VARIETY Q&A: Nigel Lythgoe on his 'Idol' return, Paula Abdul, J-Lo, and why Simon's exit won't hurt the show
The latest piece of the "American Idol" puzzle has now fallen into place, as former executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has now officially re-joined the show alongside vet EPs Simon Fuller, Cecile Frot-Coutaz and Ken Warwick.
Read the full story of Lythgoe's return here. Variety spoke to Lythgoe on Wednesday, as the once and future EP candidly discussed his pick for the "Idol" judges' table -- Paula Abdul -- and why he thinks Simon Cowell's departure won't harm the show as much as people are predicting. Here's an edited transcript of that chat:
VARIETY ON THE AIR: How did this all happen? How did you get back on the show, and what all went down?
NIGEL LYTHGOE: I was asked. Simon Fuller came back and said he'd love me to go back and help steer the ship.
VARIETY: What were your immediate thoughts?
LYTHGOE: I went through a number of them. I had made some very bold statements about it, the kind of statements you make when you're not in the production. I thought, well they've done it now for two years, and obviously a great deal has changed in the two years. They never replaced me, so other people in the production have taken over my job. So I wonder if it's going to be awkward to step back in. But we are and have been a family for many years. It's the old team, it's not as though there's anyone new in it. And we've got to find our places again, basically.
VARIETY: Do you feel like you're already again a part of the mix?
LYTHGOE: Well, there's only one thing on everybody's mind, and that is to steady the ship and move forward.
VARIETY: You have been critical at times of some of the things the show has done, such as going to four judges. What are some of your concerns as you head back to the show, and how will you address them?
LYTHGOE: In addressing them, it will be discussing it with the team. This isn't about one person stepping in and saying "this is what it's going to be," it's never been like that.
I think some of my concerns were that over the last couple of years we've lost sight of the fact that the most important people in the production are the young artists. And it's revovled around the judges, it's revolved around Kara coming in to make four judges, which often left them no time for them to talk at any great length. Certainly there are times I watched the show where Simon didn't even get a chance to say anything. Then it was about Paula leaving. Then it was all about Ellen joining.
And somewhere in all of that muddle of judges the show was losing sight of the actual contestants. And I think we were also losing chemistry between the judges. And I will go back now and hopefully point out now that it isn't about stars, or what people did in the past of might do in the future that makes a good judge. It's about chemistry and it's about a team.
We went into a series that produced the ultimate in judging panels, with Randy, Paula and Simon, without any of them either being known or respected for what they've done. That must be remembered in choosing the next panel. It is about chemistry and putting the right people together in the mix. I must say the ones being discussed at the moment I'm very enthusiastic about. It isn't about any individual one of them, and at the moment everyone is judging them on their individuality and not how they're going to work as a team. That really is the difficulty.
AFTER THE JUMP: Lythgoe gives his take on rumored "Idol" judging panel contenders Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, and explains why he'd take Paula Abdul back "in a heartbeat."
VARIETY: The names we're hearing are all well known. That's different from "American Idol's" origins.
LYTHGOE: I do like the fact that everyone discussed at the moment have already been through the process of being discovered and becoming a star. And with the amount of names being discussed... I'm the first one to say I don't like four judges. But when you're playing around with the jigsaw puzzle of it all, four judges could appear to be quite fun -- if they're the right judges.
And that's all going to be discussed. Nobody is signed. The mix is there and the ingredients for the pudding is all there, and they've got to be mixed together. We'll all have sleepless nights until then.
VARIETY: You've said that you would clear the deck and start over with new judges.
LYTHGOE: Not because I disliked any of them, but the chemistry for me wasn't there. With Ellen, it almost felt at times as if Simon Cowell turned his back on Ellen. And that felt really incomfortable. There was also almost this public falling out between Simon and Ryan. I knew it wasn't true because they're great mates. But Ryan and Simon almost fell out it appeared on the season.
Hopefully, my wish is at the end of the month we can move on away from the judges and then concentrate on what I think we should be concentrating on, the talent.
VARIETY: What other changes would you like to see implemented?
LYTHGOE: It frightens me that we've lost Michael Jackson, Chris Brown has lost a following. These signer/dancers haven't been on the show. We never worried about movement on the show. So a lot of times when you watch the production numbers we do, they look like some robot that's wound up. My fear is if they win, they're not going to be able to move.
That whole midle round section, which gets a little boring, that's what I think we need to look at and inject something into that. That's where we should bring some sort of mentorship and real makeover quality to it. Because we should be turning out stars. We really should.
VARIETY: There's been concern that perhaps the contestants have been lackluster recently, with fewer real pop idol candidates to root for.
LYTHGOE: That's exactly what the show was, turn out a pop idol. When we first talked about it back in the day, we were looking for the next David Cassidy. That's exactly who we were looking for. If we could find the next David Cassidy, we'd be really happy.
We're ten years old in this country coming up now. We could do with spring cleaning. I don't think it's going to be a huge facelift. The premise is, you're going out in America to find young talent that could be turned into a star. Something the record companies used to do years ago and haven't continued to do. How you then do it is what needs to be looked at, dusted over and brought up-to-date.
VARIETY: How do you walk the line of making changes but not making too many changes?
LYTHGOE: That's a good question. I'm being accused at the moment of overdoing things on "So You Think You Can Dance." "Oh, he's done too much." All we've done is bring back stars from "So You Think You Can Dance" this year to dance with the contestants. If anything, we've strengthened them. A lot of it has to do with perception rather than the reality of it. The rules haven't really changed on "So You Think You Can Dance." We're still looking for America's best dancer. America still votes. Nothing fundamentally has changed.
With this, again, you don't want to do too much. Your audience can turn against you and say, "Oh, they've changed it up too much." So it's a very careful process. We always tweaked it, we never rested on our laurels. But we also never made a major changeover.
We watch all of the (professional) artists come on with smokebombs and fireworks and never put it into our own production numbers. We watch the artists come on with dancers and never put it into our numbers Surely at the end when you get to the top five, you need to start injecting what the professional business does, and start putting gimmicks in and juicing up their acts. Because everyone on the show outside of them has got it all going for them. I don't understand how we can put on other artists and make our own "Idols" look poor in comparison. We need to address that, bring them up to a standard where the public says, "Hey, they're good."
VARIETY: With more "Idol"-like shows out there, and Simon Cowell coming out with "The X-Factor" in 2011, has the increased competition hurt the show?
LYTHGOE: I've always felt competitive. That's the driving force of anyone who's producing shows. But I always like to be at the front of the wave. I'm not a copier. We've always had people copying us, from year one. We've even copied ourselves. Nothing better than trying to copy yourself. ABC did "The One." There was "Nashville Star," lots of things. You can never worry about being copied, you just have to do the best you can.
And I still believe that the "American Idol" format is the cleanest of them all. We will take someone who's flipping burgers on Friday and put them on TV on Saturday and turn them into a star. This is the American dream.
I'm amazed at the people who say it's all over because Simon Cowell left, for the very fact that it works in 70-odd other countries without Simon Cowell in it. I'm also shocked they ask if you're going to lose ratings; well, they just lost ratings with Simon Cowell in the show. This is the biggest season for people to come and audition. "If Simon Cowell's gone, I wonder if we get to see J-Lo."
VARIETY: If anything, it seems like all this interest about the judging panel may be helping reignite interest in the show.
LYTHGOE: The interest in "American Idol" is helping us. It's out there. It helped me promote "Dance Day." It's out there. I welcome the limelight.
VARIETY: So let me ask you this: Why not you as an "Idol" judge?
LYTHGOE: Number one, you do not follow Sean Connery into the role of James Bond, you follow George Lazenby. I think Cowell is out-and-out brilliant in that role. And as honest as is possible to be in that role. But we have to move on from that role, and they would want me to play the same part. I started in that role with a program called "Pop Stars" before "Pop Idol" came out. And I didn't want to feel like I'm out copying Cowell.
VARIETY: Although, on paper, you would seem to fit in, you're already well-known in your own right.
LYTHGOE: I would most prefer to get somebody of more interest. If you look at the names being bandied around, Jennifer Lopez. She's a good actress. They can knock her film career, but she's a good actress. She's been J-Lo, as well as Jennifer Lopez, for some time, and as J-Lo she had some great pop records. If she joins, I'm really happy.
Steve Tyler. He has come through that whole rock-n-roll circus. Why wouldn't you want a legend there. Plus I think he is going to be one of those people that you never know what he's going to say. And that, as a TV producer, you're interested in, that sort of "Paula Abdul, what's she going to say next?" attitude.
I still love Paula Abdul. I know she's signed to CBS for her dance show, probably exclusively. But if she could just be executive producer on the dance show and come and judge on "Idol," I would recommend that we have her in a heartbeat.
Harry Connick Jr. No one knows about a whole cross section of music than Harry Connick Jr. Plus I saw him on "Letterman," and he's warm, he's humorous. You need someone to be the flux of the group. He'd tie it all together with humor.
So these are all people that you go, "this is bringing something new to the game." You're not just going to replace Cowell with Lythgoe, who's going to be British, acerbic. We've got to get someone else now. The next piece of it is the panel, the chemistry. It's a jigsaw puzzle without a picture on the front of the box. And it's just waiting to put the pieces in place and see how they fit. Some will fit, some will not.
VARIETY: That would make quite a bit of noise if you managed to get Paula back.
LYTHGOE: In a heartbeat for me. In a heartbeat. And Randy, he's the barnacle. He's the pitch of "American Idol."
VARIETY: How's your schedule going to change?
LYTHGOE: Oh God, I'm booking my place at Cedars Sinai. I've got other interests now. Over the two years I've brought "So You Think You Can Dance" around the world, I've become the chairman of the British Academy out here, I'm the president of Brit Week, I'm on the board of L.A.'s Best. So I've gone through my whole "Idol Gives Back" repertoire. After doing that, I thought, "I get a real kick out of giving back. It makes me feel good." Doesn't improve my wallet, but it makes me feel good. So now, I'm going to have to get myself released from a number of those. I'll have to think about that very carefully.
I still have "So You Think You Can Dance" in the United Kingdom. I'm under contract with the BBC. So I'll probably be flying out on a Thursday evening and flying back on a Sunday for about nine weeks. Which is going to be tough, especially after, you don't like it after a heart attack. So it's going to be tough. It was something I really had to think about. Hopefully if things go well, we'll be commissioned next season for "So You Think You Can Dance" as well, so there's a lot going on.
VARIETY: What's key for getting the show back on track?
LYTHGOE: First and foremost, we have to focus on getting the young talent. And in the past, because of Simon Cowell's schedule, flying backward and forward (from the U.K.), he wouldn't emerge until 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon. We can now go back to a proper audition schedule where we will see more kids.
VARIETY: A chance now to cast a wide net?
LYTHGOE: That has got to be the priority this year. More than anything. More than even the judge's panel. Because the judges are there for two minutes, while the contestants are there for the entire program. If you don't support one of those contestants, you will not watch the show.
VARIETY: That seems to be one of the lessons from this year, you need contestants that people are rooting for.
LYTHGOE: Yeah, and you've got to get the backstories right. I don't want to see more mothers dying of cancer and who knows what else. Now, the backstories here in America, unless you've been shot up by a gang and your dad has died of some unknown disease that was picked up from a tsetse fly in Africa, you don't get an audition.
Well, we've got to stop that and say, "Let's worry about one thing: talent." Not everyone has a sob story -- and a lot do, so I'm not knocking that fact. But it's not just about that. It's about, "Hey, this kid has some talent! This kid can move!" I haven't been able to say that once, ever. "Wow, that's a great dancer." God knows we need the next Michael Jackson. Where did Ne-Yo or Chris Brown come from? They didn't come through "Idol." Where did Justin Bieber come from? Didn't come through "Idol." Where are these kids? They're out there. We've got to find them.