losing their shit as it quickly became yet another sad reminder of how far apart we are in many ways when it comes to race relations. But hey, at least no one died, right? Oh…
8. Hurricane Katrina
Everyone watched in horror as a major American city – and perhaps one of the most beloved of all American cities, New Orleans – was essentially destroyed by a massive hurricane. And yet again, the aftermath somehow managed to overshadow the actual event, as we were shocked again and again by coverage of people hanging from rooftops and wading through the muck. It was like a zombie movie, with people huddling inside a madhouse known as the Superdome to escape the chaos outside. And finally, perhaps the biggest shock of all was a clearly overwhelmed President Bush feebly gibbering “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Brownie,” to the FEMA director who had so utterly failed the people of the Gulf Coast.
7. The Challenger Space Shuttle Explodes
By 1986, everyone had pretty much taken the space program for granted. Everything had gone smoothly for years and so the Challenger mission seemed like just another foray into space, ho hum. And then the space shuttle exploded right after launch and everyone remembered that going to space is some serious shit. To make things even more shocking, school children from around the nation were watching because teacher Christa McAuliffe was on board. It remains a formative event for every child of the ‘80s.
6. 1968 Chicago Riots at the Democratic National Convention
We turn back to that crazy year of 1968, and even as it was happening, everyone knew they were in the middle of a bad scene. Protestors chanted “the whole world is watching” as they got their asses kicked by cops and thugs on the payroll of the mayor of Chicago. And the whole world was watching, and watching with shock as it became brutally clear just how insane things had gotten in America.
Moments 5 through 1
5. Jack Ruby Shoots Lee Harvey Oswald
The nation was already in a complete state of shock following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but look, a dude getting shot on TV is always going to make an impact, and when that same dude is the most hated man in America, it’s going to inspire some feelings. It’s a testament to how wild that whole assassination and its aftermath was that this is considered almost an afterthought. But again, the dude who killed the President was murdered on TV! Come on.
4. The OJ Simpson Chase
This was maybe the most surreal moment in American TV history. After all, OJ Simpson was one of the most beloved athletes in the country when all this went down. He was a legend. And yet, there he was, creeping down the highway in that white Bronco, the cops behind him, and everyone watching was forced to wonder if we were going to see OJ freakin’ Simpson get gunned down on live TV. It is the epitome of the “everyone remembers where they were when it happened” moment. It was that weird and that shocking.
3. Announcement of JFK’s Death
The assassination itself was, perhaps thankfully, not broadcast live. People probably wouldn’t have been able to handle that shit. It was too shocking already for them to deal with when Walter Cronkite took to the airwaves to solemnly tell everyone that Kennedy had been shot and that he was dead. It instantly changed an entire country. It’s hard to get more shocking than that.
2. The Moon Landing
Amidst all the insanity of the 1960s, there was one moment that captured the whole world with its sublime beauty, and its unspoken promise of the power of humanity when it’s channeled for good. It might seem quaint now, but you have to remember, this was some wild stuff going on back in the day. It would be like watching a dude set foot on Mars for the first time. A dude was walking on another world! It was perhaps the most triumphant moment – if only symbolically – in all of human history. You bet your ass it belongs here.
Nothing else could be number one, could it? This was the moment that changed everything, the moment that created this world we live in now. And we all got to watch in shock and horror as it happened live, as one tower fell and then the other. You will never, ever forget this moment as long as you live, and it will be forever burned into our collective cultural consciousness. It is, quite simply, in scope and in intensity, the most shocking moment ever captured on television.
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