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Super Bowl Stunt-Casting Ended With Prince's New Girl Appearance

Maybe the Purple One really was magic.
  • Zooey Deschanel, Prince, and Jake Johnson in New Girl (Photo: Fox/Everett Collection)
    Zooey Deschanel, Prince, and Jake Johnson in New Girl (Photo: Fox/Everett Collection)

    It's been 10 years since Prince played ping-pong with Zooey Deschanel in the post-Super Bowl episode of New Girl, and the TV industry hasn't been able to stunt-cast a post-Super Bowl episode of anything since. Who could possibly follow Prince, after all?

    The idea of stunt-casting the Super Bowl lead-out program is a relatively recent one. Before the 1990s, TV networks airing the 6:00 PM(-ish) football game would follow it up with regular programming or the pilot of a new show. CBS usually aired an episode of 60 Minutes. When the '90s hit, the idea of the Super Bowl as an all-encompassing event began to take hold, and the lead-out programs had to keep up. NBC premiered the much-hyped Homicide: Life on the Street in 1993; CBS still aired 60 Minutes, but this time it featured Bill and Hillary Clinton being interviewed about the Gennifer Flowers scandal.

    Then Friends cranked the volume way up. With "The One After the Super Bowl," the show purposefully loaded up on high-profile guest stars like Brooke Shields, Chris Isaak, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and most spectacularly, Julia Roberts. Thereafter, the TV networks had to pull out all the stops: major series premieres, episodes with huge, game-changing plot developments (Scully finding out she had cancer in The X-Files; Alias blowing Sydney Bristow's cover and raising SD-6), and big guest stars like Dolly Parton, Troy Aikman, and John Madden on The Simpsons, Christina Ricci on Grey's Anatomy, and Katie Couric on Glee.

    When Fox announced that New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine would air following Super Bowl XLVIII, the latter series turned to Adam Sandler to get some juice. Meanwhile, New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether saw the opportunity to introduce the show to a new audience. It turned out that Prince was a fan of the show and was looking for a way to make a guest appearance. The idea was to marry a big-time guest star like Prince — who could pull in people who didn't already watch the show — with something special for the existing fans. The latter was Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) telling his girlfriend Jess (Zooey Desdchanel) that he loves her, only to get a speechless pair of finger guns as a response.

    The specifics of why Jess and Cece (Hannah Simone) were invited to a party at Prince's house don't really matter. There's a party at Prince's house. Nick and the other roommates have to find their own ways to sneak into the party so Nick can take back the "I love you" so it's not hanging awkwardly in the air. Built around that pretty significant plot strand was just a lot of silliness, as was New Girl's wont. You'd think that silliness would have clashed with Prince, whose vibe has historically been somewhere on the spectrum between funky and majestic. But once he appears, Prince is a great fit for the New Girl foolishness, as he whisks Jess away for a tutorial on how to say "I love you" back. Yes, this involves ping-pong, a butterfly, and a moment where Prince appears to be able to move through walls.

    Prince reportedly made revisions to the script and worked with Meriwether on fine-tuning his material. In the end, New Girl harnessed the aloofness of the legendary performer and made it part of the joke: Prince as the “gal pal” who helped Jess figure out her relationship.

    The ratings for the episode, titled "Prince," were huge. The 26.3 million viewers were a high point for a narrative series in the post-Super Bowl slot, dating back to the Glee Super Bowl episode in 2011. In the decade since, that viewership number has only been bested twice: by the This Is Us house fire episode, and the third-season premiere of The Masked Singer.

    What's more, no narrative show has attempted a big-name guest star since that moment. Shows like The Blacklist and This Is Us shied away from major guest stars. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert tried to load up its post-Super Bowl offering with the likes of Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Will Ferrell, Key & Peele, and Megyn Kelly, but it's not exactly all that special to see big celebrities on a talk show, which only served to underline what a special moment "Prince" was. This year, CBS is premiering the Justin Hartley survivalist-investigator series Tracker, with nary a guest star to be found.

    "Where do we go from here?" mused Winston (Lamorne Morris) after the show smash-cut to the group back at home, gobsmacked that they all just danced and, in Jess' case, sang with Prince. That question may well have come from the mouths of TV executives wondering what kind of guest star they could possibly produce to outshine Prince. They couldn't. They can't. The Super Bowl will go on year after year, but there was only one Prince and he effectively ended the Big Game of stunt-casting.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Super Bowl, New Girl, Damon Wayans Jr., Hannah Simone, Jake Johnson, Lamorne Morris, Liz Meriwether, Max Greenfield, Prince, Zooey Deschanel