"America's Got Talent" always provides heartwarming stories of contestants who have persevered through tremendous obstacles and personal setbacks just for the sheer joy of performing before David Hasselhoff, Sharon Osbourne and Piers Morgan. This week was no exception, as a pair of singers brought the judges to their feet. The trio unleashed inspirational words so heartfelt that they sounded like motivational speakers living in a van down by the river.
But that's not the only ingredient that the show counts on to draw in the audience. It's also looking for the wild and the wacky, the acts that skirt the fine line between fascinating and atrocious. Each audition season offers plenty of those, and this one is no exception.
No contestant beat the odds this week more than Ronny B. The Los Angeles auditioner performed a song and exotic dance routine to "All Night Long" that had some of the audience gasping in horror and the rest in fascination. Hasselhoff was one of those in the former camp.
"It was very scary. It was the worst act I ever saw," the former "Baywatch" and "Knight Rider" star said. "It's a talent show, not a freak show."
Maybe so, but it was freakishly interesting enough to give the other two judges pause.
"There is something weirdly entertaining about you," Piers Morgan said.
"What a very weird little man you are," Osbourne added helpfully. But she couldn't turn away either, and gave him her thumbs-up.
Morgan asked how badly he wanted to go to Las Vegas. The performer, who said he normally dances in bus stations, responded, "More than anything in the world."
"This show is about making dreams come true," Morgan said, as he voted in favor of keeping Ronny B. around as Hasselhoff groaned in frustration.
A couple of other acts with little chance of winning also proved good enough to advance. The Texas State Strutters, a precision dance team, got little love from Osbourne. She pointed out the obvious: "It reminds me of the Rockettes. That's exactly what you're doing. You're very good at what you do, but I think it's limiting for this show." But the guys both liked it, so they moved on anyway.
So did an act called Fun with Hand Shadows. The minimalism of shadow puppets would seem to be the exact opposite of the glitz and glamour Las Vegas is looking for in a headliner, but the duo got a standing ovation for their Pope John Paul II image. That originality alone was probably worth the plane ticket and hotel room.
But Harrison even brought a smile to Morgan's face with his act, one that featured not just a dummy, but also an audience member acting as a human puppet. "It's what this show is all about, seeing things that are unique and different," Osbourne said. Fator may have competition in Vegas soon, once the locals catch Harrison's act in the next round.
Of course, most of the unconventional acts were less fortunate, though at least one did show promise in the zinger category.
"I think I am potentially one of the greatest actors this country has ever had," said Perry Zanett, a 49-year-old who showed up in New York dressed like a king to perform Shakespeare. Hasselhoff apparently has no love for the Bard, as he buzzed him after the first line. British judge Morgan was equally offended.
"I thought you were a complete waste of space," Morgan said.
"Perhaps it takes one to know one," Zanett retorted.
Nor did the judges treat a father and son team called The Snake Kissers with the gravitas the hopefuls probably would have liked. The act involved the father attempting to kiss the head of a live and agitated cobra. The task probably wasn't made easier when Morgan buzzed in during the middle of the performance, but fortunately for the judges the snake did not react by leaping toward their podium.
Instead, the kiss was made successfully, which seemed to be a bit of a letdown for Morgan. "If it actually killed your father, it could be quite entertaining," Morgan said. As it was, no judge considered the act good enough to keep in the competition.
After all of the wackiness, the show still came up with a couple of heartwarming stories.
Xavier Lewis (performing as X.L.) brought his wife and young son to the New York auditions and covered a John Legend song. Morgan said he preferred his version to the original, and all three judges voted to push him through to the next round.
"You know this show is about heart, about feelings, about charisma, and you put across such a beautiful mind, man," Hasselhoff gushed.
But the showstopper was, as usual, the last act of the night. Queen Emily came in with the usual story about dreams deferred to care for young children. "If I had to do it all over again, I would," she said. "But I'm ready to get back into singing. I'm ready to get back out there."
She's ready, all right. The 40-year-old overwhelmed the judges with her version of "Chain of Fools," and all three were elbowing each other aside to offer the most effusive praise.
"You just knocked us out. You have got a natural gift and you were awesome," said Hasselhoff.
"I want to know something — where have you been hiding with that voice? You made my day — thank you," added Osbourne.
But Morgan was not to be denied. "Let me tell you right now — you have got a great chance of winning ‘America's Got Talent,’" he said. And at that point, it looked like most of the audience was joining Queen Emily in letting the tears flow.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.