If you watched ''American Idol'' the week of April 4, you might have noticed something was missing -- and we're not talking about Ruben Studdard's ''205'' jerseys or Trenyce's ability to hit high notes. Gone, all of a sudden, was a line of recurring banter between judge Simon Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest -- an insult contest marked by each man's suggestion that the other was gay.
Straight viewers may not have detected it, but for gay ''Idol'' fans, the barbs were hard to miss -- from Cowell's sneering claim that the gay anthem ''It's Raining Men'' was ''Ryan Seacrest's favorite song'' to Seacrest's remark that Cowell likes to listen to ''Y.M.C.A.'' at ''the Manhole.'' (Such knowing references for a pair of just-kidding guy's guys!) Even judge Randy Jackson joined in with a lame jab about Seacrest giving his number to audience members: ''Oh my God! There's a bunch of dudes standing up! What's going on, man?''
What's going on, indeed. All this back-and-forth has raised eyebrows -- and questions. Here are two: What message do three grown men on a national TV show send young viewers by suggesting that calling someone gay is the worst insult you can throw at them? And how does this hostility disguised as humor jibe with the notion that the American Idol can be anything -- male or female, black or white, as skinny as Clay or as supersized as Ruben?
''It's just a joke!'' says a clearly peeved Seacrest (who's more often the target than the joker). ''It's never meant to be mean-spirited. I use every opportunity, whether on my radio show or on television, to break stereotypes. Simon and I constantly wind each other up. What about when we make fun of Randy not speaking in full sentences? People who don't speak in full sentences -- do they get offended?''
Not good enough, responds Scott Seomin, entertainment media director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. ''The fact that this was just in jest is not the point. Gay viewers are insulted, and straight viewers are given permission to marginalize an entire community. I've heard the my-client-isn't-homophobic excuse from Ryan's and Randy's publicists, which is frankly insulting. I don't care if Ryan has gay friends or if Randy has worked for gay artists. What they say in front of 20 million people is what matters.''