LOS ANGELES — In an effort to spice up a Republican presidential campaign that’s not attracting the ratings it once did, the GOP is teaming with former “American Idol” star Simon Cowell for a series of “Republican Idol” debates starting in two weeks.
“When some Republican Party poobah first called me in London to discuss the idea, I was really skeptical,” Cowell said Monday. “Then I watched some of the video of the previous debates and realized we could turn this into quite a show if we just produce it right. It already has a fantastic cast of nutty characters just waiting for someone to mine their comic potential. This is going to be a blast. I expect ratings will shoot through the roof.”
Republican national chairman Reince Priebus said his staff was similarly skeptical of the changes Cowell will be bringing to the show, but said his party’s need to appeal to mainstream voters made it worth working through the initial creative differences.
“I wasn’t initially comfortable with the opening act that will require all the candidates to perform together,” Priebus said. “But Simon tells me that audiences love that sort of goofy camaraderie. The candidates were mostly OK with at after we said their parts could be lip-synched, but all of the dancing will be legitimate and they’ll all be wearing the same flag-covered Spandex costumes. If we can get the act together in time, there’s even going to be a Christmas special with lots of singing and dancing.”
The plan was almost killed at the last second when the only black member of the cast was voted off the island over the weekend. Cowell and other producers huddled over this issue late Sunday night and decided that having one female candidate was good enough to go on with the show.
“The Republicans don’t really get any black votes anyway, so it didn’t really matter, but it looks good if you can show you’re not racist,” Cowell said. “There are rumors that Ricky Perry is one-eighth Native American, so that will help. Plus, we have Mormons covered with that Romney guy, and we have a strong appeal to the narcissist audience by giving Newt Gingrich a featured role.”
Priebus said both GOP leadership and Cowell unanimously agreed to kill off the Ron Paul character, simply because he’s seen as too serious and focused on issues no one cares about, but he said party bosses were shocked to discover there wasn’t a legal mechanism to force Paul out.
“At first we were bummed about that, but we decided to make something good out of it,” he said. “We’ll keep him around and let him be his normal self, but we’ll just treat him like the ‘crazy uncle’ guy who we can all identify with. The talk about the gold standard always gets a big laugh since nobody knows what it means.”
In addition to the opening production number, there will be a number of other changes to the format. The new swimsuit competition should offer great comic potential, according to Cowell, and the addition of Sybil the Soothsayer to read tarot cards for each candidate will appeal to those with more mystical interests. (Here’s Paul getting his tan ready for the swimsuit competition.)
“We had some thoughts about keeping some of the issue-oriented questions in the show, but Simon nixed that,” Priebus said. “We’re still going to ask them questions in two different segments, but audience tests showed that discussion of political issues bored the viewers, so we’re going to ask trivia about current television programming. Each campaign has been sent a briefing book about various shows and the candidates are studying that. Then there will be a segment asking each candidate embarrassing questions about his sex life. That tested well with the research audience.”
Although it’s not yet legal to substitute phone voting in place of actually going to polling places, Priebus said he’s open to the idea for the future.
“We’re really getting into this pop culture thing,” he said. “It shows me how little people care about the things we’ve been trying to talk to voters about.”
Cowell said the show should produce the same results as the old debate and primary format produced, but with far higher ratings.
“Let’s be honest,” Cowell said. “Nobody votes for candidates because they agree with them. Nobody even knows what these clowns stand for anyway. It’s all about popularity. We’re just going to open the process up and make it much more intimate and personal to help audiences decide who they really like best.”
There’s discussion of a more involved reality-style show starting in four years, but producers didn’t have time to put that together quickly enough for this campaign, Cowell said.
“We already have some interesting ideas for 2016,” he said. “We could send the candidates on a round-the-world trip with no money and see who can get back first. Or we could put them on an island together and force them to co-operate on some impossible task like balancing a budget — and then they can kill and eat one candidate a week until there’s only one left. There are all sorts of possibilities.”
Priebus said a few old-timers had objected to the lack of policy content in the new format of the show, but he put his foot down.
“The object of the game is to beat the Democrats next fall,” he said. “People are going to vote for whoever they like. It doesn’t matter what they really know. Once we’ve elected someone, there will be advisors to tell them what to do. This is really the best way.”