The host of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, Nick Cannon, performs stand-up comedy.
One of the show’s judges, Howie Mandel, got his big break in show business as a stand-up comedian.
But could a comedian ever win AGT?
Before you say Terry Fator, remember this: Fator, listed among the biggest-earning comedians in America, is a ventriloquist. He won the second season of America’s Got Talent, in 2007, earning the $1 million prize, and taking that to the bank along with a mega-million multi-year deal with The Mirage in Las Vegas. He sings. He speaks through puppets. He’s a showman. All of those things are true, all of those things exhibit talent, but it’s all so much more than a comedian, standing onstage by himself or herself, just one person on a microphone making many people laugh.
Which, when compared to all of the singers, magicians, dancers and daredevils, can seem a little…small? So do you need a gimmick or a hook to go along with the jokes? Is joke-telling enough to win?
“I think because Tom Cotter did so well (last year), and in my opinion should have won, comedians came out strong this year,” Cannon told The Comic’s Comic. “We have some real, funny, funny people. I hope they go just as far as Tom, if not farther. America’s Got Talent reminds me of Star Search. When you’d see people like Ellen (DeGeneres) and Rosie O’Donnell and Steve Harvey.”
There are four comedians still in the running this summer on the eighth edition of AGT here in 2013: Angela Hoover, Jim Meskimen, Taylor Williamson and John Wing. Hoover advanced to the semifinals round after last night’s results show. Meskimen, Williamson and Wing have yet to compete in their quarterfinals rounds, set to air live the following two Tuesdays.
First-time AGT judges Heidi Klum and Mel B. told The Comic’s Comic in a phone interview this week that they didn’t think the comedians are at a disadvantage competing for the million-dollar prize.
“They just have to make us laugh,” Klum told me. “The guy last week didn’t make me laugh. There’s always an audience for (comedians).”
“I don’t think you can say one is better than the other,” the artist formerly known as Scary Spice told me. “Whether it’s a magician, or a comedian. If it’s funny, it’ll beat all of them.” Mel B. told me she thought a comedian had won AGT last year. She added: “I’m an entertainer. I like to be entertained. It doesn’t matter what kind of act it is, as long as it keeps my attention.”
Hoover told me over the phone this week that the live telecasts feel “like comedy boot camp for me,” because “I’m not one of those rapid-fire delivery comedians.”
“When I started looking at the acts (this week), I started freaking out, because they’re really strong. And it’s such a huge cut, so that’s what made me nervous…12 of you are performing…8 of you are going home,” Hoover said about this round. “I just think, it’s just the quality of each individual act. One girl is on a unicycle juggling cups, and then there’s me telling three jokes. So I know it’s not equal. It’s just getting the biggest bang for your buck.”
“For comedians, it’s being yourself, and not being homogenized down to what TV wants you to be,” Hoover said. She added, talking about Kevin Downey Jr., who didn’t make it past the quarterfinals: “I’m proud of him. He didn’t pander. He did exactly what he likes to do. It might not be the target family NBC audience. But the audience loved him. He was who he was.”
Jim Meskimen, like Hoover, excels at impersonations. What has he learned from watching past years and his fellow performers?
Meskimen told The Comic’s Comic: “From watching some of the comics, I’ve learned that whatever you present, it should be your very finest material, that YOU believe in … the bar is set so high when the performer only has 90 seconds; you simply don’t have time to naturally build any kind of relationship with an audience like you would in a club. So, the trick seems to be to stay close to what the audience already is halfway in agreement with, but not too much like what they’ve seen before … very difficult.”
It’s a bit like what I’ve encountered and struggled with for years in auditioning thousands of times for television shows, movies and commercials — one has usually a minute or less to deliver something that has impact, fits the part, and is innovative without being too original … it’s murder. I think doing comedy or impressions or other ‘Theatrical’ pieces is as dangerous as a high-wire act, or an act where you stick a sword down your throat and then do a somersault into a handstand. Alright, that last part is a lie. But it’s not easy at all, and whoever can pull that off consistently will really be showing something. In my case, I at least have the advantage of having done my impressions for crowds big and small for some time, so I have a sense of what people are delighted by. The wild card is the judges, and they must be pleased as well. Man! Not easy and I have a LOT of respect for all the performers for putting themselves and their art out on display on the world stage this way!”
So what’s it going to take to win? Meskimen, for his part, also came away from last year’s AGT with the same mistaken impression as Mel B. that a comedian had won. “Well, I think a comic won last year, so it can be done,” he told me. This year? “I believe the winner will be the person who has the highest degree of professional discipline, the most respect for the audience, the one most willing to display their individuality, without being out of touch and on some other plane. It’s going to take a lot to keep the audience coming back, and whoever survives the process and can continue to demonstrate enthusiasm for their art through all the distractions and noise will stand a good chance of bringing home the prize.”
Taylor Williamson, who has experience competing in short live bursts on TV before with Last Comic Standing, told me:
“This show is very difficult for comedians because we’re going onstage after people putting swords down their throats and children dancing and people singing emotional songs. There’s no warm up. You’re trying to please four very different judges, the huge live audience who’s been sitting there for hours, and the millions of people watching at home who vote on whether or not to make my dreams come true. So no pressure! Haha. From watching previous comedians, it seems like super quick and quotable one liners are the ideal style for this type of show.”
So Williamson’s thought process is like so: “I’ve made the mistake in this business of trying too hard to be different from everybody else. This sounds super cheesy but if you just be yourself, you are the only you out there, and therefore you will be different and special and unique. All I can do is tell my favorite jokes I’ve ever written, stay really really good looking, and beg nice people on the Internet to vote for me. Please vote for me!! Smiley face.”
So, sorry Mel B. Sorry Jim Meskimen. You may have thought a comedian won AGT in 2012. Tom Cotter finished runner-up last summer. To a dog act.
Cotter did have “rapid-fire jokes,” which gave him a certain advantage. As did waiting to jump into the AGT competition until after previous judge Piers Morgan, who didn’t seem to enjoy any comedians, had left the show. “That was my window of opportunity,” Cotter told Kerri Edelman in a recent online BlogTalkRadio interview.
Last summer, Cotter did up the ante on his stand-up with pseudo-gimmicks such as a big-screen that offered several topics, and asking the judges to pick one for him to joke about. Still, Cotter said he felt like just making past the Las Vegas rounds “was shocking to me,” and that his own insecurity convinced him he didn’t belong up there at the end. “To be there, where it was just me and the dog act, my head was spinning uncontrollably. I just was like, what the hell is going on?” Cotter added: “Everybody i had picked to win the thing had been eliminated. I thought the earth harp guy or the sand artist was going to win the thing.”
He didn’t win, but he says he has enjoyed his best year, career-wise, since competing on AGT before millions of viewers each week last summer.
Proving you don’t necessarily have to take home the million-dollar prize at the end to go home a winner.