Thursday, June 29, 2006

Talent Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

So after I managed to post the Superman stuff - and you don't want to know the sort of grief I went through getting that up - I was sort of at loose ends. My poker playing hadn't been going that great over the past few days - still isn't given that I just busted out of a tourney on the first hand with pocket Ks; my two opponents each had one A which picked up a second A on the Turn; the percentages of that happening are something like 8% (one of the guys had a 7 which paired on the River and tripled him up - and there was no World Cup games to distract me. I was, in short, bored and frustrated and even central air and digital cable that finally works in the summer wasn't doing it for me. (By the way, on that Digital Cable thing, I just want to say that I love my cable company. When I finally called them they sent out a repair guy the next day, he diagnosed the problem immediately and installed the amplifier device that I needed immediately. Not what I was expecting given the horror stories you frequently hear about cable companies.) So I did something I hadn't really expected to do - I watched America's Got Talent.

I didn't see this show last week when it debuted. As a matter of fact wild horses couldn't have dragged me to the TV to watch another clone of American Idol. The I started hearing things. Things like how awful this show was. Things like how Simon Cowell should be ashamed of himself for foisting this on the American public. Things like how it resembled the Gong Show. Things like how it won it's time slot against So You Think You Can Dance on Fox and whatever CBS, ABC and "not yet CW" weblets were putting out on the night. That last one was what got me. People were actually watching this thing that professionals and amateurs alike were calling horrible. Either the people writing about this were wrong or the public was wrong and would rectify the situation in this week. Either way I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. And what did I see? In one word Vaudeville.

Yeah, Vaudeville, that grand mishmash of singers, acrobats, instrumentalists, jugglers, dancers, and animal acts, all on one stage performing for you edification and pleasure, with Regis Philbin as Mr. Interlocutor bringing up the acts and the judging panel of Brandy, David Hasselhof, and former London Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan acting as the guy with the hook (or Chuck Barris's panel with the mallets) who have the power to let the act continue or end it prematurely. The result is - or can be - hilarious at least in the audition phase. I'm not sure how well it will work when they have a stable of performers who actually have some talent.

Take last night's episode. There were great acts, awful acts, and then there are the truly bizarre. Since this week's auditions took place in New York the bizarre quotient was elevated but not extreme. Last week's episode was in Los Angeles and took two hours. You figure out the bizarre quotient there. But New York was pretty bizarre. I mean how else do you describe a guy who is 6' something before he put on a pair of the sort of platform shoes that Elton John wore in his heyday, dabbed in silver glitter make-up on his skin and hair, with what could probably be described as a short kilt if you were being kind about it or a micro-miniskirt if you weren't, and completed (of course) with a pair of red and white angel's wings. This is Leonid the Magnificent, and excuse me for saying so but I think he might just possibly be Gay. His act is balancing a sword on a knife and then do things like splits and the sort of thing that Rhythmic Gymnasts do when they are working with ribbons and hoops. Leonid had a problem with his props - he dropped the sword but recovered - and was brokenhearted when David & Piers gave him an X. Piers said that Leonid would look good on his Christmas Tree but on a talent show no way. Only Brandy loved him but it was enough to later persuade the others to give him a chance to beg for a chance which he did, successfully. Then there was Frank Simon, a guy with the heavy Hungarian accent who came out with a motor scooter and an electric range. As soon as Piers saw the guy lift the motor scooter he hit the button. The Hungarian man had a sort of mouthpiece and proceeded to put one side to the scooter's kickstand on the mouthpiece and balance the thing over his head. Then he did the same thing with the range. Brandy Xed him before the range and David after. They didn't think he had talent (but the let Leonid go through). The ripped naval reservist who spent 300 days at sea perfecting a "beat box" act which basically meant making silly noises with less ability than that guy in the Police Academy movies. There was "Sideswipe" a group of three martial artists, with 20 titles between them, who sort of do kickboxing to music which sounds a lot less entertaining than it actually was. There were clog dancers who were clogging to music that was a lot more modern than most cloggers. These two acts got through and deservedly so.

And then there were my two favourite acts. Michelle L'Amour - and I'd be shocked, shocked I tell you, if that's her real name given her act - who came on stage dressed as Snow White, as in the one from Disney's first animated feature. Do you remember that routine on the Oscars years ago when Rob Lowe sang Proud Mary with a woman dressed like Snow White and the folks at Disney were - to say the least - were not amused to the point of threatening to sue? Well Michelle had better have a good lawyer. Snow White stripped all the way down to a spangly bra and a pair of "panties" which offered proof positive that she shaved down there. She stripped quite well actually, much better than those women at the clubs who are actually nude dancers who view clothes as a not always necessary obstacle to getting cash on the runway. What she would have done if Brandy hadn't managed to escape the grasp of spangle and Morgan to push both of their buttons - the ones at the desks not the ones that Michelle was pushing - and stop the act is anyone's guess.

The act of the night however had to be young Bianca Ryan. She's 11 years old and she came out to sing And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going which Brandy rather condescendingly called a big song, presumably meaning a big song for such a little girl. Let me tell you now that she may be a little girl but she has an amazingly big voice. She had the crowd and the judges (except for Piers and only because he wanted to maintain the slightest amount of objectivity) standing half-way through the song. If she were older she would be on Simon Cowell's other show and probably win the damned thing but as it is she stood out in the mass of bad singers acrobats and magicians like a perfect rose in a field of wild flowers and weeds. No wonder they saved her for the last act on the audition show.

Watching the acts on America's Got Talent I couldn't help but think of the old Ed Sullivan Show, the first and last of what writer Tim Brooks called Vaudeo but which I tend to think of a Vaudevideo (it sounds better). While most people today remember the Sullivan Show - if they remember it at all - for the rock and pop acts that debuted on the series in the 1960s. But the show that Ed Sullivan put on the stage every week was so much more. Brooks says that Sullivan offered "a three-ring circus of comedians, acrobats, opera singers, scenes from plays, and dancing bears." He was right but he seems to say it as if it were a bad thing. I, who remember the show before The Beatles appeared on it (but just barely) remember it as great fun entertainment, not despite the acrobats, and the plate spinners, and the little Italian mouse who was and is still immensely popular in Italy (and apparently in Japan oddly enough), but in a way because of them. The show had something for everybody and continued to do so until CBS told us we were really too sophisticated to enjoy this sort of thing. Sullivan would have loved Bianca, but he'd also have had a place for Frank Simon and maybe even Leonid, and certainly for the magician who worked with doves. It wasn't that much later that our "sophistication" gave birth to The Gong Show where the point wasn't to see how good these acts were but to ridicule and laugh at - rather than with - bad acts, and in a way for the judges to take centre stage rather than the contestants. People hated The Gong Show... but they watched it. In an odd sort of way America's Got Talent tries to meld The Gong Show's comedic aspects with the sheer variety of acts that Sullivan presented and maybe just a touch of Major Bowes Amateur Hour or Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (two shows which I most emphatically do not remember). The sophisticated voices of professional and a lot of amateur critics don't get this show and attack it for being what it is. The evidence however is that the public is watching this show, even though there appears to be a decline in viewership from last week. For myself I found myself being entertained in a way that I'm often not by "professionals" like Freddie Prinz Jr. whose show Freddie I tried to watch - if only out of respect for his wife - and found totally unpalatable. America's Got Talent may appeal to the something lower than the lowest common denominator but in the end the premise lives up to the old song: That's Entertainment!. And really, what more should you want.

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