Local comedy favorites Sammy Obeid and Kellen Erskine returned home from America's Got Talent last week after a brief first stint with the major NBC show. It sounds like sad news, but the disappointing end to their televised journey was buffered by an outpouring of support and pride from fellow Bay Area comics and comedy fans, all simply proud and excited to see comics we know on TV. We were also lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the show through their eyes.
"Shooting a TV show was an alien experience, but I ended up loving every moment (except the last one)," said Erskine.
From a private audition full of trepidation and hope in a room for two unknown judges, Obeid was launched through a few months of uncertainty and excitement to an unexpected spot on the stage in Las Vegas.
What does it take to make a show like this? "The most unexpected thing was discovering the incredible amount of footage that is shot for just an hour-long episode," Erskine said. "In Las Vegas, we spent nearly a week doing 12-hour shoots."
"The celebrity judge audition had a lot of unanticipated challenges, but was still simpler than I thought," Obeid explained. He added, "My material is pretty edgy for network TV. I double checked with them to make sure it was okay, and it was, but I imagine when they saw the final cut they decided not to risk airing it."
Erskine explained the moments just before he got on stage for national television for the first time: "At the actual taping, my nerves peaked. It was a war zone. Backstage you could hear the crowd booing most of the acts, the sound of the judges X's was deafening; the eliminated acts exited, sobbing. I don't think I blinked for three hours. I was trying to become familiar with the process (to calm myself down), so I started conversing with a producer."
But that only made it worse! "I asked her if I needed to look in a specific direction during my act," he continued. "And she said, 'No, don't worry about it. We've got about fourteen cameras following you.' That didn't help."
Video courtesy of B.A. Hunter
The competition, as many have said, is particularly challenging for stand-up comedians. Single acts relying on nothing but their words struggle to stand out amongst jugglers, dancing dogs, and sparkling, adorable children.
"AGT is not a competition for comics," Kellen warned any comedians interested in auditioning in the future. "I guess my only suggestion is to be ready to compete with things that have nothing to do with comedy." He also added this tip, "When on TV, don't wear anything with stripes -- even HD cameras aren't sure what to do."
As far as trying to appeal to Prime Time television viewers, the comics knew going into the competition that this would be a tough task. But they were still met with some surprises.
"As much as I kicked myself for making choices in material that I knew were pushing the envelope of Prime Time, I've learned so much from this process, from how the show and the network works, to myself and my voice, and where I stand in everything, that I really wouldn't change a thing," Obeid explained.
On the flip side, Erskine worried that he wouldn't be intriguing enough to the audience." The show is about spectacle, and my appearance isn't spectacular, so I had to hope that my jokes were."
Both Obeid and Erskine delivered jokes spectacular enough to dazzle rounds of judges, including their first round with celebrity judges Sharon Osbourne, Howard Stern, and Howie Mandel. Obeid vividly remembered the moments following that nerve-wracking performance. "Howard said, 'I think you made the right choice leaving those jobs behind,'" receiving major validation from the pop culture giant.While their 15 minutes may be up this time, the comedians reiterated that they're far from finished. Obeid jested to anyone interested in auditioning for AGT next year: "Don't, because I'm going back with something to prove."