Here Comes the Judge

04.13.12

Howard Stern Is the Real Star of ‘America’s Got Talent,’ Even Though He’s Just a Judge

In his debut as the newest judge on America’s Got Talent (Howie Mandel, we hardly knew ye), the much-mellowed shock jock owned the audience as the night’s real winner, writes Jake Heller, who got an exclusive look at the show.

They took the day off work, hopped in a brand new silver Honda Accord, cranked the radio, and drove more than 200 miles from Boston to New York City. Both left their wives behind, one of whom is eight months pregnant.

Yesterday morning, Paul Gimelberg and Avi Singh traveled to a taping of America’s Got Talent—a program they had never seen—to watch the talent show’s new judge, Howard Stern, “take over.” (Avi Singh isn’t his real name—he told his pregnant wife that he was going to a conference for work, so would like to remain anonymous.)

“Even if he says that it’s not going to be The Howard Stern Show,” Gimelberg said, “it’s going to be The Howard Stern Show.”

They listened to Stern’s radio show, known for its lewd content, the entire trip.

“Got to get pumped, man!” said Gimelberg, 29, who has listened to Stern since he was 11.

Outside the Manhattan Center Studios on 34th Street, next to a line of passengers waiting to catch a discount Bolt Bus to Philadelphia, a mass of people stretched back two avenue blocks, shuffling, sitting, or sipping free Snapple as they anticipated their entrance into the taping.

Scott Goldman, 56, bald, and pot-bellied, was first in line. “It’s going to be great tonight,” he said with a voice so hoarse it sounded like he had just been hooked up to a respirator of cigarette smoke. “I’ve been listening to him [Stern] since 1989.”

“This is going to put it [America’s Got Talent] through the roof,” added Pat Holdren, 60, who was waiting in line with her 44-year-old daughter, Sherry Pinamonti, and her granddaughters, 18-year-old Ashley and 16-year-old Melina Pinamonti—all Stern fans. “He’s charismatic, very intelligent, very charming,” Holdren said.

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Sherry used to hate Stern—“because he was a misogynist”—but has come around to liking him. “He doesn’t have to be like that anymore,” she said. “People who don’t like him are going to see him on the show and they’re going to like him.”

Stern will bring legitimate star power to the judges’ table of America’s Got Talent, which until now has struggled to compete with other reality talent competitions like American Idol. The acerbic radio host is the latest in a string of established entertainers who have chosen to judge reality television; he doesn’t need the money and he doesn’t need the attention, but just happens to be a big fan of the show, which begins its new season May 14 on NBC.

Not two years ago, such seats were reserved for B-list celebrities or brash British men. But now, superstars like Steven Tyler and Christina Aguilera proudly pontificate after listening to singing performances on Idol and NBC’s new hit The Voice. Even Stevie Wonder is rumored to be a judge on a new reality singing show.

Is Stern ruining his reputation by taking a reality show judging gig? “I don’t think he is,” said 28-year-old Harrison Fox, who watched America’s Got Talent every week last summer and also happens to be a huge Howard Stern fan. “His whole thing is honesty.”

“I think he’s just doing it for his own enjoyment,” Fox continued, before adding: “I’m sure the money’s OK, too.”

Stern is replacing Piers Morgan—“a total a--hole, a real buttoned-up British guy,” according to Gimelberg—on a three-judge panel that also includes Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne.

As the crowd grew eager and impatient outside—one man with slicked-back hair and sunglasses yelled “Harry Potter! Holy shit!” at a bespectacled passerby, to much laughter—America’s Got Talent producers searched the crowd for people who didn’t like Howard Stern. They wanted “before and after” interviews.

“It’s impossible to find them,” one muttered to himself.

From the moment he was introduced to a raucous standing ovation last night, the lanky radio host took over this season’s first New York taping of America’s Got Talent.

To chants of  “Howard! Howard!” Stern emerged from backstage wearing black jeans, a black leather jacket, a black scarf, sunglasses, and a smile that said, “This is my show now.”

“I’m the voice of honesty,” Howard Stern told the crowd. “I almost went into a coma here.”

He was controlled, calculated, and had the crowd at his fingertips. And he knew it: “This audience is thinking exactly what I’m saying,” Stern would tell one contestant.

“A big Hey Now, a Baba Booey to you all,” Stern told the fawning crowd, familiar with his famous expressions, “Isn’t this fun?”

He hugged Sharon, fist-bumped Howie, and said, “Time to focus. We’re going to start the show.”

The Manhattan Center Studios’ ballroom is a faded joint, but was spruced up by blaring lights and excited fans. The judge’s chairs, each with an obnoxious X on its back to allude to the judges’ collective show-stopping power, were scratched and worn. And the black wall-to-wall carpeting, strung together with duct tape, mirrored the dull fresco that adorned the ceiling in its need to be cleaned.

From the moment he was introduced to a raucous standing ovation last night, the lanky radio host took over this season’s first New York taping of America’s Got Talent.

The washed-out glory of the venue echoed the look on Howie Mandel’s face. This was Howard’s show now; the biggest reaction Howie got from the audience was when he made a reference to Howard’s radio show.

“Will you two cut it out?” Sharon Osborne said as she interrupted the two men during a lighthearted spat.

The New York Post reports that Howie is frustrated by Howard stealing the spotlight, though the three judges shared some laughs with one another between acts.

Still, signs like “America’s Got Howard” and “President: Obama, Vice Pres: Beetlejuice” (one of Stern’s regular guests) dotted the still-not-quite-filled stands.

Stern, meanwhile, would turn around at every break to wave, point, and blow kisses into the crowd. His wife, a Barbie lookalike named Beth, received the same adoration. Avi Singh, the guy with the wife eight months' pregnant, screamed “We love you, Beth!” when she arrived in a black-and-white polka-dot dress and pink heels.

But Stern clearly takes the job seriously. He took copious notes during the performances, and seemed committed to allowing only the best acts to advance.

“This is not a million-dollar act,” he told one performer, “this is not a $100 act.”

He’s more complex than people give him credit for. He has openly professed to enjoying shows like America’s Got Talent and The Bachelor and despises Jay Leno.

At last night’s taping, Stern told a group of cross-dressing men that he found “a few” of them attractive. Minutes later, Howie asked Stern to specify which ones, with Beth but a few feet away. And Stern happily obliged.

Throughout the night, Stern painted a picture of himself for America’s network television audience that was half crude jokes and half genuine, approachable father figure.

Not long after watching a basketball act and jibing Sharon with the line, “Ozzie told me that you’re a fabulous ball handler,” Stern dished out some tough love to a singer about to be sent home. “One of the ways you’re going to get better is by listening to people like me,” he said.

It’s a persona Stern’s fans say is an accurate reflection of who he is.

“He keeps it so real that he’s relatable,” Singh said.

But more than spread his appeal to a wider audience, Stern has also solidified the link between reality-television judge and established entertainer, and has brought a whole new contingent of fans to America’s Got Talent.

“Hate him or love him,” Gimelberg said, “You’re going to watch him.”