Nick Cannon, David Garibaldi and his CMYK's on 'America's… (Virginia Sherwood / NBC )
Given the level of talent this season on "America's Got Talent," you had to figure the finals were going to be impressive. Varied too. As Nick Cannon reminded us at the top of the show, "You couldn't pick six more different acts."
It was the first year either an animal act or a comedian had made it through to the finals on the show, and though the show has often handed singers its prize -- $1 million and a chance to headline a show in Las Vegas -- that's not going to happen this time around. America has already sent all the singers home.
So who will it be? The six finalists were all top-notch talents, but three emerged as leading contenders. And if you weren't able to figure out which three those were on your own, Howard Stern -- not known for playing his cards close to his vest -- was more than willing to fill you in. After the final act, the incredible trained canines Olate Dogs, had wowed the crowd, Stern declared that, for him, it came down to "a comedian, a guy on an Earth Harp and you guys."
I couldn't agree more. Here's how the night -- the best finals ever, the judges kept telling us -- broke down.
David Garibaldi and his CMYKs: The street artist turned stage performer had an artistic return to form, painting a portrait of Einstein that didn't reveal itself until he spun it into view, but the performance part of the act was less dynamic than it has been. And though it was probably wise to relegate his onstage cohorts to painting mere letters while he focused on the main image (they hadn't done so well with Lady Liberty last time around), I missed their interplay.
The judges were appreciative. Stern said he'd hang the painting, which Garibaldi said symbolized creativity and innovation, in his house. But unless Garibaldi wraps up the expectant father vote (his wife revealed she's pregnant in the taped intro), I don't see him taking this thing.
Tom Cotter: I'll be honest with you. If this remarkably talented comedian were to be named winner, I'm pretty sure I'd jump up from my couch, knocking the laptop I take notes on to the ground, and pump my fists in the air -- without even meaning to. The guy has my heart. He's so earnest, so hardworking, so polished and confident and so freaking funny. To use Stern's measure, I'd totally pay to go see his show -- and I don't even really like stand-up comedy (too much pressure, all that neediness). But Cotter's so cool and controlled, he puts you immediately at ease. And by the end it's the audience that's needy, begging him for more.
For this high-stakes performance, Cotter upped the ante further by asking Cannon to roll a comedy cube to determine the subject for his act: "Poor Examples." "How appropriate," Cotter quipped, and then he riffed for a delicious 90 seconds on all the inappropriate books, movies, rhymes and songs we teach our children. "Sleeping Beauty" has never seemed so politically incorrect.
The Untouchables: The judges were too polite to say, though Howie Mandel hinted at it (or maybe they really thought the act was "perfection"?), but these preternaturally talented young dancers took their first misstep in the competition, performing a go-go-inspired dance to "Proud Mary" that was way too sexy and suggestive -- Tina Turner is pretty much pure sex -- for their tender years. Latin sizzle is one thing, but watching 8-year-olds shimmy and shake like that just felt creepy.
Joe Castillo: Another stumble. What's made this sand artist's performances stand out was its pointed – if vaguely didactic – messages about the world. Castillo has used sand to highlight the fragility of our planet and the importance of our relationships. Here, he uses it to pander to the judges. The effort seemed cheap and obvious -- and fell as flat as a sandcastle toppled by a wave. Or whatever. It wasn't good.
William Close and the Earth Harp Collective: Cotter might have my heart, but Close has my head. You have to admire the way he perfectly calibrated not just his instruments, but also the staging and spectacle. He had a dancer flying through the air. He had people playing instruments in the audience. He had a vocalist singing a groovy rendition of "America the Beautiful," pulling the heartstrings as well as the harp strings. And there he was, at the center of it all, like some kind of mad scientist, having at that massive stringed instrument of his.
The audience and the judges ate it up, giving him a standing ovation. Sharon Osbourne called him a "visionary" and predicted that he'd be huge, traveling the world and ending up being "bigger than Cirque du Soleil." If that weren't enough, Close made one last play for the patriotic vote, using his moment of mic time to declare America to be a "great country," adding, "It's inventive. It's creative. And I'm just superpsyched to be part of it."