Oprah’s iconic ‘You get a car!’ moment was crazier than you thought
When people think of the “Oprah” show, they usually think of two iconic moments: Winfrey repeatedly screaming “you get a car,” and Tom Cruise jumping on a couch.
A three-part podcast titled “Making Oprah: The Inside Story of a TV Revolution” explores Winfrey’s rise to fame and reveals that the car- giveaway episode ended on a sour note for some.
The podcast, hosted by journalist Jenn White, explains that the concept for the mega car giveaway actually started with Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King.
King sat next to an executive from the Pontiac car company on a flight and struck up a conversation.
After that chance meeting, Pontiac offered the show 25 cars for a giveaway.
But the producers weren’t satisfied. They kept pushing and pushing until the manufacturer finally agreed to gift a brand new G6 to every member of the studio audience.
The value of the 276 cars to Pontiac was about $7.7 million.
But Winfrey — who was heavily committed to authenticity and good intentions — was still dubious about the giveaway.
“When we sat down and started to talk about the car giveaway, I asked ‘How do we find people who really need cars?’ Because that would make it worth it to me … that would give it a depth and an intention,” she recalls.
The show’s producers set to work finding people for the studio audience for whom a new car would be a big deal. To do this (without giving away the surprise), they asked questions on the audience application like “how do you get to work?” and “how old is your car?”
“For the most part, the whole audience genuinely needed new cars, and that made it even more special,” says Terry Goulder, one of the senior producers of the episode.
The episode was slated for the premiere of the 19th season, as the show needed to kick ratings off with a bang.
A lot was riding on the successful execution of the surprise. And as staff on the show reflect, “Oprah was always obsessed with detail.”
“I remember the night before the show, I could not sleep,” recalls Winfrey.
“First of all, I didn’t leave the building until 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. because I remember walking through seeing [the producers] putting the bows on the cars and the bows were too small in my opinion, so I said ‘the bows are too small’ and they said ‘but we’ve already done most of the bows,’ and I go ‘you gotta redo the bows, because the bows should cover the whole hood of the car,’” she says.
“You want the bow to make an impression because so much of a gift is about how it’s packaged.”
So they worked through the night and redid the bows.
For the staged surprise to have maximum impact, it relied heavily on misdirection.
“The car giveaway is a surprise because they ‘fake it out,’” explains the podcast’s host White.
Winfrey brought 11 teachers on stage who all desperately needed a new car and announced that their “wildest dream” was coming true.
“The audience was all sitting back as observers at this stage, thinking ‘isn’t that nice for them, they got a brand-new car,’” recalls Winfrey. “That was the fun of it.”
The host then announced that a 12th car would be given away. Each member of the studio audience would receive a box, and in one of those boxes would be the key to the car.
The beauty was that there was a key in every box.
The audience members weren’t the only ones with high blood pressure.
“My heart was pounding so hard … because I was as excited for the people getting the cars, as the people were for getting the cars,” recalls Winfrey.
And as for the “you get a car” moment, which became so infamous it was turned into a meme, “I was screaming as loudly as I could because [the audience was] screaming so loud … I was trying to be heard over what at this point was just happy chaos,” says Winfrey.
Producer Gina Sprehe refers to it as a highlight of her career.
“We didn’t know it would go that well … it was just magical … when you watch 276 people have total meltdowns, you’re just so happy for them. It’s so nice to see people that happy.”
Unfortunately, the people who produced the show soon lost that euphoric feeling.
“It was really hard to produce shows after that, because all the audience wanted cars,” Goulder says.
Producer Lisa Erspamer was also left with a bad taste in her mouth.
“It was devastating after, because ‘gift tax’ is a thing, and it’s always a complicated thing when you’re giving stuff away,” she says.
“But we paid for the sales tax and the registration for each car, and we told the audience after, if they didn’t want to have to pay a gift tax, they could actually take cash for the car,” she explains.
“And because we didn’t pay the gift tax, people complained to the press, and that was devastating.”
As White says in the podcast, “You can understand why some of the audience might be annoyed with getting a bill of up to $7,000 depending on your tax bracket … but you can also understand the producers looking at that and going, ‘We just gave you a car?’”
“We put our whole soul into this moment of television and with real intention to do something good, and so when people had a negative reaction, it, like, literally hurt our feelings,” says Erspamer.
“You know, we’re people, and it made us really sad.”