Failing big: This performer has more televised fails than any other

From “America’s Got Talent” to “The Gong Show,” it takes guts to keep coming back.

By Amanda Kari McHughAugust 2, 2023 3:15 pm, ,

Charles Darwin. The Wright Brothers. Emily Dickinson. Lady Gaga. Bill Gates. Sheryl Sandberg.

What do all of these folks have in common?

They have all failed spectacularly before achieving historical success. So it stands to reason that if we keep failing, eventually we’ll find success, right?

Sthwrd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, just ask Sethward what he thinks. He’s a performer known for having more televised fails on awards shows than any other for both America’s Got Talent and The Gong Show.

On America’s Got Talent, he’s been auditioning on the show almost every year since 2018, hoping each time to make it to the live show. On season 16 he finally got there with his rendition of a peacock, but even after a fiery performance as a phoenix, his efforts to win were still thwarted.

He’s not only failed in front of a massive audience for the broadcasted auditions, but his auditions are some of the most popular videos on YouTube, with his most recent performance on AGT All-Stars getting millions of views across various channels. 

Last night were auditions for the 18th season of AGT, which are nearly wrapped up with only one more to go before the live show begins on Aug. 22. Many are wondering if we’ll see Sethward again this season.

The Canyon, Texas, native spoke with the Standard about his failed performances and what keeps driving him. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: For those who aren’t familiar or don’t watch the show, give us a sense of what your act is and what your tenure’s been like on AGT. I think you’ve been a giraffe, a walrus, a peacock, a phoenix, right?

Sethward: I’m a professional animal impersonator. Take that for what you want it to mean, but it has been quite glorious and I essentially make all of these animal costumes and do a lot of physical comedy on stage, which usually ends up me falling over myself or on things.

But that’s just it, I think a lot of people can’t understand coming back and back and back for the ignominious defeat. I mean, it’s almost kind of expected by a lot of your fans, but that’s part of the fun and the love. What’s going on, do you think? 

Yeah, I think that maybe I’m a sucker for pain – maybe I’m a masochist – I don’t know.

But you must have given this some thought. What was it that drew you to AGT in the first place? 

I think that it was the stage. I love getting up in front of people performing and that’s a show that is riddled with a formula. It’s got this extreme framework that people can come in, and in clowning that’s one of the best tools that you can use to perform – is have some kind of a structure that you can go in there and really mess up.

And sure enough, that’s exactly what I was able to do – is take the structure that everybody knows and loves, which is somebody with some deficit or problem in their life goes on stage and is rewarded by their glorious talents, and celebrities give them the confidence they need to overcome their trials and tribulations.

So if an idiot goes on stage without anything but a smile and a dumb idea, you get ripped up. But in the process, it’s the funniest thing that could ever happen. 

I think what you’re describing is very much sort of in the clown tradition, right? And a lot of that is planned – a lot of that is set up as the pratfalls and everything. How much of this is set up going into it as opposed to just that spontaneous stuff that happens that we get to see on television?

A lot of the things that some would consider improvised or not planned are by design. So I’ve worked quite a long time in improv and in clowning, and so even if something seems to be completely askew and off the cuff, it could be set up in a way that that outcome was likely to happen.

You know, Colin Mochrie, those are the guys that – “Whose Line is it Anyway?” – they’re improvising these games, but they’ve played these games millions of times. They’re quite trained in the skill of hoping something funny comes out of their mind. 

Right and they know what to look for and they’re sort of leaning into that.

Right, right.

Gosh, there’s gotta be a lot of criticism that comes with this. How do you deal with that?

It’s not a big deal. You gotta say “this is what it is to be a performer: you take the good and the bad.” You get bad reviews, you get good reviews and it’s a healthy thing. I think that if we all go through life just getting thumbs up and pats on the back, how are you ever going to know that there’s another piece of the world that you’re missing?

I can take it as hate and defeat and get depressed, or I can take it as like, “alright, these guys didn’t get it.” Let’s try another angle, let’s do another thing. 

So you approach this not from the standpoint of wanting to win at all.

Well, there’s a time and place for making money and there’s a time and place for making laughs and it’d be awesome to do both.

I love Andy Kaufman. I love the people who are taking big risks. And they had a large amount of hate coming their way. 

ABC / Richard Cartwright

"The Gong Show" celebrity judges Alyson Hannigan, Will Arnett and Lil Rel Howery encounter Sethward in his impersonation as a chicken.

But also something else that distinguishes those performers is that it was hard for the audience to tell where the line was between the comedian, the person who was doing the acting and the intended effect of the show. You just didn’t know, and that was what made it so maddeningly hilarious. And is that something that you’re kind of going for there? 

Of course. That’s like Clowning 101.

But you’ve got like Sacha Baron Cohen and these guys who you’re not entirely sure “is this character or is this you?” That’s the glory of that type of comedy.

I think “Nathan For You” is another amazing example. Like that’s just pure genius. These are pioneers in this comedy world and I’m just right there watching and growing and learning. 

Seth, was there anything in Texas that sort of flipped the switch for you? I mean, growing up in the Panhandle and everything is a long way from where you are these days.

I mean, the point at which I knew that I wanted to be a performer was I was watching Jim Carrey, my favorite comedian of all time, and I was specifically in the theater and I was watching one of his films where he was just completely free. Just doing him, being Jim. 

And I saw that and I thought, “this is the ultimate goal in my life” – is to be as free and silly and try to bring that back to people in their serious worlds they live in. Bring that levity and that beauty of being just so original. And I think that was the switch that really pulled me in.

And ever since then, I remember that moment and it’s definitely still true today. That’s my main goal – is just to remind people that the world’s a crazy messed up place and you gotta remember that it’s okay to be silly. Not all the time, not every single friggin’ moment of every day. But if you don’t have a little silliness in your life, you’re truly missing out on a beautiful part of what it means to be a human.

Sethward I have to ask, since the auditions for season 18 have just wrapped up, what’d you try this time and did you make it or is that a spoiler?

Hey, you know what? I think that you never know when I’m going to pop up, so I’m going to have to leave it at that. You just never know. I’d say hundreds of people audition for that show every year and they get cut.

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