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Ellen DeGeneres makes long-awaited debut on 'Idol'

Note: While Lisa de Moraes attempts to revive her satellite dish (thanks, Snowpocalypse), WaPo Team TV member Emily Yahr recaps the first night of Hollywood Week.

In theory, anticipation for a brand! new! judge! on "American Idol" should be higher than ever, especially after months of speculation about how Ellen DeGeneres would fare on the show. But thanks to weeks of run-of-the-mill auditions, useless guest judges, and the fact that Simon Cowell is completely checked out, excitement for Ellen's first night seems rather muted.

Actually, she doesn't have much of a chance to make a first impression. Though she shows promise -- not afraid to make a snarky comment, and also provide criticism that isn't stream of consciousness or plain gibberish -- the producers have lots of contestant breakdown material to squeeze into the first episode of Hollywood Week, and Ellen doesn't get a generous amount of screen time. In fact, they skip the typical "Idol" celebrity intro package, usually with glamour shots and a laundry list of accomplishments. Producers do, however, immediately address the most pressing question involving their new judge: "Um, what does Ellen DeGeneres know about music?"

"When people say, 'What do you know about music?' I'll tell you what I do know," Ellen announces on Day 1 of Hollywood Week in the Kodak Theater, in which 181 finalists (whittled down from thousands) hope to eventually be part of the Top 24. "I do know what it's like to stand on stage and try to please an entire room full of people. That is a hard thing to do."

Luckily, she immediately gets points for taking over Paula's seat for only minutes before telling Simon, "So this is it, huh? I come on, you leave?" Simon chuckles. But before you dismiss it as friendly banter, recall that on that first day of Hollywood Week, Simon had literally just returned from telling 200 reporters and bloggers at the Winter TV Press Tour that he was planning on leaving "Idol" after the current season for a new version of his series "The X Factor" -- the show that effectively killed the U.K. version of "Idol."

Anyway, contestants start to come out in groups of eight to sing a cappella or with an instrument. The judges decide on the spot whether they stay or go, and play the game where they split everyone up into the front row or back row, and announce which row is safe.

The first group contains this season producer favorites including now 17-year-old Katie Stevens, who at her original audition, shared a heartbreaking story about her grandmother with Alzheimer's. She belts out Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life," dressed in all black and with a confidence level unnatural for a teen. Simon thinks she's "quite good," and she gets to stay in Hollywood.

Also in her group? Antonio "Skii Bo Ski" Wheeler, 22, who we're pretty sure only got through because of his nickname. This time, the judges realize he has little to no talent as he sings "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" by the Temptations. Ellen dishes out her first criticism, as she advises Skii Bo Ski not to look like he was going to attack the audience. "Scary and sexy is a fine line," she advises him, as the audience cracks up like they're at a stand-up comedy show.

Moral of the story, everyone standing in Skii Bo Ski's row at the end of the round realizes they're toast.

The day continues to turn into a nonsensical cop-bad cop routine, as Kara and Randy go about their regularly scheduled rambling, and Ellen and Simon compete for best insult. Simon goes for the standards ("that was painful, I hated everything about that") while Ellen mixes it up with "you were crazy in a bad way."

Things get more ominous when this season's Southern Stereotype, 20-year-old Vanessa Wolfe, comes on stage, visibly frightened. After a long montage of her leaving her hometown of Vonore, Tenn., and getting on her first airplane ride, we have hope that she's going to make it after all. But her shaky, off-key version of Blind Melon's "No Rain" is disappointing, and all Ellen can muster is, "Those nerves are going to kill you." She pales in comparison to Andrew Garcia, a 24-year-old who sounds like an intriguing mix of Jason Mraz and Avril Lavigne, and does a genius acoustic version of Paula Abdul's "Straight Up."

Andrew's in, and Vanessa's out. Vanessa says she blew her it, and feels like she disappointed her whole family. We see her sadly wheeling her red suitcase to go back to Vonore, and we hope the "Idol" producers feel bad about themselves.

A painful "What Hurts the Most" by Rascal Flatts plays over scenes of tons of contestants having their hearts broken. The goners include Cornelius Edwards, 24, who split his pants during the Orlando audition; Maegan Wright, 24, the girl that Kara was assumed was a joke based on her unflattering outfit; and Amedeo DiRocco, 28, with the big family from Boston.

At that point, it's time for an attractive blonde to come in and save the mood; and sure enough, adorable 24-year-old Janell Wheeler plays Estelle's "American Boy" on the guitar. Ellen calls her amazing, and Simon agrees it was a good audition.

Next comes the requisite debate about whether instruments should truly be allowed on the "Idol" stage. "Appearing nightly at the Holiday Inn!" cracks Randy after one heinous guitar performance. Oh snap!

Haeley Vaughn, 16, turns things around with "Change" by Taylor Swift, and giggles when she ends the song. The judges love her performance and Randy says she's an interesting pop country girl. The judges also like 28-year-old Mary Powers, the mom that Simon originally called a Cliche Rocker Chick. He's not wrong, as she launches into Pink's "Sober," but luckily her voice is good enough to get away with it.

Seacrest informs us that 46 contestants, including Todrick Hall, Charity Vance and Ashley Rodriguez, made it through on Day 1. Simon kicks off Day 2 with words of advice: "Don't be nervous. Don't be boring. Don't forget the words."

Surprisingly, there's not a usual sequence of "Idol" contestants forgetting the words. Instead, Jay Stone, 25, tries to beatbox but ends up sputtering into the microphone. Lilly Scott, 20, a sandwich maker, tries her luck with Ella Fitzgerald's "Lullaby of Birdland," Kara is thrilled, and tells her, "Everything about you is refreshing." Jay the sputtering beat boxer gets the boot, but Lilly continues her Hollywood adventure.

Michael Lynche, 26, whose wife might be going into labor as he's on the Hollywood stage, tries to not be distracted by the birth of his first child and does a lovely version of John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change." The judges vote him through, which is great, but not necessarily encouraging -- at least according to those Internet rumors making rounds that he's already been disqualified from the competition.

Tim Urban, 20, wins the judges approval with previous "Idol" winner David Cook's "Come Back to Me," even though the judges were lukewarm about Tim's original audition. He's followed by a slew of cuts, including Justin Williams, Paige Dechausse, Erica Rhodes (also known as the former "Barney" star who dressed up like a dominatrix) and the whiny New Jersey sisters, Amanda and Bernadette DeSimone, who were convinced Hollywood needed girls like them. As long as Snooki's still around, we think we've got our fill.

Then "Idol" breaks our hearts once again by showcasing 16-year-old Maddy Curtis, who has four brothers with Down Syndrome, as she's cut after singing "The Nearness of You" by Norah Jones. The judges think she's just not ready for the pressure. Soon after, they send through Casey James, 27, who was only given a golden ticket after he took his shirt off for Kara and guest judge Victoria Beckham.

Twenty-three-year-old Didi Benami proves her Hollywood savvy by singing a Kara DioGuardi-penned tune, "Terrified," recorded by former Idolette Katharine McPhee. Simon hates to give Kara an indirect compliment, but says he actually likes that song -- and thinks Didi has a great backstory, what with being a waitress. We silently hope Ellen pipes up with a "This isn't a Lifetime movie, sweetheart,"...but it doesn't happen.

Finally, Crystal Bowersox, 24, a single mom, takes the stage with "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which the judges adore. Crystal stays in Hollywood, along with 95 others. Seacrest reminds us that tomorrow night is the group round, otherwise known as when everyone stays up all night rehearsing with each other, leading to many fights.

We can't wait, and hope the "Idol" cameras can take a few minutes away from inevitable contestant breakdowns to pay just a little bit more attention to the newest judge.

By Lisa de Moraes  |  February 10, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  TV News  
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Ellen is a breath of fresh air, not an airhead like Paula. She did well her first night, especially the shtick when she was telling the contestants to move forward, move back, move to the left. Would have been cruel if they weren't all put through to the next round.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | February 10, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I thought it was funny when Seabiscuit kept hyping the "world-famous Kodak Theater." I swear he said it was the most famous stage in the world. Really? La Scala? Radio City Music Hall? Madison Square Garden? The Hollywood Bowl?

Posted by: owingsmills | February 10, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I had a good time watching AI last night - for the first time in years! Ellen is great and having seen the X Factor or whatever, show I know I won't be watching that - talk about fake! You go Ellen - good job and I'm glad you're on the show!

Posted by: MrsKirby | February 10, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I loved Lilly Scott, but points off for saying "Lullaby of Birdland" was "by" Ella Fitzgerald. Ella was just one of many to cover this standard, which was written by George Shearing and George David Weiss. The "Birdland" in the title refers to the jazz club named after Charlie Parker.

Posted by: chantooz | February 10, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

The guy who played guitar and sang that bluesy song was pretty good.

Posted by: ozpunk | February 10, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I liked the guy who sang "Straight Up" - very nice. And the girl who sang "American Boy" - I wish they wouldn't have stopped her at all, it sounded great. There was another blonde girl I thought was very good ... but I can't even remember what she was singing. Liked the show last night, much better than the previous weeks, that's for sure.

Posted by: anjacarolin | February 10, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

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