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The 18 Most Shocking Awards Show Moments in American History

Live TV makes for unpredictable, unforgettable moments

Liam Mathews

The fun of awards shows is that you never know what's going to happen next. There could be an upset, there could be a rousing acceptance speech from an unexpected source or there could be a hilarious flub. This Sunday's Emmys telecast may end up being a sedate affair -- the Emmys are historically not the liveliest awards show -- but the beauty is that we won't know until they happen. Who knows? Lena Dunham might put Giuliana Rancic in a headlock on the red carpet.

To celebrate the spontaneity of the most memorable award-show moments (and hopefully to manifest something exciting to happen at the Emmys, The Secret-style), here are the 18 most shocking awards-show moments that ever happened. We couldn't have seen them coming.

Check out our complete Emmys coverage here

1. Marlon Brando declines his Oscar

Marlon Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1973. But instead of accepting the award, he sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award and protest Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans. Can you imagine the scandal if Leonardo DiCaprio had done this for The Revenant?

2. The Oscars streaker


The year was 1974, and streaking was a national pastime. At the Oscars, an activist named Robert Opel ran across the stage butt-naked behind actor David Niven and flashed a peace sign (as well as something else). Niven's witty response -- "Fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings" -- is legendary.

3. Krist Novoselic's "sensational bass toss"

During Nirvana's performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, bassist Krist Novoselic, frustrated that his amp had cut out, threw his guitar up in the air and botched the catch. The bass clunked him in the head, and he fell down, rolled around, got up and stumbled offstage in a daze. Then Kurt Cobain started trashing the set while drummer Dave Grohl ran up to the mic and started taunting Guns N' Roses' singer Axl Rose.

4. Onyx takes their art too seriously

This is a lesser-known awards show moment, largely because it wasn't shown on TV and happened before social media, but it's a very crazy one. The Queens gangsta rap group Onyx were performing their song "Throw Ya Gunz" at the 1994 Source Awards when rapper Sticky Fingaz pulled out a handgun and fired some shots in the air. You're definitely not going to see anything like that at the Emmys.

5. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley's cringey kiss

Newlyweds Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley kicked off the 1994 VMAs in awkward fashion. The King of Pop tried to silence rumors about his eyebrow-raising marriage to the Princess of Rock n' Roll by saying "nobody thought this would last" and pulling her into a suffocating kiss. It was uncomfortable for everyone. It didn't last; they divorced in 1996.

6. Fiona Apple says to "go with yourself"

Iconoclastic singer-songwriter Fiona Apple won a VMA in 1997, but at the show she was moved by the meaninglessness of what was happening and instead of an acceptance speech she said "this world is bulls---." She encouraged any young people watching to not be fooled by the patina of coolness and glamour, and instead to "go with yourself." Her urgency and realness in that moment is unforgettable.

7. The Soy Bomb incident

At the 1998 Grammys, a performance artist named Michael Portnoy crashed Bob Dylan's performance of his song "Love Sick" by running out on stage with the words "Soy Bomb" written on his chest and doing a spastic dance next to Dylan while the singer looked on confusedly. It went on for an endless-seeming 30 seconds, because no one was sure if it was part of the performance or not. Bob Dylan's reaction to the weird moment is priceless.

8. "Wu-Tang is for the children"

"Soy Bomb" wasn't the only unplanned moment that night. Rapper and Wu-Tang Clan member Ol' Dirty Bastard disrupted Shawn Colvin's Song of the Year-winning moment by protesting his group's loss to Puff Daddy for Best Rap Album with an unhinged speech about how Wu-Tang is for the children. The thing is, Wu-Tang really was for the children -- ODB had rescued a 4-year-old girl from a burning car the day before. True story. The 1998 Grammys were crazy.

9. Tim Commerford flies into a Rage

At the 1999 VMAs, notoriously kooky Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford ran onstage during Limp Bizkit's acceptance speech for Best Rock Video and climbed the set and refused to come down in protest of his band's loss to the nü-metal knuckleheads. He ended up spending the night in jail once security got him down. Rumor has it that his stunt contributed to the band's break-up the following year.

10. Jennifer Lopez wears a dress


Awards show fashion is supposed to be attention-grabbing and sexy, but nobody had ever done it like Jennifer Lopez did it at the Grammys in 2000. That eye-popping dress is so famous it has its own Wikipedia page.

11. Michael Jackson accepts an award that doesn't exist

The 2002 VMAs happened to fall on Michael Jackson's 44th birthday, so MTV had Britney Spears say some words and gave him a trophy as a birthday present. At one point in her intro, she said she considered him "the artist of the millennium." So he came out and accepted the award for "Artist of the Millennium." To be fair, I might think I was winning an award if somebody gave me a trophy and asked me to give a speech and also I was as high as MJ probably was.

12. Adrien Brody gets carried away


Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley's kiss isn't the only scandalous one. Before Adrien Brody won Best Actor for The Pianist in 2003, he was mostly unknown. After he won, he was known as "that crazy guy who made out with Halle Berry onstage."

13. Helen Mirren makes swearing sound sophisticated

Nothing too wild ever happens at the Emmys, so it was a big scandal (for the Emmys) when Dame Helen Mirren got a little cheeky when she was accepting her third Emmy in 2006. She's so classy that the censors didn't even catch the swear and let it get out over the airwaves. America never recovered.

14. Britney Spears has us worried

Britney Spears had shocked at the VMAs before, but the time she danced with a python and the time she kissed Madonna seemed innocent after her borderline scary performance of "Gimme More" in 2007. The pop star was in the midst of having a notoriously terrible year, and it showed. She was out of shape and out of sorts. Her amateurish performance had us asking "Where's Britney? Is she okay?" She's healthy now, though, and she nailed her performance at the 2016 VMAs.

15. Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift

The day this article was published was the seventh anniversary of this moment. There's nothing to say about it that hasn't already been said, but Beyoncé really did have one of the best videos of all time.

17. Ricky Gervais doesn't hold back

Ricky Gervais had already hosted/roasted the Golden Globes once before when he took the podium in 2011, but Hollywood still wasn't prepared for the torrent of abuse he unleashed in his second outing. Those jokes about The Tourist still sting, despite (because of?) The Tourist completely slipping from our collective memory.

16. Jennifer Lawrence falls down


In 2013, Jennifer Lawrence fell down the stairs and into our hearts when she stumbled while rushing to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress.

18. Adele Dazeem

Poor Idina Menzel. She's three-quarters of the way to an EGOT, and still she will always mostly be known as Adele Dazeem, because that's what John Travolta said her name was at the 2014 Academy Awards.

The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards air Sunday, Sept. 18th at 8/7c on ABC. We'll see what happens.