Lured in by the debut appearance of Howard Stern as a judge, I watched both hours of tonight’s season premiere of America’s Got Talent. I’ve never watched the show before, nor any of its stablemates, like American Idol. So let’s not bury the lede: I will not be watching again.
You see, I’m a lapsed Howard fan going back more than twenty years, to when I first heard his afternoon drive-time show on New York’s WNBC. I believe now, as I did then, that Stern was a radio innovator, bringing a brutally honest conversational style to a medium that was overrun with fast-talking put-on DJs. Often his contributions to radio are overshadowed by his sophomoric obsessions with lesbians, porn stars and the sexual habits of his celebrity guests. Even if he only shows it occasionally these days, also he can be genuinely funny and truly irreverent, calling bullshit when he smells it.
Very unfortunately, that is not the Howard Stern I saw during tonight’s AGT. In fact I barely recognized the AGT Stern. In the opening sequence Stern remarked that NBC executives must “be out of their minds,” for putting him on the show. His performance proves them right, but for the opposite reason. Instead of bringing the “Banned by the FCC” King of All Media, he delivered almost none of the caustic wit and critical eye that he’s otherwise known for. Instead, we got schmaltz, and way too much “this is why America is great,” pandering.
Early on in the first hour he got of a couple of Howardesque one-liners, such as when he told a stripper magician that the guy had a “small package,” but that Howard could empathize because he’s “in the same boat.” He told the same guy that a stripper like him shouldn’t have “man boobs,” but again took the edge off by admitting that Stern is similarly endowed, himself.
At the start of the second hour, which took place in Saint Louis, we get a glimpse of the neurotic Howard when the judges and Howie Mandel’s mother get stuck in one of the theater’s elevators on their way to the stage. When the elevator shudders Stern looks genuinely worried, observing that elevator accidents are “epidemic” in New York. But, alas, that was the last remotely honest moment in that hour.
On the whole the show struck me as a short attention span version of the Gong Show. Only a few acts were shown in their entirety, interspersed by montages of several acts thrown together with fast editing, and lots of shots of the judges enthusiastically jumping out of the seats and clapping. A few clinkers were also shown being buzzed out of the running before finishing, but not really enough to be satisfying, nor to let any of the judges lay into them. On the whole the winning acts weren’t nearly as impressive as any of the judges made them out to be. Where are Chuck Barris, Artie Johnson, Jamie Farr and Jaye P. Morgan when you need them?
Having never watched America’s Got Talent before, I don’t know first hand if former judge Piers Morgan was more critical than Howard. Watching twitter traffic during the show I got the impression that Morgan was indeed considered a more discerning judge than Stern. Then again, Stuttering John would have been more trenchant.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Stern’s radio and television shows in the late 80s and early 90s is how he attracted a merry band of misfit fans who appeared on air to show off lame-brained tricks and stunts. Howard could be both welcoming while also maintaining a snarky standpoint of near disbelief. Stern limply attempted such a jibe when he first dismissed the player of something called the “Earth Harp” as an unemployed hippy, only to come back with gushing praise after the performance.
The last twenty minutes of the two hours were almost insufferable as just about every act turned on the water works. Oh, the crying! And, the hugging! I have a hard time not imagining that the 1990 Howard Stern would have vomited in his mouth watching the 2012 Stern and the whole AGT production.
It may be true that America’s got talent. That premise remains unproven tonight.