Here comes the judge -- and it's Ellen

"American Idol" chooses a judge who's an idol herself. Can she share the spotlight with the hopefuls?


Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 10, 2009 7:11PM (UTC)

In the end, they didn’t go with a known train wreck like Britney or a certain out-of-work Alaskan governor. They didn’t even pay attention to our suggestion of reigning conspiracy theorist Orly Taitz

Instead, perhaps looking to distance itself from its “hire the crazy” image, “American Idol” will rotate a series of famous names – including Victoria Beckham, Mary J. Blige, Kristin Chenoweth, Joe Jonas, Neil Patrick Harris, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry and Shania Twain – as temporary judges for the audition rounds before bringing in Ellen DeGeneres to sit beside Simon, Randy, and that other one no one cares about for the regular season. Her five-year deal with the show was announced yesterday.

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Ellen?

Wait a minute.

Ellen DeGeneres is funny. She’s likable. She loves music. She’s personable and passionate. She’s a show business veteran with her own beloved daytime talk show. To quote Max Bialystock -- where did we go right?

Not everyone is thrilled with the choice, however. Let’s ask the blogosphere!

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Responding to yesterday's news, "Idol" fan site mjsbigblog promptly fumed “So, is she going to be a real judge or some kind of joke? She’s a comedian, not a singer or a musician,” adding “She was terrible as guest judge on ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ Her shtick wasn’t even funny.” And on EW.com, Michael Slezak admitted he “greeted the news … with the sudden urge to drive a fork into my thigh and wake up from a strange and horrible nightmare,” noting that he too found her SYTYCD stint ominously shticky.

It’s possible that all the things that make DeGeneres an adept comic and host are the same ones that would thwart her as a critic. Simon Cowell, after all, thrives as a judge on every  competition program in existence precisely because he’s such a brutal prick. And sure, given the relative uselessness of the other two judges, it might have been interesting to have a flashy loose cannon around to throw barbs in the direction of the show business delusional. 

Instead, DeGeneres seeks to fill the role of American Everywoman. Taping her show yesterday, she said, “I'm looking at it as a person who is going to buy the music and is going to relate to that person. So I'm hopefully going to be that voice of what we're all doing at home.”

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She’s more than that though – she’s the woman who outed herself on the cover of Time magazine when it was still potential career suicide to do so. The one who hosted the Emmy awards with humor and humanity mere weeks after the tragedies of September 11 and Katrina. Who both charmed and inspired when she gave the Tulane commencement speech this year. 

She may not have Paula’s penchant for slurred non-sequiturs or Simon’s acid tongue, but what she lacks in loopy unpredictability and mental cruelty she compensates for with a steely competence that only appears breezy. Anyone who can hold her own against John McCain will probably figure out how to share the spotlight with the other judges and – more crucially – keep it shining most brightly on the contestants. She’s already got her own show. She knows that “Idol” is ours. She’ll be great. And that’s reason enough to dance.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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