32 Years Ago, Super Bowl Halftime Wasn’t A Big Deal — Until One Thing Stole The Show
Remember when the Superbowl Halftime show wasn’t important? Of course you don’t.
While the Super Bowl halftime show is a blockbuster event — able to attract A-list performers like Dr. Dre, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé — it wasn’t always the spectacle we know today. And, if you’re in your 30s or 40s, you probably only barely remember when everything changed. In the history of the Super Bowl, the performances were very much an afterthought. Until 1992.
From the first Super Bowl in 1967 through the 1989 iteration, things were pretty low-key. But, January 26, 1992, was a line-in-the-sand moment that forced the NLF’s hand to significantly up its game if it wanted to command audience attention and give people something to talk about around the water cooler the next day.
To be clear, effort wasn’t the issue with that 1992 performance. With the Winter Olympics hitting the CBS airwaves on February 8, 1992, just two weeks after Super Bowl XXVI, the broadcaster seized on the opportunity to turn the halftime show into a brazen promotional spectacular for its next cornerstone broadcast.
CBS pulled out a lot of stops with their Broadway musical-style “Winter Wonderland” extravaganza. Figure skaters Dorothy Hammill and Brian Boitano both hosted and skated in the show, hundreds of intricately costumed musicians and dancers performed a handful of winter-themed songs that honestly felt a little too Christmasy by the time the game rolled around in mid-January, and Gloria Estphan closed things out with a medley of her hits including “Live For Loving You” and “Get On Your Feet.”
However, despite CBS’ best efforts, none of that was enough to hold people’s attention. Sure, some folks used those 13 minutes as a bathroom and snack break. But 20 million other viewers grabbed their remotes or walked up to the TV to change the dial over to their local FOX affiliate so they could check out an audacious counterprogramming endeavor.
Just six years old at the time, FOX (the channel) was finding it difficult to hang with the big three broadcast networks. So they decided to give people something compelling to watch when the Super Bowl teams went to the locker room in the form of a special live episode of the sketch comedy show In Living Color.
FOX’s second most popular show at the time behind The Simpsons, the upstart In Living Color managed to assemble a cast list that, in hindsight, is remarkably potent. Keenen Ivory Wayans created, wrote, and starred in the program alongside his brother Damon Wayans, Jim Carey, Jamie Foxx, and David Alan Greer. Rosie Perez choreographed dance routines for the “Fly Girls” to perform coming in and out of breaks, one of the flyest of whom was none other than Jennifer Lopez.
In addition to that core crew, Pauley Shore also made an appearance on the In Living Color Super Bowl episode, and Color Me Badd sang their hit single “I Wanna Sex You Up” to close out the show.
FOX’s upset bid stood in stark contrast to CBS’ offering of The University of Minnesota marching bad providing musical backing for kids performing a “Frosty the Snowman” rap while inflatable snowmen bobbed in the background. CBS lost approximately 10 percent of its Super Bowl viewership at halftime, setting off alarm bells at the NFL.
Taking that shot across the bow with utmost seriousness, the NFL went all out in 1993, bringing in none other than Michael Jackson to perform. Between the two legs of his Dangerous world tour — which would end up grossing over $100 million and surpass a total attendance of 3,500,000 people — the King of Pop delivered a performance that redefined the standard for a halftime show and established the Super Bowl halftime show in particular as one of the most coveted performance opportunities around. Basically, Michael Jackson doing the Super Bowl in 1992 is, indirectly, Color Me Badd and In Living Color’s doing.
To be fair, the 1992 “Winter Wonderland” show wasn’t the worst of the modern era. That dubious distinction is widely thought to go to the 1991 Super Bowl halftime show, which featured an awkward coming together of New Kids on the Block and various classic Disney characters that ended with a grand finale of New Kids and a chorus of kids singing “It’s A Small World” while Mickey Mouse stood center stage can-canning in an Uncle Sam looking getup.
If you don’t remember that gem, it’s probably because the performance wasn’t shown live. ABC aired a news report during halftime of Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991, as it took place ten days into Operation Desert Storm. A recording of the halftime show aired following the game, and the indelible musical memory most people are left with from that year is Whitney Houston’s historic rendition of the national anthem. And if you remember that, then yes, you are officially old. But, thankfully, I'm old enough to remember why the Super Bowl halftime musical segment is now very, very special.
The 2024 Super Bowl happens on Sunday, February 11.
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