"American Idol" has always been about the judges, especially in the audition rounds.
Some people tune in for a sneak peek at the contenders, but it's too early to vote. Most want to see the train wrecks, but bad singing can be seen every night in karaoke bars throughout the nation and 30 million people don't head out to listen to that on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
The fact is that Fox didn't just sign Simon Cowell to a long-term contract so the judges could meekly hold up numerical grades like they were scoring a figure-skating routine. At this point, with no allegiances yet to any of the contestants, a large part of the audience for "Idol" tunes in to hear what the judges have to say, either to the singers or to each other.
The snarkier the comments, the better.
The judges' days during the auditions are much like being in the back seat of a car during a very long, boring road trip. They're trapped uncomfortably close to each other for extended periods, without much to do besides listen to music and make snide comments about the singers.
When the radio station is bad and the music can't be changed, any parent can guess what follows. The people in the back pick and pick and pick at each other until someone finally snaps. Midway though the San Francisco auditions, it was time for the semi-annual made-up-for-TV feud, with Paula and Randy on one side and Simon on the other.
Shawna White, a 16-year-old girl with a nice voice but no chance of winning, made it through to the next round despite Simon's strong objections. This started a theme that would continue through the rest of the auditions, with Paula and Randy loudly wondering if Simon needed to get his ears checked.
Simon then voted against Jayne Santayana, but assured her, "That's all right. Beethoven and Mozart are going to put you through." He was right.
"What are you hearing today? Is there a different radio playing in your head," Paula asked Simon, a line mostly memorable in that it likely inspired the most off-the-cuff jokes from viewers who have often wondered the same thing about Paula.
Poor Deborah Dawn Tilley then became the final flashpoint. A 27-year-old woman who looked 40 somehow sparked an argument regarding Clay Aiken's looks. With Paula voting yes and Randy no, Simon was in charge of breaking the tie.
Simon responded by saying that he almost needed to hear her sing with his eyes closed, so he wouldn't have to look at her. Paula snidely remarked that he had said the same thing about Clay Aiken, and the whole thing devolved into an argument of whether or not Paula had been there when the remark was made, one of those riveting discussions that maybe six people would be interested if it were held in any setting except on national television.
I lost my pitch ... in San FranciscoAfter Simon gave his usual no vote to Tilley, the argument continued until Simon flipped his pen on the table and stalked off. He didn't turn that car around, but he did get into his limo and head back to the hotel, leaving the other two judges to hear the last few contestants without him.
Host Ryan Seacrest summed up the fracas by admitting that Randy and Paula had been "going after him all day long." But it's equally possible that Simon was just sick of the auditions and had an early reservation at Fisherman's Wharf. Judging from recent history, it's not like he missed much by leaving early anyway.
It was the third season in a row the auditions came to San Francisco, with the most notable finds there being La Toya London, Nadia Turner and William Hung. The former two were early favorites voted off sooner than expected, while the latter went from a truly awful audition direct to record albums, videos, and a firm spot on the D-list celebrity walk of fame.
With that kind of track record, it's not surprising the city only got one day's worth of auditions. Greensboro, N.C., may not have San Francisco's tourist attractions or restaurants, but the voices there were generally better.
Few of the 18 who scored tickets to Hollywood got much attention in the hour devoted to the San Francisco auditions. Only two got extended airtime.
John Williams came to the auditions fresh off nine years in the Air Force. He started with an impressive rendition of "Human Nature," then abruptly segued into a freestyle dance routine.
Maybe he didn't get to see the show while in uniform, and didn't realize that the next time the judges ask to see a dance routine for anything other than comic value will be the first. Still, Willliams made it through on a 2-1 vote, the two American judges patriotically overcoming the objections of the Brit.
Katharine McPhee was one of the few hopefuls who the judges passed through with genuine enthusiasm, rather than the usual resignation that at least a few people have to make it to Hollywood or there's no show. McPhee's mother is a voice teacher, and the training showed through as she nailed her audition.
Paula looked positively enraptured at finally hearing someone with talent. Even Simon was effusive with his compliments, finally pronouncing the verdict: "You are sailing through to Hollywood, young lady." It was the rare occasion when Simon has made someone cry with happiness, rather than the usual sadness, embarrassment or hatred.
That wasn't the only act of kindness he performed in the city where Tony Bennett left his heart. Shalicia Carlisle quit her job to audition for "Idol," which ranks right up there with Terrell Owens' decision to leave the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles in order to do sit-ups in his driveway as one of the dumber career moves in recent months.
Carlisle did not come anywhere close to a compliment from the judges, let alone a pass to the next round. But Simon borrowed her cell phone, called her boss and got Carlisle her job back.
'It's almost non-human'
Of course, it would be a pretty boring show if the judges didn't break out the fangs every now and again, and San Francisco had no shortage of hopeless hopefuls.
Shaun Vasquez set the tone early. "You have one of the worse voices I have even heard. It's almost non-human," Simon said. Legend has it that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, but they have nothing on Simon's number of ways for telling failed contestants they stink.
Some of the unsuccessful contestants who made the show were people who just don't seem to understand the concept. Heidi Fairbanks sang a wonderful opera, and as soon as the show changes its name to "American Opera Star" she stands a great chance of winning. Since that hasn't yet happened, she was kindly dismissed.
Marcus Phillips called himself the "all-terrain entertainer." He sand, danced, and rapped. The problem was that he didn't do any of them very well.
Others were the usual group of delusionals. Matthew "Wolfie" Paulson said he sang a little bit like Clay Aiken, which would only be true if Aiken were filmed singing underwater trying to escape from Alcatraz.
Not only were none of the above good enough to make the cut, most really weren't bad enough to be suitably entertaining. That was fine. The judges, as usual, provided much of the entertainment themselves.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.