The news that Paula Abdul has apparently chosen to leave "American Idol" rather than accept a salary below her asking price forces the question reality television has been dancing around for years now: What is a reliable train wreck actually worth?
Abdul may have been chosen as one of "American Idol's" original judges because of her singing career -- "I've been where you are" is her default position with contestants -- but what she actually brought to the show was, well, insanity. Loopiness gave way at times to incoherence that seemed chemically induced, an allegation that she denied, then admitted, then denied admitting, then admitted denying, etc. Oh, she tried to fashion herself as a mother hen, comforting the forlorn, or as a feisty foil to Simon Cowell, but the role that worked best for her was the ditsy, possibly drunken sidekick.
This is not a put-down, by the way. Some of the more brilliant comedians of our time have made this role their own. George Burns always said he had the easiest job in Hollywood; all he had to do was ask his seemingly feather-headed wife, Gracie, about her family. Cigarette and highball firmly in hand, Dean Martin smirked his way through muttered one-liners; Foster Brooks wheezed and blinked and stuttered out countless stand-up routines and a thousand appearances on "The Tonight Show."
The trick, of course, was that it was all an act -- Gracie Allen never made a conversational U-turn she hadn't planned down to the wide-eyed pause, Martin's glass was full of ginger ale most of the time and Brooks might have swayed at the lectern as he roasted Don Rickles, but he returned to his seat straight up and sober.
With Paula, however, it never seemed like an act, a suspicion that her short-lived reality show, "Hey Paula," further cemented. Her mini-rants, apropos-of-nothing comments and drowsy confusions never had the comedic timing or control that marked a master; at best they seemed like ADD crossed with bipolar. At worst, like the pharmaceutical equivalent. But then, "American Idol" was the vanguard of reality programming, on which nothing is supposed to be scripted. Paula provided the first taste of what the citizenry now gorges itself on: live-action breakdowns.
We're far too educated in the perils of addiction to find feigned drunkenness amusing anymore (although we do retain a strange collective fondness for male stoners of a certain age), but we certainly want to see the behind-the-scenes Hollywood breakdowns unfold in real time. There she was, live, on the show that held network television hostage, and you honestly didn't know if this was going to be a good Paula day or a bad Paula day. And neither did anyone else! Not since "The Judy Garland Show's" Christmas special was there so much wince-worthy pathos and hilarity in the offing.
If things got too tame among the contestants, you could always count on Paula to do something like admit to a national magazine that she used painkiller patches and then deny she ever said it. Crazy, man. All Simon can do, really, is make little British girls cry and cause fans to clock his ex-girlfriend!
So how much is such reliable unreliability worth to "American Idol"? Apparently not as much as the milquetoast stoicism of Ryan Seacrest. It's hard to imagine "Idol" without Paula Abdul. No, she wasn't the best "judge" on the American music scene -- she often seemed reactive, intent on proving how nice she is rather than actually paying attention to what was happening on stage.
And with the economy being what it is, there is something infuriating about bad behavior being well-rewarded. But TV is about eyeballs, not morality, and in terms of television value these days, it's hard to beat insanity. Certainly a lot of people watch "American Idol" for the music and the performances and to hear what a person really needs to have to make it as a star. But they also watch for the breakdowns and the crack-ups and the strange shape-shifting relationship among the judges.
By tweeting off in a huff, Abdul, of course, is taking a huge chance. Her marketable skills are fairly specific at this point. So if she doesn't want to wind up doing face time with Dr. Drew or going into business with Sarah Palin, she needs to get on another competition show and fast. Reports are already in that "So You Think You Can Dance" may be interested, which makes perfect business sense. "American Idol" remains the behemoth in the room, sweeping aside competition with little notice of the tiny spears and arrows thrown its way. How great would it be to have a piece of that dishing away and getting really confused on "America's Got Talent" or "Dancing With the Stars"?
When life gives you a train wreck, it's best to spread the debris around.