As anyone who has switched high schools mid-year can tell you, it's never easy fitting in with the cool kids.
Midway through her first season on "American Idol," talk-show host/ comedian Ellen DeGeneres hasn't tripped and dropped her lunch tray in front of the whole school yet, but she also hasn't exactly gotten the lead in the school production of "Grease," according to our panel of experts.
DeGeneres was ostensibly brought in to add a touch of humor to the judges' table following the departure of judge Paula Abdul. But our "Idol" watchers said she was also tapped to beef up the panel before Simon Cowell's departure, which became an eventuality before Ellen even had a chance to warm up her seat. And while she hasn't set the show on fire, she's made her presence felt with some patented wacky metaphors (see "ripe banana") and her signature "I really like you" compliments.
"Ellen started off strong in Hollywood Week," said MTV News "Idol" aficionado Jim Cantiello. "As a die-hard 'Idol' fan, I was relieved that she took the job so seriously. ... Ellen was intoit. She kept her comic shtick to a minimum. It appeared she had a nice balance between Paula's compassion and Simon's acerbic wit. I was stoked."
Once the live shows started, though, Cantiello said DeGeneres' critiques turned into endless run-on sentences, and the bad reviews almost always ended with "but I like you!" or "you're adorable!"
"I guess she was trying to cushion the blow, but it just clouded her criticism," he said, lamenting that DeGeneres' hug for Tim Urban after his cover of "Hallelujah" probably helped the iffy singer solidify a spot in the top 12.
Bob Thompson, professor of television and popular culture of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse and an avid "Idol" watcher since day one, said he could sum up his feelings on DeGeneres in one word: disappointment.
"Ellen is a very talented comic presence," he said. "I've seen her do stand-up, and she's really good at off-the-cuff stuff on her talk show. When I first heard she was becoming a judge, I thought two things: What credibility does Ellen DeGeneres have in judging future music stars? And, besides that massive gap in her résumé, she has to be really amusing on the show."
This far into the season, Thompson said he is surprised at how unfunny DeGeneres has been and how she seems to be a totally different person than she is on her highly rated, very entertaining daytime talker. "The reason I think she can't be funny and charming on 'Idol' is that there's a sense that she feels out of her element ... that she's been put into a job she doesn't have the credentials to do," he said.
As wacky as Abdul was, she had a long career in music to back her up, credentials she shared with Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi, not to mention music veteran Cowell. "There may be a real sense of insecurity that she doesn't feel confident that she can be competent to judge these people, and it seems to have put a real damper on her usual presentational style," he said.
An admitted "Idol" booster, Rickey Yaneza of "AI" blog Rickey.org, begged to differ. He thought despite some rough bits at the beginning, DeGeneres had settled in very well and has so far dispelled fears from some show die-hards that her jokes would overpower the rest of the panel.
"That hasn't happened, and I think she's done a good job so far," he said, noting that the banana bit and her playful fighting/flirting with Cowell have provided some of the only water-cooler moments of an otherwise lackluster season. "I don't think that there was anything that was missing before that she's filling in. She's just being Ellen, and she's adding some nice comedy bits. In the past, the humor on the show has been Simon's sarcastic jokes, but now we can laugh at a contestant, and they can laugh back."
If there is any discomfort on the part of DeGeneres, who often looks torn when dissing singers, Yaneza said it probably comes from the queen of nice not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings.
Given that she's hosted the Emmys and Oscars and has decades of experience as a stand-up and TV host, Entertainment Weekly writer Michael Slezak said DeGeneres has been a surprisingly slow study at the judges' table.
"Visible nerves are an issue," he said. "But her biggest problem since we've reached the live-performance episodes is that she just doesn't take ownership of her opinion. She's almost apologetic for her critiques and will occasionally even point out her lack of music credentials." The latter is a shame, Slezak said, because a lot of times DeGeneres' instincts have been right, and she's undercut them by being self-deprecating.
"She doesn't have to hide behind the mask of 'I'm just like the people, I'm a music fan,' " he said. "Because she does have the right to say what is good in terms of performances as the host of a successful daytime talk show where music plays a big part."
After a strong start in Hollywood, Slezak said DeGeneres appeared to lose her way for several weeks when the show went live, finally getting her groove back last week when she quipped about fans at home participating in Tim Urban drinking games and speculating she wouldn't be able to gush about how adorable he is for much longer. "She was much tougher than she has been, and I hope that's the turning point," he said, speculating that she might have watched earlier shows and realized she was underperforming. "The two biggest things she needs to do is convey her points with authority and a sense of humor. She has to be willing to be viewed as someone who doesn't always give out gold stars."
On the upside, Cantiello is not as annoyed with DeGeneres as he was with DioGuardi at this point during the songwriter's first year on the panel, but he's also not jumping for joy.
"If I had one piece of advice for Ellen, I'd say learn when to shut up," he said of the comedian whose style often involves run-on, awkward stammering. "She is getting better at that. Say your piece, get in, get out."
How do you think Ellen has been doing on "Idol" so far? Do you have any pointers for her? Sound off in the comments below!
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