— Do you have to be bad to be a good TV talent show judge? Up until now, that’s been the thinking behind “American Idol,” home of the original mean judge, Simon Cowell. Over the last nine seasons, the smug and acerbic Brit with the snug V-necks has become famous for comparing one contestant’s singing to “a cat being thrown off a skyscraper,” telling another, “Don’t mean to be rude, but you look like the Hulk’s wife,” reducing dozens of hopefuls to their worst ugly cry — and propelling the show to the No. 1 spot in the ratings.
But Cowell won’t be back for the 10th season, which premieres Wednesday, and “Idol” producer Nigel Lythgoe has been suggesting that the show will be less caustic without him. Lythgoe recently told Emmy Magazine, “If you like people being mean to people, you’ll miss it.” True enough, a preview of the coming season finds new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez hugging contestants before they even audition. Moved by the performance of a mother with a special-needs child, Lopez weeps openly. Sure, Tyler makes one contestant cry — but, as he puts it, they’re “tears of joy, baby.”
All of which has fans wondering: Have we entered the age of a kinder, gentler “Idol”? And if so, can the show still thrive without a mean judge?
Toby Young isn’t so sure. The British writer and former “Top Chef” mean judge says he thinks it’s a mistake to encourage judges to play nice. “The brutal truth is that we enjoy watching other people suffer,” he says. “It was true of the Romans and it’s true of us. Reality TV is the 21st century equivalent of the gladiatorial arena.”
There’s some evidence to support that idea. A few years after “Idol” first premiered, Steven Reiss, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, surveyed 239 adults to find out why they watched reality TV.
“We found that people who have a higher-than-average need for status — a need to feel important — were more likely to watch, presumably because the shows project status values like popularity, wealth and attention-seeking,” he says. “If a contestant is really stinking it up performance-wise, audience members with a high need for power will want to see the person judged poorly, perhaps even humiliated.”
No one really fulfilled that need before Cowell, a man who gleefully admits that he slung his first insult at age 4, when he told his mother that her white pillbox hat made her look like a poodle. Now, nearly a decade after “Idol” first premiered, it seems that every reality competition has its own Simon. With Piers Morgan on “America’s Got Talent” and Lythgoe on “So You Think You Can Dance,” cruel Brits are everywhere, except maybe “Dancing With the Stars,” where the mean judge, Bruno Tonioli, is Italian.
Many of these judges arrive on our shores with years of industry experience overseas. But simply by playing the bad cop, a judge can sound more like an expert. “By advertising that [‘American Idol’] isn’t going to be as mean, they might be losing their professional credibility,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. “It’s not as meaningful to get a compliment from someone who’s always nice. In past seasons, you’d see people running out of the [judging] room saying, ‘Simon loved me!’ Simon was always the one people cared about, because he was the hardest one to get.”
Thompson points out that, as a British unknown looking for American fame, Cowell used meanness as a savvy PR move — one that wouldn’t work for Lopez or Tyler. “Outside of the music industry, no one in the United States knew who Simon was until he started making nasty comments during the first season promotions for the show,” he says. “Being mean was what made him a celebrity. But Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez are already celebrities. They have their cultural equity to protect.”
For Young, it’s no accident that so many U.K. imports are more willing to play the mean judge than Americans. “You guys love casting Brits as villains,” he says. “It reminds you of when America was a British colony, and it enables you to perpetuate the myth that you’re plucky little underdogs with right on your side. That’s far more palatable than thinking of America as an overbearing, imperial power throwing its weight around on the world stage.”
Morgan recently offered a different explanation: Perhaps we equate meanness with honesty. “There is kind of a belief amongst Americans, true or not, that the Brits are perhaps a little more blunt and more to the point,” he told TV Guide. Certainly, Cowell is way more plainspoken than Tyler, who tends to communicate in a magical language that’s neither positive nor negative. “What’s with the oohoohbes on your jujubes?” he asks one contestant in a star-studded bikini top. “Hellfire, save matches … a duck and see what hatches!” he tells another. That’s apparently his version of a compliment.
Young remains amused by the idea that Americans need a mean Brit to tell it like it is. “It’s funny because 75 years ago Americans had a reputation for being honest and plainspoken, while Brits were thought to be mealy-mouthed and obsessed with propriety,” says Young. “It’s as if we’ve switched places.”
But with Cowell gone, who’s going to judge our nation of underachievers? Now it’s up to Tyler and Lopez to spew their best vitriol, destroy America’s fragile glee-club pride, and make contestants feel ashamed of their oohoohbes and jujubes.