Once the actual talent began performing on America’s Got Talent, I remembered why I had avoided the show for so long. Bad talent is unbearable to watch. Aoni Jackson, a 34 year-old “stripper Magician” lured judge Howie Mandel on stage, (who exposed his well-documented germ-phobia in front of America) and wasted a lot of people’s time with a disappearing ring trick. The next act was even worse when Miss Les, a 55-year old music teacher sang a cabaret song with a dozen or so birds perched on her shoulders and neck (the birds’ only talent was not flying away) prompting an argument from the judges. More bad acts followed and there wasn’t a single act worth seeing until a full half hour into the two-hour block.
Thank god for Howard Stern.
He’s the real reason I found myself watching America’s Got Talent, and NBC loves to hear he can be a magnet of new viewers to the once stagnant show. But let me be clear, I was not a skeptic. I knew since the first announcement of Stern joining the judge’s table that he would be the reason to tune into a talent show that’s often lost in a vast sea of unscripted talent, and mercifully, he delivered. Stern was engaging during his performer interviews, though he quickly fell into his concerned father mode, worrying what kind of lives these starving artists would lead if they don’t win the million dollar prize. He played to the rabid crowd who traveled there to see him, and was determined to look at each act and quickly assess whether or not the public would pay to see them. Even Stern’s cynics had to admit he was a good judge.
“Could we [potentially] see death here?” Stern asked one act.
And I loved how quickly he hit the buzzer when the act needed to get off stage. He didn’t reinvent the reality show judge or copycat Simon Cowell, as so many other talent shows try to do (even Cupcake Wars has an arrogant French judge). He was honest, funny, concise, and at times, surprisingly compassionate as a judge. Those endless years of therapy have made a difference if only for his time on America’s Got Talent.
At one moment, Stern felt a situation quickly heading south and turned it on its head. When he asked a bad singer (who began pleading his case and wouldn’t leave) about his parents, the performer responded that they were dead. Silence fell on the crowd waiting for what the Sirius XM radio personality would say next. Any other judge on American Idol, The Voice, Dancing With The Stars, you name it, would have apologized and crumbled, but not Stern. He replied, “They died from embarrassment?” Whether you found the joke funny or not, he turned a train wreck into a watchable moment instead of letting it fall flat. So even though the first quarter of the show was bereft with talent, you waited to see what he’d say next, a quality that’s followed him throughout his career.
Now, I realize they wanted to show the first act, and the show’s star judge growing into the job, but this was a dreadful group to open a talent show with–a sign of poor editing. Finally, William Close, a sculptor and musical instrument inventor was next who created an instrument out of the auditorium, attaching strings to the upper levels and pulling them tight towards the stage, creating a giant guitar/harp. With the help of a percussionist, it was an amazing spectacle that fit the bill perfectly. Las Vegas needs more than the average singer or dancer. They need something that people can connect to and most of all be something truly unique.
Some of the other acts from the Los Angeles and St. Louis auditions that warranted a trip to the next round to Vegas included:
• Three different dance groups (Stern’s general assessment of dance acts was spot on by the way)
• A rapper who “assured” the judges he was freestyling
• A dangerous sharpshooting crossbow act, made especially funny by the judges
• A geeky and cool dance theater performance done in Tron style
• A ventriloquist act with a live dog with steel-trap jaw
• A one man sing and dance show who was about to get booted after murdering “The Girl From Ipanema” but saved himself by singing “God Bless America” and got Stern to join him on stage.
• And two separate, emotional (one very cute cover of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros’ “Home”, the other a heart-felt rendition of Carole King and James Taylor’s “You Got a Friend”) father-daughter singing acts.
But Got Talent has its fair share of areas that need vast improvement–the most important being the editing. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear about viewers tuning out in the first half hour. It was that bad. Some acts we saw from beginning to end (some very painfully) while others were severely short-changed in montages. We would hear and see the glowing responses and astonished reactions from the judges, but then only a tiny clip of an act would be shown, like a young girl who did aerial stunts with giant scarves (something you’d see in Cirque du Soleil) and a massive stunt team of extreme sport athletes. AGT’s theme song and other blaring pop songs drowned out the talent in these montages, and we never get to see the names of the acts featured in the montages labeled below. I understand that time is an issue, but if some of these acts are so great, like the young girl hanging in the air in drapes, then let’s see it play out in full. I don’t understand the inconsistency there, especially when we see host Nick Cannon saving a bad act for several minutes just because one his song was being used. Tighten it up NBC.
Even though the spotlight is supposed to be on the performers or ones masquerading as being talented, it’s hard not to talk about Stern because he is the start of every conversation point. The most memorable moment may have come during the judge’s entrance to the stage in St. Louis. All three were riding an old elevator with their security, (well, okay, Ronnie “the Limo Driver” Mund for Stern and Mandel’s 80-year old mother) when the death box jolted on three occasions. The most paranoid of the group was Stern who heightened the situation by telling Mandel that elevator accidents are an “epidemic” in New York. But when the elevator door opened Stern caught himself nearly shoving Sharon Osbourne and Mandel’s mother out of the way to escape the trauma. Mandel cackled at Stern’s lack of chivalry as they walked down a flight of stairs.
“She’s lived long enough,” Stern fired back. “If I die, I’m important to the show. Your mother is expendable.”
It was a bitingly funny bit that Mandel laughed at as well, probably because he saw the truth in what he said. Stern must be infinitely more fun to be around than that bore Piers Morgan. You could tell that both Osbourne and Mandel enjoyed Stern’s presence; he took away the pressure to deliver the one-liner and in conversations amongst the judges he explained his reasonings well. The increased energy in the crowds reflects the change in the judges’ dynamic.
Even though he was hired on to judge the talent, all eyes are locked in on Stern, because he is being judged too. His fans are looking for their radio hero to make them laugh (and justification for his sporadic on-air schedule), while his harshest critics are waiting to pounce on the first thing he says that will offend them. These same critics are usually the ones who often admit to never hearing his radio show. If only they could give a red “X” to the man they hear about being so evil. Too bad for them that they’ll be disappointed, because Howard Stern is going to win even more approval as a judge–deservedly so.
Catch more America’s Got Talent on NBC tonight at 8-10pm.