America Wants Talent

And not only of the viral video variety.

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John McCain was right. Lehman Bros., Fannie Mae, AIG be damned, American workers are strong. They’re still innovative, still entrepreneurial, still willing to spend long hours pursuing their dreams with no immediate reward in sight. Of course, you won’t find them amid all the short-sellers and subprime lenders on Wall Street. Or even in the small towns (unless you count meth dealers as entrepreneurs). But in Hollywood and Las Vegas and the theme parks of Orlando, they’re everywhere: hip-hop fiddlers, flaming baton twirlers, Day-Glo human Slinkys. In 2008, the old-fashioned novelty act isn’t novel at all. It’s commonplace. And that’s pretty amazing.

This is, after all, the reality TV era. If, like Brooke Hogan, you’re the daughter of a famous person, you get your own TV show. If, like Dina Lohan, you’re the mother of a famous person, you get your own TV show. If, like Kim Kardashian, you live in a city where a lot of famous people live and you have a giant ass, you get your own TV show. In the old days, preparing for a career in showbiz meant learning to tap-dance, perfecting a variety of comic accents. Today, however, even an Internet sex tape is no longer a prerequisite for stardom. Just throw a memorable fit on YouTube and you’re halfway toward getting your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

So how to explain all those performers who show up in the early rounds of America’s Got Talent and every episode of Comedy Central’s resurrection of The Gong Show? Don’t they realize that they don’t have to risk severed forearms and broken tailbones as they learn to juggle chainsaws or play the bagpipe while riding a unicycle? We’re easily entertained. Unleash a quartet of women on Los Angeles who make Carmen Electra look like Meryl Streep, as they do on The Hills, and someone will watch it. Feed contestants macaroni and clam chowder, then put them on carnival rides until they puke, as they do on the G4 game show Hurl, and someone will watch it. No need to involve dangerous power tools or weird Scottish instruments in the mix — that’s overthinking it, fellas!

And yet we do like that extra effort, don’t we? A new documentary on Paris Hilton, Paris, Not France, reveals that being America’s most successful party favor is harder than it looks . But while the 27-year-old tycoon may spend as much time as a Procter & Gamble brand manager fine-tuning her merchandising mix, that doesn’t change the fact that her greatest talent involves looking gorgeously bored at glitzy public events. There’s a market for that, obviously, but a backlash against that, too, and out of that backlash grows a demand for performers whose craft goes deeper than a spray-on tan.

The poster child of this new rare breed is last season’s America’s Got Talent winner, singing ventriloquist Terry Fator. A sweaty, stocky 43-year-old journeyman who, by his own account, was leaving 1,000-seat theaters 999 seats short of a sellout just a couple of years ago, Fator is pretty much the anti-Paris. Even if you’re not particularly eager to hear Garth Brooks, much less a dopey-looking ventriloquist’s dummy, singing a Garth Brooks song, you can’t help but admire the hard work underlying Fator’s esoteric art. Not only can he emulate an entire iPod’s worth of famous singers with impressive fidelity, but he can also do it without moving his lips. That must have taken years to master. Long, tedious, repetitive years of staring into a mirror, with his hand up a puppet’s ass.

As a reward for his efforts, the Mirage recently signed Fator to a five-year contract reportedly worth $100 million. Not every yo-yo champ or clogging group who graces the stages of America’s Got Talent or The Gong Show is likely to see a deal like that — in fact, none of them are. And yet to their credit they maintain the traditional values of showbiz. Which is ironic, of course, because 30 years ago, during The Gong Show’s original run, most of the contestants seemed like lazy, impatient stage-crashers. They didn’t want to take the time to learn to sing well, so they just sang badly. They couldn’t dance, so they sucked on Popsicles instead. Today, however, it’s different. The shirtless fat guy whose moobs dance in time with his beat-boxing? The woman who’s taught herself to swallow a three-foot-long balloon? Compared to the likes of, say, Hills villain Spencer Pratt, they’re Mozart and Houdini, defenders of the faith, keepers of the flame. To be a true star, they insist, you need to have an act. • 14 October 2008

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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