Embarrassing things that happened on live TV

Embarrassing things that happened on live TV

Shane Larkin

There was a time when embarrassing fumbles and mishaps on live TV had a relatively short shelf life. Political foibles and news anchor slip-ups might have been replayed and talked about for a little while on different channels but there wasn’t really a means of establishing and maintaining a bona fide canon of cringe. But in today’s terminally streaming world these moments have achieved a sort of immortality, destined to be shared and have their embarrassment preserved until the end of time. In service of this humble dream, sit back, thank heaven there wasn’t a camera crew present at your most embarrassing moments, and embrace the awkwardness that has bestowed our TV screens over the years.

Lord Ashcroft hides in the bathroom to avoid pesky tax questions

This little dance of persistence and evasion between a determined reporter and a man trying to outrun his own guilt in real time is a joy to behold. In the huge leak of financial documents referred to as the Paradise Papers in 2017, a number of wealthy, high-profile individuals were exposed for using complex offshore financial structures to avoid paying higher taxes on their precious cash. Among those in the firing line was British businessman and Conservative party donor Lord Ashcroft, who found himself pounced on unawares by BBC Panorama reporter Richard Bilton at a Conservative party conference and faced with pressing questions about his tax avoidance.

As soon as he’s confronted, the nervy and evasive Ashcroft spends the next couple minutes halfway trying to approximate normal human behavior while ignoring the reporter, bizarrely muttering “dear oh dear” over and over to himself ad infinitum, and zig-zagging aimlessly around the Conservative party conference hall like a glitching Sims character. He even holds on to Bilton’s microphone for a spell, much to the reporter’s glee. He turns what might have been a fairly rote confrontation/denial piece of reportage into a glorious demonstration of bumbling embarrassment and a freewheeling tour of his surroundings for good measure.

Ashcroft eventually weasels out of this by seeking desperate refuge in the bathroom, presumably flushing himself and his shame away to safer pastures. The camera didn’t follow.

Teresa Mannion wages war on Ireland's weather

Ask the average Irish person about the country’s wildly unpredictable weather and you’ll probably get a characteristically cheery response and a minute or so of cordial conversation. Ask weatherwoman Teresa Mannion, however, and you’ll be primed and ready to stare right into the cruel eye of the apocalypse itself.

As Storm Desmond raged along Ireland’s West coast in 2015, RTÉ’s Teresa Mannion was in the trenches, soaked to within an inch of her life but ready for battle. As the elements swirled and blustered around her, she gave a hilariously impassioned and dramatic report of the storm’s progress and effects, crying out some earnest safety warnings for good measure and scolding those trying to tempt fate. She became a viral sensation almost instantly. The first obligatory dance remix was created mere hours after it aired, countless other parody videos were spawned, and even celebrities like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent got in on the action. No one was immune to the power of Mannion’s war cry.

Mannion was a good sport about all of this, admitting on Australia’s The Morning Show that she found the footage embarrassing to watch but loved the laughter and creativity it inspired during that brief period of viral superstardom. As if that wasn’t wholesome enough, she particularly loved that it was ultimately a message of safety being spread around the world, and she ended up fronting an ad campaign for the Road Safety Authority in Ireland the next year.

Mal Meninga's political career ends mid-sentence

Famous people from the worlds of sport and media trying their hand at politics is nothing new, sadly, but some people at least have had the good grace to recognize their own folly and wild unsuitability for the political realm and nip things in the bud before that ball of unqualified chaos really gets rolling. Former Australian Rugby League star Mal Meninga was not exactly the most likely or suitable contender for the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly elections in 2001, and as it turns out, the person who’d probably agree with you most is Mal Meninga.

During a televised interview with ABC Radio, Meninga abandoned his political aspirations in a matter of seconds, beginning a spiel about what prompted him to run in the first place before cutting himself off with “I’m buggered, I’m sorry,” then leaving the studio instantly and resigning.

Meninga ultimately found himself back in comfortable territory and avoided whatever buggering might’ve awaited him, landing the position of head coach for the Australian national team in 2015, but those embarrassing few seconds and his non-starter of a political legacy has endured. Satirical comedy group The Chaser even started nominating politicians for the “Mal Award” as part of its election coverage, intended to honor “the greatest act of political suicide during an election campaign.”

Water jetpack doesn't do what it's supposed to do on Fox 5 News

When things go wrong on that undefinable netherworld that is morning news, as they so often do, why does it always feel oh so right? Unintentional and unplanned TV gold is the bread and butter of this neglected little corner of the broadcasting world where dignity so often goes to die, and this blunder during a Fox 5 News segment covering the San Diego Yacht and Boat Show and featuring a water jetpack (the JetLev R200, if you happen to be in the market for one of these babies) is one such treasure.

It’s hard to know what exactly was supposed to happen when the jetpack operator, named John apparently, was prompted to look at the camera and deliver the show’s tagline before the transition to the logo, but whatever it was he failed beautifully. After blurting out the line with gusto and a thousand-watt smile, John and his unwieldy machine thrust forward about a foot and flop straight off the pier and directly into the water, almost taking the presenter with them.

What follows is just as fun, as we cut back to the other presenters in the studio struggling to hold it together and make sense of all this, before the re-emerged and undeterred John commandeers his mighty transport over the boats and bystanders at the pier like a wetsuited angel. What a time to be alive.

Bickering Jordan journalists resort to duking it out with a broken table

You’re never too old to act like a brat on live TV, as these two elderly Jordanian journalists ably demonstrated on the talk show Seven Stars in 2014. The two men get into a heated discussion about the civil war in Syria, and things get a little out of hand. According to Time, Mohammad al-Jayousi accuses Shaker al-Johari of showing support for the rebels in Syria, while al-Johari accuses al-Jayousi of accepting bribes to support Assad, and things snowball from there in an absurd and decidedly childish fashion.

The bickering escalates to the point where words obviously aren’t a sufficient means of expression anymore, and so naturally the men both try to flip the table. This doesn’t quite work and the table is instead just dismantled, and with both men still holding the tabletop at each end the only reasonable course of action seems to be to awkwardly push and pull the giant slab of wood at each other while the host tries in vain to maintain some kind of order. It’s not exactly dignified, or pretty, but if all the world’s disagreements could be managed like this maybe things wouldn’t feel so grim all the time.

Bad jokes and opera abound when Swedish newsreader doesn't realize he's on air

You’d think someone, anyone, would have noticed and let the poor sap know. Swedish newsreader Fredrik Ahl doesn’t realize his rehearsal is actually being broadcast live on SVT Sörmland’s news program, and he unwittingly makes it as amusing as he possibly can. He shuffles about for a while, starts doing some cartoonish voices, and reaches a fever pitch of glorious second-hand embarrassment when he starts to sing some opera.

The cringe factor holds steady even as his likability points start to drop off considerably, when he makes a slightly xenophobic remark in reference to asylum-seekers in the country — “Those who come are often educated engineers, doctors, and kebab technicians” — for which he and the network ended up apologizing. The broadcaster had no idea how or why the live airing mistake even happened in the first place, which should offer some encouragement to the cringe-seekers of Sweden that a blunder like this might very well happen again. Here’s hoping.

Governer Rick Perry destroys his own presidential prospects during debate

Rick Perry’s presidential bid was, according to the New York Times, already on life support when he took to the stage for this Republican presidential debate in 2011, but as soon as he mentions that there are three agencies of government he intends to eliminate if he takes office, he basically hoists that bid over his shoulder and tosses it off a cliff. It his own words, those agencies were “Commerce, Education, and the … uh … what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” and what follows is the slow, excruciating murder of a man’s presidential hopes and dreams by his own hand.

After the first slip-up, Perry is already more than likely cooked, but the moderator doesn’t let him off the hook, prodding him to clarify the third agency. It, however, has well and truly been lost in the foggy recesses of Perry’s mind by that point and moves further away from him the more he tries to grasp it. Like that song title you just can’t put your finger on, but with considerably higher stakes involved, all televised live.

Perry’s performance in the rest of the debate was basically incident-free, but it didn’t matter. He tumbled even further down in the polls as if tripping on a banana skin he laid down for himself, and his political standing and prospects have been on rocky ground ever since. Oops.

Mariah Carey's New Year's Eve disaster

This here is some pure, grade-A Columbian cringe, so tread carefully. Live lip sync debacles are always tough to watch and almost impossible to look away from, but few have entertained a live audience quite as large as when Mariah Carey stumbled and fumbled her way through disastrous renditions of “Emotions” and “We Belong Together” on New Year’s Eve 2016.

There was some half-hearted lip syncing, there was some awkward sashaying around the stage, there were some seemingly unfazed backup dancers, there was some weird self-referential commentary and there were complaints of technical issues. It’s hard to know what exactly went wrong on the night, or just how many people were fired because of it, but torrents of blame were offloaded by the barrel and Carey was having none of it. As reported by the New York Times, her managers blamed the organizers of the event, the organizers claimed that everything was working fine on their end, and Carey herself just blamed everybody.

All that aside, pretty much everyone agreed that the performance was the perfect closer to a particularly crummy year. And to her credit, Carey did show up on Jimmy Kimmel Live shortly afterward to sing live (for real this time) and salvage some integrity.

Chicago news anchors mistakenly cover a fake plane crash

Sometimes film and TV production crews do such a convincing job of depicting real-life scenarios that they actually end up being mistaken as such. And sometimes they end up being reported as a breaking story on morning news even when don’t actually seem all that convincing, really.

That’s what happened in 2012, when WGN Morning News in Chicago covered what they thought was a real plane crash in the middle of a busy road. It turned out to be a staged crash site for the NBC series Chicago Fire, and when you see the footage it’s kind of hard to understand how they were fooled at all.

They actually recovered pretty well, lampooning themselves for a few minutes by pretending to cover old Godzilla footage as real news, and anchor Larry Potash assured viewers that every other story in that news block was definitely real. And in their defense, some local residents were likewise fooled by the production. The Chicago Fire team clearly just doesn’t know its own strength.

BBC newsreader mistakes ream of paper for tablet and just goes with it

BBC newsreader Simon McCoy is no stranger to live TV mishaps. This maverick has done everything from seemingly falling asleep at his desk to audibly dropping something on the ground, breaking it, and proclaiming it a metaphor for his career. But McCoy is probably best known for inexplicably holding a big ream of A4 printer paper during one of his reports in 2013, and he can’t seem to live that down.

According to a BBC spokesperson at the time, McCoy had meant to pick up his tablet to hold while introducing a story before he went live, but accidentally grabbed the ream of paper instead and just decided to roll with it.

The incident was just bizarre and puzzling enough to tickle viewers around the world on and off for years afterward, prompting an exasperate McCoy to tweet this near the end of 2017: “IT WAS FOUR YEARS AGO, PEOPLE! FOUR YEARS!!!! MOVE ON. I AM TRYING TO.” The world continued to celebrate the anniversary of this hallowed gaffe, of course. Here’s to many more in the years ahead.