Forgotten Lines, Laughing Fits, and Wrong Envelopes: A Brief History of the Television Blooper

April 1st, 2017
Dick Clark

LA LA-gate!

On February 26, 2017, if you were watching the end of the broadcast of the 89th Academy Awards, you were rewarded with seeing a bit of history. If you’re reading this I can’t imagine you don’t know, but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope, and thus announced the wrong Best Picture winner.

Awards show bloopers are all too common. From Christine Lahti winning a Golden Globe while still in the restroom at the Beverly Hilton, to Elizabeth Taylor mangling names or almost forgetting to read nominees, the combination of nerves and tricky logistics will often lead to some kind of problem. But the television blooper cuts across all TV genres, and has had a long, storied history leading up to Oscar night 2017.

Bloopers: The First Generations

I’m sure people have been screwing up while performing since the first preview of Aeschylus’ “The Persians” in back 427 B.C., but the first man to collect them and present them as entertainment was Kermit Schaefer. His “Pardon My Blooper” record albums, which collected mistakes from radio and the early days of television, were smash hits. The live television broadcasts of the ‘50s proved to be fertile ground for mistakes.

In his Archive interview, Larry Hagman spoke of a mishap with actor John Larkin on the soap Edge of Night, which was broadcast live. Hagman had a scene with Larkin. At his cue, Larkin ambled out on stage in his street clothes, and directly addressed the camera, “Hellllllo out there in TV land.” He proceeded to wander aimlessly around the set, half-heartedly saying his lines. It finally dawned on Larry Hagman that John Larkin thought they were in a dress rehearsal, and not live on air. Larry tried to signal John to look at the red light on the camera, to no avail. After about five minutes, which must have seemed like an eternity to the future Major Nelson/J.R. Ewing, the director cut to commercial, and a mortified John Larkin was rushed off to wardrobe.

George Takei recalled appearing in the Playhouse 90 production of “Made in Japan.” In rehearsal, veteran character actor Harry Guardino had been having trouble remembering his lines for a dramatic courtroom speech. Takei watched on a monitor during the live broadcast, and Guardino was doing well until suddenly there was no sound, even though Guardino was still moving his mouth and gesturing. Takei rushed to the stage in time to see Guardino continuing to pantomime, and then suddenly start talking again. Harry had forgotten his lines, but continued on with the scene mouthing words in hopes that home viewers would simply think there was something wrong with the sound on their television sets. Good save! 

The Early ‘80s- Bloopermania!

In the early ‘80s, Dick Clark took a page from Kermit Schaefer and produced a series of Censored Bloopers specials. They proved so popular that NBC put Clark’s TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes on the 1982 fall schedule as a weekly series. Not to be outdone, ABC gave Foul-Ups, Bleeps, and Blunders a weekly spot that same year. And still a third series called Life’s Most Embarrassing Moments, hosted by Steve Allen, aired that season, as well. Having such a glut of shows killed the goose that laid the golden blooper because by 1986, all of these shows had been cancelled or turned back into occasional specials. Turns out that watching Greg Evigan mess up his BJ and the Bear lines does have a limited shelf life.

Lorne Michaels’ No Blooper Edict

Tim Conway and Harvey Korman were guaranteed to crack each other up when they appeared in a sketch together on The Carol Burnett Show.

In fact, after a while, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that the crack-ups were increasingly planned beforehand. But what did it matter? All of America loved seeing Korman and Conway giggle and guffaw their way though a sketch. Except one man: Lorne Michaels. He hated it.

From Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s brilliant and definitive book about the early years of SNL, “Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live”:

 

Lorne made it clear that Burnett’s style encompassed everything Saturday Night should avoid. It lacked subtlety and nuance; it was too smug, especially when the performers broke out laughing in mid-sketch, doubling over at the hilarity of themselves. From then on, many an idea would be derisively dismissed on the 17th floor with the words, ‘That’s Carol Burnett.’

 

Lorne also rightly felt it was disrespectful to the writers to break during a sketch. He’s said to have been mildly annoyed at Candice Bergen for doing it during her second guest host stint in 1976. One wonders, then, what Michaels must have been thinking while watching the first Debbie Downer sketch. Rachel Dratch was unable to keep a straight face as Debbie, which in turn made the rest of the cast break up, including guest-host Lindsay Lohan. It stood out as one of SNL’s funniest sketches in years solely because of the cast’s inability to keep it together. Did Lorne owe Carol, Tim, and Harvey an apology? The argument could be made. Subsequently on SNL, Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz became the Conway and Korman of their day, never able to appear in a sketch together without breaking each other up, and once again viewers loved it.

2004: Year of the Big Blooper

Before this year’s Oscarcast happened, the two most famous television foul-ups occurred within eight months of each other in 2004. Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, and Ashlee Simpson’s lip sync scandal on Saturday Night Live. Within days of each incident, multiple versions of events were told, with different people being blamed. There were even congressional hearings! Beth McCarthy-Miller happened to be directing both incidents, and she gave us the scoop on exactly what happened in each case. Lots of time and taxpayer dollars could have been saved if Congress just asked Beth!

For more of television’s greatest screw-ups check out our Bloopers page. We’ve got a million of ‘em!

- John Dalton
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