In the late 1980s, television viewers who had long been sucked into the melodrama of soap operas were introduced to a relatively new TV format – the talk show. This format was generally led by a host and featured storylines and guests that changed with every episode. Some talk shows focused on wholesome topics like news, current events and self-betterment, while others focused on more scandalous ones like infidelity, family rivalry and DNA testing.
As the talk show format grew in popularity in the 90s, all types of shows popped up, and the more they pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, the more people watched. A select handful of TV shows became clear viewer favorites. By the end of the decade, the talk show began its slow decline. Long running shows that had boasted loyal audiences were losing their appeal to newer, more salacious TV formats – ahem, reality TV. But the thirst for talk show controversy couldn’t be quenched, and a few favorites hung on.
The talk show era may be on the decline, but there’s been no shortage of controversial shows along the way. Here are 15 that are hands down the most controversial in history.
15 Ricki Lake
Ricki Lake first aired in 1993 and quickly became a hit with younger viewers. Ricki, who was just 24 at the time (and the youngest person to ever host a talk show) was beloved by her audience and regularly egged on with “Go Ricki! Go Ricki!” At first, topics were relatively tame but as scandalous stories got higher ratings, controversial topics like teen pregnancy, gang warfare, racism and LGBT relationships took over. One of the show’s most notorious episodes involved Reverend Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church arguing that anyone carrying the AIDS virus deserved to die.
Thankfully, not all episodes were that horrifying. Many involved makeovers, reunions and talent contests. Ricki Lake lasted 11 seasons before saying its goodbyes in 2004. It made a short return to TV in 2012, but only lasted one season.
14 The View
Since the first episode aired in 1997, The View has been nothing short of controversial. The topics discussed, guests interviewed, and hosts themselves (with their endless screaming matches) have all been responsible for the drama. Notable controversies include Rosie O’Donnell and Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s argument over the war in Iraq, Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg walking off-stage during a Bill O’Reily segment, Raven Symone’s discrimination against people with “ghetto” names, and The View’s obsession with hiring and firing hosts. Hey, Star Jones!
But, seriously. Who knew five women could be the cause of so much controversy?
13 The Montel Williams Show
The Montel Williams Show combined inspirational topics with trashy ones in a way that worked surprisingly well for its loyal audience. Williams, himself, had a background in motivational speaking and was a long time marine. But no matter what the topic, the most popular shows were always the more controversial ones, specifically, the on-air surprise. Is your girlfriend really a man? Has your boyfriend slept with your mother? Are you an alien from another planet and don’t know it? Well, not the last one. But you get the idea.
The show ran from 1991-2008, when Williams lost support from Fox News after criticizing the network. The show was repackaged as a “best of” series to keep it on the air, but no new episodes were filmed.
12 Dr. Phil
Dr. Phil, a spin-off of the wildly successful The Oprah Winfrey Show has been no stranger to scandal, probably because fiery psychologist and host, Dr. Phil, has interviewed nearly every controversial guest his producers could get their hands on. Some of the more controversial episodes include “The Boy Under the Stairs”, Teen Mom Farrah Exposed”, “Pregnant at 11”, “I’m Worried My Daughter Might Turn into a Terrorist” and “The Here Comes Honey Boo Boo Scandal”.
After 14 seasons of being on the air, new episodes of Dr. Phil are still broadcast daily, so it’s not too late to catch the madness.
11 The Oprah Winfrey Show
The Oprah Winfrey Show produced 25 years of groundbreaking talk show history, but not without stirring a lot of controversy along the way. Most memorable are Oprah’s declaration that she wouldn’t eat another hamburger (that she was later sued over), her anti-Iraq War special, her revelation that she had been molested as a child, her interview with Michael Jackson, and the most overly generous talk show giveaway ever – a new Pontiac G6 to every member of her 300 seat audience.
Needless to say, being a controversial TV powerhouse has been good for Oprah, and great for her legions of fans who tuned in religiously to watch the drama unfold daily.
10 The Arsenio Hall Show
The original Arsenio Hall Show, which aired from 1989 to 1994, was considered the coolest place on TV thanks to its popularity with the MTV generation. In time, it quickly became the go-to spot for celebrities and politicians who wanted to reach that influential market.
Yes, the show was marked with success, but also with controversy. During a 1991 broadcast, Arsenio Hall was accused by audience members of never featuring gay guests on the show. In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was featured jamming out on his saxophone – a ballsy move that many think helped him win the election later that year. But probably the most controversial of all was Hall’s decision to interview Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, an interview that mainstream media strongly disapproved of. Hall’s show was given the axe soon after.
9 The Trisha Goddard Show
The Trisha Goddard Show premiered in the US in 2012 as a spin-off of Maury. It was hosted by British TV personality Trisha Goddard, and based on her dramatic UK talk show of the same name. Like Maury, the show was outrageously controversial. It featured paternity scandals, cheating accusations, out-of-control teens and equally as out-of-control adults. In one episode, a woman’s secret life as an escort is exposed. In another, a white supremacist is given a DNA test which proves he’s 14% Sub-Saharan African and 100% ignorant douchebag.
Despite the DNA test reveals and white supremacist shut-downs, The Trisha Goddard Show lasted just two seasons before getting cut.
8 The Phil Donahue Show
The Phil Donahue Show began in 1967 and lasted an unprecedented 29 years until its end in 1996. It remains the longest continuously running syndicated talk show in US history and set the stage for more modern daytime talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Sally Jesse Raphael Show (which both became direct competitors in the 1990s).
The Phil Donahue Show started off conservatively with celebrity interviews and musical guests, but became more controversial by featuring topics considered taboo at the time. The more controversial episodes include one on hip-hop culture and break dancing, another on the gay marriage debate, and another on mixed race people who could pass for white.
7 The Sally Jesse Raphael Show
The Sally Jesse Raphael Show is credited as one of the first to do “confrontation shows”. Basically, inviting guests on the show to tell their sides of stories and then inviting other guests to confront them about what was said – simple, but extremely lucrative. Raphael’s show lasted for over 20 years and fed its captivated audience episodes like “Teens Confront Cheating Parents”, “I’m Standing by my Criminal Man!” and the classic “You Tormented and Teased Me, Look at Me Now”.
Raphael’s show also featured surprise paternity tests, on-air revelations and the occasional celebrity guest – Audrey Hepburn, being Raphael’s all-time favorite.
Early Maury episodes discussed serious, though still controversial, topics like gang warfare before moving into more scandalous waters. As the on-set and viewing audience changed the show became better known for its trademark paternity tests, lie-detector results and guest reactions to all of it. I’m sure we’ve all seen a horrified woman running backstage to fall down crying on the floor while the alleged “baby daddy” two-steps in happiness after hearing “you are NOT the father”.
Regardless, Maury remains a fixture in the daytime talk show lineup. It’s one of the few on this list to still be on-air and actively recruiting dysfunctional guests.
5 The Steve Wilkos Show
The Steve Wilkos Show is the offspring of The Jerry Springer Show: just as controversial with less years on the air. However, Wilkos’ show is darker, with a much more serious tone. He often screams at guests and denies abusers from sitting in chairs, instead opting to throw said chairs. Episodes that have aired include “Steve, I Need to Know if She’s a Prostitute”, “Did my Cousin Leave me to Die that Night?” and “Steve, I’ll Prove I’m Not Gay.”
One of the more memorable moments was when Wilkos was left temporarily blind after a metal bowl hit him above the eye while taping an episode entitled “My Daughter Tried to Poison me.” Classy.
4 The Jenny Jones Show
Jenny’s show started like many others, focused on fashion, exercise, health and makeovers. As it delved further into personal stories the ratings started to rise. Soon, The Jenny Jones Show began featuring stories on paternity tests, feuding neighbors and secret crushes via episodes lovingly titled “Bimbo School”, “You May Shake it for Money but Leave Those Sexy Clothes at the Club, Honey!” and others.
Things went too far after an episode called “Same Sex Secret Crushes” was aired. In it, a gay man confessed his feelings to a man who was so freaked out that he killed him days later. The court case revealed that the murderer was mentally ill and suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. Despite the case, the show continued for another eight seasons before ending in 2003.
3 The Geraldo Rivera Show
In the early years of The Geraldo Rivera Show, it had one mission: conflict. In 1988, just one year after it first aired, Geraldo invited a group of white supremacists, anti-racist skinheads, African-American activists, and Jewish activists to be on the show – at the same time – and on the same stage. The episode quickly devolved into chaos and a fight broke out that left Geraldo with a broken nose, courtesy of a flying chair.
As years passed and ratings dropped, Geraldo tried to take the show down a notch by featuring less controversial guests and storylines but it was too late. The appeal was lost and the show was cancelled in 1998.
2 The Jerry Springer Show
How could we possibly list the most controversial talk shows in history without mentioning The Jerry Springer Show? It would be criminal. Over the course of its 25 season run (and still going), the show has been a hotbed of controversial nonsense. From episodes entitled “I Married a Horse” to “Crazy Cousin Crushes” – not to mention the on-stage fights, bleeped-over words, and “Jerry Beads” – it’s no wonder TV Guide voted it the “Worst Show in the History of Television.”
But being the worst show in TV history has had its perks: Jerry Springer, the ringleader, has enjoyed over 3800 episodes of fame (and paychecks), Steve Wilkos, former security guard, got his own controversial spin-off in 2007, and us, the viewers have had 25 years of controversial TV to watch and dare I say, enjoy?
1 The Morton Downey Jr., Show
Although it was only on the air for three seasons, The Morton Downey Jr., Show is without a doubt the most controversial in television history, partly because of its guests but mostly because of the host, himself. Downey became notorious for screaming at his guests and blowing cigarette smoke in the faces of the ones he especially disliked. Critics nicknamed him “The Mouth.” A term he and his loyal audience of “loudmouths” embraced.
Aside from the host, the show captured moments that included a fight between Roy Innis and Al Sharpton, and a salacious showdown between Downey and a stripper who referred to herself as the “Stripper for God”. That showdown later resulted in a nasty lawsuit. Downey’s show was eventually cut, but not before being crowned as controversial talk show royalty.