Here's a cute story. An elderly woman from Jacksonville, Fla., becomes a widow (not the cute part) and decides to pursue her dream of telling jokes as a stand-up comedian. Fast-forward 10 years, and now, 75-year-old Grandma Lee is one of ten finalists in the running to win $1 million and a headlining gig in Las Vegas on tonight's finale of NBC's America's Got Talent. You can read a recent interview she did with her hometown paper here.
Based on that backstory, and this video:
Time to take the honesty pills. Was this worth a million bucks and a headlining show nightly in Vegas, much less a spot on national primetime TV? Sorry, Grandma. The judges tried to be kind. Sharon Osbourne acknowledged she didn't really listen to anything after Grandma's first joke about "sweating like Ryan Seacrest watching Brokeback Mountain." The Hoff said it's "very hard to vote against you." And in the semis, Piers Morgan had said to her: "Why can't you win this?"
Yes, while you were going to comedy festivals, trying to figure out how to amass followers on Twitter and Facebook friends, and awkwardly talking to network executives, agents and managers, Grandma Lee trumped you all by being old and cute and telling jokes that a grandma would tell. I don't mean to dismiss her. Although that may appear to be what I'm doing. Rather, I'm wondering how/why this could possibly happen. Let's take a step back so I'm clear this isn't just about Grandma Lee.
Make it X comedian. Where X does not equal Terry Fator, the ventriloquist who won last year. I've got his new DVD, Live From Las Vegas, in front of me. Which reminds me, let's take a step all the way back to the show's title, premise and prize. America's Got Talent, spun-off from Britain's Got Talent but clearly the latest in a long line of grand talent contests, posits that if you go looking anywhere in our nation, you can find either an unassuming soul who is blessed with a great talent (usually singing) but never had a chance to show it off, or someone with a great act who has has never gotten his or her big break for one reason or another. The show-business system had been keeping them down, and now it would raise them back up in a big way. Because the winner of this show gets $1 million and a headlining show on the Vegas strip. Which means you cannot just have talent. You need to be able to headline a show night-in, night-out and be someone people will pay big money to see (or sit through a timeshare presentation for comps to see). Could a comedian be worth that? Let me rephrase that. Could a comedian who hasn't previously had any national exposure be worth that? Maybe. Just maybe. But it's more likely to be a stand-up who already is a veteran headliner that simply couldn't crack the Improvs or get Comedy Central to take a fresh look at him or her. The newer stand-ups aren't ready for a headlining show in Vegas. And before last year, they were competing for a prize one-fourth the size of AGT's on Last Comic Standing. So, Grandma Lee, really?
As for the other finalists, a few of them come to the finale with caveats, too. There's a solo dancer who probably would never win So You Think You Can Dance, so why does he think he can win this; a singing cowboy and a singing soft rocker (who are here because they would never have won American Idol, Nashville Star or the like); three singing kids who are cute and talented, but unless you're the next Jackson Five, you're not ready for that much cash and that big of a stage; a guy with a big singing voice; a woman with a bigger opera voice (and fighting cancer — the sob story that has made stars out of Brits on their version of the show); a gimmicky singing cowboy trio; a quintet of dancing sisters; and a Stomp-knockoff of sorts. Only the latter three acts are the kinds of things you actually could envision in Vegas. Not that that's the point of this show. Or is it?
UPDATED: Grandma Lee did not win, after all. She did not make the top five, even. But people really did love her, chanting her name as she received her fate on the finale, and most of the people who mentioned Grandma Lee on Twitter did so wishing she had won.