Review: Howard Stern's sweet debut on 'America's Got Talent'
There is something sweetly old-fashioned about the phrase "talent show" -- like "quilting bee" or "sack race" or "bake off," it calls up images of small-town fun, of ordinary citizens showing off that extraordinary thing they do. And for all the audiovisual Sturm und Drang of the modern televised variety, it remains humble at its core.
NBC's "America's Got Talent," whose seventh -- seventh! -- season began Monday night, is the purest expression of the form, making room as it does for all manner of performing arts and crafts. The big news in its seventh -- seventh! -- season is the arrival of new judge Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed "king of all media," a claim that may or may not be taken as ironic. (It is not without some factual basis.)
Stern's deserved reputation for vulgarity -- and I intend no criticism -- has led some to worry, sincerely or for practical effect, that his presence would dirty a wholesome brand. The ever- if not over-vigilant Parents Television Council preemptively called for all the show's past advertisers to consider how this unholy alliance would reflect on their products, citing his "decades-long penchant for profanity, his affinity for degrading and sexualizing women.... There can be, and there must be, a presumption that Mr. Stern will only continue to conduct himself in precisely the same manner as he has done for decades."
That is, of course, a foolish presumption, which sells short the show's producers and misreads Stern, who has shown himself perfectly capable of good behavior on other people's turf. On his own shows, he (partially) plays a character named Howard Stern, who lives out the fantasies of the less imposing person he sees in the mirror. (On his first night on "AGT," he managed to impugn both his face and, an old theme with him, his genitals, as well as his relationship with his father.)
He was introduced, nevertheless, in a montage, set to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," that referred to his reputation. Stern himself played the part, for a minute: "These executives at NBC must be out of their mind taking a risk on me." To the audience: "I say I won't make it through the first show -- what do you think?" But it quickly became evident that, like fellow judges Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel, he meant to play the game the way the game is meant to be played, because, to a deep degree, he believes in it.
Contestants on the opening night, appearing before large and noisy crowds in old, majestic theaters in Los Angeles and St. Louis, included a magician-cum-stripper; a crossbow artist; a man who put a scorpion in his mouth; a ventriloquist whose dummy was a live dog; a little girl on aerial silks; a bad Michael Jackson knockoff; a shirtless saxophonist; the player of a large "earth harp" strung from the stage to the balcony; a woman who sang covered in birds; and the usual dance crews and singers. (One, who called himself Simply Sergio, failed singing "The Girl From Ipanema" but snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by slipping in an operatic "God Bless America" that brought Stern, who had earlier deemed the singer "dreadful," onstage to embrace him.)
Monday's last act, not surprisingly, was the one that best fit the show's rags-to-riches theme, a father-and-daughter team of street performers who brought the crowd, themselves and at least one television critic to tears with a fine reading of "You've Got a Friend."
Some of them will be "going to Vegas" and the next round of competition. Others will fall back on other dreams.
"This is going to sound all sappy," Stern said, giving a thumbs up to one group, whose dance-and-light performance in which they seemed to become dinosaurs and flowers would take too long to accurately describe, "but we are the greatest country in the world; we have the most creative people."
-- Robert Lloyd
Photo: Nick Cannon, Sharon Osbourne, Howard Stern and Howie Mandel. Credit: Mark Seliger/NBC.