The refrain has long been that the football is only a small part of the greater Super Bowl extravaganza, and it's as true today as ever. The halftime show is a spectacle all its own, the pregame festivities last for hours, the lead-out program is as plum a spot for what remains of the primetime television audience, and of course, there are the commercials.
The increased focus on the Super Bowl commercials as a spectacle all of their own has been going since at least the late 1980s, when Budweiser, Pepsi, and Doritos began scaling up their ads, leading to a multiple-decade escalating arms race of ads. The Super Bowl has also proven to be a prime launch pad for movie studios and of course the host TV network to peddle their upcoming wares, and it's this latter genre of advertisement that brings us to the 10th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary TV spectacles we've seen: NBC's 2012 Super Bowl ad that featured the stars of its various hit programs (and Whitney) performing a rendition of the Broadway song "Brotherhood of Man" from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It was a moment of dubious singing talent, epic cheesiness, and a few horrible surprises by the end. And ten years later, it serves as a time capsule of hubris that comes crashing down to Earth by the end. We celebrate its existence.
The Background: A couple things to know before embarking upon the journey that is this video. One is that in January of 2012, 30 Rock kicked off its sixth and penultimate season. The show was never NBC's highest rated program, but between the star power of Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin and the fact that it satirized the goings on at NBC's very real 30 Rockefeller Center, the show was often the jewel in the network's promotional crown.
The other thing is the concept of the sizzle reel. This kind of promotional compilations of all of a network's shows in a given year had mostly been kept to in-house events like the Upfronts, where annually the networks would present their new fall schedules to prospective advertisers. These presentations would include in-person appearances by the networks' biggest celebrities — for a time, Jimmy Kimmel got a lot of mileage out of roasting ABC's primetime prospects for comedy's sake — and promo packages that would montage all the upcoming year's most anticipated shows into one sizzle reel. Most networks wouldn't air these publicly (though some like HBO turned them into prestige-y promo ads) and thus were able to really cheese it up and have their contract-bound talent really sell out for the network brand. Dignified? No, but it takes hustle to sell in Hollywood. Desperate, flop-sweaty hustle.
Now that you've watched (or re-watched) the spot, let's break it down moment by notable moment:
Office Super Bowl Party (0:00:01): The nearly four-minute ad kicks off as a kind of sketch with the cast of 30 Rock, all in character, gathered in the office of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) to watch the Super Bowl. Super Bowl XLVI took place on February 5, 2012, between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. By the end of the evening, the Giants will have defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in five years. The mood is joyous. In Jack's office, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) expresses her trademark incredulity that Jack would be populist enough to throw a Super Bowl party in his office for the TGS gang (she doesn't say "especially including Lutz and Twofer" but you know it's implied). Ah, but Jack says it's a big night for NBC, and they're all in the NBC family. And that, believe it or not, is all the setup this scenario needs to break into song.
The Song (0:00:32): The other crucial bit of background information necessary to understand what could possibly be going on here is that there was a Broadway revival of the 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that played throughout 2011. It originally starred Daniel Radcliffe and a Tony-winning John Larroquette, although by the time the NBC ad aired Nick Jonas had taken over the lead role. The production was a success, but by no means was it a smash sensation like The Book of Mormon had been or Hamilton would be. There's certainly no reason why the football-watching audience would recognize the song as holding any cultural currency at the moment, but score one for the theater fans in the audience.
Baldwin starts the crooning, with lyrics about how he (Jack Donaghy) is a "one-percenter," all while Liz Lemon cheeses knowingly about how they're all in a Super Bowl commercial. It's all building to something.
Dunder Hoofin' (0:01:00): Just as the song breaks into the "Brotherhood of Man" chorus, the scene cuts to the cast of The Office at the Dunder Mifflin paper company. The Office was also in the midst of its penultimate season, the first without Steve Carell, so this particular production number is headed up by John Krasinski, Jenna Fishcher, Rainn Wilson, Mindy Kaling, and Ed Helms. If you've watched this video enough times, you start to look for who's having an actual good time and who wants to kill themselves. Kudos to the majority of The Office's cast members for having a good time with this, even if Krasinski and B.J. Novak look about ready to bolt at any moment.
Knope (0:01:20): God bless Amy Poehler for throwing her whole essence into the three lines she has to belt with all her might, but she is not a singer. Loud, yes, but not so tuneful. The Parks and Recreation crew seem far less enthused about their participation in this little corporate-mandated stunt, although one supposes this could merely be Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) staying in character. Still, look at them: aside from Rob Lowe, no one wants to be there. Chris Pratt is practically out of frame.
Winging It (0:01:30): Completing the tour through NBC's Thursday night comedy block are the folks from Community. You'd think, given Joel McHale's whole deal, that he'd be the most begrudging of anybody, but he's putting some effort into the choreography here, and remember that this isn't the first time he's had to do a musical production number for an NBC event, having participated in the Jimmy Fallon-hosted Emmys Glee-style opening number in 2010. It's also worth noting that Chevy Chase is nowhere to be seen among the singing and dancing Community cast members despite the fact that he was still very much in the cast in 2012.
Jenna Grabs Her Spotlight (0:01:40): We're back to Liz and Jack for a change of pace as the pair comments on the prospect of selling the NBC primetime lineup while selling the primetime lineup. And then, because you'd have to be crazy to have a musical number and not have Jane Krakowski do something, Jenna sings us a few bars of interstitial book-number stuff, which honestly, given that Amy Poehler (who we love! but was overmatched!) got to belt for three whole bars.
Oh God, It's Happening (0:02:25): Back to Alec Baldwin, who says the most glorious thirteen words in the English language: "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the newest member of the NBC family … Smash!" Here's where, if you're watching ten years after the fact and wondering why in the world NBC would frame all their comedy talent around a Broadway musical theme, you've finally got your answer, as Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty resume the song, before the camera cuts to a wide shot and the full cast of Smash strides out for an entire three seconds. It is frankly insane that they ginned up this entire cockamamie musical number just to herald their new Broadway-themed TV show and then barely let anyone perform to hype it up. Academy Award winner ANJELICA HUSTON showed up to set that day to walk three paces forward in a wide shot before we hastily cut away to Mariska Hargitay.
Cha-Cha-Chung-Chung (0:02:36): That's not even a joke, the next cast to throw out some jazz hands are the sex cops at Law & Order: SVU, which includes Hargitay dangling some handcuffs in front of her and an admirably game Richard Belzer shimmying around (Ice T, predictably, refuses to dance and just scowls).
Nope (0:02:45): We're speeding through the rest of the NBC lineup now, including a promo shot of the coaches from The Voice spinning around in their chairs and very much not filming any new material for this promo because NBC cannot afford Christina Aguilera and Adam Levine's rates.
Jaydancing (0:02:47): To better help orient you where in the entertainment space-time continuum this ad took place, here's Jay Leno to remind you that this was from the stretch after he got Conan fired but before he retired again and paved the way for Jimmy Fallon. Jay, ever the company man, absolutely did show up to set early to film approximately two seconds worth of footage.
Bravermans (0:02:49): Honestly, I have nothing snarky to say about Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shephard, and Erika Christensen showing up to sing and shuffle-step for two seconds. Good for them! Given the cavalcade of slime we're about to encounter, we should all just linger on Lauren Graham and absorb some good vibes for a second.
Bad Omens (0:02:51): Here's where things start to get dark, and not just because here's where NBC trots out their first two doomed shows, as Chelsea Handler and Laura Prepon scowl their way through not participating in support of Are You There Chelsea? in the same frame as Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Elia from Whitney, who are at least dancing. This is merely a taste of worse things to come. The same could be said of the presence of sexual harrasser Chris D'Elia.
A Reprieve (0:02:56): Ah, but before things get worse, let's bask in Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, and Christina Applegate, repping the entirely forgotten parenting sitcom Up All Night. The three of them barely get up out of their chairs to pose, but we're going to continue basking if only to linger for one more moment before the screen cuts to…
Trump (0:03:02): OH GOD DAMN IT. It's the great whammy of American popular culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. You never know when he's going to show up in a movie or TV show or a commercial on a YouTube transfer of an old VHS tape, but there he is with his big stupid face. In five years, he'd be the GODDAMN PRESIDENT and if you'd just smashed that button a second earlier we could've gotten President Maya Rudolph but fate sucks that way.
Lauer (0:03:04): The clip mercifully cuts past Trump after only a couple seconds only to arrive at our third (alleged) sex criminal in under 15 seconds. That is a dizzying pace. Speaking of dizzying, Matt Lauer is alongside Ann Curry, before that whole business with the Today show blew up and she was canned for bad vibes or whatever. This clip has become so incredibly cursed, and for once Smash is completely innocent.
Talent (0:03:09): Kristen Wiig saves us from this parade of sex pests, as we're reminded of the insane talent level of this moment on SNL (Wiig! Samberg! Hader! Meyers! Kenan! Bayer!). For whatever reason, everyone at SNL decided to a) all wear black, and b) not tell Nasim Pedrad about it.
Dishonesty (0:03:18): The parade of scandal continues as we cut to the final tableau, with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin flanking then-NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who at this point was a good three years out from getting fired for fabricating a story about being aboard a U.S. army helicopter that got fired on in Iraq.
Chicanery (0:03:21): The camera pulls back to reveal the whole cavalcade of NBC talent gathered at Rockefeller Center, including everyone from SNL, Tracy, Jenna, and Kenneth from 30 Rock, the whole Today crew, including Hoda and Kathie Lee, and John and Marlena from Days of Our Lives.Not satisfied with this rather impressive tableau, however, NBC pushes its luck and adds in some ludicrously obvious green-screened appearances by: the cast of The Biggest Loser, Howie Mandel from Deal or No Deal, David Giuntoli from Grimm, Kathy Bates from Harry's Law, and Carson Daly. Not a single one of them are present in the wide shots, but NBC thinks we're stupid enough to buy it, which I guess explains Are You There Chelsea?
Fallon (0:03:40): Jimmy Fallon shows up late for a little post-credits tag, but by this point the audience has been emotionally spent and scarred for life. From the flop sweat to the soon-to-be canceled shows to the soon-to-be-canceled people, the "Brotherhood of Man" promo may well be the cringiest thing to ever happen in a Super Bowl, an event that has also included compound fractures, Nipplegate, and that time the Falcons choked away a 25-point lead. It lives on in the darkest recesses of our memories now, shuffling and cheesing finger-snapping forever.
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: NBC, 30 Rock, Are You There Chelsea?, Brothers & Sisters, Community, Grimm, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Office (US), One Life to Live, Saturday Night Live, Smash, Super Bowl XLVI, Up All Night, The Voice, Whitney, Alec Baldwin, Amy Poehler, Angelica Huston, Ann Curry, Aubrey Plaza, Brian Williams, Carson Daly, Chelsea Handler, Chris D'Elia, Chris Pratt, Dax Shepard, Donald Trump, Erika Christensen, Howie Mandel, Jane Krakowski, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Joel McHale, Katharine McPhee, Kathy Bates, Kristen Wiig, Lauren Graham, Mariska Hargitay, Matt Lauer, Maya Rudolph, Nasim Pedrad, Nick Offerman, Peter Krause, Richard Belzer, Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Whitney Cummings, Retro TV, Super Bowl, TV Musicals