Q&A with Simon Cowell, joining ‘America’s Got Talent’ judges panel May 31

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 01: TV personality Heidi Klum (L) and producer/TV personality Simon Cowell speak onstage during the 'America's Got Talent' panel at the 2016 NBCUniversal Summer Press Day at Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village on April 1, 2016 in Westlake Village, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 01: TV personality Heidi Klum (L) and producer/TV personality Simon Cowell speak onstage during the ‘America’s Got Talent’ panel at the 2016 NBCUniversal Summer Press Day at Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village on April 1, 2016 in Westlake Village, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Tuesday, May 24, 2016

NOTE: This phone interview was done in January when “America’s Got Talent” was coming to Atlanta for auditions and three months before the “American Idol’ series finale.

Simon Cowell created NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” a decade ago, which remains an enduring summer favorite as the talent/variety competition show enters its 11th season May 31.

But until this year, the British celebrity has never appeared as a judge on the show. For most of that time, he was contractually obligated to Fox, first with “American Idol,” then “The X Factor,” and prohibited from being on a rival network.

After American edition of “The X Factor” died in 2013 after three seasons, he could have taken a slot on the judge’s panel. But he held back, preferring the existing combo of Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, Mel B and Howie Mandel.

With Stern finally stepping down this season, Cowell swooped in, no questions asked. And absence may make the heart grow fonder, especially since he returns two months after “Idol” ended its run on Fox after 15 seasons. At age 56, he’s a little grayer but that mischievous twinkle in his eye and signature razor-sharp tongue remain.

Here’s my interview with Cowell about the show and his return to judging talent here:

Me: You’ve helped start “America’s Got Talent” in 2006. Why do you think it’s been such a consistent success over the years?

Cowell: I came up with the idea of the show 12 years ago. One day in the kitchen I was watching another talent show, some girl was singing so bad, I actually thought to myself I’d rather watch adults dancing. Dogs dancing! Anything! Looking back all those years ago, it was just a fun idea. It was a difficult show to sell. But we were fortunate someone at NBC had the foresight to take it on. It was the first country to go for the concept. It’s now in dozens of countries, from Papua New Guinea to South Korea.

Me: It definitely harkens back to vaudeville and old variety shows.

Cowell: When we came up with the idea, we wanted to make it more for the YouTube generation, the types of acts you’d see online. But it does go back to vaudeville. I always thought it would be popular but the American audiences really embraced the show. We’ve found some good people.

Me: You have Terry Fator, of course. [The singing ventriloquist with the $100 million deal in Las Vegas at the Mirage.]

Simon: It’s incredible. When we narrowed the finalists down year one, I spoke with each individual to give them advice. My phone call to Terry, he told me the story about how he rented out a theater with 1,000 seats. One person turned up. He really needed this break. I told him to just wear a decent suit. I don’t know if that made much of a difference but that story, I always remembered it. This show gave him a break. He is now one of the best paid entertainers in America. It’s a dream come true.

Me: You’ve been judging ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ for years. How will doing it in America be different?

Simon: If it’s anything like my ‘American Idol’ experience, it’s going to be a hoot. Those early years of ‘Idol’ were some of the most fun years of my life. It was unbelievable. Every so often you get this little gem like Kelly Clarkson or Fantasia or Carrie Underwood. That makes it all worthwhile. I’m expecting with confidence that we’ll find someone great.

Me: How does it feel getting back on TV in America as a judge again?

Simon: I’m looking forward to it. I like the guys at NBC. I’ve worked with them for a long time. I like the panel, who we’ve kept… Hopefully the difference I can make for the show is that we should and can attract better music talent. We found one good one: Jackie Evancho. Amazing girl. But it hasn’t been our strong suit. The message we want to send out is that this is a credible place to audition compared to some other shows. Look at Susan Boyle on ‘Britain’s’ Got Talent.’ She has sold 20 million albums with that audition. That’s what we want to improve.

Me: How do you think the panel’s chemistry will change with you instead of Howard Stern?

Simon: I like Howard. He was great for the show. He loved doing it. From my observation, Heidi is slightly nuts. Mel I’ve worked with before. She’s volatile, always interesting. Howie is really one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. For me, he’s like the heart and soul of the show. He loves every single person who auditions.

Me: What’s your take on Howard on the show over the past four years?

Simon: I think it was a very important stamp of approval. Howard is known for being who Howard is. But we got to see a different side of him from his radio show in a situation you wouldn’t normally associate him with. And he gave the show an edge.

Me: The show was shot in New York the past few years to accommodate Howard. Will you be moving it back to Los Angeles?

Simon: Yes. Change is good. Secondly, logistically, it’s way easier to produce in L.A. than New York. Everyone basically had to travel out of New York to do it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing taking it to a different part of the country. Maybe in a couple of years, we could go to Miami!

Me: As a judge, do you feel like you’ve gotten softer, tougher or stayed about the same?

Simon: I think you always have to retain a sense of humor. You lose your sense of humor and you will literally go mad. Some of this crazy stuff you see. I just finished seven, eight days of filming in the U.K. Luckily we found some great people but along the way, it’s like a horror show. You also have to trust your own opinion. No one is an expert at everything. But you have to make a call on what you think the public will like and will this person have a career post show. Also, what kind of advice you can give them during the show, which is crucial. You want to help them, not just judge them.

Me: So what are you looking for on a show like this?

Simon: On a show like this, it’s so subjective as to what people classify as entertainment. Certain things I find mind-numbingly boring. Comedians, for example. Honestly, I’m not a fan of stand-up. But if they’re good, you have to make a call whether they can have a career. I have to feel the legacy for the show, the long term. We can attract even better people and really give people careers at the end.

Me: Speaking of stars, not all reality shows have produced them. [hint, hint, and he took it]

Simon: Without being rude [uh, oh, you know what that means], ‘The Voice’ actually hasn’t produced many stars. I’m competitive in terms of wanting the best people to come on our show. We give them a better shot.

Me: Now that you have some distance from Idol, have your feelings toward the show changed?

Simon: It was like having a friend. You used to be friendly but over the years, not so friendly. But you think back and there are a lot of good memories. It’s a very different show than it was when we did it with Randy and Paula. It was so much more naive. When we started, it was just a very funny show to watch.

Me: So have you even caught any of it in its later years?

Simon: You kind of don’t want to mess up that memory by watching it now. I hadn’t seen it in years.

Me: Do you think this is the right time for “Idol” to go? Should it have happened sooner?

Simon: It’s very difficult to make a decision like that. I was emotionally tied to the show. Then I wasn’t. It’s kind of not my business anymore whether they keep it or lose it. It doesn’t make a different to my life. The most important thing was it was an incredible introduction and a fantastic opportunity for me to work in America and get to know Americans. It was an amazingly positive experience. I loved it. It made me confident about doing this show now because it reminds me of when I used to do ‘Idol.’ There is still a certain innocence about this show.

Me: What’s it like working with Nick Cannon as host?

Simon: Nice is one of those people who’s so charming and so funny and so perfect. I will give him a hard time. That’s what I’m there to do. I’m sure he’ll do the same with me. We’ll make it a fun atmosphere.

Me: Will he be easier to tease than Ryan Seacrest?

Simon: No. Every time Ryan opened his mouth, he’d give you something to work with. Nick’s different. At the same time, he’s goofy. He’s funny. He loves this show. I’m happy to work with him. Ryan had no talent except presenting. Having gone out with him, he’s actually socially awkward. He never speaks to you. At dinner, he’s shy. He’ll try to tell a joke, and everyone literally stays silent.

Me: Do you think the X Factor USA proved America can’t absorb three music competition shows at the same time?

Simon: I always thought ‘X Factor” of all these shows was the best. It had more depth. The problem was, it was tough to do the show in the fall with baseball and football conflicts. And you’re competing with not just singing shows but dancing shows. And we should not have had both ‘Idol’ and ‘X Factor’ on. If we had simply taken ‘Idol’s’ slot, it would have been a different story.

Me: You did put together Fifth Harmony.

Simon: We put them together, yes. That’s what I like to do. [He also helped create One Direction on the U.K. side] That first year, we drew 12, 12 and a half million. I think everybody got too negative. It was my fault when I said we’d draw 20 million. I would be thrilled with 12 and a half million today.

Me: Would you bring back ‘X Factor”?

Simon: We’ve had offers to bring it back on other networks. At some point, I will bring it back when there’s less competition.

TV PREVIEW

“America’s Got Talent,” 8 p.m., Tuesday, May 31, NBC

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