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Judging ‘Idol’

Comedian Paul F. Tompkins on eighteen weeks of writing about TV’s most cynical show.

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Jennifer Lopez, during her first season as an Idol judge.  

Nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to write recaps about the tenth season of American Idol. Although I feel like someone must have and I just forgot about it.

New York’s Vulture.com offered me the job in January. Way back when, I’d watched the first two seasons in their entirety. And in my capacity as a talking (and eventually hosting) head for VH1’s Best Week Ever, I saw a plethora of clips from the subsequent seasons. So I agreed to do the recaps, thinking, How much work could it be? It’s a dumb show that never changes.

What I didn’t take into account was the commitment involved. The show took over my life. And I’m not talking about the curious and uncomfortable emotional investment (more on that later). For eighteen weeks, and continuing through next week, I have not been able to make plans on a Wednesday or Thursday night, or Thursday or Friday morning for that matter. Because humans, it turns out, persist in needing sleep to function efficiently. On average, it takes me five hours to write each recap. I routinely finish around 3 a.m., send it, and immediately go to bed. If I do, indeed, then dream of American Idol, I am spared the memory by a compassionate God.

It didn’t have to be that way, I suppose. If I’d wanted to do a traditional recap—report the highlights of the episode, toss in a few jokes, a little analysis, make a prediction or two—it would have taken me far less time. But I was asked to write in my capacity as a professional humorist, so I figured I should do a satirical column disguised as a TV-show recap. That was my big idea. I cannot blame phantom guns for that one.

I begin each recap by fleshing out what happened on the episode. This is not easy to do, considering not much typically happens, particularly in the early episodes, the auditions. Nine years ago, when Idol first began, in my callow pre–middle age, I was able to slough off any pangs of guilt provoked by the exploitation of the mentally ill and delusional, which is essentially how Idol kicks off its months-long karaoke party. But when I became a man, I put away childish things; looking at the auditions this time, they just seemed so … gross. How many times can you laugh at someone being tone-deaf? And how amusing can the clearly troubled or stupid be? My challenge thus became how to be funny about something that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t funny.

There was a moment of relief after the auditions, once Idol was done with the weirdos. But the show then just flat-out goes on for a while. And we are encouraged to invest in people. What I find troublesome as an investor is that the vast majority of the hundred-plus contestants left plain ol’ don’t sing so good. You don’t have to be in the music business to know that. And this show is not searching for the next Leonard Cohen, right? So, obviously, a lot of contestants have been given a pass for time-filling purposes. We learn their personal stories—who got sick and is now better, who lost a friend or family member, who is the ghost of an old sea captain, etc.

And then the contestants start getting kicked off in droves. You might think the writing then gets easier, that fewer people means less to write. But no. Fewer people means even less happens in the same amount of time. Even less! This is simple math; why didn’t I see? In fact, it’s here, when you’re really supposed to start investing, when you’re down to the cream of the crop, that the challenge truly begins—how to invent different ways to say the same thing over and over: “This contestant is not a good singer and should not have advanced to this level, and in fact the whole competition should be shorter, concentrating on fewer singers who can sing better.” The same went for the judges (the new ones, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, and the veteran Randy Jackson), whose various tics and reactions calcified. I had a running joke at the end of all of my recaps on the predictability of Tyler’s critiques: “Steven likes it!” I had another running thing about Lopez, and my ever-deepening (and half-sincere) crush.

So little happens on the show that I had enough time for running jokes to begin, continue, and burn out, rising and falling with the speed of anthill dynasties, with weeks and weeks still to go. My early contempt for Tyler’s antics was later transferred to coach Will.i.am’s botched attempts at humor. I came to regard Tyler as you would a friend of a friend, one whose presence is frequent enough that the unpleasantness grows less impactful. You almost end up liking the person. But ultimately, you still don’t.


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