The comedy legend talks to Joey Moser about why America’s Got Talent is the best reality competition show on television.
Not only is America’s Got Talent one of the most entertaining reality competition series to watch, but one of its judges is keeping us captivated without even realizing. Howie Mandel has been a judge the longest–we welcome Julianne Hough and Gabrielle Union for this current 14th season–so it’s safe to say that he knows what he’s talking about when acts come in to be critiqued. Mandel might not know, however, that watching him watch people perform is just as entertaining as the acts themselves. Whether he’s laughing at an up-and-coming comedian, or slack jawed from the raw talent of an amazing opera singer.
AGT is a unique animal because it’s not just a singing competition and it’s not just a dancing competition. It’s both of those, but then you also have magicians, dog performers, danger acts, and comedians. It’s the biggest competition show in the world, and Mandel is one of the lucky people who has to see who has what it takes in this industry. Every episode is a thrilling ride with huge emotional stakes. Trust me, you will find yourself rooting for one act and then tearing up at another person’s personal story.
If you walked out on a stage to bare your soul with a personal performance, you’d want Mandel as a judge. He knows what can entertain an audience, but he also values the performance of an act that can be deemed silly or immature. He’s a judge that is passionate about performance and knows there are different levels of experience and talent. You may not be able to give him a handshake, but his faith in you will ground you throughout the competition.
For this panel, you’ve been a judge the longest. Would you say you’re the wisest judge?
Wisest? If time brings wisdom, then yes. I’m definitely the oldest. Everybody has their specific acumen. Nobody is wiser about music than Simon. Nobody is wiser about dance than Julianne. Gabrielle brings her own show business chops as a producer and an actress. She brings her experience and history to the show. I bring mine. I don’t know if I’m the wisest, but if you’re like to call me that, I’m not going to negate. Those can be your words, not mine.
Trust me, I will take all the credit for saying that.
What do you think it will take for a comedian to win America’s Got Talent?
It will take the home audience to understand what it takes to stand there alone on stage and preparing your own character and material. They have to realize what needs to be elicited from an audience in order for it to go well. It’s hard to compare someone else singing someone else’s song with someone who is sharing their sensibility. That’s not negating what the singers or the other talents do. People don’t know how hard it is to elicit laughter from an entire audience every 30 seconds. When the audience understands how tough that is, a comedian will win.
I saw Vicki Barbolak earlier this year, and I recently went to see both Preacher Lawson and Samuel J. Comroe.
All the AGT alumni.
And they’ve all killed it. To see them all on the road is amazing.
You’re lucky if you have that sensibility. People come from different walks of life and they can make the room fill with laughter.
Because so many people do it so well, some audience members think that it’s easy to do.
More people sing well than do comedy.
When you switched from the regular America’s Got Talent to America’s Got Talent: The Champions, what did you expect since everyone was bring A+ game.
From the judging point of view, I expected to be put to the test. It was the Olympics of every season with the best of the best doing better than we’d seen them before. Doing the regular AGT, I could see something phenomenal and then see something atrocious. A lot of the times when people come to America’s Got Talent they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. People crack under that pressure. I knew that everybody that was going to be competing on Champions overcame that pressure and already achieved whatever they needed to achieve after they appeared on the AGTs around the world. They’re garnered careers, notoriety, expectations from strangers and now it’s how they compete against the best of the best.
Being in that position, did you have any idea who was going to win when that top 10 was announced? As a viewer, I had no idea.
I was flabbergasted and maddened. I didn’t know, you’re right. The truth of the matter is on Champions, it is subjective and it’s all over the place. How do you compare a very young opera singer to a husband and wife who are willing dangle from the ceiling from their big toe?
You guys say it on the show all the time that since it’s such a diverse pool of contestants that it has to be hard for the judges to make these hard decisions. I don’t envy you guys.
I don’t envy myself. I have the best seat in the house. Those moments where we have to make a crucial decision are some of the darkest moments every season.
When you see somebody like Courtney Hadwin in season 13 blow up the auditorium like that with her first performance, are you ever worried that another judge is going to steal them for their personal Golden Buzzer?
Unlike The Voice, I don’t find that we are competitive. Especially in those moments. In that moment, it’s so emotional and in your gut. Even when you bring up that specific moment, I get goosebumps. I really wasn’t expecting that, and she’s truly amazing. I truly still believe that she’s going to be one of the biggest talents to come from our show. She was just announced to be on Woodstock 50 and she signed with Sony.
Wow, that’s great!
She’s having songs written for her by Max Martin, and he’s written for everybody from Britney Spears to Rihanna. She’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. But with the Golden Buzzer, I don’t ever make a point to hit it before Simon does. Courtney was worthy of it. And then I get to bask in the glow that I was the tiniest part of it.
I rewatched the moment, and even knowing what she can do, it was so insane.
I just rewatched it again on YouTube, because someone was talking with me about her. It brings tears to my eyes when you see the confetti falling down around her and somebody’s life has changed forever. It has ¾ of a billion views online.
You mentioned the other judges earlier. Do you think the different tastes attributes to the good chemistry between you all on the panel?
I watched it for 4 years before I was on it. You mentioned earlier that you watched it every week with your husband and people watch it with their friends or a family member. Everyone tells me that AGT is their favorite co-viewing show, because you don’t sit their quietly. You yell out, ‘Oh, that was great!’ and the person next to you will admit that they hated it or they didn’t get what an act was about. We’re all judging. What I was doing alone in my underpants then is what I get to paid to do. All four of us judges are very lucky people. We get the best seat in the house. I think we’re all real and honest and constructive. Hopefully, we’re thinking along the lines of the viewers at home, or, at least, helping the viewers think like people in the business.
One of the most surprising acts of last year’s regular season was The Human Fountain, or La Fontaine Human. You gave them a standing ovation when they first came out. Do you think we sometimes need “silly” acts to remind us that we’re watching a reality competition series?
The word silly has a connotation of not being good, but I think silly can be brilliant. When five guys come on stage and perform something so out of left field and get an immediate response—whether that’s cheering or laughing or cringing—I applaud the ability to break through the clutter. The fact that you’re talking about a year later says a lot. People ask why they would do that or why do people like it, but they went out there and did it. People that criticize it are just watching it. They did it.
I did an interview on CNBC, and we were talking about making it. The only difference between the people that read this interview and Elon Musk is Elon Musk did it. He put together a team to send a rocket into space or built the electric car and you didn’t. By the same token, these people got 5 people together and performed something that looks like the Bellagio Fountain. That simplicity is what makes it so brilliant.
Why poo poo something that brings joy to people.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were thought to be these goofballs or nerds who wanted to sit in their garage all day and tinker to come up to have a new way to see a font on your screen. They did it so long and that was their interest. Because they did it, we are better for it. Those five guys did what they wanted, and we laughed and remembered it. It’s a real moment in time.
Season 14 of America’s Got Talent is currently airing on NBC.