Like all reporters, I get a lot of email from readers: Some nice, some horrible, some thought-provoking. It's not often, though, that an email causes me such reflection that I feel compelled to write something. I received a note this week that made me do just that.
"I enjoyed your article on American Idol, even though I haven't watched it in years," the email began. "I was astounded, though, that you did not mention the perennial host, Ryan Seacrest, a single time (that I could find) in the whole article. He probably has been the longest running member of the entire cast. Why did you not even mention him?"
My first reaction was defensive: The story was about the impact of reality juggernaut American Idol (which ends for good Thursday) on pop culture, from music to TV to theater. Of course I was going to focus on the contestants, who made the most headlines over the show's 15-year run. Why would I mention the host? What does he have to do with anything?!
As I went to reply, I stopped and felt an unexpected rush of guilt. While writing the story, Seacrest's name didn't even enter my mind. But when I really thought about it, if there's anything that Idol contributed to our culture, it's the rise of Ryan Seacrest.
So, nameless reader and Ryan Seacrest, here's my mea culpa.
I think the reason I left out Seacrest is the same reason he's so good at his job: Sometimes, you just forget he's there. That's intentional, and really, the mark of an excellent host. Move the proceedings along; banter with contestants; throw in a quip or two; and make it look so easy that no one realises how hard you're working.
"It's not that he's multi-talented; he's anti-talented, not a performer but a professional 'personality,' the latest variation on a type as old as broadcasting: the guy who stands there and introduces the acts," former Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote as he described Seacrest in a 2008 profile. "He's a low-key cheerleader who keeps the show moving and, with the judges as natural foils, allies himself with the audience and the contestants, never threatening to upstage the performers, even if he could."
Throughout 15 years of Idol, while the judges have rotated in and out, Seacrest's presence is a given. He's the guy who opens ("This ... is 'American Idol!'") and closes the show, and got in some memorable bickering matches with Simon Cowell - yet he's still basically wallpaper. He's never skipped an episode, though there were a couple close calls when he had the flu during the second-season finale and that time in Season 11 when he was so ill that he missed rehearsal. He still made it for the live show.
It's not an easy job - look at others who have tried to host live shows. (Er, sorry Brian Dunkleman.) As hard as Seacrest works, he's still a Hollywood punchline. He makes no secret about wanting to be the Dick Clark of his generation and earns so much money that's it's scary.
Maybe it's his over-eager demeanor, his spray-tanned, paint-by-numbers, variety show host persona - like Neil Patrick Harris without the charm, humor or singing ability. Celebrities eye him with disdain at award shows. Cowell was ruthless toward him. Kathy Griffin calls him "the devil." Sasha Baron Cohen threw ashes on him. It's just all part of being Seacrest.
Seacrest's strength is his ubiquity. Not only does he shake off these indignities, but with every year, he becomes even more powerful. His workaholism includes syndicated morning radio show On Air With Ryan Seacrest; hosting "New Year's Rockin' Eve" and the E! red carpet; his own production company behind the Keeping Up With the Kardashians empire; his charity foundation; a correspondent gig with NBC that involves hosting segments for the upcoming summer Olympics; and his own clothing line, which he plugs at every single award show.
In other words, Seacrest will be just fine once his Idol gig ends on this week, even if certain people forget just how much he was a crucial engine that kept it running. It just gives him more time to continue taking over the world. If anything, it's a wonder he stuck with "Idol" this long when he became so clearly overqualified. Maybe that's a role he relishes.
"Part of the Seacrest shtick is coming across as a little too cool for his role, yet a good enough sport to play along," Shales wrote. "Seacrest isn't lovable, nor foolish enough to try to be. He's just aiming for tolerable - bull's-eye."