20 Epic Fails From the History of Pop Culture
The history of pop culture is rife with fun moments and huge successes—like the concept of video streaming, hip-hop musicals about Founding Fathers, and those photos of Jake Gyllenhaal incorrectly holding dogs. But for every smash hit, big or small, there’s a plethora of projects that thoroughly went awry.
Here are 20 of our favorite memorable misses, from an ill-conceived Hitler sitcom to 2019's Cats.
1. Saturday Night Live’s Muppets
Jim Henson’s Muppets were booked for Saturday Night Live’s first season in 1975 as a way to ensure that something in the live show wouldn’t be a total wild card. Henson developed “the Land of Gorch,” a kingdom ruled by hideous, lascivious, wholly inappropriate puppets with names like “Ploobis” and “Vazh.” They weren’t a smash hit, but the bigger issue was that SNL writers absolutely hated penning sketches for what cast member John Belushi called the “mucking Fuppets.” Each week, they drew straws to determine who would get stuck covering the Land of Gorch, which suspiciously always fell to the rookies. While Lorne Michaels was pondering how to pass a pink slip to the Muppets, UK network ATV happened to ask Henson if he wanted his own show. He agreed, and Michaels dissolved his SNL contract post-haste.
2. NBC’s Supertrain
After storied tenures at both CBS and ABC, Fred Silverman shouldered the gig of NBC president in 1978 and promptly set out to replicate the success of ABC’s The Love Boat with Supertrain—a melodramatic series that followed passengers on a high-speed luxury train. Producers funneled tons of money into flashy gimmicks and impressive train models (one set alone reportedly cost $5 million), but invested little in the actual substance of the show. Suspense seemed contrived; pacing was jerky; and even charismatic guest stars like Rue McClanahan and Zsa Zsa Gabor couldn’t salvage the dialogue. Supertrain premiered in February 1979 and lasted all of nine episodes before NBC finally admitted defeat, making it one of the most expensive TV failures of the time.
3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The Video Game
By the time Atari executives and Steven Spielberg finally reached a deal for an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game in summer 1982, designer Howard Scott Warshaw had just five weeks to actually create it. If he failed, the game wouldn’t be on store shelves in time for the Christmas shopping season. In retrospect, it probably would have been better if he had failed: Sales were soft, and the game itself was abysmal. Basically, players had to collect pieces of a phone hidden in holes so E.T. could—you guessed it—phone home. But the game didn’t progress intuitively; E.T. often got relocated to a previous screen or randomly stuck in the pits. NPR’s Gene Demby compared the experience to “purgatory.”
Worse still, when the video game industry crashed in 1983, people placed the blame squarely on the maligned movie tie-in. The real culprits, however, included inflation, an oversaturated market, and the rise of the PC. “It's awesome to be credited with single-handedly bringing down a billion-dollar industry with 8 kilobytes of code,” Warshaw later told BBC News. After Atari laid him off that year (along with hundreds of other employees), Warshaw became a therapist.
4. New Coke
When Coca-Cola unveiled a sweeter take on their classic formula, dubbed “New Coke,” in 1985, it was an unsubtle attempt to wrench back its dwindling market share from its arch-rival Pepsi. But longtime Coke drinkers did not go gentle into that New Coke-filled night—and none battled harder than Gay Mullins, who poured his retirement savings into establishing an organization (the Old Soda Drinkers of America) that swore to protect the beloved beverage. The media latched onto Mullins’s sacred cause and covered the nationwide backlash at length. After less than three months, Coca-Cola agreed to return to its original recipe, though New Coke did eventually get rebranded as Coke II and stuck around until 2002.
5. Carrie: The Musical
Murder stories have a pretty good track record on Broadway—Sweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors, etc.—but the 1988 musical adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie bucked the trend. The creative team did include some musical theater heavyweights: Michael Gore, composer of 1980’s Fame, and Debbie Allen, choreographer of the Fame TV series (Allen also appeared in both the film and the show). Alas, their razzle-dazzle ’80s style clashed with all the carnage, and critics’ reviews were their own kind of bloodbath—The New York Times went so far as to compare the production to the Hindenburg disaster. Carrie closed after just five performances.
6. Rob Lowe’s 1989 Oscars Opening Number
The Academy Awards got off to a rocky start in 1989, when Rob Lowe and Snow White (played by Eileen Bowman) kicked off the ceremony with a bizarre rendition of “Proud Mary.” What was meant to be a campy homage to the Hollywood of old—the set was modeled after the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which used to host the awards—turned out to be a fragmented mess that proved Lowe couldn’t sing and convinced Bowman to quit entertainment forever. Worse than the performance itself was the fallout: Disney threatened to sue the Academy for not licensing Snow White, and Hollywood legends like Julie Andrews and Paul Newman signed a letter denouncing the production as “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.”
7. Milli Vanilli’s Lip-Sync Fraud
When Milli Vanilli’s track started skipping during a July 1989 performance of “Girl You Know It’s True,” fans realized that members Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan had been lip-syncing. What they didn’t yet realize was that the duo was always lip-syncing: Rob and Fab’s producer, Frank Farian, had signed them without any intention of letting them sing their own vocals. Rob and Fab weren’t comfortable with the arrangement, but their career snowballed before they had much of a chance to do anything about it. Several hits and one stage gaffe later, they sensed the precariousness of their situation and told Farian to let them do their own vocals on future tracks. They couldn’t come to an agreement, and Farian finally confessed the deception during a press conference. Though Rob and Fab tried to make a comeback with their own album in 1993, fans had already moved on, and the Milli Vanilli legacy is mostly confined to a few fraudulent chart-toppers.
8. When Kim Basinger Bought a Town
In 1989, Kim Basinger decided to give back to her home state of Georgia by converting a small town into a tourist destination, complete with a theme park and Hollywood production studios. With the help of investors, she purchased Braselton, Georgia, for a solid $20 million. Unfortunately, the town became less of a Dollywood and more of a Schitt’s Creek, partially because of the early '90s recession. “With the current state of the economy, it's difficult to find investment partners you want to get in bed with,” Basinger's brother and business partner, Mick, told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. The following year, Basinger filed for bankruptcy after being sued for dropping out of the 1993 film Boxing Helena, and was forced to sell Braselton before implementing any of her grand plans. These days, the town isn't exactly Disney World—but it does boast an idyllic downtown, racetracks, a winery, and a free weekend trolley that stops at all the major sites.
9. Heil Honey, I’m Home!
By the time the pilot episode of Heil Honey, I’m Home! premiered on the British Satellite Broadcasting network in September 1990, people were already scandalized by the series. In the vein of I Love Lucy, the show chronicled the domestic antics of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, a garden-variety suburban couple (who happened to have New York accents) with Jewish neighbors. Not only was writer Geoff Atkinson trying to turn Hitler into a joke, but he was also poking fun at mid-20th-century Hollywood’s obsession with green-lighting sitcoms of any kind.
The Third Reich had been spoofed to general acclaim before—in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967), for example—but the idea of Hitler as the goofy husband-next-door didn’t exactly land. After the pilot debuted, management brought in an American showrunner to tone things down before filming season 1, but those episodes never aired. Sky Television acquired the network in November of that same year and quickly halted production for good.
10. Hulk Hogan’s Pastamania
Hulk Hogan took Hulkamania to new heights in 1995 with the opening of Pastamania, a fast-food pasta joint in the food court of Minnesota’s Mall of America. The menu featured a mix-and-match section, an international pasta section (Swedish meatballs! Beef stroganoff!), and a kids’ section with “Hulkaroni & Cheese” and “Hulkios.” Though the wrestler threw his full weight behind the venture, which mostly entailed shouting about his “Pastamaniacs” running wild during TV spots, the restaurant shuttered within a year.
11. Michael Moore’s O.J. Simpson Interview
In November 1997, several weeks after O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder, he made a surprise appearance in the pilot for documentarian Michael Moore’s talk show. It was Simpson’s first post-trial TV spot, and the audience had only been told to expect a “mystery guest.” Moore and Simpson chatted about football for a while before Moore finally asked, “Would you have worn gloves, O.J.?” At that point, the mostly hostile audience began shouting their own questions and comments, and Moore even asked people to raise their hands if they thought O.J. was guilty—roughly 70 percent did. A few dozen audience members were so incensed at Moore for having invited Simpson on the show that they up and left in the middle of the taping. Fox, which had produced the pilot, never picked up the series; and, as far as we know, the pilot has yet to see the light of day.
12. Microsoft’s iLoo
In April 2003, Microsoft’s UK branch announced the development of the iLoo, a portable toilet stall that would feature a plasma-screen computer, a wireless keyboard, surround-sound speakers, and Wi-Fi access so music festival-goers could really relax during bathroom breaks between sets. Mainstream media outlets reported the news widely, prompting a Microsoft spokesperson to claim the product was a hoax that the UK team had originated without running it by the corporate office. But the company’s UK public relations representatives maintained that the iLoo was real, so Microsoft then had to rescind its statement alleging that the whole thing was a joke.
Apparently, the UK branch had actually been serious about the iLoo, but corporate headquarters decided to pull the plug on the process after enduring so much public ridicule for the idea alone. Considering how common it is to use your phone on the toilet these days, it seems like this joke’s on us.
13. When Kanye West Interrupted Taylor Swift’s VMAs Speech
At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, an awestruck, 19-year-old Taylor Swift took to the stage to claim her award for Best Video by a Female Artist, which she won for “You Belong With Me.” Seconds into her speech, Kanye West bounded onstage, snatched the microphone, and essentially shouted that Beyoncé should have won for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” He exited the stage in a flurry of boos, leaving Beyoncé stunned and Swift on the verge of tears. In her 2020 documentary Miss Americana, Swift explained that she had thought the audience was booing her, not West. “For someone who’s built their whole belief system on getting people to clap for you, the whole crowd booing is a pretty formative experience,” she said. It was also the beginning of a decade-long beef in which Swift repeatedly tried to bury the hatchet with the rapper and was repeatedly let down.
14. The “Scary Lucy” Statue
In 2009, Lucille Ball’s tiny hometown of Celoron, New York, erected a bronze statue in her likeness. It went virtually unnoticed by the general public until 2015, when social media users began to point out that it was, to put it bluntly, sort of terrifying (not to mention that it looked nothing like the I Love Lucy star). The campaign to replace “Scary Lucy” went viral, and town officials eventually gave in. A more accurate statue, nicknamed “New Lucy,” was installed the following year, and Scary Lucy was relocated to a spot about 75 yards away. Soon after, Scary Lucy’s sculptor Dave Poulin quit sculpting altogether—though he maintained that his decision had nothing to do with the debacle.
15. The Kardashian Kard
The Kardashian Kard was a prepaid debit card that the Kardashian sisters released in November 2010 and marketed toward teens. It did technically teach young users a little about personal finance—if we’re specifically talking about the dangers of hidden fees. Initial fees totaled $100, with an extra $8 a month after the first year. On top of that was $1.50 for an ATM withdrawal; $2 for every bill paid automatically; $1 to add funds; and a 2.5-percent fee for any transfers from another card. If you wanted to complain to a customer service representative about those fees (or anything else), you’d have to cough up another buck and a half. And if you got so fed up you decided to shut your card down completely, you’d owe $6.
Business Insider said it “may be the worst credit card ever,” and Connecticut’s attorney general announced an impending investigation weeks after its debut. By the end of the month, the Kardashians had canceled the Kard—no doubt a relief to all 250 or so people who had purchased one.
16. When U2’s New Album Appeared in Every iTunes Account
In September 2014, U2’s new album Songs of Innocence appeared, completely unbidden, in every single iTunes library—the result of an exclusive deal between Apple and the band. The company considered it a clever business innovation, Bono considered it a critical way to disseminate songs that might otherwise be overlooked, and U2 fans considered it Christmas come early. To everyone else, it landed somewhere between a trifling annoyance and an unconscionable invasion. The Washington Post described it as “rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail.” The backlash was so forceful that Apple rolled out a tool specifically to remove the album within a week of its release.
17. Fyre Festival
In 2017, clout chasers shelled out thousands of dollars to attend a ritzy music festival on an island in the Bahamas, where hot-ticket acts like Tyga and Migos would perform and models like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid would mingle with the masses. As guests began to arrive, it became clear that the festival fell criminally short of what it had promised. Gourmet food turned out to be little more than a paltry piece of cheese slapped on a slice of bread (served in Styrofoam containers, no less), luxury lodging comprised soggy mattresses beneath industrial-looking tents, and most of the talent dropped out once all this damning evidence of a scam hit social media. Fyre Festival crashed and burned so spectacularly that Hulu and Netflix both saw fit to produce documentaries about the fiasco—and festival organizer Billy McFarland landed in prison for fraud.
18. Burger King’s Wikipedia Ad
In April 2017, Burger King tried to brag about the freshness of its Whopper by way of a video ad in which a Burger King employee says “OK Google, what is the Whopper Burger?” Upon hearing the operative phrase OK Google, Google devices were supposed to spring to life and spout out an answer. And they did—but the answers came from Burger King’s Wikipedia page, which schemers immediately tampered with. The page claimed that the burger patty was made with “100-percent medium-sized child” and topped with cyanide; that the Whopper was “the worst hamburger product” sold by Burger King; and that it “remains far inferior to the Big Mac.” To add insult to 100-percent medium-sized child, Google—which hadn’t OK’d the campaign—swiftly stopped the ad from waking its gadgets altogether.
19. Cats: the Movie
Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic Broadway musical seemed like a good idea in the early stages: Hooper himself won the Oscar for Best Director for 2010's The King's Speech, and his Cats cast nabbed some of pop music’s hottest talent, from Taylor Swift to Jason Derulo, complemented by a whole host of professional dancers.
But while certain numbers were impressive from a technical standpoint—Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, for example, surely made tap-dancing tabbies everywhere purr with pride, and Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella was a credit to all glamour cats—something about seeing huge stars prance around as naked (though fur-covered) bipedal felines rubbed viewers the wrong way. Cats was a box office flop and the butt of many jokes for months. At least it didn’t feature any digital cat buttholes, which the visual effects editors mercifully decided to delete.
Quibi, launched in April 2020, was a streaming app predicated on co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s ardent belief that people’s deepest wish was to watch high-quality, short-form video content on their phones—quick bites, hence the name. Within about seven months, Quibi was no more. But the cause of death wasn’t lack of star power (participating celebrities included Liam Hemsworth, Jennifer Lopez, Kevin Hart, and so on) or lack of capital (Katzenberg raised $1.75 billion for the project).
Instead, people simply weren’t willing to shell out $5 a month for the service. Not only was Quibi competing against much beefier new streaming platforms, like HBO Max and Disney+, but TikTok and other apps already offered quick bites at no cost. Though the app itself has ceased to exist, Quibi shows will soon be available on The Roku Channel. And this time, they’ll be free.