Hanging out under the radar at 'America's Got Talent'
Last week, a friend of mine called me with an offer. She had "line jumper" passes to watch a daytime filming of "America's Got Talent" and wanted to know if I'd like to join her. How could I not? It was a chance to see new judges Mel B (Scary Spice) and Heidi Klum in action. The auditions were being held at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, where there's hardly a bad seat in the house. There would be comedians, dancers, singers and God only knows who else, ready to be booed or applauded as necessary.
More importantly, I've been to lots of television tapings, but in a professional capacity. I'd been herded by publicists, stuck in press rooms, and tasked with chasing after talent (and, in the case of covering "American Idol" years ago, the moms and dads of said talent). The experience of being an audience member was one I hadn't had, not in a true sense, for years. So why not?
I guess I forgot a few things. To be a good audience member, you have to be patient. Really, really patient. You have to happily do the same thing over and over again to the same thirty second snippet of music until it tunnels into your brain so deeply you will wake up at night mumbling the chorus. You have to like screaming with joy, even when the whole experience feels less joyful than it feels like being processed for a prison stay, give or take a delousing. You have to like waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
When you see a smiling studio audience, be sure to silently give those people props. They've seen some things.
Even with a "line jumper" pass my friend had earned by coming to an earlier taping, there was still some waiting in line. Admittedly, it meant a lot less waiting than what most everyone else was doing, sweltering on the sunny side of the building working on one-sided tans. The waiting made sense, though, because loading an audience is never easy. It's even less so when there's impromptu "casting" for aisle seats and front rows. Though no one said it explicitly, it soon became clear that anyone who was not relatively attractive and under the age of 25 was not going to sit in either of these sections. I'm not sure if really old and/or really ugly people were asked to sit on the curb and be entertained by juggling panhandlers, but you never know.
Still, being stuck in the middle of the theater didn't phase one older woman, who chirped that she'd been using her retirement to be a be an audience member at lots of shows, including "Dancing with the Stars." I had to wonder if that was fun or like spending your golden years at the DMV.
After the lengthy process of filling the theater, it was time to walk us through a "dance" routine. I use the word "dance" loosely, the way the chair wiggling and arm flopping they teach in assisted living is "aerobics."
Our warm-up guy Frank Nicotero tried to keep everyone upbeat while still focused on the "dancing." I'd later find out that at the evening show later that day, comedian Greg Wilson (allegedly) auditioned with a bit that Nicotero has been using in his own act since the 1990s. Apparently it was a big, awkward moment and one I'm sorry I missed. By the way, it sounds like it's one we're all going to miss -- Nicotero has said show producers have promised him that not only would the (alleged) thief not be going to the next round, he won't be on the show at all.
I can understand why the comic stole the bit, as it's pretty funny. But Nicotero didn't have as much opportunity to joke around during the long slog of teaching everyone in the audience to stand up, stick their arms in the air, wave right, wave left, wave down, awkwardly freestyle dance, then repeat before ending with a scream. This is about as easy as learning a very basic square dance step or turning left on a green arrow. And yet, after the tenth attempt to do this while listening to the James Brown song "Living in America," there were still people waving left when they needed to wave right or blowing the waving part entirely. "Black people, you show the white people how it's done," Notero joked.
The black woman sitting next to me, who kept waving left when she should have been waving right, just smiled. No one booed. In fact, even after almost an hour spent sitting (and standing) in a theater, and who knows how much longer waiting in line just to get in, everyone was still smiling giddily like kids awaiting cake. When Notero told the audience to scream, eardrums bled. He asked how many people in the audience were skipping school or skipping work. There was a great deal of applause. This was exactly where they wanted to be, even if that meant waving right, then left, over and over and over again as a camera rotated over the crowd. I guess the specter of being in the same room with Howard Stern or Heidi Klum made it seem less like being trapped in a never-ending hokey pokey loop.
During a camera set-up, Notero asked if anyone in the audience had an "AGT" worthy skill. A man and a woman both took turns at the mic. Both were more or less in tune, and for that received rabid applause from the audience. You would have thought Rihanna had showed up. Clearly, it was going to be up to the judges to pick the wheat from the chaff.
Once a crowd shot was captured, it was time to bring out Nick Cannon in a music video-worthy fog of artificial smoke. Amazingly, everyone was not only allowed to take pictures, but was urged to Tweet, Facebook and e-mail them. It was a savvy move by the show producers. Everyone was probably itching to take pictures and would have done it anyway, thinking no one was noticing -- even as they screwed up overhead shots.
Cannon was forced to run up and down (and up and down and up and down -- the guy has great stamina) the theater, as the people who couldn't figure out the waving sequence (right to left, which seemed to escape the nice lady next to me, who kept hitting me in the face) continued to botch the job. "It's ten percent of the audience screwing it up each time," my friend said to me. "The ten percent changes, but it's always ten percent."
Eventually, it seems the producers decided that 90 percent is a passing grade and to hell with it. It was time for Howard Stern, Mel B, Howie Mandel and Heidi Klum to take their seats and get the show on the road.
Those sitting on the aisles were ordered to be excited, dammit, but they didn't really need the instruction. Everyone seemed thrilled to be within spitting distance of the judges. Stern, more than the others, seemed to revel in the applause, even running back and repeating part of his entrance. I'm sure he had more than a few fans in the audience; earlier, we'd been told not to yell out "Baba Booey" just to screw with filming.
Once the judges were seated, everything began to move quickly. I won't give anything away about who performed, but they weren't the real stars of the show anyway. The audience applauded and booed like a bunch of Romans at the Coliseum. At the judges' table, both Klum and Mel B seemed to have strong opinions and weren't easily won over by anyone less than worthy. Given that Stern has been more of a softie than I expected and Mandel can be swayed by the crowd, it was good to see them shrug off the boos from the audience when they got them. Given that no one is getting through with less than three votes, the new girls have plenty of power and will, hopefully, use it wisely.
As the afternoon progressed, there was just one reminder that this was TV, after all. When a producer decided that a good reaction shot of the judges hadn't been grabbed during one performance, he asked for all four of them to pretend to be watching the act again. As the audience watched, they nodded and pretended to whisper to one another. It might have been one of the better performances of the day, really.
Are you going to watch "AGT"? Are you excited about the new judges?