Michael Slezak
February 09, 2010 AT 11:13 PM EST

There’s been a lot of ink spilled about Ellen DeGeneres’ American Idol debut tonight, where, as part of the Hollywood Week proceedings, she’ll take over the Chair Formerly Occupied by America’s Wackiest Twitterer. Admittedly, I was resistant to the idea of Ellen as Idol judge when the news was first announced back in September, but a lot of my opinion was based on her painful guest-judging stint on So You Think You Can Dance last summer. Since then, the comedian/talk-show host has repeatedly stated that she’ll take her Idol role more seriously. In fact, here’s what she had to say about criticism of her SYTYCD performance in an EW cover story last month written by my colleague Dave ‘Oscar Watch’ Karger:

“I just wanted to go see the show, and suddenly I was asked if I want to be a judge. And I’m like, ‘Well, those are better seats — I’ll be a judge.’ I just thought it would be interesting, and then I thought, ‘Oh, I have to actually critique them.’ I don’t know anything about dance, so I just really did focus on making it funny. But it’s a totally different thing [from] singing. And I will be funny [on Idol] — if something’s obnoxious or stupid and there’s a joke to be made, that’s what I do first and foremost. But I’ll have more to say about a singer — with singing, it’ll be funny, but there will also be true, honest critiquing.”

So maybe there’s reason to be a little hopeful about Ellen on Idol. Because while she might not have the music-industry background of Kara or Randy, she does have two things in common with Simon that Table Banger and One-Zillion Percent do not: She’s a quick and articulate ad-libber, and she’s a bona fide TV star. And I think sometimes that gets lost in the discussion of what makes Simon great. Sure, dude has cred — thanks to his experience launching a wide variety of hitmakers — but so do dozens of other music execs. Simon’s real Idol power comes from the ability to communicate his strong, informed point of view in zippy, often amusing sound bites. Kara may have written scads of recent hits, and Randy may have logged hours and hours of studio time with [insert name of your favorite music diva here], but not even a possession by the spirit of Ludwig van Beethoven would give them enough “credibility” to make them the stars of the show.

If Ellen keeps the focus on the singing — and resists the urge to take the focus off the contestants with an endless string of “punch line breaks” — she might be a better fit for the show that I initially thought. That’s a mighty big “if,” but going into tonight’s telecast, I’m keeping my expectations in neutral. How about you? Vote in our poll below, and check back at PopWatch around 9:20 ET tonight for my instant reaction to Ellen’s performance. My full TV recap will post early Wednesday morning. (And if you want to get up-to-the-minute updates on all my Idol coverage, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.)

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More Idol on EW.com:

American Idol hub

First look at Ellen on Idol

15 greatest Hollywood Week moments

Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox

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