Is a staggeringly bad ventriloquist with a massive ego as much fun to watch as an awful singer who has no idea how bad she is? How do you judge the relative skills of a juggler and a comedian?
And, perhaps most importantly, how does David Hasselhoff figure into all of this?
All will be answered -- even the part about Hasselhoff -- when NBC unveils "America's Got Talent," an old-fashioned variety show goosed up with the 21st-century gambit of showcasing the dreadful and deluded first, then letting the audience pick the most talented performer. The show, created by "American Idol's" Simon Cowell, premieres Wednesday, June 21.
"The joy of watching this show -- and I've seen a rough cut -- is that variety is the key here," says Cowell, who won't appear on camera (his "Idol" contract prohibits it). "You absolutely have no idea as to who's coming up next. In the space of 15 minutes I saw a juggler, an acrobat, a great boy band, an amazing 14-year-old singer, followed up by an 80-year-old male stripper."
Presiding over the various acts will be host Regis Philbin, a man who Cowell feels very fortunate to have at the helm -- "When I got the phone call from him, I genuinely thought I was being 'Punk'd,'" Cowell says.
Cowell also doesn't hesitate to compare the boundlessly energetic Philbin to his "American Idol" foil, Ryan Seacrest.
"Well, Regis is better-looking, he's less vain, he's better at ad-libbing and he likes me," Cowell says.
"Now wait a minute, Simon," Philbin replies. "Remember, 'American Idol's' coming back, and so is Ryan."
"Oh, I don't care," Cowell says, chuckling. "I'll survive."
As it happens, Philbin had been considering trying to revive the variety show, a staple of TV's early years, but couldn't quite figure out the right formula. So when he heard NBC was developing "America's Got Talent," he was the one who approached the producers about hosting the show.
"For years I thought about a variety show, but I never dreamed it should encompass the whole world of folks out there who think they have talent," he says. "And that's the key and what's going to make this show successful -- there is this wide, rich variety of people who think they have talent, and people who definitely are talented. I love it."
Aside from the wider net it casts, "America's Got Talent" will depart from the "Idol" formula in that all the auditions were held in front of a live audience, made up in large part of fellow performers. In later rounds, performers will have to show up ready to perform, but they won't know if they'll make it on stage until they're called before the judges.
Which brings us to David Hasselhoff. The former "Baywatch" and "Knight Rider" star will serve as a judge for "America's Got Talent" along with singer/actress Brandy and British journalist and TV presenter Piers Morgan. Cowell says he's known Hasselhoff for years, dating back to when he worked for music label BMG and Hasselhoff was a huge star in Germany.
"I was instructed by the bosses at BMG that I had to give David Hasselhoff a hit in England. And I did, and that's how we met," Cowell recalls, though he no longer remembers the song that scored for Hasselhoff.
"I became very good friends with David, and he came down to the final of 'American Idol' -- not this year, the year before [though he was there this year as well] -- and walked into the auditorium, and the effect he had on the audience was unbelievable. It was at that moment I thought, Whenever I do another show I want him as a judge."