‘American Idol’: The Ellen DeGeneres experiment ends abruptly

Senior Television Writer
07.29.10 24 Comments


Ellen DeGeneres never fit in as a judge on “American Idol,” but at least she had good sense to recognize that, which is why she’s bowing out after only a single season even though she signed a multi-year contract.

“A couple months ago, I let FOX and the ‘American Idol’ producers know that this didn”t feel like the right fit for me,” DeGeneres said in a statement. “I told them I wouldn”t leave them in a bind and that I would hold off on doing anything until they were able to figure out where they wanted to take the panel next.  It was a difficult decision to make, but my work schedule became more than I bargained for. I also realized this season that while I love discovering, supporting and nurturing young talent, it was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings. I loved the experience working on ‘Idol’ and I am very grateful for the year I had. I am a huge fan of the show and will continue to be.”

The “it was hard for me to judge” excuse was the same one given by the show’s first attempt to expand its initial judging pool, as New York DJ Angie Martinez quit after only a week on the job in season two. And certainly that was Ellen’s biggest problem. It was clear that, like Paula Abdul before her, criticizing the contestants caused her severe emotional distress, but without the memorable insanity that came from Pauler’s attempts to find nice things to say about tone-deaf massacres of the works of Alannah Myles.

Ellen would be critical, but only if someone else was critical first. The first week of this season’s semi-finals, the producers tried rotating the order in which the four judges spoke, and it was a disaster anytime Ellen had to speak first – even if she had something nice to say, she stammered and took forever to form a coherent way to express that. Very quickly, the producers inserted her permanently in between Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi, so she would always have another judges’ voice to cue her – which, of course, meant that mostly we got Randy Jackson’s thoughts delivered twice.

And about the last thing “American Idol” needed was more of the wit and wisdom of Randy Jackson, especially projected, ventriliquist-style, through a woman who very quickly made it clear she didn’t want to be there.

Ellen sounded great in her first Hollywood episodes, but once the live shows began – and her nervousness couldn’t be hid by editing – it became clear quickly that she wasn’t going to become the new “Idol” star and enable the show to survive Simon Cowell’s departure.

So now Simon’s gone, Ellen’s gone, and former producer Nigel Lythgoe is on the verge of returning, with a reported mandate to clean house to help the show survive both Simon’s exit and a low-rated, underwhelming ninth season. During Nigel’s two years away from the show, he publicly objected to the idea of a fourth judge (which wound up eating into the number of songs that could be performed each week, and often led to timeslot overruns) and suggested that when Simon left, he’d rather get rid of the entire judges’ panel and start over from scratch.

In other words, if I were Randy or Kara – who have been floating in the wake of Simon and the show itself for years – I would be exploring other options, ASAP.

There have been rumors that Lythgoe wants Elton John or Justin Timberlake or someone else on that level, but those are pipe dreams. More likely, the new panel will include Lythgoe himself (who’s already a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance”) and a couple of new, hopefully more articulate second-tier music insiders.

[Editor’s note: AP reports Jennifer Lopez is in negotiations to replace DeGeneres on “Idol.”]

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