Back in the 1940s there were three networks on American TV: ABC, NBC, and CBS. If you even had a TV back then, which most households did not, you were likely tuning in to watch some sports or maybe Ed Sullivan. There was not a ton of choice and what did exist was likely offering a variety show, local programming, or a game show.
Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then and there are literally thousands of hours of programming that you could try to watch every single day if you were so inclined. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that in our haste to make newer, better, and different shows that sometimes a terribly offensive idea sneaks through the cracks and makes it to air.
10. Homeboys in Outer Space
If you missed Homeboys in Outer Space don’t be too upset, many people did. The show aired on UPN between 1996 and 1997 and starred Flex and Darryl Bell. The plot of the show was pretty much what you’d expect from the title. Two friends who were astronauts flew through space in a car that was called a space hoopty. The hoopty had an A.I. named Loquatia. They got into various adventures that neither critics nor audiences particularly enjoyed.
The special effects were lackluster even for a show made in the 1990s, and the plot lines were the sorts of cringe-worthy things that were the hallmarks of some of UPN’s less inspired endeavors back in the day. One of the characters was perpetually horny, the computer had a sassy attitude, and it can’t be stated enough that they drove through space in something called a space hoopty. Basically, it exploited all the stereotypes you might expect without any clever twists or subversion to justify them in any way.
The show Black.White was praised by a number of viewers while thoroughly derided by others for being one of the most offensive ideas to hit TV in years. Presented as a kind of serious experiment in race relations, other people saw the show as a bizarre exercise in black face and white face. The reality show followed two families, one white, and one black. The families share a house together and don’t particularly get along. Neither family, although the show mostly focuses on the fathers of each, are exactly racist, but they have some questionable views about race in America. To confront this, each of the families is made up with the help of some Hollywood makeup artists to look like a member of the opposite race.
Once they have their racial makeover, the families go out into the world with hidden cameras to learn what life is like for members of the opposite race. To get an idea of how everyone handled it, the father of the white family at one point says he’s waiting for someone to refer to him by the N-word. Except he doesn’t say ‘N-word,’ he says the actual word.
Some critics pointed out that it seemed to be less of a learning experience and more of a confrontation for some people involved. The father of the white family, for instance, clearly wants to prove that there is no racism in white America. The end result was a show that lacked depth and didn’t really impart a message other than you can’t learn much about another race just by pretending to be one for a couple of days.
8. Fear Factor
Fear Factor was a popular reality game show that aired on NBC for a number of years and was hosted by Joe Rogan. Every episode of the show involves six people — three men and three women — being forced to confront three extreme stunts. If a contestant was too afraid they would be eliminated, and if they couldn’t finish it, they would also be eliminated. The winner at the end would get $50,000.
The first and final stunts were often a physical challenge of some kind, but the middle stunt was the real kicker of the show. The middle stunt was always something extremely gross. Contestants either had to be covered in some kind of creature like snakes or rats, or in the worst cases they had to eat something terrible. That could be anything from live insects to pig anus.
One episode of Fear Factor proved to be so offensive that they didn’t actually let it get to air. The 2012 episode that NBC opted to remove before it was actually seen by audiences featured contestants being forced to drink a glass of donkey semen followed by a glass of urine.
The episode was going to air; however, rumors of the contents hit the internet before the show did and drummed up so much disgust that the network responded by canceling it and replacing it with a rerun. They also went so far as to prohibit the episode’s contestants from speaking about it in the media.
7. South Park
South Park has been on TV for nearly a quarter of a century at this point. If you haven’t heard of it, you probably don’t own a TV. It’s also no secret that South Park is offensive, because the show is pretty much predicated on the principle of being offensive. Showrunners Matt Stone and Trey Parker have gone out of their way for years to push the envelope and make some of the most offensive jokes they possibly can on a regular basis. That’s what audiences loved about it, and that’s part of why it’s endured for as long as it has.
What you may not be aware of, even if you are a fan of the show, is just how much offense the show has caused over the years. In fact, South Park is so offensive that it has its own Wikipedia page just for the controversies that the show has stirred up. And… it’s a long page.
Aside from facing the odd lawsuit, South Park has been protested and criticized pretty much since it first premiered back in 1997. Back then, elementary schools were banning kids from wearing South Park t-shirts. At least one person has literally called South Park ‘dangerous to the democracy.’ Numerous Christian activist groups have protested the show many times, in particular over the way it portrays Christianity and organized religion.
At various points in the show’s run it has been either criticized or protested not just for us to fiction of Christianity but Islam, Scientology, Mormonism, race and racism, its use of profanity, and even the way the show depicted the crocodile hunter Steve Irwin.
So even though it’s true that many people love South Park, and it’s proving to be one of the most popular animated shows ever produced, it’s also impossible to deny that it has definitely offended a wide segment of other viewers as well.
6. Heil Honey, I’m Home
Some ideas are so clearly bad that it’s amazing when you think of just how many people had to okay it before it came to life in the first place. A TV show is not made in a vacuum. There’s a creator, producers, directors, actors, and a network itself that’s going to put it on TV. Literally hundreds of people, at a minimum, have to all be on the same page to get a TV show on the air. Yet somehow, back in 1990, that’s exactly what happened with the sitcom about Hitler entitled Heil Honey, I’m Home.
Even knowing nothing else about the show beyond the title and the fact that it’s about Hitler, do you need to know anything else about the show besides the title and the fact that it’s about Hitler?
The first episode of the show, and the only one that ever aired, opens with a disclaimer that the tape of the show was found hidden away on a back lot in California. A fictional backstory was created for the show that this was made by some unsung comedic genius of television who was never heard from again and that the show is actually an American sitcom. All the actors have American accents, and the filming style is reflective of an early ’80s television show rather than one that was actually made in 1990. There’s a very ’80s-esque opening song, and when the actors first appear on screen, the audience burst into applause for no reason each time as though they were excited to see these people, in much the way that you would have seen in something like The Dick Van Dyke Show.
You can find the full episode on YouTube and if you can stomach the idea of a show that’s trying to get laughs out of one of history’s greatest monsters, it’s still not very entertaining or funny. The Hitler character is insufferable in a weird Ralph Kramden-sitcom kind of way. The entire thing was clearly in bad taste, and it’s not hard to imagine why the idea went over so poorly. Eight episodes were filmed in total, but only that first one saw the light of day.
5. Generation KKK
If the name of the show doesn’t convince you that it was a bad idea, then the back story certainly will. Generation KKK was supposed to be a docuseries focussing on the Ku Klux Klan and people getting away from it. The name of the series was actually changed to Escaping the KKK to make it sound a little more appealing and less like it was in some ways supportive of the infamous hate group.
Theoretically, a documentary series about people escaping the Ku Klux Klan would probably be interesting and informative to viewers. The problem with the series was that it soon came to light that A&E, the network producing the show, had been paying participants. And not just those who reportedly left the Klan, but actual Klan members.
Typically, a documentary it’s not going to pay subjects to participate in it, and certainly it casts a suspicious light on the show that is paying active members of a recognized hate group to participate. That is, in the most basic terms, supporting the Ku Klux Klan.
A&E distanced itself from the controversy by laying the blame on a third-party production company for making the cash payments to members of the KKK. The result of the controversy was them dropping the show altogether.
4. Man vs. Beast
In 2003 Fox took reality shows to a brand new level when it aired the first of two specials called Man vs. Beast. The name of the show wasn’t coy or deceptive in any way. It was a show in which human beings went toe-to-toe with animals in a series of competitions. It was almost like a joke program straight off of The Simpsons, except it was very real.
The competitions presented on the show included an Olympic sprinter racing a giraffe and a zebra, a competitive eater trying to devour more hot dogs than a 1,000-pound bear, and a Navy SEAL going head-to-head against a chimpanzee in an obstacle course.
Critics absolutely tore the show to pieces. This wasn’t offensive on a moral level, it was offensive on an intellectual one. The phrase ‘moron television’ popped up in a review from Slate. Ratings were pretty abysmal and the network still brought it back for a second installment, which featured a gymnast versus an orangutan hanging from rings and a relay race featuring a camel and four little people. This time, the Ottawa Citizen called the show a sign of the impending apocalypse.
3. All My Babies’ Mamas
Whether or not you’re familiar with the work of rapper Shawty Lo, one thing you’re definitely not going to be familiar with was his would-be TV series called All My Babies’ Mamas. The show was pulled even before the first episode aired.
The show was to be a reality series following Lo and the mothers of his children. He had 11 children by 10 different women. That simple premise, combined with the name, was enough to drum up some public outcry toward the Oxygen Network, which was going to air the show. Many people felt that it was exploiting negative stereotypes about Black people. One group in particular known as Color of Change started a petition in which they accused the network of trying to profit from ‘ inaccurate, dehumanizing, and harmful perceptions of Black families.’
The network responded to criticisms by dumping the show before it even aired, although Lo was said to be extremely upset by this and fought to keep it on the air.
2. The Melting Pot
Another British sitcom, The Melting Pot, aired one single episode in 1975 and was never seen again. An entire season of the show was filmed, but never saw the light of day. The reason for this is pretty clear once you know what the show is about. It featured British actor and comedian Spike Milligan playing an illegal Asian immigrant named Mr. Van Gogh. He was in brown face at the time. Other characters in the show include cockney Chinese man and a Scottish Arab.
The show was canned very quickly and while Milligan himself was perplexed as to the reason why, suggesting that maybe it just wasn’t funny enough, most people agreed the problem was that it was horribly, horribly racist.
Weirdly enough, this was neither the first nor the last time that Milligan would go in brown face for a role. As an actor, he was apparently infatuated with the idea of pretending to be a Pakistani character and actually went in brown face in two other attempted series as well.
1. Kid Nation
We have settled into the idea of reality shows these days, and there are not a lot of surprises left in how the shows are produced. But through the early and mid-2000s when reality shows were really exploding, networks tried some pretty bizarre ideas to see what might work. One of those was Kid Nation.
The plot of the show involved sending 40 children between the ages of 8 and 15 to an abandoned town in New Mexico where they could start their own society. There are no adults around, no phones, no rules at all really — just some cameras to watch what happened.
Before the show even aired, it was controversial. Because these kids had to fend for themselves, they were working up to 14 hours a day to get things done. This skirted around legal concerns because of statutes that protected film productions from child labor laws.
Critics were also quick to question the ethics of the show. Since the winner got $20,000, but that money was legally going to go to the parents, wasn’t this just exploitation? Parents were required to sign massive waivers that let CBS off the hook for any medical issues or harm that their children might face. Hot cooking grease splashed into the face of one contestant, an 11-year-old girl, when she was making a meal. Another child accidentally drank some bleach.
There was also some criticism from parents involved that scenes were re-shot and their children were fed lines to say to the camera to make the show more interesting, the kind of stuff we sort of expect from so-called reality shows today. In the end, the idea was deemed offensive across the board for its exploitative treatment of the kids involved.