How In Living Color Changed the History of the Super Bowl Halftime Show

In Living Color's Super Bowl Halftime Party

In the 1990s, before MADtv premiered but during the same time Saturday Night Live was in a minor slump, in terms of viewers, one of the funniest sketch comedy shows premiered on FOX; In Living Color. While it is one of the shorter sketch comedy shows out there, in terms of how long it ran, it’s widely remembered for an array of quotably comical characters and as the launching pad for several great careers in comedy, music, acting and dance. However, this show is responsible for turning the Super Bowl Halftime Show into one of the most widely watched events in television history.

During the third season of the show, 1992, FOX decided to program it against the Super Bowl Halftime Show. The game was intense as it was the fourth time and final time the Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl. It tracked a massive audience of 79.6 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings. For any show to go up against the most-watched television event of the year, would be normally be considered ratings suicide, but then it was a little easier.

The theme for the 1992 halftime show for the Super Bowl was more of an ode to the Winter Olympics, titled Winter Magic, which Disney helped produce. Unlike the more modern halftime shows people tune into, this style relied more on classical music and marching bands than on a single pop artist. Prior to that in 1991, the Halftime Show was led by an Elvis impersonator named Elvis Presto. Other times, the halftime show featured artists from years ago like Chubby Checker, George Burns, Mickey Rooney, Up With People, and predominantly college marching bands.

The episode was called the In Living Color’s “Super Bowl Halftime Party” and primarily featured sketches about football or was directly about the Super Bowl. Just to make sure people knew when to turn their channels back to the Super Bowl, there was a clock put on the screen counting down thirty minutes. The episode was a hit, though, it was not without a minor controversy.

It was one of the “Men On…” sketches, with that week’s episode being “Men On…Football,” featuring Damon Wayans as Blaine Edwards and David Alan Grier as Antoine Merriweather. “Men On…” usually had these two campy and flamboyantly gay men talking about numerous aspects of society “from a male point of view.” “Men On…Football” was noted for making a joke about Olympic track and field runner Carl Lewis being gay and another about actor Richard Gere. Rumors of Lewis sexuality circulated quite a bit, at the time, causing Lewis to lose plenty of endorsements.

Considering the popularity of a show like In Living Color, jokes like that made things harder for him, however, the later rumors subsided. Lewis is still remembered for his achievements as an Olympian, but repeats of the show or DVD releases featuring this episode omit that joke from the show entirely. Richard Gere’s agent threatened legal action against the show, but that never materialized. If there was something to say about In Living Color it was how the show had a talent for being controversial without incurring legal action.

Some people have argued this is the reason the show began to decline in later seasons. Network censors were always leery about this show, though others like Married… with Children were seen as lacking in censorship. However, after this joke, the censors were apparently around all the time. It would be in the fourth season that Damon Wayans would leave the show. After the fourth season concluded, all members of the Wayans family, including creator Keenen Ivory Wayans, left the series and had nothing to do with it.

Other sketches featured on that episode include “The Homeboy Shopping Network” holding a special Super Bowl sale, Fire Marshall Bill demonstrating how to have a “safe” Super Bowl party in a bar, and Jim Carrey as “Background Guy” during a Super Bowl interview. Closing out the show was musical guest Color Me Badd, who sang their hit song, “I Wanna’ Sex You Up.”

In Living Color’s “Super Bowl Halftime Party” drew in almost 22 million viewers. 22 million people switched from the Super Bowl to Fox for In Living Color with the ratings for the second half of the Super Bowl plummeting. In 1992, the Super Bowl Halftime show was headlined by none other than Michael Jackson. Since then, every Halftime Show has featured one of the most popular artists of the time such as Katy Perry, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, etc. For 2020, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira will be taking the stage for the 54th Annual Super Bowl Halftime Show.

That was the first time that Super Bowl counter-programming was a success and since then other shows have joined in such as Saturday Night Live, Glee, Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl, the Lingerie Bowl and a variety of others. In the years since the Super Bowl Halftime Show would be the source of controversy in its own right, such as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show. In Living Color was a remarkable catalyst for comedy and managed to save the Super Bowl Halftime show from the humiliating fate of remaining dull and uninteresting.

Written by Edwin J. Viera

I live and work in Western New York. I love shows of all kinds, but have an affinity for comedies because I love to laugh.

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