Simon Cowell, known as the crabby “American Idol” judge in the 2000s, has mellowed in recent years. He’s become a dad. He’s recuperated from a wrenching back injury. He now bikes regularly.
But not all vices have been snuffed out: the Brit still loves his Kool menthol cigarettes.
During a 20-minute interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall in his trailer at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, a relaxed Cowell lit up and happily puffed away.
Cowell, creator of the biggest summer show on broadcast TV the past 15 years, “America’s Got Talent,” has launched a spinoff: “America’s Got Talent: Extreme.” It’s basically a subset of the “AGT” acts involving gymnastic feats, heights, vehicles, fire and the like.
With “The Voice” taking the spring off, this is a way for NBC to fill Monday nights for the next few weeks. It debuts Feb. 21 at 8 p.m.
These types of acts don’t normally win “America’s Got Talent,” so this gives them a chance to take home $500,000 without competing against singers, dancers and stand-up comics.
The first episode opens with a warning not to replicate these stunts, then interlays an edited segment of John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1962 proclaiming the United States’ intention of going to the moon by the end of the decade. “Why climb the highest mountain? Why fly the Atlantic?” Kennedy said. “Not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
Cowell said the regular “AGT” could only handle a handful of the “extreme” acts any given season given the prep time and space it took to make them work.
In this case, the producers used Atlanta Motor Speedway and its spacious outside parking lots to set up the stunts. Cowell also chose to shoot about 80% of the acts at night for the dramatic effect. “The visuals, the lights, the fire,” Cowell said. “It all comes alive. It’s like going to a carnival during the day versus the night. It’s not the same.”
To fill out the panel, Cowell recruited two new judges who have more expertise than him in the area of extreme sports: professional motorsports competitor Travis Pastrana and WWE wrestler Nikki Bella.
Pastrana, who has won 11 gold medals at the X Games, was a tough one to convince. Cowell literally closed the deal with Pastrana two days before shooting began in Atlanta. Cowell said he didn’t have a Plan B.
“I’ve learned sometimes that if you don’t have a back-up plan, you normally get what you want,” Cowell said.
Pastrana said Cowell gave him flexibility so he could continue to race and build tracks on his off days, jetting to locales like Baltimore and Phoenix.
“This was an opportunity for me as a person who is from action sports to see behind the curtain of mainstream,” said Pastrana, who has injured almost every part of his body at some point over the years, from a dislocated spine to his knees to his pelvis.
Everyone on set made him feel welcome when he first arrived “and at least pretended to know who I was,” he added with a chuckle.
And while Cowell has the long-standing reputation of being the “tough” judge, Pastrana was more likely to say no to an act.
“I’ve taken his job,” said Pastrana, who began competitive dirt bike racing at age 4. “Being in the action sports world, I didn’t think going in I would find anything that would drop my jaw.”
Yet during the second day of shooting, he used his single “Golden Buzzer” to send an act immediately to the finals. “They were doing something with no safety net,” he said. “They were underselling in a world where everything is oversold.”
He also appreciates the back stories of some of the contestants. “I don’t know the last time I cried and I’ve cried,” Pastrana said.
Host Terry Crews said Pastrana “legitimizes the show. He a legend in our midst. These extreme acts know him well. He’s done things that are the equivalent of a four-minute mile.”
Bella, he noted, also knows pain and danger. “She has had her teeth knocked out and broken her nose and busted her shoulder,” Crews said.
Having had a baby in 2020, she was just thrilled to get out of the house. “I haven’t had that adrenaline rush in a while,” she said. “Being out here, I’m getting these different emotions again. This is so exciting!”
Bella said she takes on the more nurturing role among the judges á la Paula Abdul. “I’m the inspirational judge,” she said. “I offer that female touch.”
Although there was a big stage built in the speedway parking lot, many of the acts built out separate sets in different places. The judges were ferried from one place to the next. They had plenty of down time to just hang out.
Crews noted: “To do this outdoors in Georgia makes it special because it reminds me that they do all the Marvel movies here. In this case, you have real superheroes putting their lives on the line.”
Unfortunately, the danger of these stunts became all too real a few days after the AJC interviewed the cast: a professional British escape artist was seriously injured while rehearsing a stunt and spent months in a local hospital. A smartphone video of the accident landed on TMZ. As a result, the show shut down production for three months with just days to go before completing the season.
It’s unclear if the show will address his injury, but in January, the show did complete shooting — but in California.
Unlike the summer series, the spinoff was entirely pretaped with no live voting so the producers commissioned a group of pr-selected “super fans” to help the judges decide the 10 finalists.
WHERE TO WATCH
“America’s Got Talent: Extreme,” 8 p.m. Mondays starting Feb. 21 on NBC; episodes available the next day on Peacock.