Alum Reflects on 'America's Got Talent' Run

September 22, 2021

In front of a large audience in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium this June, David Sweeny BFA '04 (Theater - Acting) pulled off a nearly impossible feat. Performing as his alter ego, Johnny Showcase, Sweeny auditioned for the 16th season of NBC's America's Got Talent and drew broad grins and high praise from the famously irascible Simon Cowell.

"You were so annoying," Cowell said after the audition, "and then the act started, and it was brilliant. One of my favorite acts - I've got to be honest with you - this year." 

Accompanied by several members of his psychedelic funk band, the Mystic Ticket, Sweeny took the stage in his blue lightning bolt jumpsuit, gold chains and aviator sunglasses. The introduction of his bandmates - "spiritual advisor" Rumi Kitchen and two stoic backup singers known only as The Truth - prompted bewildered stares and awkward silence among the judges. Those all quickly melted away when the foursome launched into the opening lyrics of their song "Sensual."

The band's smooth two-step dance moves and the song's humorous lyrics quickly won over the panel and audience, catapulting Sweeny and company into the competition's later rounds. The performance also garnered Johnny Showcase & the Mystic Ticket a level of worldwide attention. On NBC's YouTube channel, the band's audition has been viewed more than 2 million times. Sweeny said that Johnny Showcase's social media channels have swelled with thousands of new followers and countless ebullient comments in a recent interview. 

"I know you're not supposed to look at the comments," he said, "but so many of these comments were so positive, so great."

Describing Johnny Showcase as his "soul clown," Sweeny traces his character's origin back to his childhood, when he was introduced to comedians like Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, who fused absurd humor with music. Those influences and Frank Zappa's discography reinforced Sweeny's dream of a career in performance, despite his parents' concerns. 

"When I was growing up, I was extremely myopic about performance. That's all I wanted to do," he said. "I think my mom, at one point, was like, 'Well Dave, we love what you do, but you might want to find something to fall back on.' I guess my 19-year-old snotty self quietly said, 'Well, that's fine. I'll just become a lounge singer.'" 

Johnny Showcase and his full, 10-piece funk band, which regularly features other UArts alumni such as Charlie Heim BM '08 (Percussion), Jaron Olevsky BM '05 (Music Performance) and Vincent Federici BM '08 (Jazz Performance), has been a staple in the Philadelphia region's clubs and other venues since 2007. Sweeny has even released children's music under the name Johnny Shortcake. As he quipped in his America's Got Talent intro, Sweeny has "enough sweat in the game to fill up a swimming pool." 

But despite nearly 15 years of success and regional notoriety,  the COVID-19 pandemic posed an existential threat to Johnny Showcase's run. As Sweeny was pondering his fate and was surrounded by continual news of venues shuttering - some for good - a casting director from America's Got Talent reached out to him through email. 

"At first, I just laughed about it for a really long time, because my mom had always been like, 'Oh, Dave, you have to go on it. You have to go on this show. You have to go on that show. You have to go on Ellen," Sweeny said. "I actually didn't tell anybody for a really long time, except my wife, because I just didn't know what to do with that information."

Johnny Showcase & the Mystic Ticket were less fortunate in the show's quarterfinals, which aired in August. Its performance of "The Octopus," complete with a giant inflatable cephalopod, elicited a less positive reaction than the June audition. Despite being eliminated from the competition, Sweeny said he is happy for the opportunity to present his music to the world. 

Sweeny is eager to perform in front of new audiences once the pandemic wanes. He and the band have played several outdoor concerts in Philadelphia so far, but Sweeny said that his appearance on America's Got Talent has presented new opportunities to play in other cities and abroad. 

"I think that we got exactly what we wanted out of this experience, which was to bring our weirdo funky music to a large audience," Sweeny said. "And I think that there are lots of people who latched on. But this experience really doesn't define us, whether Simon Cowell liked it or not."

Photo by Trae Patton/NBC