Ahead of the season 16 premiere of America's Got Talent, judge Howie Mandel got real about what it was like filming the NBC series amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and Simon Cowell's absence from the show.
Beginning in March of 2020, AGT season 15 featured a lot of changes and setbacks. As COVID-19 restrictions were enacted in the early spring, the show had to nix its live audience at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Then, judge Heidi Klum left the set after coming down with an illness (she later tested negative for COVID-19), prompting producers to tap Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet to fill in.
After that, the show had to move to a new virtual setup as the pandemic continued. In August of 2020, Simon got into an electric bike accident at his Malibu home and broke his back. As a result, Simon had to endure six hours of surgery and missed the rest of season 15.
Reflecting on it all, and thinking about the COVID-19 crisis beyond the show, Howie admitted that last year's season was a tough one to pull off. "It was the most stressful thing that anybody, including myself, has ever experienced in their lifetime," Howie told People.
But while it was not easy dealing with all of the show's setbacks, Howie maintains that pushing through and "doing AGT" had its advantages.
"It was really precarious, but at the same time, those moments that we got to spend time together and produce the show were the highlights for me," he explained. "Those are the little sparks of light in this horrible year."
With HollywoodLife.com, Howie opened up even more about what it was like seeing Simon return to the set after recovering from his accident.
“I was just happy to see the man in the room standing upright,” Howie told the outlet. “I was amazed, and he came at us with more energy and more… You know how they say like a pregnant woman has that glow? He has that glow. I think because of rehab and physical therapy, he probably has exercised, stretched, and done things in his life because of this back injury that he’s never done before. He says he even feels better than he did before he fell off the bike."
Howie continued: "He fell off his bike, he broke his back, but all of us, including every contestant and act, have been locked away in the darkest place that we’ve ever all experienced in our lives for the last year. So when he showed up in the room — obviously, he’s a good friend and my boss, and everybody was excited to see him — but as each person showed up on the stage, there was that same excitement that we’ve never had before."
The new season of America's Got Talent starts Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Before the season 16 premiere, the show's social media pages posted a video of judges Howie, Heidi and Sofía Vergara talking about Simon's return.
"I'm super excited that the boss is back, that Simon Cowell is back," Heidi said in the above clip. Sofía added, "It's amazing to have Simon again ... I think he's a very fair judge, so it's great to have him back." Meanwhile, Howie commented that Simon's recovery is "amazing" and host Terry Crews teased, "he's not only back, he's flaunting."
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