By Shaunna Murphy
Updated July 13, 2011 at 06:17 AM EDT
Credit: Chris Haston/NBC

As soon as I took my seat in the sparkly, spacious and thankfully air-conditioned Studio 36 in CBS Studios, it became very clear that America’s Got Talent is first and foremost a family show. My row-mates were a group of 12-year-old Canadian boys who were excitedly wielding homemade posters for the Miami All Stars contestants, and the warm-up comedian was handing out plastic light-up glow rings to the preteen girls whose lungs were still untarnished enough to scream the loudest. Minutes later, he prompted two little boys to do a booty shake dance-off on stage. The closest thing I can compare it to is the fabulous What Would You Do? taping I attended in Florida some time in the early 90’s, but even that was less strange than some of the things I witnessed at America’s Got Talent.

Thankfully, our famous judges were more than happy to join in on the unusual fun, and the mood in the studio was always upbeat and refreshingly casual. Forty-eight acts remain and 12 performed on Tuesday, but only 10 were seen by the studio audience. The Fearless Flores Family, the Sandou Trio Russian Bar and some of Nick Cannon’s introductory segments were pre-recorded, but most of the acts, including the nightmare-inducing Those Funny Little People, performed with impressively elaborate sets and garnered tremendous enthusiasm from the mostly tourist-populated audience.

Even though the studio audience had to miss out on a couple of key performances from the quarter finalists, there were plenty of things we experienced that weren’t shown on TV. Sharon Osbourne’s seemingly genuine adorableness, Cannon’s rapport with the kids, Howie Mandel’s iPhone obsession, and Piers Morgan’s ambiguous status as the villain could only be studied when the cameras weren’t rolling. It was interesting to see how unreadable the judges’ opinions were during the contestants’ performances (it was impossible to tell who was going to be X’ed, and when), and how abruptly they loosened up as soon as we switched to commercial break.

New dad Cannon was largely hidden behind the curtains as he popped up on various balconies and boxes during the show, but his rare moments with the audience proved that Cannon is a natural host with a goofy demeanor. He high-fived the crowd-favorite child prodigy Anna Graceman after her performance, and joked that his experiences as a new dad made him more than qualified to handle bird droppings when the Echo of Animal Gardens parrot act suffered an unfortunate mishap.

Morgan effortlessly plays the Simon Cowell role at the judge’s table, but his behind the scenes character doesn’t seem very in sync with the old curmudgeon we see on TV. Morgan didn’t cheese with the audience and blow kisses like some of his fellow judges, but he was very willing to chat with the audience and production members situated around him, and he frequently engaged in friendly conversation with Mandel and Osbourne when he wasn’t viciously critiquing the performances of J. Chris Newberg and those questionably Funny Little People. Every reality competition has to have its bad guy and Morgan has graciously taken on that role, but his off-camera demeanor suggests a much more affable character than you might expect.

Mandel is the on-camera consistent good guy who never once pressed that terrible noise-inducing X-button, but he also spent a good portion of his off-camera time hitting Morgan with some sort of miniature pole and playing around on his phone. From my seat it looked like he was playing Words With Friends, but it also could have been Fruit Ninja or even some urgent business. He didn’t interact with the crowd very much, but he did have a dedicated bald head make-up team attending to his dermatological needs in between takes. In fact, Morgan and Mandel received much more attention from the make-up squad than Osbourne did, suggesting that Ozzy’s wife is rocking some serious natural beauty.

Speaking of which, the lovely matriarch of the Osbourne clan was the highlight of the evening for this Talent newcomer. She came out with a giant smile and attempted to make eye contact with members of her audience whenever she turned around to smile and wave at her fans. She never took out her phone and rarely left the stage, and seemed to be 100 percent delighted to be there. She clearly had some friends in the first few rows, as she kept leaving her judge’s seat to mingle with some of the people in that particular section, and she never demanded any sort of protection or help as she interacted with the dreaded commoners. She also seemed to enjoy each performance no matter how strange and unusual, which is quite a feat with this often ridiculous and non-conventional show.

Check back on Wednesday for my next behind-the-scenes report!