Long before there was an American Idol or an America’s Got Talent, there was only one way for amateurs to get their shot at stardom on national television. You had to go through Johnny Carson’s old sidekick Ed McMahon, who hosted one of the most successful talent shows of all time. For twelve seasons, America got a chance to watch up-and-coming vocalists, spokesmodels and comedians battle it out in a televised competition known as Star Search. And, during its lengthy run, it managed to churn out a whole gaggle of performers that would go on to much bigger and better endeavors in their careers.
Debuting in 1983, Star Search featured six main categories (with a few variations over the years) that included male vocalist, female vocalist, junior vocalist, vocal group, spokesmodel, and stand-up comedy. Each performer was judged by a panel of four judges, who awarded from one to four stars (later, it was increased to five stars) for the performance. The performer with the best overall average would then return for the next show and take on a new challenger. In later seasons, once you won three times, you were retired and went on to the quarter-finals, with two new contestants competing the next week. From there to the semi-finals and (ahem) finally to the finals. Winners of the whole shebang would take home a grand prize of $100,000. While the musical contestants didn’t receive a recording contract (ala American Idol), the Spokesmodel winner was awarded a modeling contract to go with the money.
While Star Search was occasionally panned by the critics and sometimes cynical public, the number of well-known celebrities who did their time on the show is impressive. The singing categories presented such familiar faces as Alanis Morissette, Jessica Simpson, Aaliyah, Christina Aquilera, LeAnn Rimes, Brittney Spears, Justin Timberlake and American Idol runner-up David Archuleta. Over on the comedy side, Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, Dennis Miller, Sinbad, Carlos Mencia, Jenny Jones and Ray Romano yucked it up for big laughs.
Star Search’s original run concluded in 1995 but that wasn’t quite the end. When American Idol started generating massive ratings, the show was brought back, with a few notable changes, such as a new host (Arsenio Hall) and new celebrity judges that included Ben Stein and Naomi Judd. The new version ran for two years on CBS, starting in 2003, then moved over to the Game Show Network for another season, before finally leaving the airwaves.
Say what you will about Star Search, or even talent competitions in general, the fact remains – this show lived up to its name, providing a substantial list of new celebrities to the industry, many of whom owe more than a little gratitude to Ed McMahon for helping to launch their massive careers.
Did you tune into Star Search each week to watch these up and coming celebrities perform? We’d love to hear your recollections in our comments section as we tip our hats to this memorable 80s talent competition.