Over the winter, I had lunch with Mariann Tepedino at her Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home. If you’ve ever listened to the Howard Stern Show in the past 22 years, you probably know Tepedino better by her nickname, Mariann From Brooklyn, earned the very first time she called into the show. The phone screener asked her name, she replied in her unmistakable Bensonhurst-born squawk, “Mariann from Brooklyn.” Stern found her voice so harsh that he told guest Stone Cold Steve Austin, “You’re never gonna get a hard-on again.”
It was love.
Mariann has been following Stern for more than two decades now, calling into the show countless times, and earning the hard-to-dispute title of Howard Stern’s Biggest Fan. After our chat about what, exactly, it meant to hold such a title, she mentioned that Stern had crowned her queen of America’s Got Talent, the reality competition on which he was a judge. He offered her a row of tickets at each of the show’s 18 tapings. “You should come to one,” she offered. I assumed it was merely a polite gesture—that is, until two weeks ago when I received a text message: “AGT taping July 30. Meet me at 7 p.m. outside Radio City. Wear a dark shirt.”
Mariann and I, it seemed, had a date.
As instructed, I met Mariann on the corner of 51st St. and Sixth Ave., right outside the most famous theater in the country. I was nervous that we wouldn’t be able to find each other. But that was because it hadn’t occurred to me that she’d be wearing a tiara.
“Mariann! Hi!” I said, reaching out my hand to shake. “So nice, to meet you … you’re an actor right?” she said squinting, as my head grew 12 sizes and the group with her stifled the laughter at the preposterous suggestion. “No, it’s Kevin from The Daily Beast,” I said sheepishly. Had she forgotten me? “Oh, my God!” she erupted, deafening Wack Packers High-Pitched Eric and Bobo, who would both be joining us at the taping, enveloping me in a warm hug. My beloved Mariann remembered me after all.
Our hodge-podge group finally got its act together and swirled like a confused tornado into Radio City, before finally landing in our very swank seats—ninth row, center orchestra, directly behind the judges—at around 7:15 p.m. Then we waited. For two hours.
Thankfully, the “mother of the Wack Packers” lived up to her reputation. Because of her VIP status, she was allowed to smuggle in contraband. Soon, Twizzlers, a Ziploc filled with chocolate bars, peppermint candy, and Dixie cups filled with water were making their way down the aisle, sustaining us until the 9 p.m. start time. Of course, I should’ve expected nothing less from the woman who, back in February, made a turkey sandwich and a mozzarella sandwich for me (in case I was vegetarian) and sent me back to The Daily Beast’s office with a box of black-and-white cookies.
After the interminable wait, during which I’m fairly positive “Empire State of Mind” played over the loudspeakers no less than six times, it was time to start filming. Not the show, of course—it was time to start filming us, the audience. First, though, we had to rehearse. We rehearsed clapping politely. Then we rehearsed clapping enthusiastically. We rehearsed giving a standing ovation. We rehearsed giving a gradual standing ovation—you stood up first if your birthday was between January and March, a few seconds later if April through August, and last if September through December. No one really got it right. I predict that a similar exercise will soon be used in place of IQ tests.
Then we filmed B-roll of everything we had just rehearsed. We stood up and down so many times that I began sweating, a problematic circumstance, as we were told that we would be standing after every commercial break, when every act is announced, and after almost every act performs. There would be 12 acts and as many commercial breaks. My quads still hurt.
Finally, the show began taping. People literally jumped and down with excitement when Nick Cannon was introduced. Judge Heidi Klum floated across stage as if carried by a fleet of butterflies. Howie Mandel’s head was really shiny. The hypeman kept calling Mel B Scary Spice, which I wasn’t aware we were still allowed to do because she is so much more than that now, and the audience just went ape for every single thing Howard Stern did and said.
Then the acts performed.
Now, I’m merely a pop-culture reporter whose best friend once turned off the radio during a road trip to keep me from singing along, and I can boast about that one time 15 years ago when I did an all right cartwheel. Mariann From Brooklyn is a housewife whose claim to fame is having a voice so displeasing that Howard Stern claims it softens erections. In other words, neither of us is at all qualified to judge a talent competition.
OK, with that disclaimer out of the way, here are our impressions of the more memorable of the 12 acts that we saw over the next two hours.
First, little girls in sparkly leotards did this thing where they sort of danced while throwing the tiniest of the girls really high in the air in an alarming “what the hell are their parents thinking by allowing this” kind of way. It was … pleasant. Mariann was not impressed. “I don’t want to feel like I’m at a dance recital,” she scoffed.
Next, another miniature girl wore tie-dyed clothes, said she wanted to be the next Beyoncé, and sang Emeli Sandé’s “Next to Me” while backup dancers did a little doo-wop dance behind her. I ate that up. Mariann wasn’t as enthused. “I need to be wowed,” she said. Take note, contestants. She was wowed, however, by the next performer, a guy who breathed fire while hanging Cirque du Soleil style off a pole and then ate a sword and did back flips with the sword still down his throat. In other words, this was a crazy person. “This is what America’s Got Talent is all about,” Stern told the guy. “Killing yourself?” Mariann and I said to each other at the same time. Soul mates.
The next stretch was a blur. Kids from Staten Island danced like they had chugged four Red Bulls each, an old man did this thing where he lay on the stage while a four-wheeler ran over him (talent?), and then there was a break dancer who was kind of like those kids who storm the New York subway and shout, “What time is it? It’s showtime!”
But then—THEN—three men known as Forte sang opera. No, they emoted opera. They did a gorgeous rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. I looked over, and my dear Mariann was in tears. She clutched my arm. “I’m crying. I’m fucking crying!” She stood up and started clapping before they were even done with the first verse.
The rest of the night became sort of habitual. Ho-hum acts would perform. We’d stand up dutifully when we were supposed to. None of them held a candle to the sideshow that was Heidi Klum and Howard Stern dancing to “Blurred Lines” during a commercial break, a moment I can die happy after witnessing. Finally, the 12th and final act performed, a man that all of Radio City Music Hall was aware of except me, apparently. His name was Booty.
His song was also called “Booty.” Girls joined him on stage, shaking their booties. Mariann couldn’t help herself—she began shaking her booty. I was shaking my booty! Booty booty booty.
Apparently, this Booty person has a dream of being a one-hit wonder, touring the country making money off of his one big song, “Booty.” The judges are all for this idea, and told him how much they hope this happens. Because this is the state of reality-competition shows now: forget finding the next great talent, let’s just settle for finding a new one-hit wonder.
Well, America, forget Booty. After the four and a half hours we spent together, I found mine. And her name is Mariann. She’s from Brooklyn.