Baltimore native Mike E. Winfield remembers feeling just one thing as he saw “America’s Got Talent” judge Simon Cowell reach for the golden buzzer to send the comedian to the finals: utter shock.
Each judge, plus host Terry Crews, has the opportunity to press the buzzer for one act. All three judges and Crews can also use one together.
Winfield said he never saw it coming.
“I never really considered that I would be a recipient of the golden buzzer. I just knew that I wanted to perform and I wanted to get these people on their feet,” Winfield said. “So when it happened, I was like, wait, what? This is happening?”
This season, “America’s Got Talent: All Stars,” features memorable acts who have previously competed on the show. In an episode that will air on Feb. 20, Winfield and 10 other finalists will perform again, and a week after, one is crowned the winner.
He’d previously competed on Season 17, which aired last year. Despite receiving high praise from judges and advancing to the finals, Winfield did not receive enough votes to enter the top five and was eliminated.
“Why come back for more?” asked judge Howie Mandel, after Winfield walked onstage to a standing ovation from the crowd.
“Here’s the thing,” Winfield told him. “I didn’t win. That’s why I was here. I wanted the title.”
This time, he thinks he has a chance.
Winfield grew up in East Baltimore and attended Winston Middle School and Baltimore City College. Before he’d ever considered comedy, people would often suggest him as the MC for school shows. “Yeah I’ll do it, I don’t care,” he’d say.
“I didn’t understand it,” Winfield said. “And now it makes sense why I’m telling jokes in front of people, and I’m comfortable.”
The comedy seed, Winfield said, was planted in 6th or 7th grade, when his cousin showed him footage of Eddie Murphy. “Wait, you can do this for a living?” Winfield remembers asking his cousin. He’d heard only of teachers and doctors and lawyers, but here was Murphy, getting paid to make fun of Bill Cosby and Mr. T in a sold-out theater.
Later, when he was 18 or 19, Winfield was sitting in a car with friends, driving to a party in Baltimore. They were “going in on each other,” cracking one another up, trying to see who was the funniest.
“I could do this. I could do this in front of people,” Winfield remembers thinking. “I can be funny in front of more people.”
Winfield moved west to attend California State University, Sacramento. A speech class he took there cemented his belief that he could hold an audience’s attention.
For years, he performed “wherever they would give me the mic.” At poetry clubs, restaurants, bars, colleges. Winfield said he was disciplined and relentless. He never took weeks off. And eventually, people started to notice. Managers approached him. He started to get auditions. At one point, he booked a role on “The Office” as a warehouse worker. At another, he performed on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
Winfield had seen how “America’s Got Talent” could change careers, so he was excited when a producer reached out after seeing some of his YouTube videos. “I gave them every ounce of information that they needed, I went where I needed to go, and I started putting together what I thought worked for a good set. That’s how it turned into this.”
Winfield said his sets often feel like “crafted conversations.” Much of his material comes from his daily life, he said, so performing just feels like sharing and telling stories.
Sometimes, he’ll use jokes other people have made about him.
“Jokes I’ve had about my teeth being big came from people talking about me, and I was like, ‘I’m keeping that,’” he said.
The hardest part about preparing for his audition was getting his set down to two minutes.
After his showing on Season 17, there was no shortage of opportunities to practice. He was offered tons of club and show dates, he said, and joined “America’s Got Talent Presents SUPERSTARS Live,” as a guest host in Las Vegas.
As he finished his golden buzzer set, which aired last month, all three judges rose to their feet. The crowd roared. Model and “America’s Got Talent” judge Heidi Klum called him a “ray of sunshine.” Cowell told him he’d “come back funnier, more confident.”
Winfield believes his upbringing in Baltimore has helped set him apart. For one, it gave him an accent — so heavy that when he first arrived in Sacramento, some people couldn’t understand him.
He said his upbringing in Baltimore also made him tough. “I was inner city, and you’re watching your back all the time.”
He comes back once or twice a year to visit family and friends, and on Feb. 19, he’ll be in town to perform at the Baltimore Comedy Factory.
“I’ve been a lot of places now,” he said. “There’s nowhere like Baltimore.”