The first reaction to the news that Ellen DeGeneres is replacing Paula Abdul as the fourth judge on “American Idol” is easy. Has everyone at FOX and 19 Entertainment lost their collective minds?
Ellen DeGeneres? The talk-show host whose experience with music is mostly limited to her awkward attempts to dance on her show? What can she possibly tell an aspiring musical star that would help him on his way?
It’s hard to think of a good answer to that, which is why this is a strange and risky pick. But greater risks bring greater rewards, and that huge payoff is what the folks who do the hiring are after.
Representing the fansThis move takes the show in a different direction, as the traditional role of the judges is to offer practical advice as well as the judicious use of snark. Each of the other three judges bring musical expertise to the table, Kara DioGuardi’s brutal “No Boundaries” notwithstanding. Even Paula, with her persona as one of the nicest people on the planet, tried to have something relevant to say every now and then.
Ellen changes that dynamic, because she can’t do that. True, she’s a brilliant entertainer. She is a hilarious stand-up comic, an entertaining talk-show host, and an … enthusiastic dancer. But her musical “chops,” as her new friend Kara would say, are non-existent.
What she is, is a big fan of the show. And judging from the initial comments from both her and the show, that’s why she was hired.
She’s like EveryFan, but funnier, and much more powerful. Her role looks like it is going to be to say what the people in the audience are yelling at the stage or at their TV sets. As she told the audience of her daytime show, she’s someone who buys records, not someone who knows a lot of technical details about the qualities that get those record deals done in the first place.
That’s not necessarily a terrible idea, and it’s no accident that Ellen was selected to fill that role. She’s one of the most influential women in Hollywood, with millions of viewers who watch her daytime show to prove it. Certainly that has to be a draw for Fox, which must be salivating at the thought of bringing her audience’s eyeballs to all of the advertisers.
Of course, it also has to be thinking “Isn’t that what Dennis Miller was supposed to bring to ‘Monday Night Football’ once upon a time? How’d that work out for ABC?” Sometimes, fans of a show don’t want someone who’s just like them, they want someone who can tell them something they didn’t know or point out what they may have missed. If that’s the case here, she could crash and burn like Justin Guarini’s musical career.
What to expectLook for Ellen to be a similar personality to Paula, both nice and slightly loopy. Her appeal as both a comedian and a talk-show host is that she’s extremely likeable. It’s hard to see her perform and not smile, and she’s as good at mocking herself as anyone. In fact, she’s a little like a female Ryan Seacrest.
That would make her a great choice if they ever decided to replace Ryan as the host. But as a judge? For that to succeed, her chemistry with the rest of the judges is critical.
The dynamic that Paula had with the other three judges, particularly Simon, got stale over time. Hanging out with the same people hearing the same type of singers for the same type of songs will do that. But it was also great comfort food — everyone knew that every week Simon would have some sort of barb at her expense, she would react, Ryan would step in, and it was what passes for high comedy.
It’s not a question of whether Ellen will be able to hold her own with Simon. Anyone who’s seen her comedy knows she can go toe-to-toe with anyone. She might steal some of the attention from him, which won’t make his ego very happy, but she can both defuse and respond to barbs with alacrity.
But being on “Idol” as a full-time judge is a grind, as much of a grind as hosting a talk show (which she is continuing to do). Can she be on the top of her game on her own show in the morning, and still think of witty things to say in prime time?
She brings a lot of buzz, which will help. She’ll be funny. If her presence does nothing more than eliminate the homophobic comments from Simon to Ryan Seacrest, it’ll be successful, and if she can bring her wit and her daytime audience to “Idol” on a consistent basis it could drive the show back into the stratosphere. But those are a lot of ‘ifs” that she and the “Idol” crew will have to answer in the coming weeks and months.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.