Kelly Clarkson fills in for Simon Cowell on 'AGT'; germophobe Howie Mandel talks live shows

Bill Keveney

"America's Got Talent" judge Howie Mandel approves of the health and safety measures implemented by the NBC talent competition as it begins its quarterfinals round Tuesday (8 EDT/PDT).

His voice may carry extra weight in the COVID-19 era because Mandel is well known as a handshake-avoiding germophobe. “With the pandemic, everything your readers feel is how I’ve lived each and every day of my waking life,” says Mandel, who adds he's giving up his signature fist bump due to a virus he calls "an absolute nightmare."

As the top-rated summer show adjusts to the coronavirus, it now must adapt to another serious health matter: the back injury judge and executive producer Simon Cowell suffered Saturday in a fall from an electric bicycle. Cowell, who broke his back in several places testing a new electric bike at his Malibu home, underwent surgery and is doing fine, his spokesperson Ann-Marie Thomson said Sunday morning.  

Kelly Clarkson is filling in for Cowell, who remains hospitalized, at least for Season 15's first live episodes on Tuesday and Wednesday (8 EDT/PDT), NBC said. Tuesday's performance show features the first 11 of the 44 remaining acts, with five advancing Wednesday based on viewer votes. 

Clarkson confirmed the news with a cheeky memo on her Instagram account Monday. It said that while her "friend, Simon Cowell" is recovering on Tuesday and Wednesday, someone "far wiser, cooler and hotter is taking his seat! The amazing Kelly Clarkson." The message concluded: "You're welcome in advance!" 

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Meanwhile, on the "AGT" set, the addition of masks, tests, temperature checks, work pods and even specific bathroom assignments – for contact tracing, if necessary – make it "the safest place in the world, but it feels otherworldly,” Mandel says. 

When a crew member walks on set, “you see what you assume is a human person because they have a mask, a visor, gloves and a helmet," Mandel says. "It’s what I imagine the show would be like if we did it on the moon."

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In this exclusive photo, ukulele player Feng E performs on an elaborate stage in Taipei, Taiwan, as part of the 'America's Got Talent' quarterfinals competition that will air on Tuesday.

Strict protocols, including the addition of “COVID counselors,” as Mandel calls the medical experts on set, are just one change since production started months ago for "AGT," which conducted some early auditions without a studio audience and staged its Judge Cuts on a socially distanced, outdoor set designed to look like a drive-in theater. 

With Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, the traditional home of each season's live shows, untenable due to the pandemic, "AGT" is moving to nearby Universal Studios Hollywood where acts will perform on a soundstage, in the theme park, and at the famed backlot.

Tuesday's episode features Simon & Maria dancing in Mel's Diner and Pork Chop Revue, a pig act, performing on Western Street.

Daredevils Bello & Annaliese Nock will have plenty of room for their "double wheel of death on fire" on Universal's New York Street, executive producer Sam Donnelly said Thursday. "Their performance is so big and dangerous it wouldn't ever be able to fit in the studio, but we're trying to make a bonus out of having this great playground on the backlot."

'America's Got Talent' quarterfinalists Simon & Maria perform in this exclusive photo from a pre-taping at Mel's Diner at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Some performances are being taped in foreign countries, largely due to pandemic travel complications. On Tuesday's show, viewers will see ukulele player Feng-E on a dazzling stage in Taipei, Taiwan.

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As with Judge Cuts, the final rounds, which will yield a Season 15 champion on Sept. 23, require substantial adjustment.

Although performances traditionally are live, some will be taped because the acts either can't travel to LA or were performed remotely as a safety consideration, as was the case with San Diego's Voices of Our City Choir.  Crews from India, Germany and Australia "Got Talent" shows are filming some acts that can't make it to Universal.

To substitute for the loss of cheering studio audiences, "AGT" will add a "virtual audience," similar to the NBA, that features audio and video of fans watching live feeds from their homes.

"The idea is very exciting that someone in Ohio has a chance to take part in (the show) and potentially be on camera," executive producer Jason Raff says. "They will laugh, clap and provide important feedback for the contestants."

'America's Got Talent' judges Simon Cowell, left, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum and Howie Mandel talk to competitors on a large screen during the Judge Cuts episode, which was taped in June and broadcast July 28.

The absence of an audience for some of the auditions hit home for Mandel, a standup comic.

"Comedy is probably the one act that needs that live audience," he says. However, "as somebody who started working after midnight in clubs, where there's four people and they're walking in and out, you have to work in the moment." 

As the pandemic adds restrictions, which require much logistical planning, it also creates opportunities to break beyond the walls of a theater stage. 

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Double Dragon, a sister singing duo who compete Tuesday, will move from Western Street to Mexican Street as they perform "because the two backlots are adjacent to each other," Donnelly says. "We have these incredible, multimillion dollar sets, so we're trying to make the most of this great location."  

Some settings may be familiar to many viewers.

'America's Got Talent' judges Howie Mandel, left, Sofia Vergara and Simon Cowell watch auditions without the traditional studio audience after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBC talent competition to make big changes. The upcoming live shows will rely on 'virtual audience' technology to make up for the loss of a cheering theater crowd.

"We were (on Western Street) where Tarantino shot 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' and we're doing a singing act in front of the same place,'" Raff says. 

Other acts performing Tuesday include: singer Archie Williams; sword swallower Brett Loudermilk; contortionist dancer FrenchieBabyy; comedian Michael Yo; young singer Roberta Battaglia; and singer Shaquira McGrath.

Over four weeks, 20 acts will advance based on viewer votes; two judges' wild-card picks will fill out the 22-act semifinal field.