Ellen Gray | 'Idol' producer explains Simon's eye roll

Posted: April 19, 2007

HERE WE go again.

If you're not already angry about the roll of the eyes by Simon Cowell that followed "American Idol" contestant Chris Richardson's shout-out Tuesday to his friends at Virginia Tech, someone somewhere hopes you soon will be, even if

you've never seen "Idol" and couldn't pick Simon out of a lineup.

That someone wouldn't, however, be me.

I'm not a fan of canned laughter and even less a fan of canned anger, which our wired world seems to be manufacturing at an alarming rate, helped along by viral video, talk radio and Web sites like the Drudge Report, which yesterday had Simon's grimace on prominent display.

There's no tragedy - Columbine, the Sept. 11 attacks, this latest massacre - that can't be exploited through misunderstanding, willful and otherwise.

So while my immediate response to the eye roll was to assume that Simon felt the contestant, who'd just been roundly criticized for his performance, was making an inappropriate bid for sympathy, others apparently assumed, or decided, that he was showing contempt for the message itself.

Which, let's face it, makes no sense at all. Not even Simon Cowell's that cold.

Now, of course, damage control has set in. In a conference call with reporters, "Idol" executive producer Ken Warwick offered a third explanation: that Simon hadn't heard the Virginia Tech mention at all, but was responding to something Chris had said earlier, specifically the contestant's claim that singing nasally was a vocal style.

The judges "always miss what the contestants say," he said, explaining that the actual performances are picked up on different speakers behind the judges.

"He'd be the biggest fool on television if he [had been reacting to the Virginia Tech mention], and he's not a fool, believe me," said the producer, who described Simon as "mortified" when he saw the replay.

He did acknowledge that Simon's later statement about the tragedy might have been better worded. "He's not that good at making statements off the cuff, but he does everything off the cuff. It wasn't the most lucid statement."

Still, he said, "no one in their right mind would pull a face like that when such a sensitive issue was being discussed."

When I noted that Simon's rolled his eyes before when contestants made statements that might be construed as bids for public sympathy, he didn't disagree.

That's not, however, what happened in this case, he said.

"Even if he had thought that, with the sensitivity of the issue, I don't think he would have been stupid enough to have pulled a face . . . I know it's hard to hear in there."

If it's a lie, it's a silly one, particularly since only moments earlier, Simon had chided audience members booing his critique of LaKisha Jones, telling them "You're in the back - you can't hear."

But the problem that came to the fore on Tuesday's "American Idol" wasn't acoustics, or even Sanjaya Malakar.

It was the show's own multiple-personality disorder. As the country's highest-rated entertainment show, "Idol" works shamelessly to be all things to all people. Scandalous (Antonella Barba), but not too scandalous (Frenchie Davis).

Caustic (Simon), but not too caustic (Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson).

Youthful (Gwen Stefani as a coach), but not too youthful (theme nights with Tony Bennett and Diana Ross).

Charitable ("Idol Gives Back"), but not too charitable (those legendary contestant contracts).

Edgy (that tired, homophobic banter between Ryan and Simon), but not over the edge (the ill-timed eye roll).

I'm not sure if there was anything anyone on "American Idol" could or should have done right when it came to dealing with the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Prime-time TV had gone on pretty much as scheduled the night before, after all.

Had Fox wanted to address the violence, it might more appropriately have begun with "24."

If Ryan's introduction, acknowledging the situation and extending condolences before moving on to "This is 'American Idol,' " felt a little forced and phony, well, that describes just about everything Ryan Seacrest does on the air. He's paid for his willingness to be provocative one moment and syrupy the next.

Who didn't wince a little when the host raved about his recent visit to Africa with Simon as part of the preparation for next week's "Idol Gives Back" fund-raiser?

Or when he asked Simon, a man who clearly doesn't wear his heart on those tight sleeves, to try to articulate what the trip had meant to him?

I hope they take in millions next week and that every cent goes to aid the children here and in Africa that the fund-raiser's meant to help.

But I also hope they'll go easy on the treacly testimonials.

Or Simon's won't be the only eyes rolling. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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