Legendary shock jock Howard Stern made his debut as a judge on NBC's performance competition, America's Got Talent, on Monday night. Did the network get its $20 million worth? (That's the amount NBC reportedly shelled out to land the self-proclaimed King of All Media as a replacement for Piers Morgan, who left the show at the end of last season.) The Parents Television Council had previously raised a fuss over Stern's hiring, arguing that the radio host's crude, bawdy humor doesn't belong on the family-friendly primetime show. Stern himself teased, "These executives at NBC must be out of their minds taking a risk on me. I don't know who's responsible for this, but they should be fired immediately. I say I won't make it through the first show." Did critics grading his debut performance agree?
He was surprisingly good: I'm shocked, says David Zurawik at The Baltimore Sun, and not because of outlandish or crude comments on Stern's part, but because he fit so perfectly into his new role as AGT judge. His snark was appropriately toned down, especially when — in a surprisingly earnest moment — he told a father-daughter act that they made him think of his own father. That's not to say Stern didn't oblige when sideshow acts begged to be mocked, but he "definitely softened his act for primetime." In doing so, he finally allowed those of us who were never won over by his shock jock shtick to "appreciate the populist edge and fiercely democratic impulse that drives him."
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Actually, he was a letdown: I'm not a fan of Stern's new "beloved uncle" persona, says Hank Stuever at The Washington Post. He's lost his edge, recycling the same self-deprecating jokes on AGT that he first trotted out 20 years ago. By now they're "as familiar as an uncle's rehashed routines at the Thanksgiving table." The brutal honesty he promised when he signed on was employed minimally. Most often, Stern awkwardly took to gushing: "This is going to sound sappy," he tells a troupe of dancers. "We are the greatest country in the world. You are everything that makes America great." What's happened to our Fartman?
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Either way, there was too much focus on Stern: The first hour of the episode more closely resembled an iteration of The Howard Stern Show than America's Got Talent, says Linda Stasi at The New York Post. There was so much focus on the King of All Media — his arrival on the panel, his reaction to the talent — that the point of signing him to the show went missing. "He was there to judge the talent, not to be the talent." He barely shut up to let his co-judges get a word in. The focus on him lessened as hour two trudged along, but I'm still not sold that the "loud, brash, excitable" Stern is the most successful replacement for the departing "mean, snobby" Piers Morgan.