The Weird and (Not Very) Wonderful History of the Super Bowl Halftime Show

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New Kids On The Block (and a large number of small children) perform at 1991's Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Florida.

For non-football types, the Super Bowl halftime show can be the only life raft in a confusing sea of frowning men wearing shoulder pads and over-long commercial breaks. And, since 1993, when Michael Jackson turned in his game-changing, five-song performance in Pasadena, standards for a successful halftime have been incredibly high.

No wonder. Super Bowl viewing figures haven't fallen under 100 million since 1981, and are more commonly closer to the 150 million mark—and that's in America alone.

When it's done right, the halftime show can be a source of national pride (as when U2 tried to heal the nation after 9/11). It can have an immediate and lasting impact on pop culture (Katy Perry's Left Shark will live on as a meme forever). And it can bring the country together during turbulent times (everyone stopped thinking about 2017's divisive inauguration the second Lady Gaga threw herself off the top of that stadium).

So it's easy to forget quite how much the pre-Jackson Super Bowl halftime, well, sucked.

Going all the way back to the beginning, the first three halftime shows ('67-'69) consisted simply of marching bands. In 1970, when the NFL decided to jazz things up for Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, it saw fit to give America a surreal reenactment of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Cannons, on-field "deaths" and Carol Channing singing "When the Saints Go Marching In" were all involved. (All of which makes Black Eyed Peas' Tron musical in 2011 look perfectly reasonable.)


Carol Channing was invited back again two years later, when Ella Fitzgerald and Al Hirt performed a rendition of "Mack the Knife" as part of a single-song "tribute to Louis Armstrong." And by '73, Andy Williams had been dragged in to pelt the crowd with two easy listening gems while the Michigan Marching Band did its thing.

Despite the fact that the flashiest thing about Williams' performance was his belt, in subsequent years, the decision was made to return to simpler times. For the next 15 years, marching bands performing a grab bag of "themes" dominated.

These regimented "salutes" ranged from fairly reasonable celebrations (America's bicentennial, "the Big Band era," Hollywood's 100th Anniversary), to totally random subjects (Duke Ellington, the Caribbean, Motown). And in between, there were moments of abject surreality ("World of Children's Dreams," "KaleidoSUPERscope" and "Beat of the Future," anyone?)

Occasionally, flagrant advertising would interrupt proceedings—even more so than Pepsi does now. The most egregious example of this was 1977's "It's a Small World." Produced by The Walt Disney Company, the halftime exhibition featured grinning but under-utilized Mouseketeers, a human reproduction of Disneyland's "It's a Small World" ride and, for reasons that remain unclear, green-hooded figures waving white sheets in formations that made... nothing.

1987's "Hollywood's 100th Anniversary" special with George Burns, as well as New Kids On The Block's weird, child-laden set in 1991 also served as thinly-veiled Disney commercials.

As late as 1989, the Super Bowl halftime show was such a mess, the NFL thought nothing of bringing in Elvis Presto, a magician and Elvis impersonator who spent his time on the field doing one large-scale card trick for the stadium, then a bunch of smaller illusions while singing "Do You Love Me" by The Contours—instead of, you know, an Elvis song.

The most noteworthy halftime of that period came in 1988 with a show that answered the question: What happens when you have too many ideas and decide to do all of them at the same time?

The final result, featuring 88 grand pianos, 44 Rockettes, four dudes on roller skates, an untold number of "dancersizers," hundreds of cheerleaders, "the biggest big band ever to swing" and—wouldn't you know it?—Chubby Checker, is the single most entertaining (and unintentionally hilarious) halftime show of all time. Behold its majesty:

In the last 25 years, the strides made by the Super Bowl halftime show are immense. But we still find reasons to quibble. For every Destiny's Child reunion, there is a Bruno Mars trying (and failing) to make it work with Red Hot Chili Peppers. For every Prince flawlessly powering through a thunderstorm, there is an Adam Levine assuming that removing his shirt constitutes a grand finale. And for every inter-generationally loved Bruce Springsteen set, there's an M.I.A. middle finger or a Janet Jackson nipple guard.

In 2020, there are three guarantees when it comes to the Super Bowl halftime show. It will be spectacular, it won't please everyone and, even at its worst, it's still about a million times better than it was in its fledgling years. So this Sunday, if you happen to end up sitting next to someone complaining about Jennifer Lopez and Shakira not shimmying hard enough, feel free to send them a gentle reminder of how bad things used to be. The Peanuts-related fever dream below ought to do it.