The 15th and final season of American Idol kicks of Wednesday. In a conversation with EW, Harry Connick Jr. — who will spend his third year at the judges’ table — explained why he’s been a fan of the show since season 1, and what he’s hoping to accomplish in its final installment.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This season will mark your third as a judge, but you’ve been a mentor — and fan — of the show for much longer. What’s your favorite Idol performance ever?
HARRY CONNICK JR.: When Kelly Clarkson won and she sang “A Moment Like This.” I was a fan of the show and was in Los Angeles shooting Will & Grace at the time, and Debra Messing and I went together because we were both such fans. So that stands out, for sure.
That sounds like my dream night out, honestly. Once you got involved in the show, what’s your earliest Idol memory?
The first time I mentored, it was so fun because I had been watching the show for five or six years. To see behind the scenes, everybody was really nice and I was really fascinated with the way the whole thing worked.
And how about the toughest elimination you witnessed?
In hindsight, you know, you look back and some of the people who have ended their stint on the show before the finale — people LIKE Adam Lambert come to mind, Jennifer Hudson, even Jax from last year. I thought Jax may end up in the top two. But it’s just the way it is. People vote and sometimes it’s surprising.
You, Keith [Urban], and Jennifer [Lopez] have such great chemistry, and it’s arguably the best judges’ table since the original trio. What’s your favorite moment with them?
There are so many. You know we spend so much time in the auditions, we’re there in these cities for probably two days, working eight or ten hours a day, multipled by however many cities we visit — what I can tell you is that it’s easy, especially now in our third year because we know and we respect each other’s processes. It’s hard to take one particular moment but it’s easy to look at the three of us as a really tight group that enjoys being together, for sure.
My favorite moment was your impromptu performance of “Teenage Dream.”
[Laughs] Man, see, I forget half the things we did. Man, I’ve done some sill things over the last three years.
After sitting through so many auditions, is there a song you never want to hear again?
It depends on the year. But it’s not that you don’t want to hear them again, it’s just refreshing to hear the original after the audition. Sia’s “Chandelier” was huge last year, and, what’s that song? [Sings] “I feel it in my bones, da da dah.” You know that song? “Radioactive”! Yeah, “Radioactive.” Man. We heard that a lot.
During last year’s auditions, you were looking for seasoned performers over raw talent, which had been the focus in season 13. What was your approach to auditions this year?
Raw talent is great, but when you get in front of the camera and freeze, it doesn’t do anybody any good. It doesn’t do the show good and it doesn’t do those kids good. They don’t really benefit from that. So this year we tried to find amazing singers and people that have a little bit better grasp on what this whole experience is gonna be like. And I think we found that. We found 24 people that, you know, in different ways are really good performers and singers.
So what are your plans for making this the most memorable season it can be?
The only thing we have a say in is the talent, and I feel really good about it. It’s probably the most ready-for-prime-time group that I’ve seen in three years. We’re all really excited about it. All you can do is respond to who comes in and auditions, but we’re thrilled with this group, I really think it’s one of the best yet.
America’s going to miss having Ryan Seacrest in their living rooms each week. What are you going to miss most about the host?
I love Ryan. He’s a good friend and I’m gonna miss being around him. I don’t think people know — I don’t think most have an awareness of how great he is at his job. He’s got a very difficult job in terms of keeping the show running, and his professionalism is unparalleled. I just like watching him work.
What should he do with his free time?
[Laughs] I don’t think he’ll ever have free time. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what that is. He’s a workaholic, for sure.
How do you feel about the show coming to an end, and what are you hoping to accomplish over the next few months?
It’s an amazing show that I think is gonna leave an incredible legacy. I’m really honored to have been a part of it in the small way that I have. And my only hope is that we can bookend the first year — with Kelly winning and becoming an international superstar — and find someone who can make a really big name for themselves. I hope we’re able to end with a bang.
The final season of American Idol kicks off Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. Check back Wednesday for an interview with Ryan Seacrest, and head here for our chat with Randy Jackson.
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1397/98, on newsstands now or available for purchase here.