As bizarre auditions slogged on, “America’s Got Talent” started to sound like a misnomer rather than the NBC summer hit that returns for its eighth season at 9 p.m. Tuesday.
The judges – original Howie Mandel, crowd favorite Howard Stern, and newcomers Mel B and Heidi Klum – are far kinder to the rejected contestants than the audience is.
After auditions in New Orleans and San Antonio, and before Los Angeles and Chicago, hopefuls queue up at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, which looks spiffier on camera.
In person, the show has even more of a Coliseum feel to it. Stern strides through the adoring, amped-up crowd and receives more cheers than any of the performers.
During a break, the judges chat with Zap2it, reflecting on what they’ve seen so far.
The hardest part “is when you have a kid on stage,” Klum says of a boy who auditioned earlier. “He couldn’t sing.”
“It is unfortunate for them that their parents don’t tell them,” Mel B says.
The day’s talent, for the most part, hasn’t been inspiring.
“I am surprised that New York City has not delivered more talent,” Mandel says.
Eventually, the day brings some good acts, including Studio 19, a troupe of 10 girls who combine ballet, jazz and gymnastics into a stunning athletic dance.
Though the first four hours were lackluster, the afternoon brought 212 Green, a fun band, and Archbishop Molloy Step Team, which raised the energy level.
What separates “America’s Got Talent” from other TV talent contests is that anything goes, or at least almost anything. One man is convinced stripping off his shirt and grunting is an act. The judges differed.
Then there’s Dr. Bob Baker, Stern’s gastroenterologist, who, besides having performed Stern’s colonoscopy – blessedly not on air – does a ventriloquist act with a colon-shaped dummy. Stern recused himself from judging.
“The guy who sticks his finger up you is a ventriloquist?” Mandel says. “What did you make him sing?”
Considering this day also brings a man who shares a costume with his dog – which makes a good Facebook post but not a $1 million act – and a man who aspires to be Gallagher, trotting out homemade props, the judges see a lot. But the weirdest audition this season, Stern says, was a woman who spent five years training her cat.
“All it could do is sit,” Stern says.
Apparently she also argued with the judges, noting how tough it is to train a cat.
Mandel’s pick for weirdest involved a boy and squirrel puppets, but he didn’t want to reveal the disturbing details.
Sometimes contestants are aggressively ambitious. Even when judges press that loud buzzer and the gigantic X lights up, some contestants defiantly carry on as if daring security to remove them.
“We need a gong,” Stern says.
Though the judges had not yet seen the act that they thought worthy of the $1 million prize, they knew they would recognize it when they saw it.
“It’s like a viral video,” Mandel says. “You can’t make a viral video. America does, and it’s something that is weird and different and unusual, and that’s what this show offers.”
And weird and different is the hallmark of “America’s Got Talent.”
“Where else would you see a squirrel eating a boy?” Stern asks.