By: Rob Williams
Had the call come from a producer it would have been an easy, “No thank you.” Who would want to take their show in front of a television audience of twelve million and let it be judged by someone (in previous years) like Sharon Osbourne, a woman famous only for
a reality TV show. That would be like having Kim Kardashian judge a piano recital. But the call came from an old friend and hero, Dan Holzman.
“The Kamikaze Fireflies should do America’s Got Talent.”
He had been working with a friend scouting for talent, and we were one of the acts the producers wanted. But like many of you who will read this, we were already being contacted yearly by AGT.
Friends of mine like Shay Hooray or Reid Bielstock will tell you funny stories about how they tortured the producers trying to secure them. We always said no as well. Dan made his case, and it made sense.
“There’s no other game in town. Carson is long gone, and no other late night show likes variety. This is the only television show that will book you. You will get broadcast television quality footage of your show. Even if you bomb, you just cut it so that it looks like you did okay. Yes, there are some big drawbacks, but good luck if you want to wait around for the TV show with no drawbacks to come knocking.”
Dan should have been an agent. He’s hard to disagree with. Casey and I talked it over, and decided to roll the dice. We were going on America’s Got Talent.
Once we had a producer for our segment things moved along fairly easily. We pitched them a routine, showed them some video, they agreed, and then it was just details. The hardest part, and the part that keeps many good acts from going on, is the ninety seconds you are given. Getting an eight minute routine under two minutes means leaving a great deal on the cutting room floor. Good jokes, character build, connection- it’s all ditched. You have to give just the basics. Some routines can survive this process, some cannot, and you need to know your material well enough to make the call.
This year’s audition shows were taped in New York City and Los Angeles. We chose the LA theater. It was the Dolby Theater. Where they shoot the Oscars. As soon as you arrive it’s like a talent show backstage cliché. Tap dancing kids, dogs in tutus, singers warming up, two guys doing handstands over by the David Bowie look alike. You can immediately spot the acts that are unaware of how they are being used. If your act is called Forty, Fat, and Fabulous and you and your overweight friends do amateur dance moves to ABBA (as I write this I realize it actually sounds pretty awesome), well, don’t cry when the red X’s start buzzing over your head. It’s a long day of eating Subway sandwiches (they are a show sponsor, so all food is from them and all the drinks are from Snapple) as you await your spot.
The “reality” starts right away. Interview after interview. Staged shots of you arriving and looking around, wondering if you will do well, and so on. Since this is television it helps if you can talk endlessly and sound genuine. Some acts we saw being interviewed were amazing until they opened their mouths. That acrobat who does a killer seven minutes to music should never have to sit and talk on camera for half an hour. Talking is not his strong suit. But again, that’s television.
Eventually your interviews go from the holding room upstairs to the backstage area. You can hear the audience, the acts, and the occasional buzzer. At this point we still had not seen the judges or the theater full of people. We were still chatting and doing some backstage antics when a producer said we were next.
Casey and I didn’t know if we had a full guarantee that Nick Canon would let us use him for the routine. We had our good friend Todd Abrams (AKA the deadly Jack Dagger) in the crowd just in case we needed a last minute stand in. None of our other friends and family were able to make it out, so Todd was our only amigo in the place. Even as we stood in the wings, about to push a shopping cart out, we didn’t know if Nick was really onboard. And then we got the nod to go out.
We don’t really watch the show. It’s on in our house now and then, but we don’t pay much attention. But in preparation for our appearance we watched it online endlessly for months. Walking out and seeing the judges was dreamlike. There are three thousand people in the theater, twelve million at home, and these four slightly serious, slightly scowling judges. Are we a little nervous? Slightly. But we are also happy to be there. Howie handled the chat with us. We tried to get a laugh or two and stay
upbeat. It wasn’t until we called Nick out, and he came out, that we knew it was a go. Once he was out there, it became fairly easy. I’ve done the routine for ages so even though Nick was too small, and he stepped on a few jokes, we were home free. The crowd was roaring. The judges were standing and cheering. We jumped down from the cart and from the host. I went into automatic mode and told the audience,
“One more round of applause for Nick Canon!”
That was his job, but once I’m onstage I assume I’m in charge. I should have also tossed to commercial.
“Stick around to see who’s going home, and who’s getting their shot at a million dollars, right here on America’s Got Talent!”
The judging chat was enthusiastic and also dreamlike. We were through to the next round!
Because of the nature of the show we were unable to tell anyone about our success. Too bad, because we were so excited. We would have settled for not being humiliated. That it went so well was astounding and a huge relief. The euphoria passed and then it was back to a weekend at a renaissance festival, earning a living from one beloved audience member (in a cape and pointy ears) at a time.
To do the first round you sign a short little contract. For the second round you sign a big contract. The number one complaint about this show that I hear from other acts is concerning this second contract.
“They will own your act!”
“My lawyer read it and said I would be a fool to sign!”
That’s not what I found. I’ve read a number of contracts like this and this one seemed no more aggressive than the rest. I picked it apart word by word, clause by clause, and with no fear we signed. Along with this contract you pitch your second, third, and fourth round ideas/routines.
Now this is where I think things get complicated. No producer ever said it outright, but I get the feeling that for your FIRST round to appear, for it to actually make it to air, you have to sign the big contract AND pitch a second routine that they want to see. The contract is to make sure they can get what they need from you down the road if you advance or win, and the second round routine pitch is also a point where they need to make sure they will get useful television from you. I have friends with massive talents who barely got any airtime after a killer performance, and I believe it’s because they either chose to not sign, or they pitched a weak second round routine.
The producers accepted our second round pitch, and so we were advanced to the New York City, “Judgment Week.” No audience, just four extra serious judges in a big empty room.
If by some chance any one reading this wants some advice, here’s what I learned. They say they want to see what else you can do, show us your range. Maybe so. But don’t show them something so different that it could be from a different show. We did not want to get locked into doing big fire stunts, so I made a sandwich with my feet. This routine is my most famous routine. It has been on a dozen nationally broadcast television shows, gotten me into Guinness World Records, and gotten me flown around the world for performances. We weren’t giving them a flat, boring, “we don’t really care,” routine. We were giving them a hugely different routine, but one that was gold. The loathing they had for this routine was off the chain (to use your phrase Mel B). We were given the immediate ax. No debate, no waiting a day or two, just a boot in the ass. Casey and I went backstage and the reaction cameras descended. They wanted tears, but we gave them two professionals who disagreed with the outcome. Now, back at the hotel, there were many tears. We couldn’t sit still. The two of us wandered Times Square till three in the morning questioning our choices. We flew home and waited.
We had already shot the second round before the first round aired. We had no idea how they would portray us. Chumps or champs? It is in their power to shape every minute to their needs. Your success can be made to appear a flop. No worries. The first round was shown in its standing ovation, full length glory. Five and half minutes of amazing airtime and footage. Our Facebook exploded. Fans at the festival we were at were lining up to see us. We may not have become celebrities, but we were recognized by total strangers as we walked down the street. But we knew that the second round disaster was coming.
We cheerfully but painfully accepted everyone’s well wishes for our upcoming appearances knowing that it was already a fait accompli. The night of the second appearance rolled around, and like a call from the governor we were told at the last second by a producer that we were not going to appear. We watched the episode, and we didn’t just not appear, we were rendered invisible. Scenes that we know we were in were cropped just to take us out of the mix. With some DVR footage and freeze framing you can pick us out in the background once or twice, but you will never see Heidi Klum refuse to eat the sandwich that Jay Leno happily ate.
Who knows why our second round footage never made it to air, but one can suspect that it was our lack of emotional cracking after the routine. It just didn’t play out well for the purposes of a drama driven show. We have had trouble getting it across to people who assume that we would have wanted the second round to air no matter what, but for us it
felt like dodging a bullet. All the glory and none of the gutting.
Did it lead to great new things? Not really. My friend from the Passing Zone, Jon Wee, said it well.
“You will get some good footage, but don’t expect it to make or break you.”
Exactly so. The people who like us already were excited for us. Our segment is on Youtube and has hundreds of thousands of views. Bookings didn’t go crazy, but they did increase. Casey and I felt like we squeaked out a victory, but when the stakes are that high, even a narrow win is still a good pay day.
I know my peers mostly hate this international television “Got Talent” franchise. I understand why. But for us? We are glad we rolled the dice.