VARIETY Q&A: Nigel Lythgoe on his ‘Idol’ return, Paula Abdul, J-Lo, and why Simon’s exit won’t hurt the show

Lythgoe with original “Idol” judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

The latest piece of the “American Idol” puzzle has now fallen into place, as former executive producer Nigel Lythgoe has now officially re-joined the show alongside vet EPs Simon Fuller, Cecile Frot-Coutaz and Ken Warwick.

Read the full story of Lythgoe’s return here. Variety spoke to Lythgoe on Wednesday, as the once and future EP candidly discussed his pick for the “Idol” judges’ table — Paula Abdul — and why he thinks Simon Cowell’s departure won’t harm the show as much as people are predicting. Here’s an edited transcript of that chat:

VARIETY ON THE AIR: How did this all happen? How did you get back on the show, and what all went down?

NIGEL LYTHGOE: I was asked. Simon Fuller came back and said he’d love me to go back and help steer the ship. 

VARIETY: What were your immediate thoughts?

LYTHGOE: I went through a number of them. I had made some very bold statements about it, the kind of statements you make when you’re not in the production. I thought, well they’ve done it now for two years, and obviously a great deal has changed in the two years. They never replaced me, so other people in the production have taken over my job. So I wonder if it’s going to be awkward to step back in. But we are and have been a family for many years. It’s the old team, it’s not as though there’s anyone new in it. And we’ve got to find our places again, basically.

VARIETY: Do you feel like you’re already again a part of the mix?

LYTHGOE: Well, there’s only one thing on everybody’s mind, and that is to steady the ship and move forward.

VARIETY: You have been critical at times of some of the things the show has done, such as going to four judges. What are some of your concerns as you head back to the show, and how will you address them?

LYTHGOE: In addressing them, it will be discussing it with the team. This isn’t about one person stepping in and saying “this is what it’s going to be,” it’s never been like that.

I think some of my concerns were that over the last couple of years we’ve lost sight of the fact that the most important people in the production are the young artists. And it’s revovled around the judges, it’s revolved around Kara coming in to make four judges, which often left them no time for them to talk at any great length. Certainly there are times I watched the show where Simon didn’t even get a chance to say anything. Then it was about Paula leaving. Then it was all about Ellen joining.

And somewhere in all of that muddle of judges the show was losing sight of the actual contestants. And I think we were also losing chemistry between the judges. And I will go back now and hopefully point out now that it isn’t about stars, or what people did in the past of might do in the future that makes a good judge. It’s about chemistry and it’s about a team. 

We went into a series that produced the ultimate in judging panels, with Randy, Paula and Simon, without any of them either being known or respected for what they’ve done. That must be remembered in choosing the next panel. It is about chemistry and putting the right people together in the mix. I must say the ones being discussed at the moment I’m very enthusiastic about. It isn’t about any individual one of them, and at the moment everyone is judging them on their individuality and not how they’re going to work as a team. That really is the difficulty.

AFTER THE JUMP: Lythgoe gives his take on rumored “Idol” judging panel contenders Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, and explains why he’d take Paula Abdul back “in a heartbeat.”

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