Q&A: Piers Morgan, Jason Raff Talk ‘AGT’ Season 10

Former ‘America’s Got Talent’ judge Piers Morgan and long-time executive producer Jason Raff reflect on 10 years of ‘AGT’.

This Tuesday on a new America’s Got Talent, the judges make their final round of cuts before the live show and, like with every episode so far this season, they’ll receive some additional support from yet another special guest judge. Unlike the past three guest judges, Mel B’s special guest judge is no stranger to the AGT family!

Mel B has called upon a man with a vast amount of AGT knowledge, having been a judge on the series from Season 1 to Season 6. That’s right, Mel B’s special guest judge is the one and only, Piers Morgan.

ALSO ON HIDDEN REMOTE‘AGT’ Winners Terry Fator, Mat Franco Celebrate 10 Years of ‘AGT’

Jason Raff Credit: itricks

During his time on the series, Morgan saw a little bit of everything and became known for his tough-as-nails demeanor – which is why this fan cannot wait to see Morgan team up with the current Season 10 judges to help determine the final acts joining this season’s Top 32.

Ahead of Tuesday’s new America’s Got Talent, former AGT judge Piers Morgan and long-time executive producer Jason Raff spoke with reporters to discuss their favorite AGT moments, reveal what a day in the life of a judge is like, offer advice to future contestants and more!

A Day in the Life of the Judges

Q. What would a day in the life of a judge be like? We always see you guys judging on television. But we never really see what a whole day for you would be like.

Piers Morgan: Well, I can tell you I worked from Day 1 on America’s Got Talent with Jason who’s on this call who basically runs the show behind the scenes. And he’s incredibly talented and hardworking. But he will know as I know that making this show is incredibly hard work for everybody concerned. It’s a massive team of people. The judges obviously the front of stage if you like getting all the air time.

But behind that, there are hundreds of people traveling around America in many cases trying to produce the best possible show they can. And they’re very long hours. When I was doing, we would do 12/.15 hour days siphoning through hundreds of auditions to make maybe one auditions how. And I think it’s that attention to detail.

It’s the breaths of the coverage of the acts that you see. All of that is what makes American’s Got Talent such a long running powerful format I think. And you know in the end, as we say to the acts themselves, “There’s no substitute for hard work.” And you know, it would get very hefty in there and judges all have big egos.

And Jason would have to slap us down from time to time and quite rightly. And occasionally, we’d get the chance to whack him back. But out of all that creative tension, I’m sure you’d agree and I’ll pass to him in a moment. I think out of all that creative tension that we always try to create, what you’re really trying to do is create those magical moments.

You know good, bad, ugly, fantastic. Whatever it may be. This magically, theatrical moment which are going to translate through the television camera to the viewer at home where they go, “Wow” for whatever reason. You know, they’re always trying to create that “wow” moment. But Jason, I mean you can talk about the overpaid, underworked egos of your judges over the years.

Jason Raff: I know. I guess more people don’t realize like that day when we did the judge cut that is airing upcoming. Piers is the very – we taped them not in the order the order they’re airing. And Piers is the very first guest judge. At the end of the – it was an 18-1/2 hour day I believe just for Piers. And I just remember at the end being so thankful. And I think was almost crying as I was telling him, “Thank god it was you, Piers” because like I don’t know if any of the other guest judges who we had booked would have put up with this because it was our very first taping.

We had a brand new format we were trying in this middle round. And it is grueling. And for the judges to kind of keep that energy up and to keep remembering. You know just I don’t know how they get through it. I don’t have to be on camera. So I can look a mess and be a mess. But I always admired Piers’ stamina and the ability to kind of – as the act comes out, even if you have to wait 20 minutes between acts sometimes to kind of stay focused.

And then you don’t see behind the scenes so much. Then at the end of these middle rounds, the judges have to pick which acts are moving onto Radio City. And those discussions can be quite argumentative and you know our judges are and having Piers there who also has a very strong opinion trying to figure 7 of the 20 acts that just performed in front of you, which ones are going through can never be captured properly on TV.

Morgan: Right. Right. And also, you know you are dealing with a lot of people as Jason said with strong opinions. And you know, one person’s idea of a brilliant act is often very, very different to another judge’s. It’s very personally subjective. And choosing a small number of people to go through to live shows that may change their lives forever, like for some of these acts to come, you know some of the biggest stars in the world, one of the biggest headlines is Las Vegas right now is still Terry Fator who was just earning $300 a week driving his van up and down America, trying to make his living as entertainer in his mid-40s.

And now he’s one of the highest paid stars in the world. You know that you have that ability to judge to potentially do that to one of these acts. So you know I always took that responsibility very seriously.

America’s Got Talent – NBC

Nothing But the Best

Q. Throughout the difference seasons, you’ve had judges like from Brandy to Howie Mandel to Sharon Osbourne. Now, how exactly do you pick your judges?

Raff: How do we pick our judges? I don’t know. There’s no certain science to it. You know, we just try to figure out who are big personalities who have strong opinions. You know it’s not just about the names, but it’s about the chemistry itself. And you never really know that chemistry until you get there. In fact, you know I was curious. And I almost putting it to Piers like how was it with – you know, Howard Stern replaced you after you chose to leave.

And was it – how was it to kind of – to work with him? To work the guy who kind of took your chair that you had originated?

Morgan: Yes. That was actually for me fascinating because I’ve been a massive fan of Howard Sterns for you know decades literally. I just think he’s one of the world’s greatest broadcasters, radio, television, whatever he decides to do he’s always fantastic. And so, obviously he replaced me on the show. And a little part of you when you leave a massive show like that, it’s hoping they replace you with somebody you know not quite as good looking, not quite as intelligent.

Not quite as funny. And unfortunately, they replaced me with Howard Bloody Stern. I was like, “Oh jeez, guys. You could have given me a break here because you’re replacing me with the kind of all media.” And he had been brilliant on the show. And I really enjoyed watching it whenever I’ve caught in with him in that chair.

But what I was really impressed by was when I worked with him for that very long grueling day which is going to be aired in a couple of weeks, he was so selfless and generous to me. Howard. And such great fun to work with that he made the whole experience for me not just a pleasure but actually an honor to work with him.

And to be that close to that guy and just see him in action and to see that mind wearing away over time. But you know we had a really good day. Really fun day. And I think he enjoyed it too. And at the end, you know we had a big man hug and we went off – I went back to England. He went back to his radio show. But, it was a very, very I think mutually enjoyable day and the first time we’d gotten to work with each other.

We’ve interviewed each other several times but never got the chance to actually work together. And I saw a lot of myself in the way that Howard goes about his judging. He doesn’t stop for fools. He’s looking for great talent. He finds Howie Mandel very annoying. Don’t we all.

Raff: But looking back at the ten years which is kind of what we’re talking about is I mean I remember Day 1. I remember Piers coming to the set. And we really didn’t know Piers here in America. Piers did an amazing job kind of – I remember the first meeting that I had with him where he was kind of trying to explain why he should be a judge on this show.

And we were very sensitive about having another British judge because Idol was – had Simon. And they had just kind of – were doing so well. And you know, he convinced the network that he was the right guy. And I just remember Day 1 with Brandy and David Hasselhoff. It was all very surreal. And I never thought the show – I thought we’d be lucky to get 6 episodes at it let alone 10 years.

Morgan: Well, I can remember because I as plucked at of nowhere really. I knew Simon Cowell in England. That’s why he wanted me on the show. He knew me as a newspaper editor in Britain. Someone with strong opinions. And obviously, when you run a big daily newspaper, you’re always looking for the next trends and the next talent to promote and so on.

And I remember was at Royal Ascot, the race meeting in England where the Queen and everybody attends in the summer. And everyone’s in their fancy clothes and everything else. And Simon Cowell ringing me from LA and saying, “Are you sitting down, Darling?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “We’re No. 1.” And he said, “We’re No. 1 by miles.”

He’s already warned me that you know 3 out of 30 shows that launch in America worked and the rest tend to tank and get pulled. And there we were. Suddenly, my life was never going to be the same again. And we had helped create this extraordinary show which here we are 10 years later still No. 1 on many of the nights that it airs. And that’s an amazing achievement.

America’s Got Talent – NBC

Looking Back

Q. Jason, Can you talk a little bit about last week’s 10th Anniversary Special? Do you have any favorite moment from the special? 

Raff: I had so much fun with this 10th Year Anniversary Special. And I hope the audience [did] too. There are – there are – it’s a reminder of why our show is so different from any other talent competition. The kind of characters we’ve seen over the years. I mean not just the great acts, but just the things that are so different.

And I think the one thing that was really fun to put into the special was I was going through my stuff and I was watching the DVD that was handed to me 10-1/2 years ago which was this thing called the Paul O’Grady Variety Hour. But it was basically the pilot of the show. It never sold in the UK for various reasons.

But NBC had bought it from Simon. And they handed me this DVD. And it had Piers – it had the Xs. It had 3 Xs. Simon was a judge on this pilot. Piers was a judge. It was – looking back on it – and we show a clip of it. Never before seen. Never aired stuff on this special. But it is so funny to see that DVD and those clips and see that it turned into what the show is today.

And Piers, you remember that special, right? Appeared in that pilot or presentation tape.

Morgan: I do. I do. And it was – you know at the time, it just seems like sort of controlled chaos. And none of us were sure really what was going to happen with it. I’ve got to say at this stage, you know great credit to Simon Cowell. This was all his idea. I remember having lunch with him in London. And he said to me, “You know what’s really missing around the world?”

And he’s obviously a huge star on Idol at the time. He said, “An all-around talent show. Not just singers. But where you can have what we would say in evening the end of the pier shows.” You have these piers jumping out to – not piers as in me but the stone edifices that jump out to sea that you see on the coasts around England.

And at the end of those, traditionally, you’d have a kind of all-around talent show would go on. And people could come and do whatever they like to be judged. And he said, “You know that kind of thing on a much bigger scale is no longer on television in England, in America, anywhere. And I want to bring it back.” And he started mapping out on a bit of paper in front of me.

He said, “You know you have 3 judges. You have one meanie, one nice woman, you’d have…” you know. And “One crazy.” And you’d have – any act would come on. And then they’d have buzzers. And within about 10 minutes, he’d worked all this out in his head. And that idea has become a format which I believe now is the most watched format in the history of reality television.

And every…

Raff: We’re good enough for a Guinness Book, yes.

Morgan: And it airs in you know however many 100 countries and is No. 1 in most territories. And that all just came from an idea of why isn’t that kind of thing on television anymore? Where’s the Gong Show? You know. And this is really a modern version of the Gong Show. But it was Simon that had that. And Simon pushed it. And Simon pitched it to NBC.

And NBC liked it. And that collaboration then became what it is today. But you know it would be remiss of me having been on that first pilot not to recognize the evil genius behind it all.

Q. And just as a follow up to both of you, looking back is there any one moment or act you can cast your personal favorite?

Raff: Yes. I don’t have – I don’t I – I don’t think I have it. For me, it’s the moments. I mean when I look back and I’m usually in the room when they originally audition before they see the judges. And what I remember looking back at the 10 years is this moment I have where we’ll see thousands of people come into interview on the road.

And then all of a sudden, someone comes in. And they start doing their thing. Be it Terry Fator, Bianca – Bianca from season 1. And they start singing and you just get chills because you know like from this audition, you’re going to put them in front of the judges. And then you know 4 months later in the summer, they’ll be performing at Radio City Music Hall.

And you know their live has changed. So for me as I look back at the show and the 10 years I’ve been doing it, it’s those moments where someone comes in and you’re just “Oh, my God. Look what I found.”

Morgan: I tell you the one I would say actually. And it’s a slightly unusual choice. But I remember in the first season, literally like the first or second or third act. I can’t remember when he came out. But he was a guy called Bobby Badfingers. And he basically made music – noise through his – flicking his fingers.

And it sounds completely insane. But he did it so fast and so brilliantly. And what I remember thinking was, “Okay. This is the moment I get this show and America will understand why it’s so different to American Idol.” This is not a singer. Not a dancer. It’s not any of the traditional entertainment talent. This is completely left field, utterly bonkers but completely brilliant.

And I’ve got a lot of affection when I think back Bobby Badfingers because he was – I think…

Raff: He was, Piers. He was the very first act. The very fast act that broadcast on the show. He was No. 1. First one.

Morgan: Yes. And I think he’s still doing great business now around America I think from what I’ve heard. And you know that was to me the defining kind of act for how this was going to be different from Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

America’s Got Talent – NBC

The Wow Factor

Q. My first question is what type – what are the types of contestants that excite you the most?

Morgan: The type of contestant that excites us the most. Honestly, it’s anything that is different. You know you’re always looking. When I did the show for six years and when I went back in for the guest judging, you see so many derivative acts. So endless singers, endless dances, endless jugglers, etcetera, all trying to copy what they may have seen in previous seasons.

And then just occasionally and I had an amazing motion you know in the comeback show where I actually used my golden buzzer which if you’re not familiar with that, Jason can fill you in on what that is in this season. But it was just an amazingly fresh, original, non-derivative act that I thought immediately I saw this a) wow and b) I could see that headlining in Vegas. I can see it touring the world.

I can see it representing America. I could see it making tons of money. And I thought, “Yes. That’s what America’s Got Talent’s really about.” It’s about just the unexpected and the acts where you just go, “That is different.”

Raff: Well and also, Piers, giving you the ultimate power of the golden buzzer where no one could say anything to you was also a rush.

Morgan: That was a fantastic moment to realize that none of the other four regular judges could have any control over me. And I could send one of these acts straight through to the live shows. That was pretty exciting actually. We never had that when I was there. But I like that development.

Q. When you look back at the past champions, who do you consider to be some of the best success stories? And also, are there some of the winners that maybe didn’t parlay this into something bigger and it mystifies you why it didn’t work out for them?

Morgan: Yes. I mean the biggest star I think of any of the talent shows around the world connected with the Got Talent format is Terry Fator. You know when you’re one of the biggest headline acts in Vegas. And he just re-upped his deal I think for another 5 years. And he’s already been there 6-7 years. And you’re earning you know $25 – $30 – $40 million a year or whatever it is, you can’t beat that as a story.

Having said that, I always felt that winning the show which he did isn’t necessarily what you need to do to become a big star. I mean Jackie Evancho became a huge star in movies and music and everything else. A young singer with a beautiful voice. But she came second. Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent which I also judge also came second.

But she never won. But she sold 25 million albums. So I think the exposure the show gives you is the crucially important thing. And I see that sometimes when I go to Vegas. Magic acts and others that are doing very, very well there who didn’t even reach the final, but have actually through the exposure they got through the show through having you know 10s of millions of people watching them week after week. They actually manage to build a great act out of that and have great careers.

You know similarly, you get occasionally I remember Kevin Skinner who was a very nice ordinary guy. He sang like Garth Brooks. And he really only had 2 or 3 songs in him to be honest. But he sang them with great beauty and great emotion. I never felt he was go on and be a big start because I knew his limitations.

You know we got him to sing an Aerosmith song in the final. And honestly, it wasn’t very good. But he still won because everyone loved him so much. But I didn’t go away thinking, “That guys is going to be a big star.” What I felt was, we gave him his moment in the sunshine. And boy, did he take it. And America fell in love with him.

So, people go into this show for all sorts of different reasons. You know some want to make money. Some want to be famous. Some just want to have that moment they’ve wanted all their lives of “This is my moment. This is my time. I’ve waited. I’ve been singing on porches and churches and town halls for 30 years. And this is my moment.”

And Kevin I think I’ll always remember him as being one of those kind of kind of contestants where I thought, “Yes, that’s why he’s on this show.”

Raff: I mean at the same time, you know besides – I mean a variety – just a variety of spectrum. I mean we all know if you’re a singer, there’s a certain road to success which is putting out albums and selling them. And variety, you know there’s not as many avenues. But I look back at our time and there’s act like – Piers, do you remember season 1, the guy the inflatable cow who did the breakdancing?

Guy got into an inflatable cow. Well, okay he didn’t last maybe 45 seconds in front of you and your fellow judges before getting axed. But yet a couple of years later, I met him in Tampa. And he’s like, “Oh my god, that show changed my life. I’ve now quite my job and I’m doing my inflatable breakdancing cow routine around the country and even the world.”

And so you know the show does have an effect on the contestants’ lives or it certainly can. Even the ones, the most unlikely ones.

America’s Got Talent – NBC

Surprise!

Q. Were there any acts that you kind of expected one thing and really shocked you or surprised you? Or any moments that just came out of the blue that you know really standout? You know do you even to this day.

Morgan: Well, I remember one of the most – well we talked about all of the good stuff. I remember an absolute horror story of an act called Leo the Magnificent. It’s coming back lie a boomerang. You know, you’d throw him out. And back then back he comes season after season always – he was about 6 ft. 8, gigantic Russian guy who did this extremely camp, very theatrical act where I wasn’t ever really sure what he did.

But it just basically involved lots of dresses, high heels, plumage and so on and so on. And him being Leo the Magnificent. I never felt he was remotely magnificent. So there was a (unintelligible) descriptions issue with him. But I sort of admired his guts. You know even though I found him a very irritating act, I did admire his guts.

And every time I tried to throw him off a show, he’d come back next season and he’d be there again in my face giving me hell, telling me why I was wrong. Now I never was wrong. He was uniquely…

Raff: Oh, no.

Morgan: Untalented in my view. But I did admire his guts. That’s also part of this show where people may not have a great talent. But their guts and courage take them through. 

Raff: He was a great talent. He was a great talent. But I mean the surprise question is – the surprise question that is the very nature of our show. When you look back at all these big moments, it is – there are always surprise. The people who win. It was Kevin Skinner who was a chicken farmer. You didn’t expect much.

Obviously, Susan Boyle. It’s Jackie Evancho. It’s Terry Fator. It is everyone who has broken into to you know pop culture. It starts with the surprise of – and you’ve seen that dozens upon dozens of times, Piers in both doing the show in both the UK and America where you don’t expect anything. And they come on and all of sudden your jaw drops.

Q. You talk about a lot of the surprising acts that you’ve seen. But I was wondering, what’s been the most surprising thing for both of you throughout the course of this? Something that you just really didn’t expect going in and you know came as a real shock in a good way or a bad way.

Raff: For – I mean for me, the most surprising thing is that the show has lasted 10 years. From the moment it was described to me, I was like “God, I would love this show. But I don’t know if anyone else is going to love this show.” And the fact that we’ve been on for 10 years and that every year. What I love about the show is that every year seems to inspire other acts. In other words, in Piers’ days, we saw this act that was a black light act.

A bunch of college kids this thing called “Defying Gravity” which was kind of just really new and unique. And then the next year, you know people were inspired by that. And they started adding video projection. And this year, now they’ve added projection and water. That each act that acts each year continue to kind of redefine what variety is and what performances are and be inspired by the show itself.

Morgan: I think for me the most surprising thing was that David Hasselhoff never hit me.

He did come incredibly close. There was a famous time I think it was in Dallas or something like that when he actually stood up after I criticized his critique of an act. And he actually stood up and was going to head butt me. And it was literally we came within about 2 second of David Hasselhoff head butting me on live television which would have been great for ratings.

But since then, we’ve actually become good friends. But working with David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osbourne was extremely dangerous and liable to be very inflammable at any given moment. And winding them up was a game I liked to play, but at great personal risk to myself.

Raff: Sharon actually attacked you more than David did I think.

Morgan: Sharon did physically attack me. But I was more worried about the Hoff.

Raff: You’ve got many, many things thrown at you by Sharon. And many bottles of water.

Morgan: You talk about chemistry of the panels on these shows. You know if you look at the shows that really worked. When was Idol’s hay day? When it was Randy, Paula and Simon, okay. America’s Got Talent two or three times. We just had a brilliant casting that for whatever mad reason just worked. You know I remember with Brandy and David Hasselhoff. And then particularly in Season 2 with Sharon and the Hoff and me.

It was all completely cracking. But it worked. And you know you can’t cheat that. And you can’t act. It’s just organic. And groups of people come together and it just for whatever reason, often fueled by tension, creative tension. But it just works. And I think we were very lucky on America’s Got Talent that the panels always pretty well worked.

And people liked it.

America’s Got Talent – NBC

Inspirational Acts

Q. Can you tell me if any inspirational stories from acts that have come on stage that you’d like to share?

Morgan: You know I would reiterate. Yes. I mean I would reiterate the Terry Fator story because I just think if you’re going to look at one example of what America’s talent at it’s heart is really about, it’s very hard to beat that guy. He was in his 40s. He had no money. He was earning a few hundred dollars a week. Driving himself around.

Having this dream. And then even when he entered the show, no one really gave him a chance. But he just had a very unique act. And that’s what I said earlier about finding a unique talent. He was able to sing impressions of Roy Orbison and whoever it may be through a turtle. And he had all these puppets.

And he was able to throw his voice and sing beautifully through these animals. And it was just a brilliant, brilliant idea. And he’d only really cultivated it a year or two before he came on the show after 20 years as a ventriloquist. But he managed to think about a unique way of doing ventriloquism. And the moment we saw it, we all went, “Okay. That’s really interesting.”

And as he went on, the American public fell more and more in love with him. And eventually he wins. And now you go to Vegas and there is the Terry Fator theater, the Terry Fator store, you know the Terry Fator billboards. He’s one of the biggest stars in the world. But I – he’s such a nice guy. He stayed in touch with the show, with the judges. I get texts from Terry quite regularly asking how things are going and telling me what he’s up to.

And he’s feel deeply loyal and grateful to the show. And I feel great for him. I just feel anyone deserves a break, it was that guy. And boy, did he take his chance. And I think if you’re going to choose one example to me of what this show is about, it’s him.

America’s Got Talent – NBC

Behind the Scenes Magic

Q. The show gets a lot of publicity. But is there anything that’s not getting out there that you’re like people to know about the show?

Raff: That’s a good question.

Morgan: You know what – yes, on, Jason.

Raff: Go ahead, Piers. Okay. My thing about it which is a little bit of a maybe an industry thing. But I am always amazed. Our show is the most difficult show to produce. And I’m not speaking for me. I’m speaking for you know a live show out of Radio City. 12 acts perform with such intricate kind of sit ups and hundreds of people are working on a live show to make this thing happen.

To make these turnovers over a commercial break. Like if you come and see the show at Radio City live, it is a much different experience than the calmness that you see on TV. And I’ve always try to kind capture that chaos. But it kind of goes against the grain of trying to keep things looking very slick. But the amount of moments we have had where things almost went horribly wrong or set pieces didn’t quite get out is incredible.

And the fact that you know you look at things like the Emmys where like our show has never been nominated. But the work that is done, the intricacy, the difficultness, the amazing host that we have who can deal with live situations unlike any other host that’s out there, Nick Cannon. I wish that story got out there a little bit more.

Morgan: I do think it’s ridiculous America’s Got Talent has not won more awards, particularly Emmys. I mean it is the purest and best talent show in America. It’s the only one with any talent. It’s the only one that I think has that huge range. And it’s been a dominant force in American Television for a decade. I mean how many shows can say that.

And you know I think there’s been a lot of snobbery towards it. And yet, everybody I know who’s watched it really enjoys it.

America’s Got Talent – NBC

Advice for the Future

Q. So are there any tips that you have for future contestants? I mean this is 10 seasons. And there’s a lot of other people out there waiting to show their talent.

Morgan: Well, the main advice I always give people is to just don’t copy other people. Don’t come in and try to be Mariah Carey or try and be Michael Jackson or try and copy somebody. Unless you’re a brilliant impersonator or impressionist but that’s what your act is, then you’ve really got to try and think about what you are and what you want to be.

And you know the most successful artist in entertainment history have been people who haven’t really copied other people. They’ve been themselves and been true to themselves and their own talent, their own values, their own character. And I think that’s what I always look for. And that’s what I always try and advice people.

Just don’t copy. We get so many copycat acts on these shows. And the viewers are home are bored. The judges are bored. And your chances of really being successful doing that are very, very slim. So be yourself. Find a talent that is unique to you, whether it’s a unique way of singing, a unique way of dancing, a unique juggling act.

Whatever it maybe, try and be unique. And then hammer that home.

Make sure to catch Piers Morgan’s triumphant return to the America’s Got Talent judges table Tuesday, August 4 at 8/7c on NBC.