Morpheus on… “…Got Talent” – The Return Of Variety?

Back in the Victorian age (1837-1901) most entertainment took place on a stage.

Rural folk got travelling shows, while townees could go to a venue.

The fare consisted of plays, opera, ballet, concerts and – VARIETY.

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A bill had ten to twenty acts, typically consisting of a dance troupe (NOT “crew”) a comedian, an “adagio” act, a juggler, a strong man, a mentalist and/or magician, singers, et al – all introduced by the MC (Master of Ceremonies: that is what MC actually MEANS). The last act was Top Of The Bill.

In America, this was called Burlesque – in Britain, Music Hall.

The venues varied widely in price and class – from DIVES where most people STOOD, with a bar along the side (and where the dancing-girls were generally RENTABLE) – to more elegant establishments.

And when the Old Queen died, Variety began dying too – although in the latter’s case, the process took far longer.

The first dagger in its chest was Cinema. In 1903, “The Great Train Robbery” was released and it took the magic lantern to a new level. The Movies having previously been merely a novelty, this film was the first that was recognisably NARRATIVE.

Soon the lesser Burlesques and Music Halls were switching to this new form of entertainment. And eventually, colour, sound, high-definition and 3D would elevate it to the mainstream form it is today.

Two decades later, Radio accelerated Variety’s demise – and a decade on, early Television spelled its doom.

However, live entertainment did not just give up.

The early days saw thousands of acts touring World-wide for DECADES. You started by auditioning for an impressario. If he liked you, you would start at the bottom of the bill. Then you would do a week at each of his chain of halls.

If that went well, you would get offers to do other chains. Then after your act had been seen all over the country, you would repeat the trick on foreign circuits (the old British Empire). And finally, you could tackle The New World.

And on the way, hopefully you would climb UP that bill.

By the time you had eventually circled the globe, YEARS had gone by. At which point, you could jump back onto the start and do it all again – perhaps now as the Top Of The Bill – to audiences who had never seen (or at least, forgotten) you.

And while, between the turn of the century and the early Sixties, Cinema, Radio and Television had gradually eroded the number of halls you could play in – there were still other opportunities to graft.

Dinner clubs, working men’s clubs, holiday camps, end-of-the-pier shows and cruise ships have kept Variety going to THIS DAY.

But it ain’t what it once was.

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Television has always had talent shows. The early ones generally had a host – and a succession of hopefuls would do their stuff and either the studio or home audience would vote for their favourites.

But in the Seventies all that changed, thanks to two shows. In America, there was “The Gong Show” and in Britain, “New Faces”.

The Gong Show was created – and eventually hosted – by Chuck Barris. A panel of three judges would watch the series of acts and vote for the best – but the gimmick was that after thirty seconds, if they really HATED an act, they could hit a huge gong – and that would be that.

Said acts were a mixture of three types: potential stars, okay but unremarkable performers – and what were essentially JOKE acts.

Meanwhile, New Faces had no gong, but it too had a gimmick – “Mr Nasty”.

Here, the MC would introduce SERIOUS acts, whose performance would again be judged by a panel – this time FOUR. But while the first three would be celebs who would generally say encouraging things about the acts – the last would be a PRODUCER or suchlike. And he would NOT sugar-coat his opinion of the act.

The best of these was Mickie Most. A former failed Pop star (although he was big in South Africa) but then a highly successful record producer (The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Suzi Quatro, Johnny Hates Jazz) he would tell it the way he saw it.

He would often get booed – but without HIM, the ratings would have dropped like the drawers of one of those dancing-girls mentioned above.

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Simon Cowell – “Syco” (psycho) to his friends and “Sico” (sick-o) to his enemies – he has plenty of both – began as a judge on “Pop Idol” – a conventional talent show for singers. Modelling himself on the likes of the afore-mentioned Mickie Most, he eventually started his own series, a similar venture called “The X Factor”.

But his career REALLY took off when he mashed-up the formulae of New Faces (a panel of judges, featuring a Mr Nasty) AND The Gong Show (those three “X”s) to produce “Britain’s Got Talent”. As with The X Factor, the format was sold to dozens of countries and Syco is now richer than GOD.

“America’s Got Talent” is a massive success. The British version was slated to be first, but its host quit, delaying the launch – thus AGT became the first series to air.

You doubtless know all about it – or one of its other incarnations – so let us examine what you may NOT know…

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First and most obvious is that unlike all of its rivals (and there are now MANY – it is comparatively cheap TV) it is not just another singing contest. Contestants from ANY of the showbiz disciplines are welcome – presenting the kinds of acts that might well have appeared on those Variety bills of yore.

And that is a blessing and a curse. Because while singers (who form nearly half the acts) can dip into their repertoire for each stage of the competition, other acts may not HAVE one. I.e., like those old-time Variety acts – they may only HAVE one act.

Anyhoo, the way America’s Got Talent works is this: they begin by holding open auditions at various venues around the USA. Some are only judged by the producers, several months before Howard, Howie, Mel and Heidi come on board.

The rest are recorded in theatres. These auditions are held in the afternoon – which means they can use ones which have a show running in the evening, provided it has simple props and scenery that can be packed away and rebuilt in time.

However, rather than have the contestants turn up in costume (using them as the audience) the show has a regular TV show audience, while the contestants prepare in a hall nearby. This costs extra, but is INVALUABLE, because it allows the researchers to construct the REAL show…

The thing is, the AGT format is about more than unearthing talent – it is about telling STORIES.

And these stories revolve around the acts themselves – All Of Human Life Is There.

Comedy (those Gong Show acts) and bravery are useful – but PATHOS rules. If an act has a dying mother – or it is that act’s “last shot” after a lifetime of hardship – the TV audience will become INVOLVED.

And so it is the job of those researchers to ferret out these stories (some are already known about, from the producers’ auditions). Then the many camera crews (they ARE crews) will do pocket bios of the acts, for use later. Skillfully put together as intros to the acts, they will ensure there is not a dry seat (sorry – eye) in the house.

After which, the show’s enormous crew (again, correct) of engineers, builders, chippies, voice and dance coaches and so on – will HONE and PRESENT those acts to their maximum potential.

The initial investment may not pay off (the act may fall apart when it hits the big venue) but once contestants are on their way through the series’ stages, the show’s crew will ramp up the presentations until they match anything Vegas or Broadway could create.

Of course, this being America, they sometimes overdo things…

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They Bang On about that One Million Dollars – which is a SMOKESCREEN. If you read the small print, you will discover it is in the form of an ANNUITY, payable over a period of FORTY YEARS – which is just twenty-five grand a year.

That works out to less than you would earn as a supermarket shelf-filler. And forty years down the line, it would not pay your electricity bill.

Or you can take a “present value” lump sum. But that would be less than HALF that million – then, in America, you would have to pay TAX on it.

And if you are one of a TROUPE (or even crew) – as many of the performers are – individually, the money would be a PITTANCE.

Likewise for the production company. Half a million bucks is but a TINY percentage of the budget which last season, provided around TWENTY HOURS of TV.

Then there is Nick Cannon. I love the guy, but I wish he would stop shouting “make that noise…” Every time he does, I DO make a noise – a RUDE one. And then there is the SCRIPT he has to read.

It Bangs On about how THIS week things REALLY hot up. EVERY WEEK. It is a bit like those Sixties soap commercials which would Bang On about how much BETTER the latest version of their product was, than the last one. After SEVERAL of these better versions, you began to wonder what kind of SHITE the FIRST one was.

And finally, there is the LOSER component. This last season (S8) even during the FINAL, with the last six (which followed the REAL final, with the last twelve) – every time a competitor was eliminated from potential First Place, they were described as “going home” – like their dreams were shattered. Even Nick semi-apologised, saying he was just reading the autocue.

This is BULLSH*T!

We have already established that the One Million Dollars is bogus. The REAL prize is the TV EXPOSURE you get. And from that, contracts for REAL money.

Plus, if you get to that Top Twelve, FORGET about “going home” – while the winner WILL get a Vegas contract – as one of the Top Twelve, you will be right there WITH them. They might be Top Of The Bill – but you will be PART of that Bill.

And once the Vegas stint is over, the whole lot of you will hit a major TOUR, all across America.

Then there is the aftermath. Terry Fator was a mediocre vent act, but after winning an early series of AGT, he signed a five-year, one-HUNDRED-million-dollar deal, for a Vegas residency. ONE million? Pshaw!

And many other acts – a number of whom were not even winners – have seen their careers (and earnings) shoot up similarly.

So stop treating those who did not win like LOSERS, okay AGT?

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But these faults aside, …Got Talent is now a juggernaut. Its influence reaches far beyond even those who appear on it, World-wide.

From Russia (where they NAILED the format) to Thailand (where as usual, they BLEW it) this phenomenon has brought Variety BACK. Granted it took TV to do it, but SETTLE for that. LIVE entertainment is where Showbiz is GOING.

Music has already forsaken the record industry – and now thanks to …Got Talent, the REST of Showbiz might just forsake TV…


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Anonymous on March 30, 2014 at 5:12 am

    I am delighted to have your expert history of the Music Hall enjoyed by my mother’s mother (1880-1966). The follow-on evolution is also fascinating. You did not have time to mention Opportunity Knocks (in UK Carole Levis then Hughie Green) nor Beauty Of The Hour where plain girls were made fun of but (I HOPE) got paid.

  2. Posted by Vincent on April 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Yes, I dealt with Hughie and those guys in one para, because the main thrust of the piece was linking “…Got Talent” with the shows it was inspired by (did someone say plagiarised from?) – specifically “The Gong Show” and “New Faces”. And having already examined the genre’s history – nay, PRE-history, I figured I’d better cut to the chase!

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