Talk shows have long been a staple of television, providing a platform for discussions, celebrity interviews, and light-hearted banter. These shows are typically considered a safe haven for entertaining content, offering a break from the daily news cycle. However, even in the carefully planned world of talk shows, controversies can erupt, sending shockwaves through audiences and leaving hosts scrambling to control the situation. From shocking revelations to heated clashes, talk show scandals have captivated viewers and ignited intense debates. In this article, we delve into a collection of infamous talk show scandals that have stirred up controversy and had audiences up in arms. Join us as we explore these incidents, shedding light on the unforgettable moments that forever etched themselves into the history of talk show television.
Jimmy Kimmel Says Sorry for Donning Blackface
Blackface has been frowned upon for many years. Despite this, Jimmy Kimmel kick-started his career by mimicking NBA star Karl Malone, initially on KROQ radio in the mid-90s, then on his Comedy Central program, The Man Show.
In 2020, clips of Kimmel as Malone went viral, prompting Kimmel to issue a public apology. In his apology, Kimmel tried to argue that the backlash was merely an attempt to tarnish his reputation after years of socially-conscious commentary on his show.
Crispin Glover Nearly Kicks Letterman’s Face Mid-Interview
After his standout role as George McFly in 1985’s Back to the Future, Crispin Glover started his promotional tour for his movie River’s Edge, where he played the friend of a teenager whose girlfriend has passed away.
During his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, Glover showed up in character (but not his character from the film), dressed in hippie-like clothes and a poorly done wig. Glover chatted aimlessly about showbiz and read society newspaper snippets about actor Crispin Glover, before demonstrating his martial arts skills, launching a roundhouse kick just inches from Letterman’s face.
Letterman abruptly left the set, calling it quits on the interview. Though the host was accustomed to theatrical interviews, in this case, it’s uncertain whether Letterman was in on the joke.
Jerry Lawler Slaps Andy Kaufman on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’
On another episode of his Late Night, David Letterman had professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman as guests, who were caught up in an ongoing wrestling spat. True to Kaufman’s style, it was tough to tell if he was doing a skit or if he genuinely wanted to beat Lawler in the ring.
The tussle started when Kaufman began challenging women at his shows to wrestling matches and crowned himself “the World Intergender Wrestling Champion.” An outraged Lawler challenged him to a match to test his skills. The pair wrestled on April 5, 1982, in Memphis, TN, with Lawler delivering such a powerful piledriver to Kaufman, he had to be taken to the hospital.
In late July, they appeared together on Letterman’s show, with Kaufman still sporting a neck brace. The segment quickly escalated into a curse-laden slap-fight, and Kaufman hurled coffee on Lawler. Letterman then cut to a commercial.
Years later, Letterman admitted that everyone was indeed in on the joke. At the time, newspapers reported on the incident as if it was a genuine assault.
Wendy Williams Ridicules a TikTok Star Following His Demise
Just a quick look at talk show host Wendy Williams’s Wikipedia page, and you’ll notice how hefty her “controversies” section really is. This incident is one more addition to that list.
In 2021, Williams was covering the tragic death of 19-year-old TikTok star Swavy, whose real name was Matima Miller, and who was fatally shot in Wilmington, DE. Williams mentioned his influencer status, even though she herself had never heard of him.
“I have no idea who this is,” she quipped, drawing chuckles from her audience. “Neither does [my producer] Norman. Neither does one person in this building.” Her remarks faced severe backlash on the internet, accused of being disrespectful to the recently passed teenager.
A ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ Guest Was Later Killed by Her Ex-Spouse
Jerry Springer’s notorious talk show, aired on NBC from 1991 to 2018, was infamous for its scandalous themes. However, a 2000 episode of Jerry Springer resulted in an actual murder.
The episode titled “Secret Mistresses Confronted,” featured Nancy Campbell-Panitz learning that her ex-husband, Ralf Panitz, whom she still lived with despite being divorced, had secretly tied the knot with Eleanor Panitz. Merely hours after the episode were aired, Ralf violently killed Nancy and tried to escape to Canada. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002.
Kelly Osbourne Makes a Disparaging Remark About the Latino Community
In 2015, The View co-host Kelly Osbourne was attempting to protect the Latino community from Donald Trump but ended up making a racist comment. She said, “If you kick every Latino out of this country, then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump?”
Osbourne was absent from the show the following day, but co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Raven-Symoné apologized on her behalf.
Hulk Hogan Knocks Out Richard Belzer Live On TV
In 1985, Richard Belzer transformed his standup career into a talk show hosting gig on Lifetime network called Hot Properties. In an initial episode, he had Hulk Hogan and Mr. T as guests to talk about Wrestlemania 1985.
During the interview, Belzer made fun of pro wrestling, then asked Hogan to demonstrate a sleeper hold on him. Hogan agreed and applied the chokehold until Belzer was unconscious. Belzer fell and hit his head, requiring stitches.
Belzer sued Hogan for $5 million two years later, and they eventually settled out of court. Belzer used the settlement money to put a down payment on a house in France.
‘Mr. Organic’ Passes Away on the Dick Cavett Show
Jerome Irving Rodale, born as Jerome Irving Cohen, was a businessman and an early supporter of organic farming, advocating for farming devoid of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Although not a farmer himself, he published numerous magazines on the topic and promoted his beliefs through various means, like staging poorly received comedic skits about organic farming for New York audiences.
In June 1971, he was the premier guest on The Dick Cavett Show, filmed at W-ABC in New York City. After moving on to the next guest, Rodale made a noise resembling a snore but, tragically, it was a heart attack. Rodale eventually passed away, and the episode was never broadcasted.
Morton Downey Jr. Stages a Hate Crime
Morton Downey Jr., a trailblazer of “trash TV” and the progenitor of shows like Jerry Springer, hosted a series from 1987 to 1989. He spiced up episodes with contentious issues like racial tension, featuring fiery personalities from all viewpoints in a shouting match, often spurred on by Downey Jr. himself. However, low ratings ultimately led to the show’s cancellation.
In a desperate move in April 1989, Downey Jr. reported to the police that he was assaulted by a group of skinheads in a San Francisco airport restroom, who allegedly trimmed his hair and sketched swastikas on his face. But his claim fell apart as no witnesses could corroborate his story, and the backward swastikas seemed to have been drawn by someone staring into a mirror. Downey Jr.’s show came to an end that summer.
Morton Downey Jr. Faces a $40 Million Lawsuit Following a Stripper Segment
In 1988, the audacious talk show host Morton Downey Jr. welcomed a bunch of strippers on his program to talk about their way of life. During the show, however, Downey Jr. lashed out with a string of sexist insults.
One of the strippers, Kellie Everts, alleged that Downey Jr. used his “pelvic area’ to ‘body slam’ her on three separate occasions during the show, pushed her into a chair, and broke a shoulder strap of her dress.” She tried suing Downey Jr. for a whopping $40 million, but the verdict of the lawsuit was never made public.
Bill Maher Drops a Racial Slur on His Show
Renowned comedian and talk show host Bill Maher, known for his controversial humor, stirred a hornet’s nest during a 2017 interview with Nebraska senator Ben Sasse on Real Time. The incident transpired while discussing Maher’s distaste for adults dressing up for Halloween.
“It’s frowned upon. We don’t do that quite as much,” Sasse remarked.
“I’ve got to get to Nebraska more,” Maher responded.
“You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us,” Sasse invited.
“Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n*****,” Maher retorted.
Maher had to make a public apology the next day.
Letterman Discloses His Blackmail Scandal On Air
In 2009, David Letterman shocked his Late Show audience by confessing to having multiple affairs with female staff members on his show. This revelation was even more scandalous given that he and his partner, Regina Lasko, had been a pair for over two decades.
Letterman was compelled to make this startling confession on air due to a blackmail attempt by CBS News producer Joe Haldeman, who tried to extort $2 million from him. According to a colleague, Haldeman was dating a staff member who was also romantically involved with Letterman. In a fit of jealousy, Haldeman handed a sealed envelope to Letterman’s driver. The envelope contained several documents, including a blackmail letter and a script outline for a screenplay about a talk show host clearly inspired by Letterman.
Haldeman met thrice with Letterman’s attorney to discuss the payoff. Meanwhile, Letterman’s legal team was working with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which eventually slapped Haldeman with a charge of grand larceny. Haldeman ended up serving a six-month jail term, followed by five years of probation and a 1,000-hour community service requirement.