Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Ellen DeGeneres, seen here in January, has a new job.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images
I immediately suspected someone was punking the entire world of television journalism when the news first broke, but Fox has in fact confirmed that the new American Idol judge is Ellen DeGeneres.
Not as a guest, and not as a special appearance: She is a permanent judge; she is the new Paula Abdul. DeGeneres says of the move, "I've watched since the beginning, and I've always been a huge fan. So getting this job is a dream come true, and think of all the money I'll save from not having to text in my vote."
Initial thoughts? Well, they didn't replace Paula with anyone who's performed as a musician, and that's unfortunate. It means people who are auditioning as pop stars are working in front of a panel that includes no one who was even momentarily a pop star. On the other hand, Ellen DeGeneres is still a performer, and there are a lot of principles of performance that translate across disciplines. She's also worked extensively with other performers on her own show, and she does have a sense of what resonates with audiences. I far prefer this to either a singer with no personality or, heaven forbid, another producer type like Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi.
Honestly, from a viewing perspective, my only concern about Ellen is that she will be trying too hard to do comedy all the time. She has been a guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance, and while she was fun to watch, she had a lot of trouble getting away from doing funny lines that sounded like part of her comedy act and giving actual feedback. As much as Idol judges are always showing off, it works better when they are also giving an opinion — maybe a dumb opinion, but an opinion nonetheless — of the performance. Paula Abdul was unintentionally funny; I don't know how it affects the chemistry to add a comedian to that panel. Say what you like about Paula Abdul; she gave feedback.
In the end, the hope is obviously that this brand of lightness — and Ellen is, absolutely, a champ at a certain kind of breezy and comfortable good humor — will provide a balance for the more acidic stuff that tends to come from the rest of the folks on the panel. She might provide a more coherent brand of leavening, and if that happens, it will be all to the good.
One more thing: It was eleven years ago that a lot of people thought Ellen DeGeneres had utterly imploded her career after Ellen went off the air, just one season after its famous coming-out episode. But she hung around, and she was great hosting the Emmys, and she managed to stand out in a sea of talk shows, and here she is, getting what might be the most high-profile job of the new season on one of the most culturally conservative, studiously mainstream shows on television. Oh, television. You are so nutsy.