NEW YORK -- The seventh-season auditions were winding down last month with a final stop here, and if it weren't already apparent, this year's America's Got Talent, NBC's vaudeville talent carnival returning Monday (8 p.m. on WTLV), is all about Howard.
Not Howie, as in Mandel, bald comedian and game-show host. Not Sharon, as in Osbourne, of the MTV reality series and CBS chatfest The Talk. But Stern, 58, the shock jock who has had a long obsession with reality competitions and a belief he'd be great at judging one.
On this crisp April afternoon, he has brought along his parents, Ben and Ray, his sister Ellen and radio sidekicks Robin Quivers and Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate. All receive a thunderous welcome from the 2,000 onlookers. "You know I love playing God," the mop-haired Stern tells the crowd. "There's a weight on my shoulders to carry the show this year."
Indeed there is. NBC sought out Stern after parting with CNN's Piers Morgan. It's paying Stern more than $15 million a year and is moving TV's top-rated summer series from L.A. to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark to accommodate Stern's day job on Sirius XM Radio.
And Morgan does not seem to be missed.
"It's a lot more fun" this year, host Nick Cannon says backstage. "The rapport with everyone is really laid back. Piers made it messed up, but Howard brings such a fun energy. He's so entertaining; he does his own thing and takes over. But he's really taking the job seriously because he really wants to find a million-dollar act."
Though Morgan was professional, Mandel adds, "I don't know that Piers had any personal tolerance for my tastes. He wouldn't engage me in conversation unless he was telling me I'm an idiot. More than any other year, it feels like three friends sitting on this panel. We're surprising each other, (and) the show has a fresh electricity."
Osbourne says the auditions "have turned into something of a rock concert" as Stern fans bear placards and are prone to fist-pumping and shout-outs.
"This is my fan base times 12," Stern says. "The crowds are so great, they are so out-of-their-minds rambunctious, and it really fires you up."
Is there a danger he'll steal the show? "How could he not? He's Howard Stern," Osbourne says. "You expect him to come and just sit there?"
Sharing stage? 'Startling'
Stern, sitting in his radio studio Tuesday for a rare solo interview, says he's "used to getting most of the attention" on the radio. "It's the Howard Stern Show, and I kind of sit there and control everything, including the microphones." At AGT, "it was startling at first that I have to share the stage with three other people. That's some kind of adjustment for me."
So why did he do it? It wasn't for the money, he says. (He makes plenty from his day job.) "I thought it would be hysterical to see me in that environment, for my fans to see me be on a family-friendly network show."
But when he thought it over, Stern decided he was the right man for the job. "I've been in show business for as long as can be now, over 35 years. The type of work I do is take people all the time and make stars out of them. I was a radio music programmer early in my career. Some people would think I'm a comedian, and also (on radio) we are a bit of a novelty show.
"And it all just kind of made sense, too, because a judge needs to interview people. I'm very qualified," he says. "But at the end of the day, I thought it would be fun."
Yet Stern is a polarizing figure, especially among the women who make up much of AGT's audience. "He has, of course, an enormous tribe of true believers, and then he has an enormous army of skeptics," says NBC reality chief Paul Telegdy.
With this show, he might succeed in turning around the non-believers. "He's incredibly insightful, he's very forthright, he's extremely honest with the contestants, and he speaks his mind. You know what you're getting, and that's a trait women find attractive."
A man named Horse
This year's AGT has its usual mix of aspiring singers, dancers, acrobats and magicians, along with random oddities you wouldn't see on other talent competitions, including a water-skiing squirrel and a daredevil named Horse who has objects thrown at his testicles. ("Every man in America is going to have watery eyes when you see him perform," Osbourne says.)
The judges spent last week in Las Vegas, culling the 175 hopefuls who survived the first-round auditions that will be shown in coming weeks. A group of 48 finalists will appear in nine weeks of live broadcasts starting July 2, interrupted only for the Olympics.
As for judging worthy contestants, Osbourne says her sympathies are well known: "With me, if there's an animal in the act, or a gay or a drag queen, they're through" to the next round. "It's not even a debate." But with Stern, "you can't call it."
On the radio, he often interrogates celebrities about their sex lives. But a softer side of Stern is on display: At last month's session, he pronounces a group of bewigged tween contortionists "sensational." But Mandel says they're "not smooth enough," and Osbourne calls the act slow.
"I don't like the way this is going," Stern says to the group, grasping for support. "Do any of you have a terminal illness?" (They're sent home.)
Later, a 7-year-old rapper from Philadelphia cries when the judges reject him, and Stern goes onstage for a hug. "This job is too rough for me," he says. Recalling the audition, he says, "All I remember is it was so awful I literally put my head down on the stage. I don't think Simon (Cowell) would do that."
And after another subpar singing performance, Stern bounds back onstage to give guidance, and summons his dad from the audience for help. As Stern's regular listeners know, Ben Stern often told a young Howard he was "being a moron," and now he explains why: "I thought I was helping him to realize where he was going."
It's quite clear Stern is not here just to mimic the irascible Cowell, one of AGT's producers. "Everyone's expecting me to be the Simon, and nothing could be further from the truth," he says. "I don't think I could be Simon ... and that would be boring. They hired me for my opinion."
But, like Cowell, he aims to be the show's truth-teller. "I believe I am the judge America will agree with." But "that's my biggest fear, I want people to care what I have to say."
St. Louis beats NYC, L.A.
Though New York is often thought of as a talent mecca, it's not working out that way on this audition day, and the judges say Los Angeles was no picnic, either. (They all say St. Louis yielded the season's strongest crop.)
Just four of the 13 acts auditioning during a three-hour session make it through to the next round, including husband-and-wife acrobats clad in white spandex, an aerialist and two groups of hip-hop singers.
Those left behind are, needless to say, unhappy. Cannon and a backstage crew catch a composed 16-year-old girl who sobs into the arms of her parents the moment the camera turns away. And in a reality-TV trope, Cannon goads the rejects into turning the tables by criticizing "out-of-touch" judges, especially Stern. "Tell him about his ugly hairstyle," he tells female rapper CeZara Russu. She demurs: "I'm not that kind of a person. I take that experience, and I'm going to learn from it."
Will Stern learn enough to make Talent judging a long-term gig beyond his current one-season commitment?
"I have two schools of thought on that," he says.
On the one hand: He "didn't do it for the money. I cut back my radio schedule with the idea that I wanted to stop and smell the roses," and the three-day-a-week show "was getting really nice, but (AGT) has taken away all my vacation."
On the other: "I really enjoy doing this, but first of all I've got to see if America likes me. That will influence me one way. Assuming it went well, I would have to sit down (and think) long and hard and see what I want to do with my life."