Ellen DeGeneres on 'American Idol': Who Is She to Judge?

FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2009 file photo, Ellen DeGeneres arrives at the Daytime Emmy Awards on in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 30, 2009 file photo, Ellen DeGeneres arrives at the Daytime Emmy Awards on in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File) (Matt Sayles - AP)
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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

When "American Idol" returns early next year, Ellen DeGeneres will be sitting in Paula Abdul's vacated, spacey place, with Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson -- and oh, right, Kara DioGuardi. This unravels the icon tapestry of the early-21st-century religion of insta-fame: How does she fit there? Does she fit there? Is she in fact too famous to sit there?

News of DeGeneres's appointment came on Wednesday night, immediately diverting the nation's wee attention span away from President Obama's impassioned health-care speech to Congress. At the moment many Americans kinda-sorta grokked the basics of the public option, the headlines screamed ELLEN IS NEW 'IDOL' JUDGE! OMG! and all was lost.

DeGeneres -- the 51-year-old talk-show host, stand-up comedian, '90s sitcom star, best-selling author, CoverGirl makeup face and American Express shiller, one-time Academy Awards host, and holder of a rare California same-sex marriage license with her wife, actress Portia de Rossi -- will likely add cheer and sanity to the lineup. And improved humor, already: "Think of all the money I'll save from not having to text-in my vote," she quipped in a statement, along with a Great Recession joke on her show, about how everybody needs two jobs now. She told her talk-show audience on Thursday's program that she just wants "to be the people's point of view," judging "Idol" contestants as a music fan and not as "a technical expert."

She'll keep hosting her talk show, but even that seems inappropriate to someone's basic bottom line (besides her own): "Ellen" is produced by Warner Bros.; "Idol" is Fox's ratings juggernaut, and its producers are always obsessed with boosting its audience. Meanwhile, about 13 million people watch "Ellen" each week, according to a publicist for the show. Sooner or later she'll need to be two places at once. What does each gain from sharing her?

Mutual warmth, perhaps. "Idol" producer Simon Fuller said the decision was made to bring DeGeneres's "unique human touch to our judging panel." She is not known for trenchant criticism of anything. In showbiz, where genuine likability comes and goes, DeGeneres has managed to make close friends with America.

While guest-judging "So You Think You Can Dance?" earlier this year, she seemed flummoxed by the notion that her comments should be anything but ridiculous -- even if dance shows tend to make "American Idol" look like a night at the Met. ("Are you two carpenters?" she asked one duo, "because you nailllled it!" Later, about another team's performance, she said: "I feel so privileged that I got to witness that and I'll always, always remember it. It was just the most beautiful thing I've seen.") So she's got Abdul's gushing part down, at least.

"Idol," for all its success, needs a lift. Last season's finale was its second-lowest rated, with 28.8 million viewers -- which is a staggering amount of people in today's fractured media world but still somehow low in the math of Hollywood. Perhaps more troublingly, "Idol" ended last year with its lowest share yet of younger viewers.

This being "American Idol," there were all manner of kvetchable blog posts and online polls by Thursday morning, where people could have their say, in a nation obsessed with having its say. At AOL's PopEater Web site, more than half of the day's respondents said they don't like the choice of DeGeneres. About 60 percent were torqued off by the fact that, technically, she has no music-biz background. That no American celebrity seems to love disco dancing and embrace current pop songs more than DeGeneres is immaterial to many. They still cling to the hope that "American Idol" exists as a pure expression of talent and hard work.

For all of Fox's insistence that "American Idol" is about the kids, the kids, the kids, it gets its biggest ratings boosts from synergistic celebrity guest mentors and judges who arrive just in time to plug their next product. The best of these -- Quentin Tarantino comes to mind -- have had nothing to do with professional musicmaking. Long after the show is dead -- years from now? decades? -- people will remember how "American Idol" turned us all into judges. DeGeneres is merely the most famous one.

Her stardom is different from that of Abdul, who knew what the top of the charts and the bottom of the barrel look like from the vantage point of the stage. The pop-star life left her with nerves of delicate glass. So it will be interesting to see what DeGeneres can do against the brutally cold, but often correct, pronouncements of Simon Cowell.

DeGeneres, too, has known her ups and downs (anyone remember her breakdown in 2007 over Iggy the puppy dog?), even if they are tame in this, the era of TMZ and T.M.I.: She triumphantly came out of the closet on the cover of Time magazine in 1997, and later suffered public heartbreak at the hands of a former lover, actress Anne Heche.

It will be interesting to see how DeGeneres relates to the gaydar-scrambling parade of "Idol" contestants who, with the network's PR assistance, mainly deflect the issue of their sexual orientation as irrelevant to the task at hand, which is pop stardom and mainstream marketing, which turned youngsters such as Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert into the most curious sort of modern-day closet cases. Ellen knows a thing or two about that -- when orientation is relevant and when it is not -- and it remains to be seen if she'll be able to bring this sort of nuance to the clear-plastic desk of decision.

Mostly what she brings is her heart. "American Idol" is built mainly of sap and pap and varying degrees of egocentricity. It could use some heart.

Staff writer Emily Yahr contributed to this article.

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