This post has been updated.
How do you impress a famous comedian, a notorious shock jock, a former Victoria’s Secret model and an ex-Spice Girl with 10 million people looking on? Leo Lytel, 16, is about to find out.
Tuesday evening, he is set to audition for celebrity judges Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Howard Stern, and Melanie Brown to be a contestant on the 10th season of “America’s Got Talent,” the NBC variety show competition. The winner receives a million-dollar prize. Lytel, who just finished his freshman year at Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown, is already something of a seasoned comic. A couple years ago, he began hitting open mike nights at local bars and comedy clubs — at least ones that would let him in despite being underage. He’s performed at the Big Hunt, the DC Improv and his share of what his mother Jayne Lytel refers to as “dives.” Once, she says, in New York City, he performed in the back of a kitchen and the only people in the audience were other comedians. That time, he stayed to watch and learn, but usually he leaves right after his set because he has to be at school in the morning. Leo did not think he would get to perform for Heidi et al, after failing to make the show a couple of years ago. This time, his mother says, he was not able to make the preliminary auditions. At a producer’s suggestion, he sent in a tape instead and landed a televised audition before the celebrity judges. Leo was thrilled, as were his mom and dad, who are an integral part of his budding comedy career. Monday evening, Jayne Lytel was handling calls while Leo slept a half of a world away in Greece where he was on vacation with his dad — her former husband David Lytel. She also books Leo’s gigs, while her ex helps him write his material. (Or as Leo put it in one of his routines, at his tender age, he already has a Jewish writer and a girl agent who he used to sleep with.) Leo also has an older brother, Lucas, who is headed for college in the fall. For most of his life, Leo has been used to a different type of attention. When he was two, he was diagnosed with autism. Jayne and David Lytel put together a special rehabilitation program. Jayne Lytel told the Post in 2009 that she arranged as much as 35 hours a week of specialized instruction for Leo with seven different tutors for seven years. By age 10, he was part of a medical study of children whose autism diagnoses had been reversed. But the interventions took a toll, pushing the couple into bankruptcy. They later divorced, then, out of financial necessity, resumed living under the same roof after they were both laid off during the Great Recession. Jayne Lytel mined the experience of unemployment for humor in her popular but now-defunct blog, “Girl on the Brink.” Between sex ed and gangly arms, teenage life has given Leo plenty to work with. And so far, he has shied away from using his experience with autism as part of his stand-up, Jayne Lytel says, calling it “a tricky card to play” given the sensitivity of the issue. But she also says it is “worth explaining because that’s who he is.” “For him to be on stage,” she says, feeding off the energy of a room full of strangers, “compared to where he was … he has triumphed over so much.”
All four judges voted him ahead. Mandel made grand predictions for his future in comedy. (No pressure.) But he still faces a mindboggling array of competitors. So far, a guy who broke the world record for busting watermelons with his head, a ridiculously adorable five year old who belted out a song from “Frozen,” in an eerily adult voice, and a lady daredevil who blew herself up in a stretch limo.
Lytel was definitely the youngest comic to take the stage, but, in the eyes of the producers, he was clearly a favorite. After a montage of auditions by older comics, including two Goodfellas types in bowling shirts who actually used “fuggedaboutit” as a punch line, it was Lytel’s turn. (Are all the good ones over 20 too busy trying to get on “Last Comic Standing?”) His was the only full set shown and one that he has performed before. When he delivered his “I have a Jewish writer and an agent girl I used to sleep with line,” there were people in the audience who got on their feet to applaud. Leo’s timing may be even better in off stage moments, including one in the waiting area, when another contestant asked him what year he was in school. His grin vanishing momentarily, he replied in the tone of a someone sharing a cancer diagnosis, “I’m a freshman.”