For twenty-five years Oprah Winfrey has ruled the daytime talk show airwaves with shows and guests that have provoked laughter, tears, and head-scratching confusion, (Yes, Mr. Cruise, your sofa-leaping antics still continue to puzzle). As Oprah’s viewership and subsequent empire have expanded through the decades so has Oprah’s penchant to live the mantra, “go big, or go home.” In the course of thousands of shows, the ones promising the biggest bang, the loudest shrieks, and the most awe-inspiring spectacles are the ones that viewers continue to talk about and relive. Here are five of Oprah’s most spectacular show moments.
“Car Giveaway,” Season 19 Premier, September 2004: “You get a car! You get a car! And you get a car!” Nearly six years later, that phrase remains both an enduring catch phrase and a reminder of one of the most spectacular surprises in television history. To kick off her nineteenth season, what Oprah dubbed her “Wildest Dreams” year, she selected eleven audience members to take the stage, announcing that these lucky people had won a 2005 Pontiac G6. After the general excitement and awe had abated, Oprah instructed the rest of her studio audience to look beneath their seats. Each person pulled out a small box that contained keys to their own, new Pontiac G6 cars. The hysteria surpassed the level of mania showcased the first time the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show in the early-1960s. Keeping the stunt under tight security, Oprah’s staff hand-selected an entire audience of people in great need of new vehicles. EMT workers were on sight in case any guest experienced health issues in the midst of the excitement and shock. In an article on her website, Oprah cited the 2004 show as “The most I’ve ever had during a season premier.”
“The Cast of Mary Tyler Moore Reunites,” Season 23, May 2008: Leave it to Oprah to not only pay tribute to her television idol, Mary Tyler Moore, but to literally bring the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” back to life with a full cast reunion and a detailed replica of the MTM set. Mary Tyler Moore’s show ran for seven successful seasons from 1970 to 1977 and followed the exploits of fictional news producer, Mary Richards, and her quirky television staff. The show is credited as culturally path-breaking in its depiction of a young, smart, modern career woman. Oprah cited Moore and the show as significant influences in her own desire to pursue a career in television journalism. In addition to historically reuniting the entire Mary Tyler Moore cast, Oprah’s producers and set designers meticulously recreated the key set pieces from the show: the news studio anchor desk area, the general news room, and Mary’s apartment. Bearing both the charge of authenticity and the pressure of Oprah’s high standards, the crew went as far as to collect historically accurate pieces such as antique stove from the Southwestern University of Michigan Museum and a coffee pot that came from the grandmother of one of the designers.
“Celebrating Olympians,” Season 23, September 2008: A thick rope of people wound its way from the entrance to Millennium Park in downtown Chicago through more than a dozen blocks skirting around the city’s green space. The biggest audience in television history was amassing to witness a historical moment: the homecoming gathering of over 150 American Olympians, fresh off their victories and triumphs in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. The premier of Oprah’s twenty-third season presented the opportunity for her to recognize and celebrate the heroic athletic accomplishments of men and women who embody the ideals, hopes, and dreams of an entire nation. In a nod to the reverence and fever that accompanies the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, Oprah announced the athletes by sport. Flanked by America’s best and brightest throughout the broadcast, Oprah spent time speaking with many of the outstanding athletes such as Michael Phelps, Kobe Bryant and the entire men’s basketball team, and the superstars of the women’s 4×400 relay, Allyson Felix, Monique Henderson, and Mary Wineburg.
“Oprah’s Favorite Things,” Season 17-23: This annual give-away event extravaganza typically creates the kind of mania reserved for rock concerts and alien invasions. Begun in 2002, “Oprah’s Favorite Things” involves an entire episode where Oprah highlights a range of products and services that she feels are fantastic and wants to share with the audience. In most cases, the taping of this show is kept secret to build suspension and stoke the audience’s excitement during the reveal. A hilarious 2007 “Saturday Night Live” parody of this event captured the atmosphere perfectly with people fainting, screaming, crying, and even ripping their arms out of their sockets in ecstatic joy. Over the years the products have grown in expense and decadence from books, cds, and gourmet food to Blackberrys, LCD-TVs, Sony notebook computers, and LG HDTV refrigerators. In 2006, the “Favorite Things” episode took on a different significance when each audience member received a gift card valued at $1,000, a hand-held camcorder, and were asked to record their spending. Similarly, there was no “Favorite Things” episode in 2009 for undisclosed reasons, though many speculate this was due to the economic downturn. There are no details or rumors about the 2010, last “Favorite Things” show, other than it’s guarantee to surpass all other years in scope and decadence.
“Oprah’s Farewell Season Premier: Australia,” Season 25, September 2010: It’s just Oprah and 300 of her closest friends taking a little trip to Australia. The premier of Oprah’s final season on network television delivered on its promise of fireworks, superstars, and “Oh my!” moments. After bringing out her first guest, John Travolta who gave Oprah an incredibly moving, heartfelt toast, the episode unfolded to highlight the activities and antics of Oprah’s most dedicated, loyal, superfans. Guests included Cathy McCarthy, a Boston woman who gathers with six of her friends each week to talk about the Oprah show. Oprah’s best friend, Gayle, surprised the group of women with keys to a new Chevy car and an invitation to drive to Chicago to see a taping of the show. What the women didn’t know as they approached the studio was that a staff member was directing them, in their car, literally into the studio. The shocked and happy women got the surprise of their lives to find themselves on stage alongside Oprah. The episode culminated with Oprah’s announcement that she was treating her studio audience to a luxury 8-day trip to Australia, including attendance of a show taping at the historic Sydney Opera House. As confetti and streams careened from the ceiling, the screams of the crowd engulfed Oprah, her grin as wide as her outstretched arms.