Before Jennifer Lopez was a Super Bowl LIV halftime headliner, she was performing as a Fly Girl during the “In Living Color” halftime show. The sketch comedy show upstaged the 1992 Super Bowl halftime performance and forever changed the game. The Fox series’ cast members, the network’s former president, NFL insiders and a couple of Olympic gold medalists discuss the culture-shifting moment.
Washington led Buffalo 17-0 at the half of Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis. Those tuned in to the CBS broadcast hoped the action would heat up during the “Winter Magic” spectacular. Instead, they got a monotonic introduction from then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and cheesy snowflake graphics.
Olympic figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano skated atop oversized plastic snowflakes in the middle of the field. Women costumed as snowflakes paraded beside them. Gloria Estefan, known as a trailblazer of the sizzling Miami music scene, performed a winterized rendition of “Live for Loving You” and “Get on Your Feet.”
Just a click of a remote away, “In Living Color,” which aired on Sundays, dangled its organic connection to youth culture and hip-hop in front of Super Bowl halftime viewers. And they took the bait. The Keenen Ivory Wayans-created series that ran for five seasons, from 1990 until 1994, captured nearly 28.9 million live viewers (including many who weren’t previously watching the big game), according to Nielsen. The counterprogramming snagged about 11.7% of the 79.5 million average viewers of CBS’ Super Bowl.
Competition often inspires innovation. For 1993, the NFL hired Michael Jackson as the halftime performer. The Super Bowl TV audience rose to 133.4 million viewers. CBS lost the television rights for the ’93 game. NBC televised the new halftime spectacular format.
If it weren’t for “In Living Color” nudging the NFL to get a tad more creative, we probably wouldn’t have had Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction or watched Lady Gaga make a high-flying entrance to halftime. We’d perhaps still have high school marching bands and the occasional miscast musical performer.
Everyone quoted is identified by the title they held during Super Bowl XXVI or during their tenure on the Fox series, unless otherwise noted.
HALFTIME WASN’T ALWAYS SPECTACULAR
Jim Steeg, senior vice president, special events, for the NFL and creator of the halftime spectacular: From, like, 1976 through ’86, many of the halftime shows were done by Up with People [a traveling troupe of clean-cut kids who sang and danced] or by Disney [now ESPN’s parent company]. Once we got past ’86, we decided that we needed to go out and find other producers or production companies to put it together. Get something different and fresh. We talked to maybe 15 different producers; [even] Dick Clark came in.
Super Bowl XXVI, we had Gloria Estefan and Brian Boitano and things like that. But [the theme] wasn’t driven by the talent. It was more about a spectacle or spectacular. We were trying to figure out how you could celebrate the North and its elements. With the Olympics around the corner, it worked. And Dorothy Hamill and Boitano were big names. [By the 1992 Olympics, Hamill and Boitano had retired. He would, however, make a comeback in 1994 at the Games in Lillehammer, Norway.] But we couldn’t bring in ice. We brought in [a plastic surface]. So they could skate on it.
Lesley Visser, CBS Sports correspondent who hosted the presentation of the Lombardi trophy to Washington: They must have done skating because we were in Minnesota. We were heading out to the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, the next month. Skating is always the No. 1 sport in the [Winter] Olympics. It made sense. I guess Gloria Estefan, who’s beloved — they just wanted a singer present.
Dorothy Hamill, figure skater and halftime performer: Brian and I were on a little slab of plastic “ice.” I had people that were actually at the Super Bowl that didn’t know. They didn’t see Brian or me on the ice because there was so much going on. I’m sure they were watching Gloria and all that. They said, “You were at the Super Bowl? You were on halftime?” I fell on my rear end, so just as well they didn’t see it.
Brian Boitano, figure skater and halftime performer: It’s a running a joke for my friends. They are always like, “This certainly isn’t ‘Winter Magic.’” I was very excited to be at the Super Bowl. Dorothy and I came in the night before and practiced on the plastic ice. I was scared to death because I’d never skated on plastic before. And it was elevated off the stadium floor. If I fell off, it would have been very, very embarrassing.
Hamill: [The halftime producers] gave us a piece of music, and I think I had, like, 30 seconds or 40 seconds. Maybe Brian had 40 seconds to perform. We were about a hundred feet away from one another. There were marching bands, cameras and everything in between us. So when we were performing simultaneously — which wasn’t a lot, just like a turn and a glide — I couldn’t see him. We couldn’t really match each other.
Steeg: We were in Minnesota. This isn’t Miami, New Orleans or Los Angeles. We had to embrace the winter theme. Ironically, here you have Gloria Estefan, the first lady of Miami, as part of the show. [Estefan returned as a Super Bowl halftime performer in 1999 alongside Stevie Wonder. Radio City Music Hall produced the segment; the game was in Miami.]
Boitano: We practiced with Gloria. I had met her before that. You’re on a circuit several years after the Olympics. And she was hot then, so I did a lot of events with her. And didn’t she wear a tutu during halftime?
Steeg: Let’s also remember, most performers, even if we had some tangential discussion with them about it, they’d say: “I’m not going to do the halftime show. That’s not for me. I can’t see myself involved with it.”
Members of the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, which defeated the Soviet Union in a stunning semifinal upset and went on to win Olympic gold, were a part of the 1992 halftime show as well.
WHEN EVERYONE TOOK A BATHROOM BREAK
Keenen Ivory Wayans, “In Living Color” creator: There was an ad exec at Frito-Lay, and he’s the one who came up with the idea of counterprogramming against the Super Bowl. [Frito-Lay sponsored the “In Living Color” halftime show.] We brainstormed and decided that we’d do it as a live version of the show. We wanted to put up a [countdown] clock on the screen so that people would know when to go back to the game. I was very confident that we would steal the show. It was such a perfect opportunity because halftime was when everybody went to pee.
Jamie Kellner, president of Fox: I give a lot of credit to the marketing department at Pepsi. They posed the idea to me, and it fit perfectly with our brand and theirs. Roger Enrico was the [CEO of Pepsi], and we met on a plane in Dallas to figure out the logistics and how we could all feel safe with a live broadcast that did not have a firm start or end time. [Frito-Lay, which sponsored the “In Living Color” special in 1992, is an American subsidiary of PepsiCo.]
Tommy Davidson, “In Living Color” cast member: Keenen said, “Man, I’ve got a great idea, you guys.” We all talked as friends. Then he said, “What would you guys think if we did this Super Bowl halftime special?” We jumped in the air and said, “We’ll beat the ratings!” About a month later, he came back to us and said, “We got the show.” You would’ve thought that he told us that we were in the Super Bowl. Jamie [Foxx], all of us, we went crazy because we knew we were going to beat them.
David Alan Grier, cast member: It was prime for a takeover. Real simple. We were just going to do our show during halftime. And they started running ads all over Fox, wherever they could — “Be sure to tune in to ‘In Living Color.’” We had a very young audience, very urban, but everybody loved it. And I was filming “Boomerang” at the time. I remember Eddie [Murphy, who was the lead actor of the 1992 film] and Reginald Hudlin, the director of “Boomerang,” they all knew how big this would be. Everyone, including the studio, allowed me to fly back to film the special. I flew back that morning to get there in time for the live broadcast.
Steeg: We all knew about it. And Fox, at that point in time, was probably a distant fourth to the big networks. And I watched “In Living Color”; we knew about the programming. But people had tried to ambush [halftime] in some way, shape or form. But it hadn’t taken. This became a different thing.
Davidson: Keenen says, “All right, Jamie, you’re doing this. Jim [Carrey], I pick you to do this. David, I got you doing this.” Then he said, “Tommy, I got you hosting because you can handle live.” I was like, “Oh my god! I thought you ain’t like me!” And I’m like Michael Jordan. All you got to do is give me a ball!
Grier: We had our soundstage, where we always shot the show. And next door to the soundstage was another stage; that’s where the live Super Bowl party was going on. That morning when I got into the car [in L.A., after departing New York, where “Boomerang” was filmed, and before heading to the set at the Fox Television Center], the hotel staff was waiting. The doorman and everybody was like, “Yo, man, we’re going to watch you. And y’all better get down.”
T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh, cast member: The creative chaos was normal at “In Living Color,” so going live, we just rolled with it. For most of us, it was our first series. It was my introduction to television. I thought everybody knew their censors by name.
THE SKETCHES THAT STOLE THE SHOW
In the opening skit of the “In Living Color” Super Bowl show, Keenen and his brother (and fellow actor) Damon Wayans pulled former Bills running back Thurman Thomas’ fictional wallet out of a locker and discussed the limits of his gold credit card. In real life, the future Hall of Famer was on the field. The special also featured a “Men on Football” skit, an offshoot of the show’s “Men on” franchise. Damon and Grier played culture critics in the sketch. Often the jokes were off-color, and they would likely be deemed inappropriate for network television today.
Keenen Ivory Wayans: We knew we’d have football fans, and they may not have seen the show. We decided to combine making fun of football and using the characters from the show. There was a lot of improvisation, and it was scary because I didn’t know who was going to say what. That’s how we did the show. And I didn’t want to compromise that.
Grier: Some of the skits were shot live, and some were pre-taped. Honestly, some of the sketches were probably too risqué. But we had a delay, and if the censors wanted to press the delay button, they’d push it. Now, as far as I know, I don’t think they ever pressed it, so we just went buck wild. We were trying to make people flip the channel, instead of watching rodeo dancing and stuff. Damon and I put some sauce on it, especially with the [“Men on”] characters. We would always have something in the pocket. [Parts of the “Men on” sketch were edited out for re-airings.]
Davidson: Keenen later turns to me and says, “Hey, Tommy, can you do Sugar Ray [Leonard]?” And I didn’t even care if I really couldn’t do a Sugar Ray impression. I said, “Yeah.” I went home that night and just kept watching him. I watched Sugar Ray videos 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. I had him nailed by rehearsals. And Jim was Jim. He just did his thing. [Davidson played Sugar Ray interviewing guests during the live taping.]
Jim Carrey, cast member: I had to do “Fire Marshal Bill” live, and I’d never done that before. My face is literally cramping up during the sketch. I don’t know if you can see it, but after a minute, it’s a little rough on the ol’ face-scape. [The safety-crazed fire marshal Bill Burns was one of the most popular fictional characters to emerge from the series.]
Kelly Coffield Park, cast member: Jim would just say extreme s— all the time; everybody did. And it was like, was that on-air? Yeah, it was. Instead of saying, “Now you can go back to watching the game,” he’d be extreme. [Carrey referenced the countdown clock that directed fans to go back to watching the Super Bowl after halftime by saying: “You won’t miss any of the senseless brutality”.] And did he have a huge agenda behind that? He was probably just being ridiculous.
Keenen Ivory Wayans: I mean, the censors had that kill switch. And it looks like we pulled it off. If they missed something, it was on purpose. They wanted the hype. They wanted the controversy. It was good publicity.
Kellner: Keenen and his team wrote a very funny episode that pushed the edge about as far as it could go and not get us in trouble. I sat in the control room with the head of standards and practices for Fox to ride the edit button in case an ad-lib crossed the line. The plan was I would tap his shoulder if I wanted an edit. We both started laughing and missed two edits.
Park: I still get positive feedback on the skits. Damon and David were always pushing the limits with “Men on.” They were two straight men playing two gay men, so that wouldn’t fly now. At least not in such a stereotypical context.
Marlon Wayans, cast member: I remember watching from the dorms at Howard [University]; this was before I joined the cast. I was just the brother to everyone on “In Living Color” back then. My brother Damon and [David] had a Carl Lewis joke in the special that was just so out there. They improvised it. I was just like, “Man, Carl Lewis is coming. He is going to come looking for you. And you can’t run from him.” But we always handled things with kid gloves. We weren’t trying to be dark.
Shawn Wayans, cast member and onstage DJ: There was a whole party going on in between live sketches. That’s what “In Living Color” was — every rapper and actor was there all the time. The halftime special was different because it was live. And we had R&B group Color Me Badd perform before closing out the show. They sang, “I Wanna Sex You Up.”
Keenen Ivory Wayans: Our greenroom was like that all the time. Whenever we taped a show, people just came, so we just decided to kind of share the backstage with the public.
Davidson: It was unbelievable because everybody was coming to the tapings of “In Living Color” anyway. Denzel [Washington], Bruce Willis and more. Every week it was an all-star lineup. After we finished taping every show, people stayed. Tupac, everybody.
Grier: After the special’s live sketches finished on the soundstage, we pulled back the sliding door, and the party was going on. Everyone was there — [Blair Underwood, Leonardo DiCaprio] and the late great Sam Kinison.
THE ROCK THAT HIT GOLIATH BETWEEN THE EYES
Keenen Ivory Wayans: As confident as we were, we knew that we could’ve played ourselves. We were going up against … it was David and Goliath, and if that rock hadn’t hit right between the eyes, we would’ve been done.
Steeg: I think the hay was in the barn, right? Yeah, it was a concern. And we [at the NFL] said, “This isn’t going to ever happen again.” We went on the aggressive and selected Radio City to [produce] the halftime show the next year in Pasadena. Don Garber, who’s now the commissioner of the MLS, was working with NFL Properties then.
And Don and I said, “We gotta do something about this.” I don’t remember if the commissioner ever said, “What are you going to do? What’s going to take place?” We literally, within the next month, sat down and came up with ideas. We had identified who we wanted to go after by March. And we met with Michael Jackson’s agent.
Visser: “In Living Color” was so brilliant. Come on. How about when they did the Homeboy Shopping Network skit. So, yep, Michael Jackson. I think that CBS knew that the sands were shifting.
Steeg: We knew we were going to have to increase the budget. Double at least. We were going to have to get a sponsor to help to underwrite it. These days when you think of $1 million … [the cost of the production and added expenses of Jackson’s performance. Additionally, the NFL donated $100,000 to the singer’s Heal the World Foundation]. Pepsi signed on as a sponsor. That sponsor had to be acceptable to Michael Jackson’s camp. They paid for probably 50% of our increase. [“In Living Color” did not have a halftime special in 1993.]
Keenen Ivory Wayans: The NFL didn’t acknowledge this for years. They really just huddled up and said, “Let’s get Michael Jackson, and let’s make sure this never happens again.” They just kept getting big names, like Prince  and Madonna .
Marlon Wayans: To this day, “In Living Color” had the best halftime show. I love Michael Jackson. And Justin Timberlake [2004 and 2017] is a friend of mine. But you could put all of them onstage and it wouldn’t be like the halftime “In Living Color” s— because it was nothing like going from the excitement of the game to those laughs. The laughs were everything.
Grier: The thing about “In Living Color” was, it captured the zeitgeist of that cultural moment. It took the fashion, music, comedy all rolled into one. And I don’t even remember who won the Super Bowl that year [Washington defeated Buffalo 37-24].
Carrey: We definitely pushed it to another level.
Kellner: It was a great day for Fox.
Keenen Ivory Wayans: This little ragtag crew did something that changed a huge event. We made history.