It may be the biggest sports and entertainment event now, but there was a time when the Super Bowl was strictly a sporting contest. It was all about the game, and didn’t have any of the spectacle it’s become known for. We already told you how Michael Jackson was the superstar who made performing at halftime a huge deal. However, you might be surprised to find out that it was the classic sketch comedy series In Living Color that led to the decision to bring in the King of Pop.
How FOX Created Counter-programming
Listen, kids. I know this is hard to believe, but there was a time back in the olden days of the early ‘90s when FOX was the place for Black shows. It had Martin, Roc, New York Undercover and In Living Color. The groundbreaking sketch comedy series launched the careers of Damon Wayans, Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, Jamie Foxx, Marlon Wayans, Shawn Wayans, Rosie Perez and Jennifer Lopez. Keenan Ivory Wayans created it as the edgier, more diverse alternative to Saturday Night Live. And before it was a sports powerhouse, FOX used the popular series to counter the Super Bowl. Per Rolling Stone, an excerpt from the book Homey Don’t Play That!: The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution, describes how the network and the show’s team took on the big game.
While the abundance of TV networks and streaming services means you don’t have to watch football if you don’t want to, that wasn’t always the case. In 1992, no one was interested in counterprogramming against the game, so it was your only real choice. But, FOX was selling itself as the “Bad Boys of Television,” so why not go after the most watched TV event of the year?
“Jamie [Kellner, FOX’s president at the time] started talking about how nobody watches the halftime,” said Dan McDermott, a programming executive who worked on In Living Color. “I remember thinking, ‘Where is he going with this?’ He said, ‘We should do a live episode of In Living Color. We’ll make a big deal out of it. We’ll convince America to turn the channel at halftime.’”
A Strategy That Paid Off
Once the initial idea for the halftime show went through all the various corporate layers and meeting with suits, Keenan was 100 percent on board with the idea of a live In Living Color. If you didn’t watch the show during its original run, then you might not understand how controversial it was considered at the time. Its characters and jokes, which frequently crossed “acceptable” lines, were often called offensive. While the content is seen as game-changing now, at the time a live version of the show struck fear in sponsors and network execs’ hearts.
“I thought, This is genius,” Keenan said. “The Super Bowl was the biggest thing in television. No one would dare take on the Super Bowl. We have to do that.”
As excited as everyone was for the live show, no one was going to run the unpredictable series without a net. The Fire Marshall Bill sketch and “The Homeboyz Shopping Network” were both pre-taped, while the rest of the skits were aired live with a delay. In case you’re wondering, CBS had figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano performing in a show called “Winter Magic,” which was really just a promotion of its Winter Olympics coverage. I love figure skating, but this was not an entertaining choice for halftime of the biggest game of the year.
According to Revolt, more than 20 million viewers chose In Living Color over the big game’s “Winter Magic” extravaganza, which definitely gave the NFL and its producers cause to go in a new direction the following year. So, if you’re already going crazy about Rihanna dominating the proceedings this year, it turns out you have Michael Jackson and In Living Color to thank for that.