10 Jaw-Dropping Moments From Vintage Television


With hundreds of shows being produced a year on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon alone, older television can seem like it can’t possibly be worth checking out. Visually, it’s almost certain to look staid beyond being grainy and black and white. The reference points for the comedy will likely be so dated as to be incomprehensible, the plots of all the shows will have long been ripped off to death or spoiled by the time you can see them these days, and surely the censors removed with surgical precision everything halfway interesting.

But no. Entertainers had just as much desire to break out of creative molds decades ago as they do now. Censors could miss what would today be considered the most jaw-dropping content you could imagine. Also back then when screwups happened, they could put a whole season’s worth of blooper reels to shame. All that and more are available below, thanks to the dedicated efforts of antiquarians who scoured through hours of television for its hidden novelties.

10. William Shatner’s Twilight Zone Slur

Everyone who knows about Rod Serling’s 1959-64 sci-fi/fantasy classic remembers William Shatner’s struggle with his sanity and against a gremlin on the wing of the plane in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in the final season. Turns out that two seasons earlier he starred as Don Carter in a much less-remembered but also extremely good episode called Nick of Time from the third season, probably because in that episode he did battle with a little novelty fortune teller with uncannily accurate answers in a diner, meaning it was less relateable than an embodiment of the commonplace fear of flying.

In both episodes Shatner is accompanied by a beleaguered wife who doubts his sanity. In the middle of the episode, after Don Carter has already had six straight fortunes confirmed by the toy in the diner, his obsession is clearly worrying her. While they’re crossing the street after leaving the dinner, Shatner delivers the shocking line “Oh, stop treating me like a retarded child.”

Despite what you might think, “retarded” was considered an insult at the time. According to Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams Jr., Serling’s office received a letter from a mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome expressing her discomfort with its use in the show. Serling wrote a letter of apology and told his staff that they should never use the word in such a context again.  

9. William F. Buckley Calls Gore Vidal a Slur as He Threatens to Punch Him

In 1968, during the Democratic National Convention, ABC aired numerous debates between National Review founder William F. Buckley and incendiary author Gore Vidal. During a debate about whether allegations over waving Vietcong flags justified police using tear gas and beatings, Vidal took the chance to call Buckley a crypto-Nazi for favoring using those methods on protestors. Buckley replied “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face.”

It became enough of a scandal that a year later Buckley called back to it on Firing Line while debating Noam Chomsky. Buckley came to regret it, writing several letters to Vidal questioning how he could have lost control like that. Indeed, in 2017, two Academy Award winners made a documentary Best of Enemies that focused in large part on how that loss of poise changed the tone for televised American debates for the coming decades.

8. Jackie Gleason’s Half-Hour Apology

Now, here’s something a little lighter in tone. If you think that today the media spends too much time apologizing for the slightest trespasses, you should see what the creator/star of The Honeymooners got up to in the early sixties. Admittedly, he was much more entertaining about it than most.

On January 20, 1961, the day that Kennedy was inaugurated, Jackie Gleason played host to a program called You’re in The Picture where contestants stuck their heads through pictures, such as a picture where there was an image with a body of a woman in a yellow polka dot bikini in it. It’s a common photo gag at vacation spots, which might have been part of why the show got such a tepid reaction.The next week, with just two commercial breaks, he spent a half hour of airtime dissecting the terrible pilot, calling it the biggest bomb in entertainment history, and explaining the creative process behind it. This half hour made such an impact that Johnny Carson brought it up on The Tonight Show when he interviewed Gleason in 1985. Though since Carson had been one of the contestants on You’re in the Picture, he probably only felt comfortable bringing it up because he’d just gotten around to forgiving Gleason for it.

7. Lon Chaney as Frankenstein Doesn’t Even Try to Break Chairs

In 1952 Lon Chaney (best known for playing the titular role in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was hired to play Frankenstein‘s Monster for a 1952 live broadcast of Tales of Tomorrow. Through some confusion that either stemmed from Chaney being confused after how long it took to apply his makeup or drunkenness, he thought much of the performance was a rehearsal instead of a live broadcast. This led to the hilarious sight of Chaney picking up chairs to smash them in a monstrous fury, only to gently set them down again.

Since at one point he was supposed to be leaving the set as he breaks a chair, he turns almost straight into the camera and in his regular, barely audible voice says “I’m saving the chair.” For the remainder of the program Chaney gave a perfectly competent and very physical performance, which put to rest the claims he’d been drunk. Still, it was hard for audiences to forget the Frankenstein Monster’s bewildering delicacy with furniture.

6. Dorothy Gray’s Cold Cream Campaign

You get some sense of how prevailing fear of nuclear destruction was in 1950s America that the concept of “duck and cover” as a means of attempting to survive an atomic strike was taught in elementary school. But then this commercial comes along and shows just how ambivalent feelings were at the time about radiation in general.

The Dorothy Gray cosmetics company had been founded in 1916, so it had been around 38 years and entered the cultural consciousness by the time it launched what would today be considered a truly shocking ad campaign, especially for a relatively benign skin treatment. To demonstrate the effectiveness of their cold cream, in commercials that aired in 1954 they would spread radioactive dirt on the faces of their models, use a geiger counter, then apply cold cream, and use the geiger counter again to demonstrate how effectively it removed the dangerous substance, all of which the narrator cheerfully explained. Considering that the company lasted until it was bought out in 2008, it seems a safe bet that models didn’t sue them for all they were worth for reckless endangerment.

5. Andy Griffith Explains Gunless Law Enforcement

Among right-wing pundits, this sitcom that ran from 1960 to 1968 is particularly treasured for presenting a wholesome portrait of small town values. Even 50 years after it ended, the town of Mount Airy is kept afloat by tourism because it was Andy Griffith’s real hometown and preserved numerous locations that inspired stories set in the fictional town of Mayberry. This makes a monologue that Sheriff Andy Taylor gives particularly surprising.

In the 1965 episode TV or Not TV, Andy Taylor is asked why he doesn’t carry a gun. He answers, “When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he’s gettin’ might really be fear. So I don’t carry a gun because I don’t want the people of Mayberry to fear a gun. I’d rather they would respect me.” It is at least a critique of the notion that guns are necessary to keep the peace, and the militarization of the police. Also, this was deep in the Civil Rights movement, when it might have been a more inflammatory statement than it seems today. It is true that his deputy Barney Fife has a gun, but he was often shown as being a combination of buffoonish and horribly dangerous with it, which seems like only a slightly subtler critique of gun enthusiasts than Griffith’s words.

4. I, Claudius Brings Graphic Violence and Nudity to Public Television

This 1976 12-part adaptation of Robert Graves’s epic story of the man who went from palace clown to emperor is still one of the most acclaimed BBC productions of all-time. The obvious low budget and technical limitations (numerous cast members said early on that they didn’t expect the show to work) didn’t prevent audiences from appreciating the stellar performances and the riveting story. But it had a potentially much greater obstacle to mainstream appreciation, especially as far as America was concerned: A frank attitude towards graphic sex and violence, as could be expected of any show set dealing with palace intrigue during the height of the Roman Empire.

When the Public Broadcasting Station agreed to air it in 1977, the political climate provided much that should have given them pause. ABC had recently experienced a concerted boycott campaign for the the comedy series Soap which had only mentioned then controversial topics such as transvestism. It had cost the network considerable advertisers by the time the show had run its course. A publically-owned network was even more vulnerable to such pressures. And yet beheadings, toplessness, and other provocative material and all, the series also ran its course on the 270 local PBS affiliates.

3. Poor Devil: Sammy Davis Jr. is a Demon  

You might have heard that this member of the Rat Pack joined the Church of Satan for a few years beginning in 1968. Apparently he wasn’t just fine about people knowing but wanted to spread the word because in 1972 he managed to sell NBC on a pilot where he would play a demon who has to go around convincing people to sell their soul to Satan (played by a perfectly cast Christopher Lee).

His primary target is played by Jack Klugman – then in the middle of his run as Oscar on The Odd Couple, to show how much he was putting on the line by attaching his name to a sitcom that portrayed a demon sympathetically. As surprising as it is that such a show ever got a green light in the 1970s and made it to air, it’s probably not so surprising that it never made it to series. Probably didn’t help that instead of airing it more sensibly on Halloween it premiered on Valentine’s Day.

2. Queen for a Day

The following program would sound like something out of some especially grim science fiction dystopia except that as Stephanie Buck wrote for Timeline, it was a real program that ruled the airwaves from 1956 to 1964. It was a game show on NBC Universal hosted by television bit player Jack Bailey, although not so much a game in the Jeopardy! sense as in the Hunger Games sense.

The nature of the show was that the contestants would tell audiences their financial troubles in hopes of garnering enough sympathy to win, through written ballots, some variety of prize from the show’s sponsors that would hopefully lift them out of poverty. Not conventionally fabulous prizes: Things like artificial legs, lessons for a beauty school, or a year’s supply of baby food. One woman of the several who had to fly out at their own expense per episode would be given the prize per episode. Even at the time it was well understood how emotionally exploitative this was, with the show and its knockoffs known as “misery shows” or “sob shows.”

1. Twilight Zone’s Pro-Child Marriage Episode

In the third season episode The Fugitive, the story is about a kid named Jenny with leg braces and her aged friend Old Ben. Jenny lives with her aunt in a small apartment. One day, after Ben and Jenny play a ball game with some friends and it’s revealed that two agents show up. They use some kind of sci-fi/magic device to put Jenny in a coma. Ben then heals her, and heals her legs (which involves removing her leg braces and socks), and then it’s revealed when the agents show up that he’s actually a runaway king and the two agents are there to bring him back to his planet, which will mean he has to abandon Jenny.

After the agents give them a moment alone to say goodbye, they come back and see that Ben has turned himself into Jenny, meaning they have to bring both of them back to their planet. Serling then shows up to do the outro while sitting on Jenny’s bed and tells us that Jenny will become “an honest to goodness queen,” and shows us a photo of what Ben supposedly looks like, and Ben’s actually a handsome young man. It’s literally a happy ending where a girl is taken from her home and marries the much older man who’s known her since she was maybe eight-years-old.

You might think that since this was way back in 1962 that this might have just been the product of a more innocent time. But considering that the issue of age of consent had been a controversy even back in the late 19th century and was still a controversial topic in 1939 when the exploitation film Child Bride was released, the episode was clearly made at a time when such portrayals would have been at least decades out of fashion. It’s bewildering how censors, producers, and network executives all could have failed to see what a creatively blinkered episode this was.

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  1. “Just radioactive enough to set off a Geiger counter.” You understand that nearly anything above normal background radiation, for example, a granite counter or a banana, will set off a Geiger counter, right? That’s not reckless endangerment.

  2. John Cochrane on

    Lon Chaney, sr, was the Phantom, and dies in the 30s. Lon Chaney, jr, was the Wolfman, and the actor who would have played Frankenstein’s monster in ’52. He also had a rep as a drinker.