In Living Color lasted just five seasons on the air from 1990 to 1994, and when it was cancelled it got the quick, disappointed eulogy one might expect for a show that briefly burned hard and bright but had already lost some of its mojo. But with time, it’s become clear that In Living Color was more than just a very funny sketch show that helped launch the careers of the Wayans family, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, Rosie Perez and Jennifer Lopez. It was part of a wave of black culture that completely remade the mainstream in its own image.
Homey Don’t Play That!: The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution is both the warts-and-all story of the making and unmaking of a once-great television sketch show, and a chronicle of this moment in time when a murderer’s row of creative talent, including Keenen Ivory Wayans, Arsenio Hall, Robert Townsend, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Chris Rock, Chuck D, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur, rose to prominence. Defining and detailing a legacy can be a tricky business – influence doesn’t always run in straight, clear lines. But in one case, it definitely does: In an excerpt from Homey Don’t Play That!, the FOX show’s cast, producers, writers and executives explain how In Living Color changed Super Bowl halftimes forever.
At a staff meeting, on a Tuesday in 1991, FOX president Jamie Kellner began musing about the Super Bowl. CBS had the rights to the next one, and in fact, the rights to the next few Super Bowls were already locked down by other networks.
“Jamie started talking about how nobody watches the halftime,” says 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.'”
The Super Bowl was then and remains the most viewed television event of the year. At that point, it was consistently watched by more than one hundred million people in the U.S. The conventional wisdom was it wasn’t worth it for the other networks to sink money into programming opposite the game. There just weren’t enough viewers leftover to make it worthwhile. But if Fox could get just a fraction of those Super Bowl viewers to turn the channel, Kellner argued, it’d be a coup. They’d been promoting themselves as the “Bad Boys of Television,” irreverent upstarts with no respect for age-old industry norms. What better way to prove it?
“It was wholly consistent with everything we stood for,” says Sandy Grushow, who was EVP of Fox’s Entertainment Division. “I used to refer to us as guerilla-like. We’d rush in there, throw a punch, then run out before the competition knew what hit them. That’s exactly what this was designed to do.”
The idea had its roots in a phone call from a guy named Jay Coleman to ILC’s executive in charge of production (and Keenen’s manager), Eric Gold, a year earlier. Coleman told Gold that he’d recently been at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, watching the halftime show – which featured three local college marching bands performing odes to the host city – bored out of his mind. This was hardly an unusual feeling during Super Bowl halftimes. The year before, the main act was an Elvis impersonator named Elvis Presto. The years before that, performers included aging entertainers (Chubby Checker, George Burns, Mickey Rooney), the cultish, morally hectoring singing ensemble, Up With People, and more college marching bands. Through his boredom, Coleman, who died in 2011, saw an opportunity.
He told Gold he wanted MC Hammer to perform on Fox during halftime of the game. In between songs, he wanted fresh In Living Color sketches. He’d find a corporate partner to sponsor the entire program and foot the bill for production and promotion. Gold liked the idea, but only to a point.
“I said, ‘Jay, I love you, but here’s my thinking, ‘We should do an In Living Color halftime show and have MC Hammer do the musical number,'” he says. Discussions wore on, and the idea was pushed a year, by which time MC Hammer had dropped out, and Coleman had signed Frito-Lay to sponsor the whole thing. Coleman met with Kellner, who brought the idea to the Tuesday meeting. It went over big. ILC creator Keenen Ivory Wayans loved it too.
“I thought, This is genius,” he says. “The Super Bowl was the biggest thing in television. No one would dare take on the Super Bowl. We have to do that.“
CBS’s fusty plans for the 1992 game were ripe for the picking. They’d hired Disney to produce something called, “Winter Magic,” really, little more than a thinly -disguised promo for their Winter Olympic coverage the following month. It featured ice skaters Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill, along with a thirty-foot inflatable snowman. As Fox began promoting the hell out of ILC’s alternate halftime show on Fox, CBS seemed spooked and hastily broke with their theme, booking an additional performance by Gloria Estefan. And CBS weren’t the only ones who were nervous. Frito-Lay was willing to fork over a reported two million dollars to the network and the show, but the brand was concerned about the show’s content, particularly since it would be broadcast live.
“Everybody’s interested in doing exciting things but they’re also interested in protecting their brand,” says Kellner. He agreed to broadcast the show on a delay. (Various people disagree on exactly how long the delay was, but it was somewhere between five and 10 seconds.) Not only would Fox’s Standards VP Don Bay be in the production booth with his hand poised over a button to bleep out any objectionable content, Kellner himself would be in the booth beside Bay, to watch over him.
Rose Catherine Pinkney, then a young executive at Twentieth Television who covered ILC, says there were many ways the live show could go awry, but Fox’s chief worry was that the cast would take advantage of the situation to slip things past the Standards Department that would get everyone in trouble.
As preparations began, there was an all-hands-on-deck feeling. Fox’s marketing and promotions teams were working overtime, flooding the airwaves with promos, getting media coverage for the event, and sending out invitations to the famous and the not-so-famous to insure the live shots of the studio that night looked like a genuine party. Veteran ILC writer John Bowman was convinced to pause his work on the Martin pilot and take a pass at a “Men on Football” sketch.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the studio filled with guests, including Kirstie Alley, Pauly Shore, Sam Kinison, and Blair Underwood, who mixed with cast members. There was an open bar. The party atmosphere didn’t quite extend to the writers, who were rewriting and tweaking sketches right until show time.
The Super Bowl show leaned heavily on franchise characters. Keenen and his brother Damon revived “The Homeboy Shopping Network,” which hadn’t been seen since early in Season 2, and set them inside a football locker room. Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshall Bill visited a sports bar. Background Guy – a Carrey character that grew from his inability to fade into the background of any scene – appeared outside a Super Bowl locker room. Strictly speaking, the show wasn’t all “live” – sketches like “Fire Marshal Bill” were essentially short, complicated pyrotechnics-filled films that often took hours to film – but the most memorable moment was: Damon and David Alan Grier’s “Men on Football.”
It’s maybe unfairly harsh to say that the sketch itself was largely a parade of coy double-entendres and gay innuendos, but that was sort of the characters’ stock-in-trade. Bowman had written the initial sketch, which was then re-written by the show’s staff, but the most enduring moments were ad-libbed by Damon and Grier. After a reference to Joe Namath wearing panty hose in a TV commercial, Grier’s Antoine notes that Namath is married. Damon, as Blaine, responds: “Well, so is Richard Gere and you should’ve seen that gerbil in the wedding dress.” The line was a nod to a well-traveled urban myth that Gere had once stuck a live gerbil up his ass as part of some gay fetish play.
“That was one of the jokes I put in my pocket because I knew the censors wouldn’t let it go,” says Damon. He wanted to surprise Grier, make him laugh. He did. He also made Jamie Kellner laugh, which was why the joke made it onto the air.
“Don [Bay] and I worked up this scheme where any time I felt something had gone over the line, I’d pound him on the back, so that within the ten seconds, he’d be focused on it and could hit a button and drop audio to solve the problem,” says Kellner. “I started laughing so hard at the Richard Gere thing that I forgot to hit Don on the back. I forgot to do my job.”
Damon wasn’t done. Toward the sketch’s end, Antoine mentions he’s excited to see sprinter Carl Lewis at the upcoming Summer Olympics. “You know why Carl runs so fast?” Blaine responds. “You can run but you can’t hide from your true self, Miss Lewis.” The line also went out unmolested by the Standards Ddepartment.
“I had five seconds to make the call and quickly decided not to delete the reference,” says Bay. “Lewis’s being gay was openly discussed in Hollywood. Jamie asked if I’d cut it, to which I replied, ‘No.'” Lewis’s lawyer threatened legal action, but none materialized. Gere’s agent called the show incensed and threatened to cause problems but mostly didn’t.
For a few days afterwards, the sketch was all anyone in Hollywood seemed to be talking about. The decision to air the lines about Lewis and Gere was controversial, even among those at Fox. Shortly afterwards, the company’s chairman, Barry Diller, said, “I’m not so sure they shouldn’t have pushed the delay button.” Keenen was at peace with the way it played out.
“There was a six-second button Fox had the option of hitting,” says Keenen. “I didn’t have control over that. That was the reason they had their guy there. If there was anything they didn’t feel was appropriate they could’ve hit that button. I wasn’t the guy to take heat for a decision I didn’t make.”
In the end, the show had hit a sort of sweet spot: just enough controversy to get people talking, not enough to incur legal action. Certainly, the show’s monster ratings made it easier to soothe Fox’s nerves. Nearly twenty-nine million viewers tuned in that night, and the Super Bowl’s ratings for the second half crashed by ten points.
That’s not to say there was no fallout at all from Damon’s ad-libs. The Fox halftime show had been the first part of a larger overall marketing deal the show had made with Frito-Lay’s parent company, Pepsi. There were plans for some of the ILC characters, including Homey the Clown, Blaine and Antoine, to be featured in Pepsi “taste test” commercials.
“When the chairman of Pepsi watched the halftime show with his conservative friends, he was so appalled he canceled any further involvement,” says Gold. “He killed the deal right there.”
Other tangible consequences weren’t so bad.
“Somebody sent us an actual gerbil to the show,” says writer Michael Anthony Snowden. “[Fans] always sent us stuff—everything from death threats to insane, crazy shit—but somebody sent us an actual gerbil. [Head writer] Les [Firestein] bought one of those little plastic gerbil balls, and for the remainder of the season that gerbil rolled around the office.”
Perhaps the most far-reaching effect of ILC’s Super Bowl halftime show was on Super Bowl halftime itself. Never again would the NFL hire an Elvis impersonator, figure skaters, or the members of Up With People. The following year, they hired Michael Jackson, then the biggest entertainer on the planet. His five-song halftime mini-concert was one of the most viewed television spectacles of all time, and pointed the way toward a future filled with big- budget concert blowouts, the world’s most famous wardrobe malfunction, and Katy Perry riding a giant, golden lion.