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Ellen DeGeneres gets down to business in her first night as an American Idol judge



Ellenandidol Who put the prune juice in Ellen DeGeneres' Vitamin Water?

I ask, only because that seems the likeliest explanation for DeGeneres' no-nonsense, decidedly sharp debut as American Idol's latest judge Tuesday.

Maybe she just got tired of folks predicting she would be the goofy comic relief, or all the cracks about her lack of musical background finally took a toll.

Whatever the reason, DeGeneres hit the show's Hollywood Week of auditions with a brisk demeanor and Buddy Holly-style glasses big as a billboard sign, permanently dashing hopes she would fill the gooey booster role left vacant since space case Paula Abdul got kicked to the curb.

"You were stalking us...seriously, don't frighten your audience," the comic told cartoonish smoothie hustler Antonio "Skiibowski" Wheeler, in a tone that suggested she wasn't really kidding (Wheeler was shown the door soon after his jittery version of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"). "Sexy and's a fine line (between the two)."

Thanks to Idol's free hand with manipulating time, viewers had little explanation Tuesday for why DeGeneres was shown joining the show three months after her hiring was announced. But the comic was hired to replace Abdul after all the cattle call auditions in distant cities were done in October, so she didn't really hook up with the show until the Hollywood auditions were filmed last month.

And the DeGeneres viewers saw Tuesday wasn't much like the adorable, ageless pixie who dances around her talk show set and hands out free goodies to the audience. Despite lobbing a few quips at a barefoot contestant -- "You should put some shoes on here," she said, "Hollywood is a disgusting town" -- the comic seemed more than willing to shake up the 181 singers gathered in Tinseltown with a quick dose of showbiz reality.

In fact, DeGeneres' attitude was a refreshing change from the attitude of many guest judges who filled out the show during auditions in Boston, Orlando, Atlanta and elsewhere (silly, horn-hood-wearing Avril Lavigne and comatose Joe Jonas, I'm talking mostly about you). Direct and decisive, she seemed to fit in well, though the real test comes when the performances go live and there's no editing to smooth the rough spots.

"When people say 'What do you know about music?'...I'll tell you what I do know; I know what's its like to stand onstage and try to please an entire room full of people," she told the hopefuls before auditions started. "That is a hard thing to do."

Michael-Lynche_sm One aspiring singer who did well in Tuesday's show was St. Petersburg native Michael "Big Mike" Lynche, whose wife was having their first child even as Lynche was blowing away the judges, strumming on a guitar and delivering a soulful rendition of John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change."

His progress lines up with rumors spread online that Lynche, the son of former St. Petersburg Times neighborhood columnist Michele Lynche, is among the 24 singers chosen as semifinalists at the end of the Hollywood auditions -- a roster viewers won't see until Feb. 17.

Similarly, Tampa resident Janell Wheeler was shown passing the first level of her audition, with DeGeneres calling her performance "amazing."

There were the predictable meltdowns -- did anyone expect the country girl who had never been on a plane to handle auditioning in Hollywood before TV's top names? -- and some surprises, including a soulful take on Abdul's hit "Straight Up" by a guy wearing glasses nearly thick as DeGeneres'.

In all, it was a promising start for a judge -- and a field of contestants -- with a lot to prove. I just hope DeGeneres doesn't spend so much time proving why she deserves to sit at the judges table that she makes us forget why we wanted her there in the first place.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:05pm]


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