"America, are you ready for the revolution?" "America's Got Talent" host Nick Cannon asked, standing on what appeared to be a rocky mountaintop, as the NBC talent show kicked off its seventh season Monday night.
"The show is about to go to a level it has never gone before," Howie Mandel said in the montage that followed, which included a clip of someone taking a hammer to a concrete block on someone else's crotch.
Oh, "America's Got Talent," you wonder of hyperbole and cheese, you master evoker of the cringe, welcome back!
The "revolution" to which Cannon was referring was presumably the show's extremely well paid, highly controversial (before he even had a chance to do anything) new judge, Howard Stern.
Of course, the self-dubbed King of All Media is no stranger himself to cheesy hyperbole and making America cringe. But it's safe to say a lot of people – fans of "America's Got Talent," fans of Stern, the parenting group that's called for an ad boycott – didn't see how the boundary-pushing radio personality would be suitable for a family-friendly talent show: Would he, metaphorically speaking, take a hammer to "America's Got Talent's" delicate parts, they may have wondered?
I'm guessing the new judge's doubters weren't those people in the audience at the Los Angeles auditions chanting "How-ward, How-ward, How-ward" in the show's season premiere.
I don't remember anyone ever doing that for Piers Morgan.
But then, after only one night with Stern at the judging table, the memories of Morgan as a judge have already grown hazy and faint: pursed lips, nasty quips about Cannon's attire, a quick trigger finger on the buzzer, a toxic relationship with the other judges …
As an "America's Got Talent" judge, Stern, it may not startle you to learn, is nothing like Morgan. It seems we can look forward to him being, at turns, self-effacing and self-promoting, sincere and sassy, surprisingly in command and sometimes downright sentimental. Stern proved himself neither afraid to buzz (he confessed he liked the feeling of power) nor to encourage nor even to climb up onstage and bestow a warm hug to a weepy wannabe. He introduced himself as a man who knows how to assess talent and also what it's like to be told you can't do something and yet persevere. A stern judge and a sympathetic advocate all rolled into one.
Yes, he was funny and a bit bawdy: "Why did Piers Morgan give up this job?" he wondered as a comely female contestant positioned herself onstage. He repeatedly referenced his own "virginity" as a judge. And he commented that "stripper magician" Aoni Jackson's "man boobs" and diminutive package size might not help him realize his dreams. But come on, the guy was a "stripper magician"! For the most part, the shock jock was kind, almost fatherly, and far less shocking than some of the auditioning acts themselves.
But the best part is that all three judges – Stern and returning judges Mandel and Sharon Osborne -- seem to get along famously and to revel in their rapport. When Stern gently teased Mandel about his germ phobia or took a winking poke at Osborne when he advised an attractive, not terribly talented contestant to do as Osborne had and marry a wealthy man (cut to: Ozzy), it had none of Morgan's mean-spiritedness. And when the trio was briefly stuck in an elevator and Stern grew visibly uncomfortable, he gentlemanly ushered Osborne and Mandel's mother off first when the lift finally arrived safely.
OK, the gentleman may have been a little brusque.
"She's 80 years old. You trampled my mother," Mandel griped, amused.
"She's lived long enough. If I die, it's important to the show. Your mother's expendable," Stern quipped.
"My mother lived 80 years and then she met Howard," Mandel giggled.
And what of the talent on Monday's two-hour season premiere, which auditioned talent in Los Angeles and St. Louis?
Los Angeles highlights included William Close, who turned the entire theater into a musical instrument he called an Earth Harp and played it mesmerizingly; the crisply clogging Elements Dance Crew; an acrobatic sport-bike act called All Wheel Sport; the very young aerialist Amazing Elizabeth; rap freestyler Chris La Vrar, who swore he made up his lyrics "100% off the top of my head," though I have my doubts; and the adorable father-daughter singing act Jorge and Alexa, who made Stern express a desire to call his dad up and ask him why he didn't play guitar with him when he was a kid.
Top St. Louis contenders included cross-bow sharpshooter act Ben Black; this season's requisite glow-in-the-dark high-tech dance ensemble, Lightwire Theater; the Loyalty Dance Crew, who worked retail and fast food jobs but loved to dance; a singing waiter calling himself Simply Sergio (it was his rendition of "God Bless America" that brought Stern to the stage for a hug); and another very sweet father-daughter singing duo, street musicians Maurice and Shanice, whose "You've Got a Friend" showed off her beautiful alto. Stern called their act "perfection."
And the lowlights? A kooky lady who lets her cockatiels eat directly from her mouth, who sang … while covered with birds; a circus sideshow performer/stay-at-home dad who pierced his face with long needles (at least that's what it looked like through my fingers); the aforementioned "stripper magician" whose wand (ahem) Stern deemed too small.
"I'm really hopeful," Stern said at the end of Monday's show. "I feel we're on our way."
You know what, Howard? I feel that way, too.
-- Amy Reiter
Photo: Kotton Kandy with Nick Cannon. Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC.