— The Ellen DeGeneres era is officially under way on “American Idol.” Thank the Lord.
It was time for the comedian, talk-show host and dance enthusiast to take center stage on Tuesday night, as Ellen made her long-awaited “Idol” debut in Hollywood. As soon as she was introduced, it was evident that she added a needed breath of fresh air to a dynamic that had gotten to be predictable and stale.
There wasn’t much time to focus on her specifically, as “Idol” devoted most of the hour to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat among the auditioners, but early returns were promising. Anyone worried that she’d have nothing to offer or that she’d be overwhelmed by Simon Cowell and the other judges had nothing to fear. In fact, she’s an upgrade over Paula Abdul in every sense of the word.
A fresh approach
With all apologies to Kara DioGuardi, who came on as the show’s fourth judge last season, the first eight years of “Idol” were the Simon, Paula and Randy show. Simon provided the snark, Paula the smiles, and Randy Jackson the “Dawgs” and the “When I worked with Mariah Carey ...” stories.
It worked, but in a predictable “let’s just go to Applebee’s because we know the food will be O.K.” kind of way. The banter between the judges seemed to be conducted entirely on autopilot last season, like everyone was dutifully reciting their lines rather than actually interacting with each other.
Paula was a primary culprit. Most of the time she’d offer meaningless compliments, with the occasional bizarre episode that made people wonder exactly what was in her Coke-logoed cups. Her running feud with Simon was more eye-rolling than interesting.
It’s already clear that Ellen adds a different dynamic. She’s not going to offer a lot of tips on vocals, and despite her constant low-level case of dance fever, Paula would still be the better choice for anyone looking for advice on choreography or stage presence.
But that doesn’t mean she’ll be limited to the fangirl approach. She knows how to work a crowd — standup comedy is nothing if not performing alone onstage between an entire audience of Simon Cowells — and had useful advice to offer even to those contestants not judged worthy of making it past the first two days of the week-long Hollywood round.
From her first words to the first group of hopefuls, she addressed the issue. “I’ll tell you what I do know — I do know what it’s like to stand on stage and try and please a roomful of people. That is hard to do,” she said. With her credibility established, it was time to get down to business.
Both critical and practical
One legitimate question going into the night was whether Ellen could say anything negative about the contestants. She’s made her reputation as being nice, both in her stand-up comedy and on her talk show, plus she has no musical background to offer technical advice.
But from the first group of singers to hit the stage, she showed that she had something to say. “You frighten me. You were stalking us, like a leopard behind a cage,” she told Antonio “Skiiboski” Wheeler. “Don’t frighten your audience. Sexy and scary, it’s a fine line.”
She was also able to offer some tips for those who struggled. Particularly for the younger contestants who may find themselves back in Hollywood in a year or two, it’s always nice when they can leave with feedback other than Simon’s usual “you stunk.”
“You’re hiding inside and scared to death and you’ve got to let go of it,” she told a clearly petrified Vanessa Wolfe. Whether that helps Wolfe in future auditions is unclear, but at least she didn’t pile on the sarcasm to a girl who was clearly depressed enough as it was.
Funny and clever
She also showed the sense of humor and cleverness that made her one of the best stand-up comics in the business.
The first day of Hollywood ended with a smaller group, as only four contestants took the stage. Ellen had them moving around like they were doing the Electric Slide — telling someone to step forward, then step back, then step forward again. The tension was palatable. Then she told them they had all made it to the next day.
“Sadist,” Simon said to her.
Though she’s clearly not the fashionista that Paula thought herself to be, she even had advice for one barefoot contestant from Florida. “You should put some shoes on here. It’s filthy here,” she said.
Unfortunately, this is a one-year window, with another change in the composition of the judges on tap next season. At the time the Hollywood episode was being filmed, Simon had just announced that he was leaving at the end of the year for his new talent show. Ellen got right to the point.
“So this is it, huh. I come on, you leave,” she said to Simon.
That’s the case and it’s a shame, because it looks like it could have been the start of a beautiful, made-for-TV relationship. But even for this one season, adding Ellen to the Simon-Randy-Kara mix gives “American Idol” a shot in the arm that it needed to stay fresh without sacrificing the chemistry between the judges that made the show such a hit.