It's the first day of America's Got Talent auditions in Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, and the circus has come to town. An 8-year-old boy throws knives at and around his father. A drum-dance hybrid group named Street Beat rhythmically slams dozens of garbage cans. But it's a soccer-playing pig named Mudslinger that makes the crowd go hog wild, especially when judge Heidi Klum jumps on stage for a kiss. "The pig wants you to bend over — and so does every pig in the audience," quips fellow panelist Howie Mandel before Klum plants a wet one on the swine.
"Isn't it great?" marvels Howard Stern as he gathers with Klum, Mandel and judge Mel B backstage during a break. "We actually appreciate so many different kinds of talent. There's no category, even the kook category, that's given short shrift." And even though the NBC reality competition is entering its ninth season, the judges all agree the talent has never been stronger.
TV Guide Magazine: AGT has a history of shaking up the panel, but it stayed the same this year. What's the secret to your chemistry?
Stern: That I'm willing to work with everyone. [Laughs]
Mandel: It's mutual respect. Each one of us has a passion for finding talent. We're not just here because we were hired — we love being here and we love having something to offer, even if we don't always agree. We're like a dysfunctional family.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you learn anything from last season that carried over?
Klum: Last year, I said yes more because it's hard to say no to people.
Mel B: I just like to be entertained, no matter what the act is. Whether it's a danger act, comedian, dance act, it has to grab my attention and be powerful.
Stern: We haven't hit the X a lot.
Klum: We learned how to twerk. We know that's a frenzy right now.
Mel B: Howie turned into a male stripper-gram, gyrating on stage for at least 90 seconds. It was a sight for sore eyes.
Klum: After looking at 40 acts in a day, we go a little loopy and do things we wouldn't normally do.
Mandel: We're not proud of a lot of the things we do, but it happens. [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: Are there any acts you're just plain sick of?
Stern: Sure. Sometimes you'll say, "Oh, no, another singer or another comedian," but then they're original and refreshingly different.
Mandel: This year more than ever we're seeing age take front and center. We have the oldest contestant in the history of the show this season as a strength act. We have a kid comedian who was a potty mouth, no less!
Mel B: As Howie gets older, the contestants get younger! [Laughs]
Mandel: The element of surprise is what works best on this show, when you don't know what you're going to get.
TV Guide Magazine: There are also some new format changes this year, such as the Golden Buzzer, which allows a judge to automatically advance an act.
Stern: That's a great innovation. There are heated debates. I get passionate, and Howie will sometimes pick an act that I just vehemently disagree with. This time, he used his Golden Buzzer. If the talent has a judge who's a real advocate, he or she can turn things around.
Mandel: But here's the key: Only one save per judge per season. So I have used my save, but the fear that keeps me awake at night now is that I'm going to see somebody else who I'm passionate about and I won't have another save left in me.
TV Guide Magazine: And you're changing up boot camp by adding a live audience.
Klum: It's harder with an audience. It's overwhelming, even for me, to come into a room like that and have all these people scream when you walk in. Can you imagine these people who have never been on stage? It's so intimidating having all of these eyeballs looking at you.
Mandel: Being in front of an audience forces you to rise to the occasion.
TV Guide Magazine: Has there been one act so far that just absolutely blew you away?
Stern: Because the show relies on truly great acts, you would think we've tapped out everyone in America. But this is our best season yet. We came right out of the box with the first auditions in New York and I said, "I think we've got the whole show already." Now I can be that much more judgmental.
Mandel: We are charged with narrowing down the playing field to the final 48. We're always up until midnight fighting with each other, and this is going to be the toughest. I promise you, we are going to be at one another's throats by the end.
America's Got Talent premieres Tuesday at 8/7c on NBC.