If Tuesday’s third installment of the live America’s Got Talent Season 15 quarterfinals proved anything, it’s that the sort of boundary- and button-pushing comedy that might go over well on, say, Saturday Night Live might not be a hit with a Middle American audience watching NBC in primetime. Or with Heidi Klum.
While the edgy routine by standup comic Usama Siddiquee, the son of Bengali immigrant parents, started off strong — according to the show’s resident comedy expert, Howie Mandel — with a bit about airport racial profiling, when Usama segued into some politically incorrect jokes skewering feminism, Howie’s fellow judge Heidi was not amused. Repeated closeups of her cold stare and pursed pout during Usama’s set were actually more squirm-inducing to watch than Usama’s controversial performance itself.
“Being called a ‘tramp’ probably was my least uncomfortable part of the whole thing. But that's just me. Let's see what America thinks,” Heidi barked flatly, when it was her turn to comment.
“I was just sitting beside these two,” Howie remarked, referring to Heidi and the other female judge on the panel, Sofia Vergara, “and I don't know if they were giving you the right response — or the response you were expecting.” Sofia did seem more on the fence than Heidi, however, telling Usama, “I was laughing... and then I thought, ‘Should I feel guilty that I'm laughing?’ You took a very risky theme for this performance.”
Twitter was torn as well. While many viewers actually appreciated Usama’s twisted humor, pointing out that standup comedy should take risks and make the audience feel a little bit uncomfortable and that the judges should not be so sensitive, some others decried his performance as a disaster.
Heidi: Calls taylor williamson the edgiest comedian AGT has had— YoBoiToxic (@YoBoiToxic) August 26, 2020
I laughed when he mentioned the airport stuff but once he started the club stuff is when Usama lost me. That’s probably as pissed as I’ve seen Heidi on this show. He’s 100% done after tonight. #AGT @AGT— Stephen Anderson (@thestephena) August 26, 2020
I love Usama ❤️— JordyB (@JordyPuff) August 26, 2020
The risk was worth it!
Heidi doesn't club, don't get down on it. You Rock. 🤟 #AGT
@AGT Usama stand up was funny. Heidi and Sofia are being too sensitive. Loved his beat box dj. He made that beat drop— Yolanda (@2morrowbrings) August 26, 2020
I myself was cracking up at Usama. Then they showed Heidi & Sophia & I was like Uh Oh! I felt bad for him. #AGT— 💜🖤 L 💜🖤 (@purpleperson71) August 26, 2020
I think Usama's act was very offensive. These were not things to joke about. #AGT— Terri Sherwood (@terri_sherwood) August 26, 2020
I feel that Usama makes people feel uncomfortable when he does the jokes. I know the material is hard. I feel that he is not ready to be next #AGT winner. Sorry for the remarks.— Mark Young (@airwolf28) August 26, 2020
Usama was the first non-insult comedian on #agt to make me laugh in forever ... and then he began second half of set and canceled out all that good will— Melissa Siegel (@MelissaSiegel89) August 26, 2020
Comedy is a risk. That's what makes it great. Sometimes you hit and sometimes you bomb. Usama Siddiquee knocked that out of the park and deserves to go all the way to the Finals. I think Heidi took that segment way too personally. #AGT #AmericasGotTalent— Brian Alexander (@TheBrianAlex) August 26, 2020
I personally found Usama funny; the supposed antifeminism shtick that bothered Heidi so much, while problematic when taken out of context, was actually a bit about how EDM music is so infectious that totally offensive lyrics can go unnoticed by reveling clubbers (to which anyone who’s logged late-night hours at a Vegas superclub or in the Coachella dance tent can readily attest). But the “tramp” mention probably wasn’t the smartest move, and in the end, this guy probably is not right for AGT, a wholesome series typically dominated by adorable animal and kiddie acts, puppeteers, or singers with hard-luck backstories. If he were to miraculously survive this week’s vote, he’d have to drastically tone down his act in the future, which sort of negates the point of him trying to launch his comedy career on this show in the first place.
So, there was no love lost between Usama and Heidi. But there was plenty of love between her and torch singer Sheldon Riley, who’s my new favorite Season 15 contestant now that the equally flamboyant showman Bonavega is out of the running. Sheldon, a rhinestone-masked mystery man and walking piece of art whose aesthetic could be described as “human chandelier” or “the lovechild of Orville Peck and Liberace,” might be familiar to internationally savvy reality fans. He has appeared on The X Factor Australia and two seasons of The Voice Australia — and on one of those Voice seasons, he even made all the way to the third place under the mentorship of his fabulous and clearly qualified coach, Boy George. Sheldon delivered a spectacular, Anohni-esque cover of fellow Aussie diva Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” that I will have lodged in my own head for some time, and afterwards, he was so excited to meet the former Project Runway judge that he was visibly shaking.
“I was that 10-year-old boy who read fashion magazines in the dark and covered his bruises [from bullies’ beatings] with his mom's makeup. Now I wear makeup to express myself. My music and my fashion are an extension of myself,” Sheldon said earlier in the episode. Upon coming face-to-masked-face with Heidi, he gushed to her, “I'm very proud to be on the stage and to meet you, Heidi Klum. Oh my gosh, my heart is racing! I want to say thank you, quickly. As a little boy, I used to sneak around and watch you in my laundry room and watch fashion. I'm just so grateful. Thank you so much for giving someone like me from the LGBT community a voice to express my fashion. … I live by what you say, and what you said was, ‘In fashion — and in everything — one day you're in and the next day you can be out.’ I want to live by that, because until my time's up, I'm going to live every single day of my life authentically and originally and not predictably.”
Sheldon may be polarizing in his own way, and on a very competitive night (“the most spectacular evening that we've had on Season 15,” according to Howie), he may not be among the five out of this round’s 11 contestants who make it through. My prediction is that four of those five will be singer-songwriter Nolan Neal, aerialist Alan Silva, singer Cristina Rae (even though she did the most clichéd talent show song choice ever, “Hallelujah”), and absent judge Simon Cowell’s Golden Buzzer act, hip-hop dance troupe W.A.F.F.L.E. Crew. But I am really, really hoping that the fifth spot goes to Sheldon.
As for Usama, there’s a place for him on the comedy club circuit — or, as Sofia suggested, on an NBC sitcom (his pre-performance skit, during which he impersonated his traditional, disapproving parents, was genuinely hilarious in a Margaret Cho sort of way). But Usama’s time on AGT is likely over. And it’s obvious that if he’s somehow up for the judges’ vote on Wednesday’s live results show, he definitely won’t be able to count on Heidi’s support.
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