Starting this season, Paula Abdul’s out of her judging role at “American Idol” and Ellen DeGeneres is in. Will viewers miss kooky Paula and her diva ways, or embrace Ellen's gentle comedy, forgetting all about her predecessor?
There’s no denying that Simon Cowell, who will exit the series after this coming season, is the only judge on the panel whose departure would make a major impact on the show. The acidic Brit quickly became the most influential judge on the panel with his outrageous honesty in critiquing the contestants. When the Idol hopefuls pop into that audition room, they focus all their attention on Simon.
In the beginning, that left both sweet Paula and bland Randy Jackson to find their own way of grabbing a small slice of the spotlight. Randy has yet to become a significant cog in the “American Idol” hit machine, but Paula discovered early that she could challenge the scowling Simon by acting out.
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She wears the most obnoxious jewelry in town (her own line), and togs that scream louder than a heavy-metal wannabe. Her wild-armed clapping, arms waving like hurricane swells, has become fodder for late night comedy shows.
Paula’s mercurial nature has led to everything from simple tardiness to storming off the set. Before one exit last January, she complained that the other judges didn’t care about her opinion on an Idol hopeful. The contestant, Julissa Veloz, had to coax Paula back to the room. Obviously, Paula thought her employers would do the same before they opted to put her on a permanent time-out.
Paula bringing crayons and coloring books to a performance show, leading Simon to smear marks on her face, represented one of the lowest points of last year’s tepid season.
How will Ellen handle Simon?
In contrast, some of Ellen's funniest bits on her TV talk show have included her interaction with children. Relating to Simon can’t be that much different.
Ellen's always been known as the incredibly witty, bright but certainly quirky comic. She knows how to ad-lib from years as a stand-up comic and a talk show host. After years of being heckled in some bawdy stand-up joints, she can decimate Simon or snotty contestants with a look or a line.
Much has been made about losing Paula's musical expertise. It’s true she’s a talented choreographer, but when it comes to singing, she cashed in with a handful of catchy tunes for years before slipping into obscurity.
Ellen may not be a singer, but she loves music and is known for semi-geeky dancing on her show. In the music realm she represents the people who are making the final decisions — the American public.
Paula certainly has an ear for pop singers. But when she bothers to attempt an actual musical critique, she falls back on three repeated clichés, including telling good contestants they are “authentic” and bad singers that they lack the ability to be authentic. Even the singers seem puzzled by this pronouncement.
Train wreck element may be missed
No doubt Paula’s erratic behavior both on- and off-screen has added loads of drama to the show. Ellen's always in control, Her comments may be just as rambling as Paula’s, but Ellen’s odd stories end with the pay-off punch that Paula never quite delivers.
Paula often made viewers wonder what exactly she was sipping from her ever-present Coke up. Once she critiqued Jason Castro’s second song as not being memorable — when he had only belted out one tune that night.
And then there was the time when Paula told eventual runner-up David Archuleta “David, you are ridiculous. I wanna just squish you, squeeze your head off and dangle you from my rear-view mirror.”
But wackiness aside, the original judging trio of Randy, Paula and Simon certainly had a rhythm and chemistry. Producers tried unsuccessfully to muck with the formula when they added fourth judge Kara DioGuardi last season. While she's still on the show, she just doesn't fit in as the original three did. Will Ellen smooth things over?
Change is inevitable, and if Paula had to be ousted, then the best possible replacement is Ellen, who has the heart and kindness of Paula, but with the brains and wit to take on Simon.
As Paula might say, Ellen is authentic.
Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.