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America's Got Talent Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

This is an interview with Executive Producer Jason Raff on October 6, 2011 about the show America's Got Talent.

America's Got Talent

Question:
Can you talk about how the audition process has evolved since the first season and how things are more open and accessible now?

Jason Raff:
I think it's evolved in that we get a lot more acts that come out and see us now. I mean no one really knew what the show was Season 1 when I was here. I remember showing up to LA and not knowing what to expect which is kind of still the case. The thing about these open auditions is that you really don't know what's going to happen until you get there.

But I think with the use of the internet and the fact that people can now if they can't make it to an open call you can upload a video and that still is almost as good as coming to an open call. So for us we want to see as many people as possible on the show and I think that the new technology and the internet has helped us with that. But we still have seen quite the increase from Season 1 to hopefully now Season 7 of just people showing up. I remember the first time we did it I think we had like four producers out there trying to see the talent. And now it's a much bigger operation.

Question:
How do you look at America's Got Talent as producing bona fide talent as compared to other shows on the air?

Jason Raff:
It's always going to be whoever shows up and that's going to determine the talent of the year. But for me and I think the reason why I have done this show for going on the seventh year is I just love it. I love this idea of the show being open to everyone. None of these other competition shows can say that, that at any age and any talent. And just the amount of different things that we see from your singers but we've had barbers, hairstylists come, actors wanting to do monologues.

We've just seen motivational speakers, animal acts. I mean you just see a little bit of everything. And for us, finding a bona fide star that's always the hope. The hope is to find the best new act in America. And we usually find some pretty entertaining acts. I think what we found is that each year the show seems to inspire others in a similar category. In other words, two years ago we had a group called Fighting Gravity who did this black light thing that we had never really seen before, black light act that we had never seen before. This past year we saw Team Illuminate which took it one step further and Silhouettes which took it one step further. So it always seems like acts of previous years are inspiring other people to come out and do something which is exciting for us.

Question:
Given all the talent shows on the air do you find that it's easier in terms of competition because AGT is so different than the others?

Jason Raff:
I think it's great for us that there's no other show that is open to any age, any talent. I look at Idol and X Factor and The Voice and those are acts that have either been on our show, who I've seen when I've been on the road so we are all seeing, especially in the singing category, the same people even on X Factor whose a lot of acts that had been on our stage before who are a handful. So it's competitive.

At the same point I think that all of the shows are seeing that anyone could come out and have their life change a little bit. It's always amazing to me that I'll go on the road and we'll be in New York at like the Jacob Javits Center and see someone audition for the first time. And then by the next summer they're performing on live television some of them. And it's just always amazing to see how surreal that is and how these acts lives are transformed.

Question:
Are there going to be any sort of material changes to the audition process this year or even potential changes to the show format for next year that you're already looking forward to?

Jason Raff:
There's always potential changes but it's one of those things we've got a good thing going and we're going to pretty much stick with it. But there might be little format changes that we're going on. But right now the biggest issue for us is there's no show without the talent, you know? They can find other producers to do the show and other people to figure out the format if they had to. But you really are at the mercy to some degree, on great acts showing up, being original being different, standing out from the crowd. I never get excited by the format changes of the show. What I do get excited about is going around the country and just seeing stuff that you know America's going to enjoy. And I think for me that's the big thing right now.

Question:
How is the audition process going to reflect that the acts seem to be getting bigger and more and in some cases more dangerous. They're more elaborate acts. It's got to be difficult for a group to show up with 50 members to do a dance routine or something like that?

Jason Raff:
Yeah, that we can handle actually. There are certain things we can handle and certain things we can't. If you come out to auditions then you should all come out and see these first round auditions. It is fun because you look in the holding room and you see all of these different acts and all of their different needs. So unlike most shows we've had to like fine-tune the logistics of okay, this juggler needs a high ceiling, this dance floor has 50 people, I mean this dance group has 50 people so we'll have to do that in the big expo space. They need a dance floor. They need a room with carpet. This one needs a keyboard. And so it's like we have all of these different rooms for different needs.

So as far as the dangerous acts I don't think it was ever our intention to hey, we're going to look for dangerous acts this year or we're going to look for these big acts that we had that like Professors Flash. I was aware of them and I'd always would want them to audition for the show but I wasn't sure quite how we deal with it. But until he wanted to do the show we didn't have to worry about it. So we always can figure out how to do it. At the open calls there's outside spaces sometimes used, there's big expo rooms we use but we also have a lot of people if it's too complex they'll either come to the auditions or we urge them to bring a videotape of the act that they want to do or a DVD I should say, of the act that they want to do.

So in the case of an act that involves a lot of fire we're not going to let them light up a huge bonfire in the middle of the Jacob Javits Center. But we'll watch the tape with them and for me it's all about meeting the people and gauging their personality and you can tell this kind of star quality that certain acts or certain people have and you can see that. Or people also send in videotapes. It's harder to kind of meet them that way but sometimes we can talk to them on the phone and get their personality. So if you have anything Sean that you have planned that is too big for us you can just send a videotape in just upload a video to the site and we can figure out a way to make it work. But I hope the acts get bigger and better.

Question:
We do hear a lot about acts I read newspaper articles where they say the producers recruited me to audition. How many people are being recruited versus just kind of showing up on their own?

Jason Raff:
I must get 30, 40 emails a day from friends, from a judge, from someone at NBC or just saying hey, did you see this? Did you see this? We become aware of acts. What we do a lot is because we can only get to eight cities or so, we end up going to like a juggling convention or we want to know what's out there. And so our goal is just to find the best talent.

So we really try to leave no stone unturned. So we have been to animal conventions and juggling conventions and magic conventions just to see what's going on, what acts are emerging. If you can't get out to us we do like to go out to them and answer questions about the show. Because a lot of people we find they've heard about the show and they've been thinking about doing it but they just want to talk about it and talk about what it means to their life. Because some acts are professional acts in that this is the way that they make a living part time or full time. And so a lot of them just kind of want to talk to us and meet us and see if it's something that they want to do.

The majority of the acts, the acts who come out in the open calls oftentimes what we'll do is if we see a videotape of someone or see something on YouTube that's big we'd just call them and say hey, if you can we're going to be in New York in October or St. Louis or wherever, and come see us.

Question:
Do you feel any pressure going into Season 7 given we've seen such amazing talent in Season 6?

Jason Raff:
It's terrifying ever year. I mean especially coming off the good thing for us is we have been able to see, as I said, it seems like every season inspires new acts. So for me I don't feel like we've had a down year. Like you can maybe say on some of the other singing competition shows well, the talent's not that great. I'm sure the public and the press and the reviewers might see that in certain years. But for us I feel like we have kind of done new things every year.

Unlike the days of true variety TV where you could see jugglers and magicians on network TV you don't really get to see that anymore. And to me my goal has always been to give unique acts a chance to be on network TV. And but to answer your question directly yeah, I'm terrified every year. I mean when we walk into the Jacob Javits Center which is the kickoff of this tour that we're doing, the morning I get there at like 6:00 am I'm like oh god I hope people are standing out there and I hope we find some great acts today because you just never know.

It is a terrifying thing an open call, as a producer, because you hope you're getting the word out, you hope people show up, you hope the people that show up are unique and different and going to be exciting but you just never know so there is incredible pressure.

Question:
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Jason Raff:
It's not just it's seeing the winners that do well is always exciting to have Terry Fator come back and say god, thank you so much. If it wasn't for your show none of this would have happened. That's rewarding. But for me I don't really care about the winner. That's for America to decide, who the winner is. For me I just love seeing these acts come out and seeing them transform, seeing them do an audition in a convention center somewhere and then by the summer they're performing live on live TV.

It's always exciting to see this growth. You know, whether they sign a $100 million contract or whether they just continue to whether they get to quit their job and just travel around the country and it doesn't really matter to me per se. But I just love to see the transformation. There's nothing more exciting than auditioning thousands of people and then one singer or one magician or something walks into your room and you're just like wow, I can't believe I got to see that. Like something's going to happen to this person, something good. And I get to help them on their little journey.

Question:
What would you say is one of the most challenging aspects of producing a show like AGT?

Jason Raff:
I think the most challenging thing for the producers is that you're about to go on the road for a long time. And like I said, you're not sure what you're going to find. And it's an uncertainty of I hope people come out. I hope people want to try out. I hope someone out there who's like I don't know. I'm kind of taking care of the kids and I love singing but I'm never going to make anything of this or nothing's really going to happen and then they don't show up. And that could be your next winner or your next superstar. So for me it's terrifying because you want people to show up but you don't know until you get there whether you're going to get 100 people or 2000 people.

Question:
When you're looking for acts for America's Got Talent, going into it because the grand prize is in Las Vegas, are you in the back of your mind thinking what acts will do well in Vegas?

Jason Raff:
I am not because for me the criteria has not been Vegas. It's part of the prize most of the years we've done this. But for myself and the producers I think our criteria has always been I want the best new act in America whether it works in Vegas or not. I was thinking this year it's hard to know what people vote for and what the criteria is. But I do think a lot of people who do vote, that is their criteria. I always wonder if maybe that message should be fine-tuned. Because to me finding a unique, finding an exciting act whether they're perfect for Vegas or not has been my goal.

Question:
How do you keep consistently getting those acts that have never been seen before by the masses where there's that wow factor?

Jason Raff:
It certainly could be a problem in the future. There is a lot of repeats. We do have a lot of acts that have tried out for six years in a row and I'm sure I'll see them on the seventh year, who have never been on the show. And it's like they'll come to the audition and I know them. I'll be like hey Marty how are you doing? Are you still going to roller-skate with the wings on? Okay. Let's see it again. But that said, there are also acts that have grown over the years.

Jackie Evanko tried out for the show two times before she got on the show. And she just kind of grew, you know in a very short period of time as a performer, to when she was right and ready to do it. But it is a big fear that thankfully America is a big country. So and there's now a next generation that have come on our show now that we're going to be on for seven years. There are people who were not ready four years ago or five years ago. But it's always a fear that you're not going to find the great talent. But that's just a fear.

or the most part in reality, they do show up and you do get excited. You have bad days and good days. You know you have day one in New York might be okay, we saw one or two good people and then day two you just see amazing people for some reason. So it's always a fear that when people find out I do the show they always ask the same question. So, does America have talent? And thankfully the answer is still yes. I still have a job for another season.

Question:
Are you guys visiting any new cities that you haven't?

Jason Raff:
Yeah. There's a bunch of new cities. Picking cities is very stressful because a lot of these shows we tend to go to the same places. You know, we go we pick Atlanta a lot of times because it just seems so central to many areas where people can drive to. We look at people who pre-register online for us and look at their zip codes and try to figure out okay, what's central to everyone. But this year we're definitely trying a lot of new cities. St. Louis we've never been to. We always go to Chicago or we have most years.

And so I don't know how St. Louis is going to go. Chicago's always been really amazing but we felt like we should try something new. Even for Los Angeles this year we've been to LA for six years now and let's just go further south and try Anaheim. It's a risk that the people from LA might be like I don't really want to drive the 40 minutes. Tampa's a new city for us. Austin's a brand new city for us. Charlotte we were at years and years ago but it seems like it's a growing city with a lot of potential. So we are getting a lot of new cities, new cities than we ever have this year. And I think we're - it's somewhat comforting that I know that if people cannot get to a certain city that there's the opportunity for them just to send us a videotape and we will see them.

Question:
A second ago you said that Jackie had tried out not once but twice previously for the show?

Jason Raff:
I believe it was twice. Yeah.

Question:
I've seen some of her videos from when she was seven and eight years old and she was still really good. What happened back then?

Jason Raff:
I don't know. We see thousands and thousands of people so it's hard to pinpoint what was different then. It's different to walk into a room, of any age. I mean I see it with not just kids but all ages, and you get all nervous. And then you kind of either choke up or you don't perform like you intended to. That happens a lot of times. That happens not just with Jackie but I've seen other acts who one year they're just not ready and the next year they come back and they nail it.

Maybe they've done more auditions for other shows or for other stage shows and they just get more comfortable or they find out what works. You know, a lot of people don't know what works at an audition. You know, they come in and they sing the freaking same song that everyone sings. I mean I've seen more people sing Summertime or The Climb. I mean I've heard that I've probably heard that 10,000 times in my life, both those songs.

Question:
For people who are coming to audition this year do you have kind of a dos and don'ts that they should bear in mind whenever they're on that stage?

Jason Raff:
I think the main ones come from Simon himself who has seen more auditions than most people in this world. And he always he always says what we're looking for is you have to remember that you're coming out, there's going to be a thousand other people around you so you want to be original. And that means in how you dress, how you how you act. You don't want to be boring and just try to do the same thing. And you want to stand out from the crowd of people.

You want to walk in that room and get someone's attention with your voice or with your personality. And you can tell some people just by walking in the room and how they walk in and how they conduct themselves with confidence and it does stand out. I mean with the singers there are a lot of singers so I always think that they should pick something that's recognizable but that's not overdone. We actually list them on our Web site now, on AGTAuditions.com, the ones we've heard again and again. And we tell people if you're planning on performing those songs just make sure that you do it your own way.

If it's a maybe you take a Motley Crue song and you sing it acoustic or a Def Leppard song like Carrie Underwood covered at one point. Or a female singer and you take a traditionally male sung song and you do it that way. And also picking the best part of the song. A lot of times they hear okay, we have up to 90 seconds to perform so they start with the beginning of the song. But the song doesn't get good and you don't hear someone's range until the very end of the song. And there's nothing wrong with just starting and doing the last 90 seconds.

I mean these singers are easy to kind of give that advice to but the same about dancers and others. If I see 100 dance acts in one day the ones that are going to stick out are the ones that come in and first of all they can dance well technically. But also they're doing moves that I haven't seen 1000 times before. Interesting choreography, originality really is what's key.

Question:
Can you even pick out after the thousands of auditions you've seen over the season, is there one in the back of your mind that's the one that's always just blowing you away, the most memorable one?

Jason Raff:
I always remember for the ones that kind of came in the rooms and didn't come from YouTube or from a video I just kind of remember the first time I saw like Landau Eugene Murphy I remember being in the room and being like wow, that's different. Just kind of looking back and remembering what I saw at the time, it's one of those things where your eyes you might be looking down at the computer and then Terry Fator comes in and I'm like oh god, another ventriloquist. Oh god, get me through this.

And all of a sudden he's doing his bit and it's like okay, I've kind of heard that before and then he starts singing. I'm like whoa, and you kind of look up and I remember that going back to oh Bianca Ryan who won Season 1 I just remember like just my eyes like getting as big as saucers when they when they came into the room after dozens and dozens of people who were good but just basically average.

So I always remember what it was like to see them the first time because I do get like all goosebumpy and giggly and just so pleased in the long day when these rays of sunshine come in.

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