Feb. 1 2016 03:47 PM

Self-reflection, inner demons and existential crises at the reality show's San Diego auditions

    I'll show YOU talent. What's YOUR talent? I'll talent YOU.

    This is me, walking toward the San Diego Convention Center. It's a hot day—unseasonably warm—but that's not the reason why my internal monologue sounds like a petulant, whiny baby.

    A couple days prior, my editor alerted me that the reality show America's Got Talent was holding auditions in San Diego. He suggested that I try out.

    I scoured my brain to think of a talent that I could audition but came up empty, and it's this realization that got me upset.

    I'm not mad at my editor for initiating this downward spiral of pity, but mad at the world, the universe, genetics and every vague, amorphous factor responsible for my non-talent.

    By this point, the internal monologue is, like, half-sobbing: your MOM's talented. Talented schmalented.

    But this micro-tantrum isn't really warranted, because I am talented, just not in a way that would appeal to a bored TV audience. Back in the day, I was in talent shows all throughout high school, but I was always behind a drum set (I really wish I could send the America's Got Talent producers back in time to 2002 when our band covered Dio's "Holy Diver" and therefore witness the peak of my life). I still play drums, but unless you're Neil Peart good, solo drumming is just annoying.

    These days, I focus on developing my writing talent, but, again, that's not something that necessarily translates well onscreen.

    Hi, America's Got Talent producers! Today, I'm going to sit in front of a laptop for six hours and type out my personal demons.

    I've only been to the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con. This afternoon, the lobby seems comparatively empty and cavernous. It accentuates my insignificance.

    An usher at the front entrance stops me. "What are you here for?" she asks.

    "I'm here for America's Got Talent," I say, trying to focus on the immediacy of her question and not its existential implications. She points me up the escalators. There's a family coming down the opposite side, silent. The father and I make eye contact briefly and it's the look two dudes give when they're tacitly trying to convince the other that life is going swell.

    At the top of the escalator, two production assistants make me sign a waiver, strap a wristband on and hand me a sticker with a seven-digit number on it. Their frantic manner and loud voices make me cringe, especially considering how unpopulated the area is. Since auditions have been going on since 8 a.m., I can only assume that the adrenaline of processing so many talented hopefuls hasn't worn off yet.

    They direct me into a giant conference room. A lady waves a metal detector wand over me with the enthusiasm of a teenager on family vacation before pointing me toward the holding area.

    Now, it's difficult to write about the America's Got Talent holding area without plagiarizing the descriptions of Purgatory in classic literature. A garish "AGT" stands, monolithic, in the middle of the room. There's still a considerable amount of people still waiting to audition, but their silence in this large room makes it feel like something is dead or dying. Performers have formed into allied clusters—friendships that only exist when strangers are placed in a room without stimulus and they're desperate. Occasionally, they'll break away and strum a few notes on a guitar, or practice a dance move. Stage moms hog the vanity mirrors, faraway vocal practices sound like a ghost crying in my dreams, and a band of young bros practices "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on acoustic guitars.

    I approach a brother and sister, slouched in chairs, thumbing on their iPhones. Jasmine is preparing to sing, and her brother Brandon is there for moral support. The exasperation in Brandon's voice says that he's maybe regretting the decision.

    When asked how she prepared, Jasmine says, "I go to karaoke all the time."

    At this point, she's been waiting to audition for six hours.

    "Have they served food?" I ask.

    "No," Brandon says. "If Nick was here, he'd be all 'get some pizza in here.'"

    When I ask who Nick is, Brandon clarifies. "Nick Cannon. The host of the show."

    I admit that I've actually never seen the show.

    Another production assistant announces, "We're going to now get some outside time." He uses a manufactured enthusiasm that tricks us into thinking that he's doing us a favor, like we're not adults who could step outside and see the sun on our own accord.

    PAs arrange the mass of purgatorial contestants on one end of the convention center's veranda. There's a camera attached to a crane rig at the other end, probably 200 yards away. They tell us that they're shooting a promo for the show, and as we march toward the camera, we need to be happy! Smiling! The sun beats down and everyone's smiling, sweaty faces look like the result of a fire at the wax museum.

    The PA yells action, and we begin to walk. It lasts forever. My face hurts from smiling and pretending like this is fun. The camera crane looms higher, glaring at us with a callous lens. All this direction, all this fake happiness, all this performance—this is not what I'm good at. I raise my arms and show my sweaty pits to the camera.

    The PAs tell us that they want to do it a couple more times, which is about the point that I peace out. Sometimes proving your talent isn't worth it.

    Ryan is the author of Horror Business. Write to ryanb@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at@theryanbradford


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