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American Idol: Ryan Seacrest reflects on the past 15 years as the series finale looms

‘Winding Paula up as far as he could without making her, you know, explode? He enjoyed it. That was pleasurable to him’

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Michael Becker/Fox

It’s the end of an era: American Idol, the show that gave us Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson kicks off a long farewell on Wednesday. Ahead of the season 15 premiere, we talked to Ryan Seacrest, the host with the most who has guided us through hours of auditions and competition for the past decade and a half. Ahead, he looks back on the series, the contestants that truly left their marks, and the legacy the show will leave behind.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Ahead of that first season, did you have any idea this show would take off like it did?

RYAN SEACREST: I don’t think any of us ever thought about the magnitude of success it would have, both on television and popular culture. I remember watching a tape that was sent to me from the producers of the English version of the show, Pop Idol, and it looked interesting and fun. I was in the music business, just doing radio. So I was excited to get this job — I was a 26-year-old kid. But I had no idea it would be what it was.

How much of the immediate success can you credit to the chemistry of Paula [Abdul], Simon [Cowell], Randy [Jackson], and you?

Obviously, it’s a competition show, but it was also a family sitcom to a degree, because we treated each other like brothers and sisters, and we’d poke fun at each other and laugh at each other. To find that eureka with a group of four people is very difficult, which is why so few of these shows last. But it was just lightning in a bottle.

Fans lived for the bickering and the banter.

Sometimes everyone would get frustrated with each other, but Simon did it like sport. Winding Paula up as far as he could without making her, you know, explode? He enjoyed it. That was pleasurable to him. Nothing will be quite like the original trio of judges. I didn’t know any of them before the show started. I had just seen Simon on that tape but had never heard of him at all. I had not met Randy before, and obviously had heard of Paula Abdul because I played her cassette tapes as a kid. On paper, it was like, who are these people? Really, they’re unknowns with the exception of Paula. How could this be a successful show? But it just worked.

In all your years, is there one performance that stands out as your favorite?

A lot of us would probably tell you Fantasia, when she performed “Summertime.” That was pretty special. The performances that really stand out are the ones, actually, that come after the contestants have won and they have to sing and keep it together. Those are special moments to see them make it through, with their parents, weeping and crying — it’s pretty incredible.

Was there an elimination that was particularly painful for you?

Chris Daughtry’s elimination really surprised people, but I think Tamyra Gray in the first season surprised me the most. But the public, for the most part, is very smart. They pretty much get it right.

When was it decided that this would be the final season?

We always knew we couldn’t do this show forever. But when we found out that was going to be the final season, we agreed that the way to do it is to come back one more time and do a real salute to the show and to the viewers who’ve been there for all these years. It deserves the farewell season and send-off.

So what should we expect?

We’re bringing back some of the favorites, and they’ll be integrated into different weeks of the show. We will have something from each of the original judges for sure — I can’t speak for all the judges, but the original three will be back. I spoke to Simon the other day, and we just have to figure out what it is [that he’ll be doing]. There are enough great moments to look back at in history and nostalgia and fun and funniness, as well as the competition and crowning a new final Idol.

And hopefully some fresh fighting from Simon and Paula.

I hope so. It’s certainly my hope.

It’s been reported that this season will be shorter than past seasons by four weeks — is that true, and what’s the reasoning behind it?

It is shorter. I’m not sure it’s going to be by exactly four weeks, but it is shorter. The finale will be in April instead of May, and I don’t know the answer to why, actually. Simply a programming decision by Fox.

What’s your earliest memory of American Idol?

The beginning, when they had a host already hired. I had to talk them into letting me audition to be the second host. I showed up at this audition and there were like, a thousand people. And I just remember the intense butterflies and nervousness and anxiety, and then the layers of stages to get into the network offices to audition.

What was that audition like?

There were several of them but the one I had to do to get the job was in a conference room with the president of Fox and the executives of Fox and, basically, they’d give me a scenario of something that could happen on live TV — a contestant just got done singing a sad song, she got emotional, she lost her mother six months ago, the song reminds her of her mother, and you’ve got to get us to commercial in 30 seconds. So you have to figure out how to do that with the right finesse, instantly. They would do some rapid-fire things like that to see how you can handle it. And that was how I got it.

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So you were hired after [season 1 co-host] Brian Dunkleman?

Yes.

Will Brian be back?

That, I’ve not spoken to him about. In my opinion, it’d be great to see him back.

What’s the one song you never want to hear again after 15 years of auditions?

Oh man. That’s such a good — ugh. What’s that Etta James song we heard forever in the beginning? Is it “At Last”? “At Last,” yes. We heard that so many times. It’s a beautiful song, but it was difficult to hear after the first five years.

When it comes to face-offs between judges, was your favorite conflict between Simon and Paula or Nicki and Mariah?

Simon and Paula, because it was just funny. I think the ones between Mariah and Nicki were a little more tense and a little more … [Laughs] there wasn’t as much humor to them. They’re both just so quick and smart and made to spar with each other, so they could just one-up each other for 10, 15 minutes if you let them.

That season is often referred to as though it had a dark cloud hanging over it, which I don’t always think is fair.

Yeah, it was, uh, an electrifying season. What’s been cool for us is as the seasons go by — not every year, but every other year or every two years — there’d be somebody there to play with that kept it interesting and fresh.

Jen[nifer Lopez], Keith [Urban], and Harry [Connick Jr.] in particular are such a fantastic trio, but it’s kind of an odd mix when you look at it on paper.

We knew that Jen was going to be there. And I remember conversations about who we’d put with her, and we had this long list of people. Keith and Harry just seemed like the perfect fit — they’re terrific guys, both talented, and both know so much about music. But in the end, they really appreciate doing the show and have fun doing the show, and you can sense that.

What are your plans for your newfound free time?

Well, I wish there were free time. I have to do the morning show at KISS in Los Angeles every day, which is syndicated across the country, I’m hosting the late-night Olympics in Rio for NBC, and I’ve got the E! red carpet, and a clothing line at Macy’s. And the Ryan Seacrest Foundation is building our tenth children’s hospital. [Laughs] It will keep me occupied.

I asked Randy what you should do, and he suggested that you and Paula and Simon move to the beach and open a bar together.

I don’t hate the idea! We actually talked one year about getting a house together on the beach, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

What else can we expect from season 15?

We’re going to pay tribute to the moments and the years and the fun that the last 15 years have been. This is a live show that started when we didn’t even know what text messaging was. Times have evolved and changed, but there are so many great achievements from these contestants, so many funny moments. We’ll salute the artists and pay tribute. And then at the end, at the last minute, at the end of the finale, I haven’t really figured out what I’m gonna say or how I’m gonna do it. But I’m sure it’ll be emotional.

What do you hope people remember about the show?

This show, there’s something very simple about it. This is something that was designed for the whole family to watch together. It was a cool show for the family to watch together. Everything we did, we did through the lens of people sitting in their living rooms with their teenagers or their kids, their husbands and their wives, watching this show together. And having a common thread of something to talk about it. And obviously it’s done what it’s done for music, but I think simply, this was one of the greatest family events, for so many years. And people grew up really connected to it because of that.

The final season of American Idol kicks off Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. Head here and here for our chats with Randy Jackson and Harry Connick Jr., respectively.

A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1397/98, on newsstands now or available for purchase here.