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Amateur Hour

American Icon vs. Crank Yankers: Who are the real puppets here?



Never before in entertainment history has there been so many opportunities for the young and marginally talented to show the world how young and marginally talented they are.

Blame The Real World for germinating the concept that the teens and twentysomethings of America actually have anything profound to say, then carry it over to recent reality-TV “talent” showcases like Making the Band, Popstars or even Becoming, where creepy obsession with a real celebrity who actually worked (in relative terms) for fame actually pays off with its own insta-celebness. Instead of flat-out rejecting obviously manufactured pop-music “stars” and demanding better quality, everyone has apparently decided that it’s their by-damn birthright to be made into one, too. Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

Despite the name, the British are responsible for American Icon: The Search For a Superstar (Fox; debuts Tuesday June 11, 7:30 p.m.), TV’s latest bastardization of the Star Search concept. Following the usual executive logic of “It worked in England; the work is already done so we don’t even have to think,” American Icon is a rip-off of the UK’s hit Pop Idol, where home viewers voted in record numbers to select an overnight star, overruling a panel of infamously critical music-biz judges. He was brutalized by BMG Records’ Simon Cowell (who’s also onboard for American Icon), but winner Will Young’s dashed-out debut tune became the fastest-selling single of all time. With little in the way of charisma or chops (think of your least favorite O-Town member launching a solo career), the bland bloke became a Pop Idol—which, given England’s chart fickleness, lasts only a merciful few weeks. They may have lousy taste, but at least the Brits know to spit it out quickly.

America is a whole ’nother matter. Here, crap lingers for months and months—the memory of Eden’s Crush (you know, the Popstars) is still fresh, what with them working shifts at the neighborhood Hooters and all. The thought of giving another amateur-hour twinkie with great abs and passable pipes a ticket to ride may seem as idiotic as Total Request Live’s brain-draining shout-outs (“Word to my dawgs back in Nebraskizza! Puddle of Mudd! Whoo-hoo!”), but April and May’s American Icon tryouts drew karaoke kiddies in the thousands. Stringent requirements: U.S. citizen; 16-24; ability to recognize a microphone.

In addition to Cowell (who has a nasty rep of reducing teens to tears—yes!), the judging panel is made up of Randy Jackson, a seasoned performer/A&R rep and, for some reason, “singer” Paula Abdul, whom you may recall made her brief mark as a good dancer with a thinner-than-lunchmeat voice—she was J-Lo 1.0. They’ll provide the critical beat-downs (and comic relief) but, ultimately, the viewing audience will choose via phone which contestant will be inflicted on the populist popscape. If the winner still has a career by the time your phone bill comes, success!

If only the pranksters behind Crank Yankers (Comedy Central; Sundays, 11:30 p.m.) would get on the voting lines, then they’d have something. Just as abrupt column segues are left to the professionals in Tube Town, Crank Yankers uses top comics to make actual prank calls (Dave Attell, Adam Carolla, Kathy Griffin, Jimmy Kimmel, Denis Leary, Tracy Morgan, Kevin Nealon, Super Dave Osborne, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Scott Thompson, Billy West and more), then reenacts the audio with puppets. Kind of The Muppet Show meets The Jerky Boys, sometimes funnier and definitely raunchier—just imagine The Daily Show’s Stephen Colbert calling a phone-sex line on behalf of a horny-but-deaf pal, if you will.

Bits like that, and Dave Chappelle as the Wu-Tang Clan’s tour manager trying to book rooms at a little old lady’s bed & breakfast, and Lisa Kushell as a blind stripper demanding an equal-opportunity pole audition with her seeing-eye dog, are among the inspired; most of co-creator Kimmel’s are tired; and Tenacious D’s full-frontal-nude “Friendship” music video (complete with puppet penises) is waaay better than anything you’re going to get from American Icon.