Monday, July 16, 2012

(Part Two)
By Steve Ludwig
(Continued from my blog of July 5, 2012)

So we were let into the NJPAC auditorium maybe ten of us or so at a time. Everything looked really cool when they opened the doors for us to enter; right ahead of us was the stage, looking just as it does on TV. There were three empty judges' chairs, and the lights were dimmed. Sue, Jeff, Tommy and I were able to get seventh-row seats on, just as we had hoped, the right side. The right side is where Howard Stern sat. You can see from the picture above that I took, we had pretty decent seats. 
You'll also notice from the picture that the BMX bike ramps were already set up. The bikers were to be the sixth act tonight, but because the show was going live now (because the quarterfinals were beginning on this night), the stage crew wouldn't have time during the two or three minutes during commercials to take the ramps down. So this segment would be taped beforehand, then inserted into the show at the proper time. This meant that the three judges, Howard, Sharon, and Howie, along with host Nick Cannon, would have to come out and pretend as if they had been judging the first five acts already.
Things were getting more and more exciting by the minute. It was like we were in on little secrets that the home viewing audience didn't know. A little behind and to my left was the teleprompter that Nick Cannon read off of. Each contestant's intro rolled past the screen; I guess they were checking spelling and things before the broadcast began.

Nick's prompt for Li'l Starr

We were told this by Joey, the warm-up guy. It was his job to get all of us in the audience revved up, psyched about being a part of the show. Well, he didn't need much help with that; it seemed everyone was ready and raring to go. Really, everyone seemed to be in such a good mood; as people were looking for seats when we first entered, no one pushed, no one argued about this seat or that seat. If someone was saving a seat for a friend, that was OK; we'd all get in.
So Joey began by laying down the ground rules for us: no recording, no taking pictures, and if you like an act, cheer about it. Let the home viewing audience hear it!
It was a predominantly pro-Howard Stern crowd. Even outside on the ticket line, NJPAC workers would walk up and down the lines asking, "You guys ready for Howard Stern?!" 

Joey, the cool warm-up guy

And Joey would use the crowd's affection for Howard to rile us into a fever pitch. 
"Baba-booey!!!" he would yell into his microphone. ("Baba-booey" is the nickname of Gary Dell'Abate, producer of the Howard Stern Sirius/XM radio show).
"Baba-booey!!!" the crowd would return.
However, not everyone was there for Stern. My friend Jeff was a fan of America's Got Talent; he never listened to Howard's show, and he didn't know who any of the zany "wack-packers" were.
Joey explained to us the most important thing to remember when the show comes back from and goes into commercials. Fifteen seconds before the show returns from a commercial, Joey would roll his arms wildly; that was our cue to stand up and applaud and cheer wildly. This way, when the TV audience saw the fade-in from commercial, we'd all be having such a fantastic time. And it really wasn't a put-on; the audience was having a super time. We just needed a little choreographing to project that to the home audience!
Here's a YouTube video I made of some of the pre-show goings-on (It's called "America's Got Talent Pre-Show, July 2, 2012, Newark, NJ"). It'll give you a nice idea of what things were like before the show went on the air that evening:

Joey the warm-up guy did have a very tough job, and he did it extremely well. He was always "up" and he made sure we in the audience were having a good time. Every so often he'd toss out America's Got Talent T-shirts to the crowd.
The live portion of the show was to begin at 8:30 PM, with a thirty-minute recap that would review to the home audience how the contestants got to where they were in the competition. The actual competition for this evening's first twelve acts would begin at 9:00 PM.
At around 7:40 PM, Joey told us that the BMXers would be out in a few minutes, and their segment would be taped. It was time to bring out the judges. But because when this segment would be shown within the live show, the judges would already be seated as if they had judged the first five competitors. So their intro wasn't by Nick Cannon; Joey brought them on. They didn't come out from center stage as they did at the 9:00 hour, they walked out together from the side of the stage and walked directly to their judges' seats. But it was still exciting, because the audience was seeing them for the first time that night (except those of us lucky enough to have seen them about ninety minutes before!).
So the three of them walked out slowly together, almost as if an audience wasn't even there. But as they were walking, Joey gave them a neat intro:
"Ladies and gentlemen, Howie Mandell!! Yells and cheers for Howie, as he smiled and blew a kiss to the crowd.
"The beautiful Sharon Osbourne!!" More cheers and cries of Ozzie-like "Sharon!" came from the audience. She gave a sweet smile.
"And Howard Stern!!" The sound was deafening! By far, the loudest ovation was for Howard Stern. And of course, Howard played it up for all it was worth. He stopped dead in his tracks, raised both his arms in a "My people!" gesture, and gave a big smile and wave.
Howie Mandell helped Sharon down the couple of steps to the judges' table, then made sure Howard saw the steps and got down them safely before he took his own seat.
Once the judges were seated, Joey introduced Nick Cannon: "And our host, Mr. Nick Cannon!!"
Another big round of applause as Nick gave a quick wave and found his spot on stage for the introduction of the BMX bikers. It seemed to me that during the commercials and the pre-show, Nick seemed to be a bit nervous, always double-checking his lines, tugging at his tie, things like that. But it was understandable; he was the glue that held the show together. Its success was clearly riding on his shoulders. However, once the cameras were rolling, he was the consummate professional.
So he introduced the bikers, they did their thing, the judges judged, and then Nick said into the camera, "And now here's a singer, etc., etc....Nikki Jensen!"
"OK, and cut," the director said from the right of the stage, seated in front of the audience.
And that was it for the taped segment. Howard, Howie, and Sharon quietly got up, gave a really quick wave to the crowd, and walked out the same way they came in.
"Awright, awright, great job!" Joey told us, then said something to the effect of, "OK, sit back, relax, we have about an hour before the show comes back inside (that would be at 9:00PM). PLEASE turn off all your recording devices. We don't want it to happen, but the security told me they're gonna haul your ass right outta here if anybody's recording anything. OK? Let's not have that happen, like that guy right over there."
Sure enough, someone was still recording things, despite Joey's pleas. He didn't get thrown out, but the guy was roundly booed, and he immediately shut off his iPhone and put it away. Nobody wanted him to ruin the good vibrations we were all feeling.
Party music was piped in; people stood up and stretched. Some danced to the music, some went to the bathroom or refreshment stands. Practically everyone was happy.
Every ten minutes or so, Joey would ask us how we were doing, are we having a good time? And we'd answer him honestly: "Yeah!!"
It was really interesting ("amazing" wouldn't be a stretch) how hard and incredibly efficiently the stage crew worked. Just watching them dismantle the ramps from the BMX act and prepare the stage for the actual start of the show was entertaining in itself. 
At about 8:25, Joey told us that the 8:30-9:00 segment of the program would begin in five minutes, but that Nick would be doing a remote until 9:00 from outside the NJPAC, so we could still relax. They showed what the TV audience saw on the screen on the stage, so those of us inside caught the thirty-minute recap, too.
At about 8:40, workers started passing out about fifty signs to the audience. Signs? Well, if you watch the show, you know how members of the audience hold up signs of their favorite acts? The audience doesn't make those; they're provided by the America's Got Talent art department! Yeah, really. Each competitor is represented by an equal number of pre-made signs that are handed out to the audience! 
As luck would have it, I was given a sign. Yeah!  Mine was for the Scott Brothers. Most people held up their signs each time an act came onstage, regardless of who their sign was for. Me? Uh-uh. No way. I'm dorky enough, but at least I know when to and when not to hold up my sign, lemme tell ya!
So the whole giving-out-the-sign thing surprised me; then another thing kinda surprised me. A staff member was walking up and down the aisles with an empty cup asking gum-chewers to please get rid of their gum! We'd be on-camera, and it was unsightly to the home audience to see people chomping away on gum. I decided to risk getting detention; I wasn't giving up my beloved Dentyne Ice, no way! I just stopped chewing when the gum cup person came by my row, just as my students do to me in my eighth-grade classroom!
Joey got back on the mike: "OK, we're about ten minutes till we bring the show in here. Are you ready??!!"
We were ready, my good man, Joseph! Sue, Tommy, Jeff, and I had been all set since 1:30 in the afternoon, when we first took our place on line! A couple rows ahead of us sat another friend of ours, Tommy Li, who had come separately with his buddy, Jim. And a row or so away from us was also Patty, the woman I had met earlier in the day while on line. All of us would exchange glances every once in a while, giving each other a "This is cool!" look.
If you watch the show (or even if you don't, you can still imagine), you know how slick and smooth things seem to go. 
It's what goes on during the commercials that's pretty cool. 
As the show was getting ready to go into its first commercial, Joey (off-camera, to the right of the stage on the floor area) gave us the "stand-up-and-cheer" signal; and like the good audience members we were, we did!
While in commercial, make-up people would tend to each of the judges as they sat in their chairs; others would bring out fresh drinks of Snapple. The stage crew would feverishly set up the stage for the next act. Nick Cannon would usually go off stage during the commercials, and come back out and find his "mark" with about thirty seconds left before going back on air.
When the show resumed, the stage crew would still be setting up. That's why you rarely (if ever) see the stage in the frame as Nick comes back from commercial. And you know how they do a little forty-five second background segment on the next competitor before they do their live act? The crew is still putting the final touches on the scenery while that pre-taped segment is being shown. Pretty neat, huh?
Also during commercials, people in the audience would invariably yell out one of the judges' names. Usually it was Howard. He would always acknowledge the crowd; he seems to genuinely love his fans. 
Once during a break, Joey said, "Let's hear it for Howie Mandell!" The audience would cheer wildly. Howie would swing around in his chair and wave and smile. 
Joey said, "You know, I've been a comedian for thirty years, and I have to tell you guys Howie Mandell is one of the nicest guys in the business. He's always helping struggling comics like myself, and he's never too busy for you." That got a huge ovation from the audience, and Howie walked down to Joey and fist-bumped him.
As each commercial would be drawing to a close, the director would announce for all to hear, "OK, forty-five seconds to back on air...thirty seconds...fifteen seconds..."
"OK, guys, here we go!" Joey would yell, and we'd stand and cheer.
A six-year-old dancer named Li'l Starr was scheduled to perform after the commercial. Joey told us something that I was maybe a little surprised about: "OK, guys, about halfway through Li'l Starr's dance routine, we want everybody to start clapping in rhythm to the music."
Hmmm, I thought, that's almost like coaching to help determine an outcome. I mean, mightn't a few TV audience members be swayed by the audience's enthusiasm? Hey, this little kid is pretty good, the audience is really helping her along. I didn't clap. I chewed my gum and didn't hold up my Scott Brothers sign yet, either!
Nick would come back from commercial standing in different locations in the auditorium. He introduced one act right in front of our section. Follow the arrows in the picture, and maybe you can spot Sue and me. I have on the white shirt with the black stripe, and Sue is directly to the right of me:

It would be hard to pick one incident that was my favorite. Sue and Tommy fist-bumping Howard was definitely one of them. The whole experience was so exciting. But a sort of "non-show" thing that was part of the evening happened during one of the commercial breaks...
The show took place in Newark, NJ, and earlier during the outdoor interview segment before the show began, Newark's mayor, Cory Booker, met with the media; he was unable to stay for the show, however.
So during this particular break, Joey was talking to the audience: "We'd like to thank Newark mayor Cory Booker for stopping by before." At the sound of the mayor's name, a very nice, respectful round of applause came from the crowd.
Joey went on. "Also, unable to attend, but sending his best wishes is New Jersey governor Chris--" Before Joey even finished his sentence, practically the entire audience gave a huge "BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!"
Joey tried a different tact: "Now, now, come on, let's put politics aside for this evening."
More boos, even louder than the first ones, only now they were joined by people standing and giving the "thumbs down" signal. 
I like to think I booed the loudest, but I am quite happy to report that the New Jersey governor was booed more loudly by people other than I.
Howard Stern hasn't always had kind things to say about the governor on his radio show. When he heard all the boos, Howard swiveled his chair around to face the audience. He had a big smile on his face, and he gave a "thumbs up" sign. I still don't know if Howard was giving a thumbs up to us for booing our governor, or if he was trying to make us change our tune and cheer the governor. 
Whatever his intent, at Howard's thumbs up, the booing became the loudest of the evening. 
"Forty-five seconds to back on air..." The director brought us back to the business at hand.
If you've watched AGT, you've noticed the judges talking among themselves about an act they had just seen. This talking is done during a commercial break. Every so often, Joey would ask the audience to remain quiet for maybe sixty seconds because they were going to tape the judges conferring, and the director didn't want them drowned out by the audience chatter.
Coming back from one of the breaks, Nick Cannon did his intro of the next act from the back of the auditorium standing in the aisle, with his back to the stage. Before that segment began, while still in commercial, Joey told the audience, "OK, when we get back from commercial this time, no standing; just applaud from your seats. And everyone please look straight ahead. Please don't anyone look back at Nick as he's talking into the camera. We want it to appear that you're all anxiously awaiting for the next act."
After all, it is show business, right? Some of the stuff we see on TV is just for show. (I'm sure that's why I'm not a fan of reality TV. If there's a TV camera in front of you, how natural or real is the person apt to act?)
Some of Howard Stern's "wack pack" (the wacky people who call into his radio show) were in the audience. During one of the commercials, Joey (himself a self-professed Howard Stern fanatic) would introduce them to the crowd: Maryann from Brooklyn. High-Pitch Eric, BoBo, Medicated Pete...).

May I mention something about the dynamics among Howard, Sharon, and Howie? If the commercial breaks were any indication, I noticed absolutely no professional jealousy whatsoever at the attention that Howard Stern got as opposed to Howie and Sharon. I had read reports that Howie and Howard do not get along because of Howard the "newcomer" kind of taking over the show from Sharon and Howie, both of whom have been on AGT for years. But I saw Howie laughing at whatever with Howard on more than a few occasions during the breaks, and Howie had the biggest smile on his face whenever the crowd would go crazy for Howard. And on one occasion, I saw Sharon rubbing Howard's back during one of the breaks. Howard had his arm around Sharon's shoulder as they talked during another commercial.
Perhaps they're just hiding well any dislike they have for each other while in public; but I certainly saw nothing but displays of affection among the three of them.

Almost as soon as the day began, the live show drew to a close.
Nine and a half hours really did whiz by. 
I rolled up my Scott Brothers poster (yes, I held it up when they were introduced) to keep as a souvenir and to share a picture of it with you guys reading this blog.
We exited the NJPAC building, walking towards the parking lot. TV cameras were interviewing audience members.
Soon I heard someone calling me. "Excuse me, sir, were you given that poster inside? We need to have it back." She had to be kidding.
Someone I didn't know came to my defense: "What if he made it himself?"
We Stern fans have to stick together, whether we know each other or not.
"Yeah, what if I made it myself?"
"Did you?" the girl who had to be more than half my age asked.
"No, but what if I did?" I smiled and laughed. She laughed, too, and I handed back the poster, still not sure why they wanted it back. At least she didn't ask me to spit out my gum.
As we continued our walk to the car, we once again came across Maryann from Brooklyn. Earlier in the day, she had graciously posed for pictures with Tommy and me. Tommy is a mentally-challenged adult, and Maryann really showed him attention during the picture-taking. Tommy's the kind of guy whom, if you show him kindness (as Maryann did), he really latches on to you. Maryann was carrying a microphone and speaking into the Howard TV cameras. She was doing a post-AGT report for a later Howard TV broadcast.
We gave a final wave as we walked by her. 
"Hey, Tommy!" Good Ol' Maryann remembered him. "Come here." 
She brought him in front of the TV camera.
"How'd you like the show, Tommy?"
"Where's Howard?" was Tommy's reply.
"Here's not here yet. How did you like the show?"
She gave Tommy a final hug (he had hugged her maybe three times earlier in the day), and said goodbye.
"Hey, wasn't she nice," Sue said.
"Yeah, she really is sweet," I agreed.
Suddenly Maryann was fast-walking towards us.
"Wait!" she called.
She asked us to sign a release in case they decided to use Tommy's interview on Howard TV!
Sue signed for Tommy, gave the TV crew other pertinent information, told Maryann what a good sport and sweetheart she was, and kissed her on the cheek.
Who knows? Maybe we'll be seeing Tommy on Howard TV in the future. If he is on the show, I'll be sure to let you know!

At the risk of sounding cliched, that really was the perfect end to an absolutely perfect day...


And I have a radio show called STEVE LUDWIG'S CLASSIC POP CULTURE. Want to give a listen? Just visit Thanks!

As always, everyone, I thank all of you so much for all your support!   ~Steve Ludwig

1 comment:

  1. Great write up! I have a few questions if you don't mind answering. My mom and I are going to the show this week--how early did you stand in line before you had to be inside? How long was the line when you got into line? We have to be there at 5 because they're taping some parts early, so what time would you recommend we go?