The Super Bowl halftime show is a big gig, even for megastars like Beyonce, Madonna, Prince, and now Usher. But it wasn’t always so. In 1992, the sketch comedy show In Living Color lured viewers away from the big game with their own halftime show airing on Fox. Twenty million viewers flipped the channel to watch a 20-minute special that poked fun at the game. It featured young comedians including Jim Carey and the Wayans Brothers.
Prior to 1992, Super Bowl halftime shows were all-around wholesome events that featured marching bands and other community-centered ensembles. They were not, however, in touch with popular culture, says
Adrien Sebro, a professor of media studies at the University of Texas, Austin and the author of Scratchin' and Survivin': Hustle Economics and the Black Sitcoms of Tandem Productions.
The Fox channel was also in its fledgling period, finding ways to counter-program in response to the other big networks of the time, including ABC, CBS, and NBC. Fox did so by targeting the 18 to 30-year-old market by recruiting Black and Brown creators.
At the time, CBS executives didn’t see the halftime programming as a threat. “CBS lost about 10 ratings points and more than a fifth of its viewership during the halftime special. So it was definitely a threat. And they were able to do it based off of this idea of ‘There's nothing for us to lose, only things for us to gain as this small fledgling network.’ And that boosted Fox’s popularity tenfold.”
The special was admittedly outrageous and pushed the boundaries of what was traditionally broadcasted on primetime television — and during the Super Bowl. That includes the “Men On” segment featuring two recurring gay characters, played by Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier.
The segment toyed with the idea that football is inherently a homoerotic sport: “[It made] a play on the overt masculinity that exists in football. And you can see in that sketch particularly where they're wearing football jerseys, the eye black, all these things that are suggestive to masculinity, but subverting in that way.”
In Living Color served as an incubator for widely recognizable talent today, including Jennifer Lopez, Rosie Perez, and Jamie Foxx. It also proved that Black television could be popular and lucrative.
“What's so important about this Fox moment is that it led the way for folks to realize that Black dollars and Black people are profitable. So it was also an idea of how do we make use of this new age of young urban individuals, mainly Black, who are going to college, who are making money? How do we utilize them for marketing? How do we sell to them?”
He continues, “Selling to them meant putting folks on TV that look like them.”
Sebro says the show paved the way for new series, including Roc, Martin, and Living Single.
The unexpected success of In Living Color’s halftime show prompted the NFL to get its act together the very next year. The network hired Michael Jackson for the job, leading to the King of Pop’s legendary 1993 performance.
“The eyes are buyers. You have to have something compelling, which is why now, they have continually hired individuals that have a proven track record of keeping an audience and being on par with what's happening in popular culture,” Sebro says.