“America’s Got Talent” has gone through its share of changes, but it is still one of NBC’s highest-rated shows of the summer. The eighth season (which premieres June 4, 2013, at 8 p.m. EDT/PDT) has a panel of four permanent judges, for the first time in “America’s Got Talent” history. Howard Stern and Howie Mandel have been joined by new “America’s Got Talent” judges Mel B (who replaced Sharon Osbourne) and Heidi Klum. Nick Cannon remains the host of the show. In a recent telephone conference-call interview with journalists, Mel B (the former Spice Girls member whose real name is Melanie Brown) and Mandel recently talked about the eighth season of “America’s Got Talent” and what people can expect.
Going into the new season with a comedian winning last year breaking that streak of singers and musicians, do you think that’ll change the dynamic of the show this season?
Mel B: Go on, Howie.
Mandel: OK, I will. But truth be told, Season 2 was won by Terry Fator who was a ventriloquist. And I think the heart and soul of our show is that we are the last bastion of variety you know. And we truly have variety. And this year with the advent of adding two more judges, great judges.
Mel B — and I’m not saying that because she’s on the phone, but an international superstar in her own right — and Heidi [Klum], an international marketer and fashion icon, and that has made it harder for acts to get through because now we need three yes instead of just two. And they have just raised the level of I guess maybe the audience at home seeing what they what they can do and get away with, and they don’t have to be just that traditional singer or that traditional dancer. They can do absolutely anything.
And I don’t know if it was about a comedian last year as much as it was about people like Horse, not that that’s a great talent, but the fact that he had the nerve to get up and call what he did, getting kicked in the scrotum. People will show up and do everything. So we had more dangerous acts, more exciting acts, more a wacky acts, and more brilliant classic talent than we’ve ever had before.
Mel B: But I do think it’s harder for comedians because the bar’s been set so high. And, I think it’s terrifying for a comedian because that audience is huge and they have to make us laugh and the audience laugh, and it doesn’t always go to plan. Really it doesn’t. I will imagine that it’s really terrifying.
Mandel: I will tell you that we’ve had a couple of comedians on, and if they don’t rise to the occasion, [Mel B] pulls no punches in telling them. “I’m going to tell you why I don’t like you; because you’re not funny,” and she’s right, but that’s what you want from a judge.
And it’s just really interesting watching people perform. So there’s that element that I don’t know that was there before. Just the brutal honesty with a lot of experience.
Mel B: Yes.
In what ways do you feel that like having four judges now this season is going to kind of spice up the judging table?
Mel B: I think it really has, because you know we’re four different people. We’ve all come from different backgrounds and we’ve all experienced a lot in our own professional career. So sometimes, we all agree when the act is amazing. Sometimes — well more often than not — we actually disagree. But we’ve all got valid points because our opinions are coming from a place of professionalism.
So I find that really interesting, and I’ve learned a lot off these other three judges, especially you Howie because I sit next to you. I think it’s a really, really interesting dynamic and definitely the viewer is going to agree with two or more of us of what we’re actually saying.
Mandel: I personally was concerned, and I thought, “Maybe this is going to be too much.” And as it works out, it actually heightened the value of people that go through to even Las Vegas. And I think I said it before and I’m repeating myself, but the fact that they have to get three “yeses” to go through. Two and two [yes votes each] is virtually a no so you need three yeses. So you have to appeal to three people.
And our four people on the panel come from not only four different you know worlds of entertainment, but like from all over the world. And as Howard keeps saying we want to find an international star. We don’t want to just find somebody that wins “America’s Got Talent” and get the million dollars and ends up at Radio City Music Hall. We want to find somebody that’s going to be an international star. And I think that this addition of these extra two judges from all over the world is going to send us in that direction.
You talked about the four judges, but are there any other changes in either production or maybe the way the rounds are going?
Mandel: The biggest changes I could see just offhand and haven’t thought of it; We’re going to send 55 people to the live shows. Obviously, the live show is going to be on a real stage that means so much more than any of these other challenge shows has ever meant before.
Because even when you said you’re going to Hollywood, you were going to a sound stage. And even last year we were going to Newark [in New Jersey] and were going to a theater, but to be able to perform live on Radio City Music Hall meaning so much. Any other changes? Not that I can think of off-hand.
And for Mel B, what made you decide that you wanted to be a judge on “America’s Got Talent”? And for Howie, why did you come back again? What was a particular reason?
[The operator announces that Mel B’s line has been accidentally disconnected.]
Mandel: I would come back as long as they continue to have me I love this. I love watching and have sympathy as a fellow you know performer for anybody that’s willing to get up and put themselves out, and anybody who’s creative, and anybody who’s original. I just love the energy and watching somebody get on stage and trying to entertain.
Talent is subjective. Just because you can be doing great even if you’re an act that plays a stadium and 20,000 people are there, there’s probably two million people in that city that chose not to buy the ticket. So there is something for everyone.
And I love being there, and I cannot believe that this is even a job. You know, I got into this business to try to garner an audience and make a career of it. And then when I wasn’t working, like the rest of the world, you sit at home in your underpants and you judge. That’s what people are doing.
You know, you go, “I don’t like this. I’m going to turn the channel. That’s not funny. That doesn’t sound good. I don’t like this music. Turn this off. Let’s watch this.” That’s what they do.
And then all of the sudden in this millennium or in the last few decades, this has become a job where they give you a pair of pants and a paycheck, and if you have some credibility behind you and years of being in the business, hopefully you have constructive criticism as to why you don’t think this is worthy of seeing anymore of it, so I just love it.
And when I’m not doing that, I go to clubs and I watch people, and I watch TV 24 hours a day. I watch things that aren’t even in English. I’m just fascinated by people trying to entertain.
[Mel B gets back on the phone line.]
Mel B: Yes. I don’t know what happened. My phone just liked dipped out. It started making weird noises like there was an alien on board or something.
Mel, you’ve judged on Australia’s “The X Factor.” Now you’re on “America’s Got Talent.” When you look over the talent, how do you think the Spice Girls would’ve done in one of these competitions?
Mel B: Oh, God knows. I have no idea. The good thing about “America’s Got Talent” is that it’s not a singing show. It’s a complete variety show. We harmonized well as five girls and we definitely have some things that everyone. I’m not quite sure how it would rank, considering that there’s not just singers there.
There are dancers. There are magic acts. There are snakes. There are danger acts. So I’m not quite sure how we would do. Hopefully we would do well, but I mean we started out 20 years ago, so you know…
Mandel: You would know. I think they would do well. I’m telling you, these the things we look for. At their time, it was original. It wasn’t only four hot women singing and dancing, but there was a message. You know, that message was girl power.
A big part of “America’s Got Talent” is, obviously, America votes. And a big part of the voting community are young girls who watch the show and are inspired and watching dreams come true. I they would’ve really touched a nerve and done really well.
Mel B: There you go.
Is there one kind of an act that you think has an advantage? Do singers have it easier than dancers?
Mel B: You know what? Going into this, I really thought that singers were going to have it like easy because all they have to do is stand there and belt out their voice. But I think it’s really equal across-the-board. I mean, who’d thought that I would love watching some ducks on stage as much as I would love watching an opera singer? It really is like a case of if you’re entertaining, you’re going through to the next level.
Mandel: We say it over and over again as judges. I think as a singer, you do have an advantage, but the beauty of “America’s Got Talent” is because it’s a variety show, I think we as judges keep hammering it home to the audience to go, “All right. So this guy came out and he’s got an acoustic guitar. He’s a good looking guy. He’s got a great voice.”
You want to see him. You like the sound of his voice. And, he’s singing a song that’s already been made popular by somebody else.
What about this guy that’s been working for 10 years in his basement and he’s come up and he’s doing something that you’ve never seen before? You’ve never heard before? And, it’s just amazing. I hope the audience takes that into consideration over what can be perceived as something easier or more normal.
I mean, you could see a singer/song writer around a campfire. You could see them on a cruise. You could see them in a club.
Mel B: But you see, that’s why I don’t think they have an advantage. I really don’t because they are competing against such different acts.
Mandel: Well, maybe you’re right. You know, I just think that people identify with them. Like a hit song or somebody who’s good-looking, as opposed to understanding the skill that goes into some of these acts that we see.
Mel B: But Howie you do know that I’m always right. I am always right. You told me that.
Mandel: I’m learning. It’s learning curve. I’m learning that she thinks she’s always right, and I’m getting closer to believing it. I’m not 100 percent there yet.
Mel B: OK. We’ll get there.
What do you think of any of the openly gay contestants?
Mandel: I don’t know that the gay contestants are in a different category. I mean your sexual preference has absolutely nothing to do with your talent. I don’t think we judge on that and it’s not based on that. I think that everybody on “America’s Got Talent,” every faction and sexual orientation, gender, race, creed, color is represented on “America’s Got Talent” because it’s represented in America. But I couldn’t answer that question specifically about the gay community because I’m not even sure what the sexual preference is of most of the people that perform in front of us, nor do I care to know.
Mel B: No. But some of them have come out and obviously said, “I’m a drag act. I’m gay. I came out to my mom at 10-years old.” And, I do actually remember a few of them, and they really do go for it with the hair, the makeup. I love it.
Me and Heidi are in our element because I like everybody on the judging panel, we love the gays and it’s so nice to see them basking in their celebration of being out. And they’re so eager to tell you, some of these contestants. Not that it actually matters if you’re gay or straight, but some of them really are excited and happy to be there representing.
And one thing that me and Heidi did learn is that that “drop to the floor” move. What’s it called? A shablam … where they literally are standing up one minute and then their legs bend back and they’re flat on the floor. We’ve seen a few of those, and boy does that look painful. But there was one guy that nailed it completely.
Mandel: Is that a gay thing?
Mel B: Well, no. It’s a drag act. It’s a thing called shablam. Well, I can’t see you doing it, Howie.
Mandel: No. I can’t Shablam. I can’t.
Mel B: There you go.
Mandel: Enough about the gays. What about the Jews who are performing this year?
Howie had mentioned the “girl power” element, because the Spice Girls sort of coined that whole idea and kind of paved the way for female performers. And Mel B, you as well performed in “The Vagina Monologues,” so how important was the idea of girl power and empowering female performers to you as a judge, and what were the implications for the show for the audience?
Mel B: I think between me and Heidi, we kind of root for the girls to be extra-specially good because we’re all about supporting women. And I’d love a woman or a girl group to actually win this season. That’s just where I come from, and Heidi’s the same. She’s all about creating that girl that’s extra confident and you know knows herself and is not shy or ashamed, or embarrassed of who she is.
And we’ve seen a lot of really talented women on this stage. You know, we’re done with all our auditions so now we’re going to go into boot camp and I’m worried because of the 300, 400 people that we’ve seen, we have to whittle it down to like 40 or 50 people or acts, and it’s going to be so, so, so tough because we’ve had an equal amount of lady talent and boy talent, and everything else in between. So it’s going to be really hard.
Mandel: I didn’t know you did “The Vagina Monologues.” You did a “Vagina Monologue,” Mel?
Mel B: Yes, in London. Yes.
Mandel: I didn’t know that. I did “Talking Testicles.”
Mel B: You did not. Is that a show? The puppetry of the penis thing.
Mandel: It’s just something I did alone. Nobody attended.
Mel B: I thought we were going to get in trouble then. “Could you please refrain from talking about your testicles?”
Is the chemistry for everyone off camera as great as it is for the two of you?
Mel B: I think what you see is what you get with us on camera, and then off camera we have even more fun sometimes because we can say totally inappropriate things to each other that wouldn’t be that appropriate for the family show like “AGT.”
But I think all of us as judges are very, very honest. And I sit next to Howie and he has me cracking up every five seconds, and that’s what I really respect about all four of us. We all hold our own and we’re just all very honest. And we all think differently sometimes.
Mandel: You know, I think she said the key word, and the key word is “respect.” And we respect each other and each other’s opinion though we don’t agree, and there are times where we’re all four very strong-minded, opinionated people and we’ll fight for what we think is right and honestly think sometimes the other person’s wrong. And it could get heated. But at the end of the day, we respect each other and enjoy working with each other.
So as she says, what you see is what you get, but that doesn’t mean we all agree, which I think makes for good television and good criticism, and it’s good for the acts to hear different opinions and different sides.
What is your favorite part of this season thus far?
Mandel: Just the phone conference calls that we get to do. I mean I love this. It’s not about the camera. It’s not about the talent. This is fun because for me I’m a germaphobe and I’m talking to so many people, yet nobody’s with me and I love that.
Mel B: For me, the best thing is just to join the show. I’ve been a fan of this show for years. I’ve sat and watched with my whole entire family, so it’s kind of like an honor to be finally on that judging panel. I mean, who would’ve thought? I wouldn’t have thought actually I would even have this opportunity, so I’m just really thankful.
You know, Howie’s sitting there naked. God knows what he’s doing on this phone. We have no idea.
Mandel: Naked. Practicing for the play I talked about. I’m running behind.
You said “America’s Got Talent” is a lot about variety. So in the show’s eighth season, is there anything you’re specifically hoping to see out of the contestants this year?
Mandel: Yes. And I think it’s kind of a redundant answer because I always give the same answer. But it always ends up coming through, and that is to see something we’ve never seen before. To see something so original, it doesn’t even fit a category. To see something that is so new and so daring, and so different, where you just go number one, “How did you think of that?” Number two is “Where have you been for the last couple of years? And it’s so exciting that you’re unveiling this great talent on our stage.”
And I can tell you honestly, and maybe this answers the previous question, the greatest and most exciting moment so far, and it’s happened more this season than any other season, is that is when our jaw drops. When you go, “Oh, my God.” When we look at each other without any words and go, “Oh, my God. What are we watching? What is this? You know, what category?” It’s not a singer. It’s not a dancer. What is this person doing and how amazing is this? And, I need to see more of it.
Mel B: I agree with all of the above.
Howie, you were involved in a lot of stand-up comedy, and Mel you’re performing on stage, so do you have empathy towards the people that come on stage and display those talents to you?
Mandel: I do. I am saying it because I’m one and I do it. I think that being a stand-up comic is probably one of the hardest things in the competition in, as far as “America’s Got Talent,” because in order to achieve what you’re trying to achieve, you need to elicit more from an audience than any other act.
If you sing a song, they’re looking for a hand at the end of the song. If you do a magic trick, you’re looking for a ta-da at the end. If you do anything else, you’re just looking. If you’re standing up there and doing stand-up comedy, you need to hear laughter, which is a tough emotion to elicit from strangers you know every 30 seconds. Because if it’s quiet in the room, regardless of how funny you think you are, it’s not working.
So I do have a lot of empathy. They have a tough job. And then when they go on after the end of these 14 hours days and they follow something atrocious or we’re just really tired, or the whole audience is tired, or it’s hot in the room, I have so much empathy because it’s really hard to do well.
And even at this point in my career where I feel like I make a living at stand-up comedy, there are nights where you know things don’t go my way and it’s not always my fault. So I have empathy for anybody that gets up there and is willing to put themselves out like that, but I try to remove myself from what’s happening in the room and hear it for what it is. And we have a lot of great comedy this year. Even more than last year, and I think Tom Cotter inspired that from last year.
Mel B: Just to add to that, I definitely think that it’s an experience to get up on there and actually be critiqued and learn what did work and what didn’t work because it’s not always going to go your way unless you’ve completely got your act — whether it be a singing act, whether it be a danger act and so rehearsed and so specific on point that it’s not going to be able to go through.
I mean, we’ve had people that have just crumbled. We’ve had people that have just succeeded like beyond, and it’s all about preparation, I think. And, obviously being extremely, extremely talented. And it is quite daunting.
But at the same time, I like it when I can feel those people’s nerves. I can feel the anticipation of, “Can I do it? Can I deliver?” I find it really exciting.
Well, Mel, since you’re back on the phone line now, what was it that made you decide that you wanted to be a judge on this show?
Mel B: Why not? It’s “America’s Got Talent.” Everybody loves this show. Everybody watches it. Everybody talks about it. You know, it’s one thing that you sit down with your family and you’re actually enjoying it. You do it from your own sofa in your front room.
You know, I was living in Australia and I got offered the job and I said, “Yes.” It wasn’t even a thought of, “Well, I’ve got to move the whole family back to L.A.” I checked in with my kids that they didn’t mind moving school, and then we were just here within like a couple of weeks, and it’s been the best move ever. And I think that I’m part of one of the best shows on TV, or that’s about to be on TV.
For both of you, have you learned anything about yourself through this experience so far this season?
Mel B: I’m amazing.
Mandel: And Mel has continuously told me that she’s amazing, so I don’t have a moment to think about myself, because Mel B is constantly telling me how amazing she is.
Mel B: Thanks. You’re going to write that and I’m going to sound like a complete douchebag.
Mandel: But an amazing one.
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