Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the French
By: Casey Martin
Setting the stage: The email came shortly after we had been brutally booted off America’s Got Talent in the second round. Rob and I were both anxiously awaiting the day when 12 million viewers would watch the public ruination of our act. AGT had already aired the spectacular 5 minutes of our first audition, resulting in a standing ovation and many new fans. We estimated that we had about one month to bask in the glory of our first audition before the second round went public. However, this pinged into our email box a few weeks before they aired the Judgement Week auditions.
June 23, 2014
HI, I am working for the French version of America’s Got Talent. I saw your act that you have performed for the Audition of America’s, this is really great! I would like to know if you are still in the game on AGT, and if you would be interested to take part in our show?
“You know we don’t speak French right?”
But then again, this was our chance to possibly redeem ourselves. To show to the world that The Kamikaze Fireflies would not be knocked down by the fickle hand of Freemantle Media. Kick us off America’s Got Talent, Huh? Well we’ll just go on France’s Got Talent then! Even if we don’t “parlevou la fromage”.
Hold up, let’s think about this one more time. What if the same thing that happened to us on AGT happens to us again on FGT? What if we fly all the way to Paris just to be scalped again by their version of a germophobic bald comedian? Some decisions needed to be made.
Rob and I had many long wrought discussions on the subject. Should we roll the dice again and have more TV land adventures or simply not reply to the email.
A few days before AGT aired the second round, we took the plunge and signed the contract. We wanted another shot for the glory. FGT booked the flights, sent us our hotel confirmation in Paris and we once again reassured ourselves that this WASN’T like going back into an abusive relationship…it’s just a simple career move. We bought some French audiotapes.
AND THEN…. Much to our surprise, America’s Got Talent never aired the second round audition on Judgement Week. We felt like we won the Vaudeville Lottery! All of the good and none of the bad. We still don’t know why we were edited out. Just a lucky turn of the fates for us. We feasted on French éclairs.
So now here we were facing France’s Got Talent with an entirely new motive. We didn’t have to redeem ourselves. All we had to do was visit a foreign country, knowing nothing of its language, customs, or humor, and win a national competition. Sort of an odd existential turn of events. We started smoking cigarettes.
Our Paris audition date was set for September 10, 2014. About a month and a half away. We agreed to perform the same climb-a-guy routine that we did with Nick Cannon in the first found of AGT. Now, who to climb? This simple, yet ominous little question sets the ground for the tumultuous latter end of the story.
We emailed back and forth with the producers and ultimately decided Gilbert Rozon (in their words “The George Clooney of France”) was our guy. He is a 60-year-old actor and producer who “is definitely the strongest of the hosts” Again, their words, not ours. He seemed a little old and frail for the stunt but the producers were confident. “We’ll make it work,” they said.
The week of the FGT audition we were performing at the Ohio Renaissance Festival. Dayton doesn’t offer many options in the way of direct flights to Paris so we had to pull a red-eye on Monday night to compete the very next day in Paris. Dreary eyed and stiff from a weekend of shows, we got off the plane and blinked around Du Gaulle Airport for our chauffeur. We were taken to the studio in La Defense for a briefing with the directors.
It was hard not to compare America’s Got Talent to France’s Got Talent. The sets had the same chrome, broadway glitz that when inspected on a closer level was made of cardboard and plastic. Acrobats were stretching their groin muscles in the wings, drag queens were applying make up at the dressing room mirrors, singers belted out “I Will Always Love You” in the corners (Go back to American Idol!!!!). The theater was much smaller. We had filmed our first audition on AGT at the Dolby Theater where they film the Oscars. We juggled fire for 3000 people in the US but this tiny studio theater looked like it would barely seat 300. The judge’s tables sat in their typical locale in front of the audience. Interestingly they all had to share the X buzzer. Got to save money somehow!
We signed releases, ran a talk though for the exec producers and then had to wait in holding room with the other acts. Exhaustion was setting in. We had been awake for nearly 48 hours. We didn’t know when we would be pulled out on stage so we had to stay awake and alert. Ready to jump on stage at any moment. Hours and hours went by. I have heard many other acts complain about this facet of the Got Talent franchises. They claim that it is abusive and wasteful of their time. And while I agree that it is unpleasant, it is common procedure on television sets. Hurry up and wait is unfortunate catch phrase in the film industry. Even when we perform on SAG/AFTRA sets, we have to sit around for hours with other complaining actors. It’s the
biz. Nevertheless… it was very difficult to keep our energy up with so much sleep deprivation.
We were pulled out of holding from time to time to film B-Roll. This was the most fun we had the entire time we were there. We pushed our French shopping cart through the streets of Paris trailed by a film crew and yelled things to passersby in memorized French. Something like “Here we are for the France’s Got Talent” or “We are here for your trophies” (Oddly enough, they give you an actual trophy if you win on France’s Got Talent).
We also memorized a script in French that they had emailed us. Pretty basic and straight forward. Our good friend Arsene DuPin, the French silent clown kindly helped us with our butchered pronunciation. “Go on, tell us more” the producers would say. “Of course you speak a little French, right?” I said no in German.
We talked with the producers again. They wanted to change things up. Apparently they hired a newer, bigger stronger judge this year. A former footballer in fact! Perfect! They pulled us into another room and had us practice the routine again. This guy was great. Twice the size of Nick Cannon. Slight language barrier, but totally workable. We were both very relieved to not be climbing on “The George Clooney of France.”
Finally at 9pm (French time) our turn was up! We were told to wait with another act about to go on. He was an older guy with a sheep dog that kept messing up it’s tricks. It was clear that this was one of the acts that the producers thought was an obvious joke. Much like AGT, acts are brought on FGT that are just buzzer fodder. I understand why they think this makes good television, but there is something of the school bully about it that makes me sad.
We were called into the wings of the stage. The interview with the hosts of the show was awkward and stilted. They spoke a bit of English and asked us the classic pre-audition questions. We answered in English and they translated it in French to the camera. Our questions were broken up with moments of them talking to the camera in French then talking to each and then laughing. We have no idea what they said. It could have been complimentary. It could have been them making fun. We had no idea.
Rob and I were ready to go on. Our shopping cart was poised at the edge of the curtain. The stage hands had set the stage with our props. We both mustered up some adrenaline for our big French chance. The announcer called out, “And now, The Kamikaze Fireflies,” …and then… a hand from behind grabbed my shoulder. The producer said, “Not yet, not yet. Here. Stand over here.”
Needless to say we were a bit dumbfounded. No explanation was given, but we were happy to play along and wait. And wait we did. Over the next two hours we loitered in the wings. A number of times the producers told us that we would be up after the next act. They set up our props again. And again, they pulled us back at the last minute with no explanation. One of our thoughts was that the exec producer was trying structure the show like a maestro. Maybe he was trying to feel the energy of the room and give the crowd what they needed at the right time to keep everyone engaged. A dog act here, a deaf 8-year-old singer next, then bring on the hemophiliac father-son ball bouncing act. Our emotions were being fed through an exhaustive emotional meat grinder.
It went along like this…
You’re up next. Hold on, this act is going to go on before you. GO, GO, GO. No, just wait again. Hold on, right after this act you’re next. Oh wait… just one more.
It continued on like this for two and a half hours, well into the night.
Finally around 11:30pm they pulled us out of the wings and into a hallway. A flurry of producers scuttled around us arguing in French. (You know we still don’t speak French, right?) One of the dozen of them began speaking in English. He explained to us that someone Up Top made the call that our act was too dangerous. An eruption of arguments broke out again between the producers (again, in French) and we silently waited blind to any of the discussion at hand. The surreal nature of our fate was only just beginning to unfold.
Just hours earlier we had practiced this very routine with these very same producers. Everyone was cool and onboard. The footballer judge was willing and able. What could have possibly changed? Of course, we tried to ask them these questions but it didn’t seem to help our cause.
They gave us an option. A small old man whose appearance can be likened to Filtch from the Harry Potter series walked into the room. Skinny build, 5’6”, 150lbs, somewhere in his sixties. They explained to us that this was the theater’s fire safety manager and we would be only be allowed to perform our “danger” act if we climbed this man instead of the footballer judge.
They said they would have him dress up in regular cloths and pretend to be a shill in the audience. We weren’t buying it. In audience full of 18-30 year olds, they would all watch this sexagenarian walk in, by himself, sit down, and then see us call him up on stage like we had never met him before.
The fire manager was being supportive. We could tell he wanted to help. He showed us his “this is happening for the first time” face. His English comprehension could be likened to that of toaster, but he smiled a toothy, nervous glance at us and mimed that he was happy to help.
At this point I would like to put a magnifying glass over a few details. We have been awake for over 48 hours now. It’s past midnight, producers are arguing all around us and we are being told to change up the routine minutes before walking onstage to be publicly judged.
We did a run though with the fire manager. Rob was able to grapple up this old man’s back and actually managed to stand up…just barely. The producers stood around and watched. We listened to them argue some more. They conveyed to us that this still felt too sketchy. They asked Rob climb the old man again. This time faster. Once again Rob mounted the fire manager and I my shopping cart, bearing in mind that just hours before we had run this very same routine in front of the same producers on top of a perfectly healthy young judge.
We asked the producers if they could promise that that the judges wouldn’t buzz us off given the last minute switch ups. They could give us no promise.
Things were falling apart. The French arguing escalated into yelling match. We watched them as they bickered over our destiny without our being able to contribute at all. We didn’t feel safe using the fire safety shill. The actual risk of harming someone went up tremendously by involving him.
And then the big secret was revealed. One of the producers told us that just last night a different act used fire in their audition and was severely burned. A young woman fire breather was sent to the emergency room (and probably received excellent medical care regardless of her nationality). The producers were afraid that we would burn the footballer judge. Things were beginning to make sense. Or at least as much sense as they could given the situation.
And here comes our dues ex machina.
We were given the option to leave. They gave us 10 minutes to decide what to do. We huddled in a doorway. The producers bustled back over after 4 minutes and asked our decision.
We decided not to go on.
Since they were French, we assumed they would understand our desire to retreat.
We said no, they said sorry and we limped back to our hotel room and ate chicken out of a vending machine.
The rest of the trip was quite pleasant. We ate escargot in Montmartre and toured The Museo de Orsay. We took a moonlight boat ride down the Seine and battled our way though clumps of Chinese tourists to get a selfie with the Mona Lisa, all the while trying to figure out the rabbit hole we had fallen into the night before. So many unanswered questions ping-ponged around in our heads.
Why didn’t they let us know of their safety concerns when we stepped off that airplane? We could have called some friends and had juggling clubs, or balls or even oranges in our hands within a few hours. As it played out, the producers waited until literally the camera was following us on stage and all we had were torches.
Why spend over $6,000 to bring an English speaking act over at all? We couldn’t even argue our case and tell them we had performed this routine thousands of times.
And then the biggest question of all… What if we had decided to go on anyway? Would they have buzzed us off or would we be the next Terry Fator? Would they call us out for using a shill or would it have been funny to see Rob break the collarbone of a 60 year old man? Would they just edited us out like on America’s Got Talent. These are all things we will never know, but that will continue to puzzle us.
I really wish that events could have played out differently. I wanted to kick open the doors of France. I wanted to break into the European market! I wanted Marcel Marceau to rise up from the grave and mime me a bouquet of roses. I wanted to take the Kamikaze Fireflies to a whole new level. But mainly, I wish the that France’s Got Talent trusted us as much as America’s Got Talent, or perhaps I wish that France’s Got Talent cared as little about their host as America’s Got Talent. Or at least that I could finally speak French.