We’re ever so much closer to crowning a new winner on America’s Got Talent as this ninth season launched into semifinal action last night.
NBC threw a big ol’ BBQ party inside 30 Rock to celebrate, inviting the remaining contestants, judges and select media to dig in, hoe down and celebrate.
So it was that The Comic’s Comic enjoyed the opportunity to grill judge Howie Mandel, check up on stand-up comedian Dan Naturman as he prepared to perform, and watched the first semifinal group along with stand-up comedian Wendy Liebman, who’ll be performing in next week’s other semifinal.
After Mandel and fellow judge Heidi Klum played Jenga for the assembled TV cameras as a photo op, Mandel stopped for a moment with The Comic’s Comic.
What’s it going to take for a comedian to win AGT? We’ve seen stand-ups finish runner-up the past two seasons (Tom Cotter, season seven; Taylor Williamson, season eight).
“We came really close! I think it’s very very doable,” Mandel said. “You know. It just depends on the night and everything else on the show. I mean, I believe that second place, at least on our show, is a winner. People like Taylor Williamson’s life has changed forever. Their careers have changed forever. He’s a winner! You know. You don’t have to come in first to have your dreams come true on this show.”
So for Dan Naturman (Tuesday night), would you have that same advice for him?
“I think he’s got a great chance. I don’t think that you’ve got to strategize. I think the strategy is just do what you do. And hopefully America — you win America’s votes.”
And what’s it like to see Wendy Liebman doing this show?
“Ah, I’m so thrilled! I love Wendy Liebman. I was so devastated when she was over, and now she’s back. So I’m thrilled for her.”
I turned to find Dan Naturman a few minutes later, blowing off steam by tossing the bean bags provided by a cornhole game on the floor of the NBC Commissary, aka Studio 9C.
“If Cotter hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be here,” Naturman told me flatly.
Seeing Cotter make it to the final two as a middle-aged veteran stand-up, and the fact that Americans are voting for comedians alongside singers, dancers, magicians and variety acts — instead of just subjectively choosing one comedian over another — helped Naturman decide to go for it this season on AGT. He’d infamously been ousted on the second season of Last Comic Standing when judges and producers butted heads during the selection process. AGT seems much fairer, if also more open to the whims and demographics of the voters.
What have you learned so far from performing on live network TV on the big stage at Radio City Music Hall?
“I don’t know what I learned! I’ve learned that this whole thing is very stressful and I’ll never do it again,” Naturman joked. “That’s one thing I learned.”
“I’ve done shows. It’s like, I don’t know, just do my s— and hope for the best. It’s out of my hands!”
Here is Naturman’s performance from last night. The audience and judges loved it, save for judge Heidi Klum, who historically has disliked and/or misunderstood the sense of humor from any of the comedians unless they specifically tailored their act to impress her.
And if you voted for Naturman last night or today? Might he borrow a lesson from Cotter’s final performance and use dice or another gimmick to dress up his stand-up?
“I may do some gimmicks the next time,” Naturman told me. “This time, no gimmicks. Next time I might do a gimmick! If there is a next time, of course. America shall decide.”
Liebman, for her part, figured that if the singers in the semifinals have vocal coaches, why shouldn’t she have a comedy coach to mentor her? So she said she got Eddie Brill (warm-up comedian for Late Show with David Letterman and former comedy booker for Letterman) to coach her this week, help her refine her 90-second set and get her spots around NYC clubs to practice before next Tuesday’s live show at Radio City Music Hall.
For now, she’s just happy to still be part of the competition, brought back as a wild-card entry by judge Howard Stern.
“I am out of my mind thrilled,” Liebman said. “I really am. Shocked and thrilled. Because one of the reasons I did America’s Got Talent was so I could meet him. I’m such a big fan. So, the fact that I’m here, I feel like I’ve won squared.”
Did Stern tell you anything off-camera about why he picked you to continue in the competition?
“I haven’t met him. I still haven’t shaken his hand.”
Are you prepared to face off against all sorts of variety acts?
“Well, I’ve been training my dogs, and they’re going to be on the stage with me,” Liebman quipped, referencing the dog act that won season seven over Cotter. “No! They’re not! But I did post a few videos of me trying to train them.”
She noted that gymnast Christian Stoinev was using a dog, Scooby, in his act. “I was thinking Scooby,” she said. Or maybe: “And then I also thought that I’d incorporate some of my cheerleading moves into my stand-up.” She laughed. “And then if I make it to the finale, I’m going to sing.”
What did you take away from your first time, in your quarterfinal on the big stage, that you can put to use when you return in your semifinal?
“Well, I was really big last time in terms of how I came out onstage. I think this time I’ll be a little more subdued, because now I’ve done it once, so I have those nerves out of the way. And in terms of material, one of Howard’s criticisms or critiques was, he thinks I play the victim sometimes. So I’ll try to use material that doesn’t make me sound like a victim. You know, I am the victim, but I am victorious.”