By Doug Elfman
Sun-Times TV Critic
Has Simon Cowell grown a heart? When “American Idol” returns with new auditions Tuesday night, there will be viewers wishing Simon would lighten up, and those viewers might include … Simon.
There are times, he says, when he hates himself for cracking on the wannabes.
“You don’t know the person’s back story, normally, before they walk in the room,” he says. “For all I know, their dog died an hour ago, and they’re singing this in memory of the dog. And I — or anyone else — is rude.”
Once he watches such episodes on TV, “when you see the whole story unfold, it’s horrible.”
Yet Cowell says he gets “harsh” because he gets bored. (He’s also a smoker. Last year I asked him if nicotine fits made him grumpier, but he assured me he takes cigarette breaks.)
Anyway, Cowell has deluded himself into thinking he’s a softer judge than ever.
“How have I changed over the years?” he says, repeating a question during a telephone press conference. “Maybe I’ve become a little bit more tolerant.”
Tolerant? That’s funny, because “Idol” producer Nigel Lythgoe says Cowell and the other judges, this year, are “childish, pitiful — the same as every year,” with Cowell getting up to leave after “a big row” with Randy.
Told about the “childish, pitiful” comment, Cowell responds, “Was he talking about his relationship with us?”
“I’m kidding there, by the way,” Cowell says, then adds seriously, “We all find new audition sequences harder and harder, as years go on, because it is torture, and it gets on your nerves.
“Therefore, you can become a bit argumentative or emotional. But I think to describe us as pitiful — I mean, certainly someone in his position shouldn’t be describing us like that.”
The new season starts with bad news. Recent “Idol” concert tours weren’t sellouts. And J Records dropped previous winners Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks.
Cowell says it’s no surprise Hicks got dropped.
“I’ve always gone on record as saying I genuinely didn’t think he was the best singer that year. I thought he was the most popular person,” Cowell says.
Lythgoe goes further, calling Taylor’s victory a “mistake” by voters.
“Taylor Hicks brought a performance and fun to the table,” Lythgoe says. “[Chris] Daughtry was really the musical star of that year. … But mistakes are made because people don’t vote [for a favorite when] they think somebody is so secure. And [viewers think], ‘Oh, he’s definitely going to win, so now I’m going to vote for somebody else.’ That’s what happened that year.”
When asked why certain contestants don’t get as much airtime as others in the early rounds, Lythgoe insinuates that last year’s winner, Jordin Sparks, wasn’t all that intriguing.
“Jordin didn’t get any screen time, I don’t believe. ... If they’re as boring as hell in front of the camera, I’m not going to show them,” he says. “So they should be grateful they’re not being seen.”
Both men claim this year’s contestants are more interesting and talented than last year’s group of Sanjaya et al. Looking back, Cowell doesn’t think Sanjaya posed a problem for “Idol,” although the weak singer’s rise concerned him.
“There was a point — I’ll be honest with you — halfway through, when it did occur to me, after some absolutely horrific performances … that we actually might have a problem,” Cowell says.
“At the time, this VoteForTheWorst site [based in suburban Chicago] and Howard Stern genuinely believed that they had a huge influence” in promoting Sanjaya.
“I don’t think they did, in hindsight,” Cowell says. “I laugh about it, to be honest with you. And I think he was harmless, you know. He had a run. He had some fun. He was actually a very nice kid.”
As this season progresses, don’t expect to see as many Bon Jovi-type nights with star mentors. Lythgoe says he got “carried away” with the mentor idea last year. This year will focus more on singers, their back stories and “what they want from this competition.”
And take rumors of upcoming guest stars with a grain of salt.
“Every year, somebody says, ‘Paul McCartney is doing it this year,’ ” Lythgoe says. “Let me say straight away to everybody: No, he’s not.”