Everyone knows the best live performances ever are better experienced in person than watching them on TV. But it’s important not to discount the magic of television when it comes to bringing culture to the masses. Because for many people, their first exposure to the arts came from seeing entertainers on TV.
Live television is especially powerful for showcasing the performing arts. For performers, they size of the audience they can reach through live TV is unparalleled. For audiences, it’s thrilling because we know there’s no safety net. If a performer succeeds on live TV, they might become the next Eddie Murphy. If they fail, they could end up being the next Ashlee Simpson.
Counting down from 10, let’s take a look at the best live performances ever shown on television.
10. “Hairspray Live!”
NBC | 2016
NBC staged its first live, televised musical (a production of “The Sound of Music”) back in 2013. It was an idea that was both innovative and nostalgic at the same time (in the early days of TV, most shows were essentially just plays staged in front of a camera). The show was a hit and it set the stage for a number of other Broadway musicals to be produced as live telecasts. The best of which, so far, was the 2016 broadcast of “Hairspray Live!”
Photo by Justin Lubin / NBC
9. Andy Kaufman on “Late Night With David Letterman”
NBC | 1982
In 1979, TV personality Andy Kaufman began a career as a professional wrestler—one who wrestled women exclusively. After defeating more than 400 ladies, a more daunting opponent, Jerry “The King” Lawler, stepped into the ring with him one night. Kaufman had crowned himself the “World Intergender Wrestling Champion,” but Lawler was the reigning CWA World Heavyweight Champion. Lawler piledrived Kaufman into the mat, giving the erstwhile funnyman a legitimate neck injury.
Four months after the match, Kaufman and Lawler appeared together on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Kaufman, wearing a neck brace, threatened to sue both Lawler and Letterman while on the air. What happened next made TV history.
Eventually, Lawler revealed that the whole incident was indeed a set-up. He said of his friend Kaufman that he hated being called a comedian, “He said, “I’ve never told a joke in my life. I’m a performance artist,” and he liked just doing things that would get a reaction from a crowd and he actually enjoyed getting a negative reaction more so than a positive one.”
Back in his heyday, people didn’t know what to make of Andy Kaufman. Most people still don’t. Which is part of his genius. Andy Kaufman truly was the world’s first great, mainstream performance artist.
8. “Requiem for a Heavyweight”
CBS | 1956
Starring Jack Palance as a boxer past his prime, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” marked a turning point in the history of television. It was widely accepted as such a great work of fiction that it elevated the public’s expectations of what quality television could achieve. The teleplay, written by Rod Serling (creator of “The Twilight Zone”), was the first individual script ever to win the prestigious Peabody Award.
7. Barbra Streisand & Judy Garland duet on “The Judy Garland Show”
CBS | 1963
In 1963, Barbra Streisand wasn’t a household name. She had only been performing professionally for a few years and wasn’t all that well known outside of Broadway circles. That changed when she appeared on “The Judy Garland Show,” and sang a duet on live TV with the titular host. At only 21 years of age, Babs was understandably nervous to sing with one of the greatest entertainers of all time. In a touching act of grace, Judy Garland took her hand and held it throughout the entire performance. In that moment, a star was born and the torch was passed from one icon to the next.
6. Rudolf Nureyev’s TV debut on “The Bell Telephone Hour”
NBC | 1964
In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union while on tour with the Kirov Opera Ballet in Paris. Three years later, Nureyev made his live television debut on “The Bell Telephone Hour,” a weekly show on NBC. Everyone in the ballet word already revered the young genius by that time (he had been a featured soloist with the Kirov since 1958). But once Rudolf Nureyev shared his gifts with the masses through the magic of TV, he became synonymous with the word “ballet” for everyone else in the world.
5. Queen perform at Live AID
Global Simulcast | 1985
In 1985, the African nation of Ethiopia was suffering from the worst famine the world had seen in a century. More than eight million people were affected, and over a million had died. World governments, unsure of how to deal with such an unprecedented crisis, were slow to respond.
While bureaucrats debated the best way to address the problem, the British popstar Bob Geldof had a pretty clear idea of what needed to happen. One, the world needed to know what was really going on in Ethiopia, which meant more attention needed to be called to it in the press. And two, they needed money to deliver food, water and supplies.
Geldof made a plan to address both of these issues by producing the most ambitious benefit show of all time, Live Aid. Concerts were produced, and simulcast live, from nine different countries. The broadcasts reached an audience of 1.9 billion people in 150 countries. All told, Live Aid raised over a half a billion dollars (adjusted for inflation and currency exchange rates for 2017) to deliver aid to Ethiopia.
The biggest artists in the world performed at the benefit, but it was Queen who delivered one of the best live performances of all time. Indeed, Queen were the champions.
4. Maria Callas’ television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show”
CBS | 1956
Maria Callas was greatest singer ever to live in the era of recorded music. It’s easy to enjoy her voice on recordings, but it’s impossible to experience her true greatness without actually seeing her perform. This isn’t just because she was one of the most beautiful women ever to walk the Earth (though she certainly was that). It’s because Maria Callas, La Divina, exuded the very essence of the music in her performances. And millions of Americans got to truly experience her genius for the first time when she appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956. For fans who would never see her perform in person, it was simply one of the best live performances they would ever experience.
3. The Three Tenors Live in Rome
Global Simulcast | 1990
José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti (now collectively known as “The Three Tenors”) performed their first concert together on the eve of the 1990 World Cup Final match in Rome. For opera fans, it was as thrilling as it was unexpected—Pavarotti and Domingo were long considered rivals. The concert was simulcast live all over the world and was considered by some to be among the best live performances of all time. The recording of the concert became the best-selling classical album of all time and reignited a passion for opera for millions of people worldwide.
2. “Saturday Night Live,” Season 1, Episode 7
NBC | 1975
It took a few weeks for audiences to even notice there was a new show being broadcast late on Saturday nights on NBC. But by December 13, 1975, SNL was well on it’s way to becoming a cultural phenomenon. Richard Pryor was hosting and in one famous sketch, he and Chevy Chase engage in a racially-charged, free-association word game that feels both painful and healing to watch. Later in the episode, the humor shifts from cathartic to silly when John Belushi debuts his Samurai Chef character. There had been plenty of sketch shows on TV before SNL, but none that had managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist so sharply.
1. Tie: Elvis Presley and The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show
CBS | 1956
CBS | 1964
Elvis’ first performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” wasn’t his first TV appearance (that was on a regional TV show called “Louisiana Hayride” in 1955) or even his first national TV appearance (that was on “Stage Show” hosted by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey). But it was definitely the appearance that skyrocketed the young entertainer into stardom. A record 60 million viewers tuned in, accounting for more than 80% of the entire national TV audience in America. In that moment, a humble young man from Memphis became the King, and American culture was forever changed.
With an audience of 73 million people, The Beatles debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was the most widely viewed television program ever broadcast at the time. Their performance didn’t just herald the rise of “Beatlemania.” It signaled to the world that young people were about to take over—and they had very different ideas about the order of things. Peace, love and great looking hair were about to be more popular than at any other point in human history.
I hope you enjoyed the show. If you’re in the performing arts business and you’re looking for a partner to help you get audiences off the couch and into your space, just let us know.
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