Fanbolt had a chance to speak with two of the judges of America’s Got Talent this week, Piers Morgan and Howie Mandel, in advance of the Top 10 Performance. The pair talked about expectations for the final performances, who they believe is the dark horse this season, and looked back at their favorite moments of the season, as well as shared their insight into some of the final acts.
Howie, this was your first season on America’s Got Talent. How has the experience been like for you and how would you look back on all the talent and some of the more questionable talent that you saw during the auditions process?
Howie Mandel: This has been an amazing experience for me and as I’ve said many times before, you know, I have been a huge fan of this show and have watched every episode from the get-go. So to be here in person and to be part of it is like a dream come true. It really doesn’t feel like a job.
I kind of cherish and celebrate, you know, anybody that really has the gumption to get up and try to entertain and believes in themselves and they own it whether you think it’s normal.
And this has been the beauty of this particular year and Piers told me this, he’s been there since the beginning. I think we have seen things this year that we have never seen before. It’s got a higher caliber of talent and it’s got more exciting things, people like Fighting Gravity. You know, these are acts that I have never seen and can’t compare them to anything because I’ve never seen anything like it before.
On Britain’s Got Talent I feel like the winners have been a little more varied. They have included, you know, dancers winning, acrobats winning, and on America’s Got Talent except for Terry on Season 2 it’s had more of a history of having singers win. Why do you think that is and with the singing talent this year do you think a singer could take that win again?
Piers Morgan: Well I think the good news is given that we’re a variety show is there are only five singing acts in the top ten this year. I think this time last year there were nine singing acts so we’ve got half of the acts in the top ten of genuine variety. We’ve got a magician, we’ve got a trick cyclist, we’ve got Fighting Gravity, and we’re not really sure what they are but they’re an amazing act, we have a young pair of dancers and a big dance troupe so it’s not just singers.
I think you have to understand that there are a lot more singers out there than there are variety acts. I mean, everyone can sing. Not everyone can do what Fighting Gravity do or not everyone can do trick cycling. So, you know, these are specialty acts, the variety acts, and you’re just lucky some years that you get really good ones as you were with Terry Fator.
This year I think the overall talent is better than I’ve ever known it before by a long way. I mean, both semifinals were of a standard that we would normally expect in the finals. So it’s very exciting, it’s wide open. I think there are any one of five or six acts that could win this year.
Could you guys both talk about like your biggest wow moment of the season?
Piers Morgan: I think my favorite was actually the very first time that Howie had to give a critique of an act because he had been talking this great game about how he had watched it at home and we judges always got it wrong and thank goodness he had arrived to save the show from ignominy and failure.
And then of course the very first act came up and Howie was quite critical and suddenly 3500 people booed him so loudly I thought his eardrums were going to blow off. And in that moment I saw a look on Howie Mandel’s face of complete and utter horror and panic and I would pay good money to watch that again.
Howie Mandel: Sometimes my honesty is not incredibly flattering, which is really hard for me as an entertainer. But you know, I seem to have gotten over it and I’m okay with it as long as I feel that I have some integrity in what I – it’s not always the same as what, you know, my fellow judges believe but, you know, I feel good about what I say. I mean, I’m honest and that’s how – and I can only respond, you know, with my gut and not with what I believe the audience wants to hear.
But wow moments, you know, a couple, you know, and I’ll use just names. Wow moments are, you know, Poppycock, wow moments are Jackie Evancho, wow moments are Fighting Gravity, wow moments are Michael Grasso a couple of times and, you know, there’s a lot.
There isn’t “the” wow moment, and that’s what makes this season better than any other season I watched because I have actually felt my heart drop into my stomach a few times and it never ceases to amaze me. And I would imagine tonight and next week we are in for a few more wow moments.
Piers Morgan: I think my favorite wow moment was when a guy came on, I think it may have been New York, and announced that his act was going to be a surprise. And he then revealed he had strapped gunpowder to his underpants and basically blew up his lower abdominal region live on stage. Now you don’t get that every day on American Idol.
Right now Jackie Evancho is getting all of this promotion, the media is going crazy, and there’s a kind of Susan Boyle comparison going around. Do you think that the pressure is building more on her than some of the other contestants?
Piers Morgan: Yeah I think it is. She seems to be handling it pretty well. I mean, the reality is you talk about wow moments, I will never forget when Jackie came out of the YouTube show so we had never even seen her audition and we suddenly heard this 10 year old girl sing like a 40 year old operatic diva.
It was quite extraordinary — one of the most extraordinary moments I’ve ever had on either the British show or the American one and certainly in terms of impact right up there with Susan Boyle. The difference is I think that Jackie is so young that a lot of this just kind of washes over her head. She doesn’t seem to be crippled by nerves.
And the interesting comparison again is of course Jackie is probably favorite right now but so was Susan Boyle. And one of the problems of being favorite is you have to keep at the top and Susan, people forget that she actually came second on Britain’s Got Talent, she never won. So Jackie may still not win despite being the red hot favorite but even if she doesn’t I think like Susan she is going to have a fantastic career.
What did you make of Jackie’s voice the first time you heard her?
Piers Morgan: Absolutely extraordinary. I mean, you shut your eyes and it could be a 40 year old woman. She has an extraordinary tone and pitch to her voice and a breathtaking quality and, you know, she’s a very, very rare discovery.
I mean, I was talking to Simon Cowell about it, he obviously exec produces the show and he was saying that in terms of her potential you’ve got to say that Jackie, you know, she could be a singing superstar for the next 40, 50 years. So in terms of her potential she could be one of the great if not the greatest breakout discoveries that any talent show has ever produced.
But that doesn’t mean she’s going to win because in a talent competition it can be a lot more than just about being favorite and having a great voice. And I think a lot of these acts in the final top ten have their own followings now and I know it’s going to be close. It’s going to be closer than people think.
And I remember with Susan Boyle, I remember very vividly everyone saying she’s got it in the bag, it’s all over, no one can beat Susan, she had 150 million hits on YouTube by the end of the second week, and she came second. So anything can happen when the public votes.
Who do you think could be the dark horse that comes through that none of us see coming?
Howie Mandel: You know what, the truth is it’s anybody’s game. That’s the beauty and also the horror of this show. When Jackie Evancho sung, I mean, everybody just went “oh, she’s got it in the bag” and they thought the same thing about Susan Boyle. And you don’t know how America is going to respond because ultimately it’s you the voter that has to pick the person winning and the dark horse could be the winner.
Ultimately it comes down to one performance and so that it would be impossible to call who’s going to win. I have to watch the show and comment just like the audience on that performance.
I’m curious to get your take on Michael Grimm. He’s sort of the low key guy in the very interesting lineup of finalists.
Howie Mandel: Okay well personally it’s my favorite music- that’s the album I would buy, that’s the CD, that’s the music that I would download so he’s my favorite. He’s also very low key as you mentioned and I don’t know if that’s going to serve him against people who are a lot more splashy and memorable and talked about the next day.
It’s hard when you juxtapose that with somebody who is dropping off three stories or blowing something up. It’s like comparing apples and oranges and I like to say we don’t know whether America wants an apple or an orange right now.
How closely does the viewers’ votes often match your personal opinions? Is there anything that has been wildly off or do you think they usually get it right?
Piers Morgan: They usually get it right in my experience and certainly there were lots of singers in the second semifinal and you know, I was concerned that they were going to put through too many singers, the American voting public.
And they didn’t, they went for the – in my view the better, more exciting variety acts and that’s made the top ten a much more varied and exciting lineup and I applaud the American public for doing that.
You know, in five years I can count on probably two or three fingers how many times I have thought the American public get it wrong. They normally go with their heart and the talent and that’s all you can ask for.
Howie Mandel: I on the other hand have been surprised. I was, you know, when I first saw Prince Poppycock I was sure that the Middle America – I love Prince Poppycock and I think he’s wildly talented and creative and really a unique superstar in his own right.
But I said it on television, I said I don’t know that in between the two coasts if America is going to embrace you because it is unique and it is off center and as it has turned out they did embrace.
So I think America always gets it right, I just – I wasn’t sure that they would so I was surprised when he got voted to continue. And now I’m, you know, I’m not surprised anymore but this has been my first time and I kind of have more faith in America than I did.
Howie, what has it been like from a judge’s perspective to find the right balance of criticism when you have so many singers in the competition?
Howie Mandel: The hardest part is looking somebody in the eye and telling them something that is not positive.
But I believe that these people got into this knowing what the show is and they know that they’re bound to hear it and they’re there for that and I think – and maybe I’m just kidding myself because I want to – I don’t want to kick myself after. But I think it’s helpful.
I try to be critical, positively critical instead of just tearing somebody down. And I also kind of stay away – probably out of all the judges I stay away from the buzzer because I always think there’s something new to come, you know? Maybe that brilliance or maybe that spark of light will come, you know, ten seconds after. Not to say that I haven’t.
When looking at the top ten this season, what’s the difference between the talent factor and actually being able to sustain a Vegas show?
Piers Morgan: I think they could all sustain a Vegas show. If anyone has been to Vegas, you know, as Howie said you walk around the lounges at night and you’ll see great singers, you’ll see trick cyclists, you’ll see great dance troupes, you know, you’ll see unusual variety acts. The whole point of Vegas is anything goes in terms of talent.
And so this idea that any of our top ten couldn’t hold down a headline act, I’m sure they could. I mean, they’re going to get huge attention. The competition this year is better than ever and I think that – I’m absolutely convinced that four or five of these acts will end up in Vegas anyway. It’s that good.
Howie Mandel: Yeah and it doesn’t have to be Vegas, just that we’re looking for headlining acts, somebody who would headline anywhere that you would go see in concert.
And as he said, if you look at the horizon of entertainment now, you know, for people like the Blue Man Group and obviously there are singers and magicians like Copperfield and Cris Angel. I mean, everything that we have in our potpourri of talent already exists as headlining acts so it’s not a stretch of the imagination.
Piers you said something interesting, that it’s going to be a lot closer than people think. Do you know what the vote totals are?
Piers Morgan: I’ve got a little idea of how it’s been going and that’s why I said what I said. It’s not a runaway horse by any means. And the reason for that is because the talent is so varied and so good at such a high level this year, you know, lots of individual acts are getting lots of votes and so it’s a lot closer than it has been in previous seasons when there has been one or two standout favorites. I mean, last year Kevin Skinner won by a mile, an absolute mile. This year it’s going to be a lot closer.
Do you think there’s more pressure on the acts like Jeremy or Fighting Gravity to kind of build on their previous performances?
Howie Mandel: You know, it’s much harder for people like any of the variety acts. As a singer, you know, you just choose another song. And I’m not knocking being a singer but it’s kind of easier where if you’re Fighting Gravity or you’re an illusionist or you have to do a bicycle trick, you have to come up with something that hasn’t been seen before. You have to come up with something bigger and better than the last time.
Who is to say that a song is bigger and better than the last time? It may be a song you like more or less. It’s just easier in this competition being a singer. It’s harder on the variety acts to keep reinventing themselves each and every week.
And they have really risen to the occasion and that’s what the excitement of the season is. We are seeing explosive, amazing, dangerous things. And the further we go in this competition the more exciting and the more wow we’re going to get.
Can you say that you’re going to be with the show next season, Piers?
Piers Morgan: Well obviously the only thing that would stop me is the potential horror of having to sit next to Howie Mandel for four more months. But once I’ve got over that terrifying prospect then the answer is that I will definitely 100% be back judging America’s Got Talent next year.