On Wednesday night, America’s Got Talent is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a two hour special during which Piers Morgan, who helped cement the show’s success by acting as one of the first individuals to sit on the judge’s panel, returns.
In honor of the occasion, Morgan and Executive Producer Jason Raff offer some insight into the creation of the series, discuss the memorable moments, and speculate as to what’s led to the show’s longevity.
Morgan recalls the early days of the series, relating, “None of us were sure really what was going to happen with it. I’ve got to say at this stage, great credit to Simon Cowell. This was all his idea. I remember having lunch with him in London and he said to me, ‘You know what’s really missing around the world — an all-around talent show. People could come and do whatever they like to be judged. That kind of thing is no longer on television in England, in America, anywhere, and I want to bring it back.’ Then he started mapping out on a bit of paper in front of me. He said, ‘You have three judges – one meanie, one nice woman, and one ‘crazy,’ and then they’d have buzzers.’ Within about ten minutes, he’d worked all this out in his head and that idea has become a format which I believe now is the most watched format in the history of reality television. That all just came from an idea of why isn’t that kind of thing on television anymore? Where’s The Gong Show? This is really a modern version of The Gong Show.”
Reminiscing about assembling the judging panel, Raff discloses, “There’s no certain science to it. We just try to figure out who are big personalities who have strong opinions. It’s not just about the names, but it’s about the chemistry itself. And you never really know about that chemistry until you get there.”
While Morgan voluntarily chose to leave the show after six seasons, he admits that he was surprised when Howard Stern was selected to occupy his vacant seat. “That was actually fascinating to me because I’ve been a massive fan of Howard Stern’s for decades. I just think he’s one of the world’s greatest broadcasters – radio, television, whatever he decides to do – he’s always fantastic. A little part of you when you leave a massive show like that, it’s hoping they replace you with somebody, you know, not quite as good looking, not quite as intelligent, not quite as funny and they replaced me with Howard-bloody-Stern. I was like, ‘Oh jeez, guys. You could have given me a break here but you’re replacing me with the King of All Media!’ And, he’s been brilliant on the show. What I was really impressed by was when I worked with him for [for the 10th anniversary show] he was so selfless and generous to me and such great fun to work with that he made the whole experience for me not just a pleasure but actually an honor to work with him. At the end of that we had a big man hug. It was a very, very mutually enjoyable day and the first time we’d gotten to work with each other.” Then he says with a laugh, “He finds Howie Mandel very annoying. Don’t we all.”
When it comes to the contestants, Morgan divulges, “You see so many derivative acts; endless singers, endless dances, endless jugglers, etcetera, all trying to copy what they may have seen in previous seasons. Then, just occasionally there was just an amazingly fresh, original, non-derivative act that I thought immediately — a) wow and b) I could see that headlining in Vegas. I can see it touring the world. I can see it representing America. I could see it making tons of money, and I thought, ‘Yes. That’s what America’s Got Talent’s really about. It’s about just the unexpected and the acts where you just go, ‘That is different.’”
Raff uses this time to riff with Morgan on some of the more memorable contestants, saying, “Piers, do you remember in season one, the guy the inflatable cow who did the breakdancing?”
Morgan laughs as he recalls the contestant, but let’s Raff complete the description. “So, there’s this guy got into an inflatable cow. He didn’t last maybe 45 seconds in front of the judges before getting axed, but yet a couple of years later, I met him in Tampa and he’s like, ‘Oh my god, that show changed my life. I’ve now quit my job and I’m doing my inflatable breakdancing cow routine around the country and even the world.’ So, you know the show does have an effect on the contestants’ lives, even the most unlikely ones.
Mentioning his own favorite, Morgan says, “Very early in the first season there was this guy called Bobby Badfingers. He basically made music through flicking his fingers. It sounds completely insane but he did it so fast and so brilliantly and what I remember thinking was, ‘Okay. This is the moment I get this show and America will understand why it’s so different to American Idol.’ This is not a singer, not a dancer; it’s not any of the traditional entertainment talent. This is utterly bonkers but completely brilliant.”
Another contestant that came to mind for Morgan, was one that he didn’t particularly care for. “I remember an absolute horror story of an act called Leo the Magnificent. He kept coming back like a boomerang; you’d throw him out and then he’d come back season after season. He was this about 6’ 8” gigantic Russian guy who did this extremely campy, very theatrical act that just basically involved lots of dresses, high heels, plumage and so on and so on. I never felt he was remotely magnificent. Even though I found him a very irritating act, and untalented in my view, I did admire his guts. That’s also part of this show — people may not have a great talent but their guts and courage take them through. So, people go into this show for all sorts of different reasons – some want to make money, some want to be famous and some just want to have that moment they’ve wanted all their lives for, like ‘This is my moment. This is my time. I’ve waited. I’ve been singing on porches and churches and town halls for 30 years and this is my moment.’”
Raff points out that there have been great successes over the years. “Obviously, Susan Boyle and Jackie Evancho and Terry Fator. It’s everyone who has broken into pop culture. It starts with the surprise of – and you’ve seen that dozens upon dozens of times – where you don’t expect anything and they come on and all of sudden your jaw drops.”
Morgan agrees and points to the story of season two winner, ventriloquist Fator, as a symbol of the power of the show. “I think the biggest star of any of the talent shows around the world connected with the format is Terry Fator. He was just earning $300 a week driving his van up and down America, trying to make his living as entertainer in his mid-40s and now he’s one of the highest paid stars in the world. He’s earning $25 – $30 – $40 million a year or whatever it is. You can’t beat that as a story. Having said that, I always felt that winning the show isn’t necessarily what you need to do to become a big star. There’s Jackie Evancho who became a huge star in movies and music and everything else and she came in second. Susan Boyle was on Britain’s Got Talent and she also came in second. She may not have won, but she sold 25 million albums. So I think the exposure the show gives you is the crucially important thing.”
Raff mentions his work with the contestants as the best part of his experience on the show, saying, “What I remember looking back after 10 years of doing this is this moment I have where thousands of people come into interview, and then all of a sudden, someone comes in and they start doing their thing and you just get chills because you know that from this audition, you’re going to put them in front of the judges and then you know that four months later they’ll be performing at Radio City Music Hall. So for me, as I look back at the show, it’s those moments where someone comes in and you just think, ‘Oh, my God. Look what I found.’”
Discussing the elements of the series that have caught him, somewhat pleasantly, off-guard, Raff is quick to respond, chuckling a little as he says, “The most surprising thing to me really is that the show has lasted 10 years. From the moment it was described to me, I was like ‘God, I would love this show, but I don’t know if anyone else is going to love this show.’
Then he turns a bit serious as he mentions something else about the series. What I love about the show is that every year seems to inspire other acts. In other words, we saw this act that was a black light act with a bunch of college kids doing what they called ‘Defying Gravity’ which was really new and unique. Then the next year, people were inspired by that act and they started adding video projection and then this year now they’ve added
Sounding very serious, Morgan says, “I think for me the most surprising thing was that David Hasselhoff never hit me.” Then he laughs a bit and continues, “He did come incredibly close. He actually stood up after I criticized his critique of an act and was going to head butt me and we came within about two seconds of David Hasselhoff head butting me on live television, which would have been great for ratings.” He’s quick to add, “But since then, we’ve actually become good friends.“
Both men agree that the success of the show is due to the commitment of everyone involved with the series. “I can tell you that making this show is incredibly hard work for everybody concerned,” explains Morgan. “It’s a massive team of people. The judges get all the airtime but behind that there are hundreds of people traveling around America trying to produce the best possible show they can. When I was doing the show, we would do 12 – 15 hour days siphoning through hundreds of auditions to make maybe one audition show. All of that is what makes American’s Got Talent such a long running, powerful format I think. In the end, as we say to the acts themselves, ‘There’s no substitute for hard work.’”
That effort is something that both Raff and Morgan wish more people would take notice of, especially those within the television industry. “Our show is the most difficult show to produce and I’m not speaking just for me,” explains Raff. “I’m speaking about doing a live show out of Radio City. Twelve acts perform with intricate set ups and hundreds of people are working to make this thing happen. If you come and see the show live, it is a much different experience than the calmness that you see on TV. The amount of moments we’ve had where things almost went horribly wrong or set pieces didn’t quite get out is incredible. You look at things like the Emmys where our show has never been nominated and that hurts a bit.”
Morgan agrees and pulls no punches as he says, “I do think it’s ridiculous that America’s Got Talent has not won more awards, particularly Emmys. I mean it is the purest and best talent show in America. It’s the only one with any talent. It’s the only one that I think has huge range and it’s been a dominant force in American television for a decade. I mean how many shows can say that? I think there’s been a lot of snobbery towards it and yet everybody I know who’s watched it really enjoys it.”
Awards or not, Raff is ready for people to see the 10th anniversary show, saying, ”I had so much fun with this and I hope the audience does too. It’s a really a reminder of why our show is so different from any other talent competition.”
The two hour 10th anniversary show of America’s Got Talent, with special guest Piers Morgan, airs Wednesday night at 8pm e/p on NBC.