When he agreed to work on the first season, executive producer Jason Raff assumed America’s Got Talent would be a footnote on his resume. “I thought it would be a fun way to spend the summer,” he says, adding that a competitive talent show that featured everything from ventriloquists to gymnasts seemed agreeably unusual. “I used to juggle and ride a unicycle, so I thought, ‘Oh, this'll be a good show for me!’ It was just supposed to be six episodes, and it was such an underdog. No one really cared about it. Then it aired, and something about it sparked.”
That’s putting it mildly. Over the fifteen summers since its debut, America’s Got Talent has ranked #1 for the season every year, becoming one of NBC’s flagship series in the process. Tonight the network is handing over two hours of primetime for an anniversary special that revisits some of the show's greatest moments.
Along with delivering heart-tugging montages and newly recorded, behind-the-scenes commentary from the judges, the retrospective will underscore just how distinct the show remains in the reality competition landscape. For instance, even though quite a few winners have been singers, they tend to be jazz crooners or opera performers or child singer-songwriters who would never fit on American Idol or The Voice. Meanwhile, home viewers, who vote for each year’s winner, have also crowned three ventriloquists, two magicians, and a dog trick team. It’s hard to imagine another series where acts like those could make it through the door, let alone make it to the title.
That’s one reason Raff is still with the show after all these years. “It's never the same thing,” he says. “There are always new talents to see. There are always new people to find. There are always those moments where someone incredibly talented walks into your audition room and you get goosebumps because you know their life is going to change. I know that not every contestant's life changes, but on the special, you'll see that in 15 years there have been so many people on the show who have really succeeded. And we're always discovering people who could do that. I never get tired of it.”
For executive producer Sam Donnelly, who joined in Season 8 after spending several years on the franchise’s sister series Britain’s Got Talent, making the show has proven to be just as unpredictable as finding the contestants. “It's really three shows that we make in a year,” she says. “There's the audition show. There are the middle rounds, which is a studio-based show [where the judges decide who will stay in the competition]. And then there's the live show. That feels like the reward for the year's hard work. You have all the resources to give these people a dream-come-true experience. It just doesn't get better than that for me.”
She adds, “I also love the endless challenge of it. You finish a year with a great winner. You finish with [Season 11 winner] Grace VanderWaal and everything is perfect, and then within two weeks Jason and I are back on the road for those auditions. We have the fear that we'll never find the next Grace VanderWaal, and then [Season 14 winner] Kodi Lee walks through the door. I never get tired of it.”
But even though they love their jobs, both Donnelly and Raff say that preparing the anniversary episode reminded them just how many moments they’d forgotten. “We were laughing and crying all over again,” says Raff. “Part of the special is looking at the top 15 all-time viral videos for the show, and it was fun even for me to see which ones they were.”
Viewers will also see snippets of the original, unaired pilot for the British version of the series, which was actually created before the American version. Contract disputes with the original host stalled momentum of the U.K. show, allowing series creator (and current judge) Simon Cowell to get the American iteration on the air first.
Though many things have changed since that pilot was shot, fans will notice is that the giant Xs, which judges use to eliminate performers from the competition, were always in place. But that’s not to say they haven’t evolved.
“Look out for how polite the Xs are in the pilot,” says Donnelly. “They're like a gentle doorbell ringing. It's hilarious."
America's Got Talent's 15th Anniversary Special airs tonight at 8:00 PM ET on NBC.
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Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.