What haunts your nightmares? Is it the persistent fear of nuclear war? Sweaty, anxious flashbacks to your adolescence? The Bye Bye Man? For Kids’ Choice Awards voters in 2013, the answer was everyone’s favorite British curmudgeon, whose deep-cut v-necks overfloweth with chest hair. That year, kids nationwide rallied together and decided that Simon Cowell—many moons after his American Idol heyday—was their favorite villain for his work on the US X-Factor spin-off.
But what if I told you that Cowell wasn’t even the biggest villain on his career-defining reality competition? American Idol pulled off the same gambit that almost every recent entry in the Marvel universe has attempted: trot out a sinister character who is most definitely the bad guy, while the real evil lurks just out of the frame. In the case of Idol, it was clearly Ryan Seacrest.
Seacrest has rightly earned his reputation as being one of the hardest-working guys in Hollywood. He’s also viewed as something of a boy scout, which he tried to dismantle in this legendary Knocked Up cameo. I have no proof that he’s a bad guy off-camera, or that this self-aware dig contains any insight into the real Seacrest. (If it doesn’t, then he’s a good deal better at the whole acting thing than Katherine Heigl, and probably Seth Rogen.)
But what we do have, is plenty of evidence that Seacrest rivaled Cowell with sharp delivery, merciless eliminations, and subtle owns. Now that he’s signed on for another go-round with his one true love, let’s revisit some of his most unsparing moments.
That time when he high-fived a blind contestant
American Idol was the original Upworthy. Idol’s producers figured out long before any sort of click economy existed that people are suckers for an inspiring story. During the audition round, these were equally important to focus on as the trainwrecks.
Enter Scott MacIntyre, a season eight contestant who only has a two-percent field of vision due to Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a rare eye disease. He sang Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” during the audition round, and unanimously got the golden ticket to Hollywood. But once he came out to celebrate, Seacrest seemed to, uh, forget that MacIntyre was blind.
This is the one moment that people often cite as evidence that Seacrest might be kind of a dick, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after the smooth recovery. After all, we’re just getting started here.
The shocking elimination of Chris Daughtry
Long before Game of Thrones normalized NO ONE IS SAFE death twists and Ed Sheeran cameos, there were water-cooler American Idol eliminations. But none ever rivaled the shock of when bald post-grunger Chris Daughtry was eliminated two weeks before everyone in America thought he’d be singing some syrupy winner’s single (in this case, “Do I Make You Proud,” which went to Taylor Hicks).
Since most of the conversation was focused on the mere fact that Daughtry was eliminated, it’s easy to overlook how the news was delivered. After Simon’s sinister (but legitimate) prediction that Katharine McPhee would be going home, Seacrest sets us up with callous, brilliant showmanship. “A lot of people predicted both of you could be in our finale. A lot of people predicted, Chris, that you could be the next American Idol. Chris ... you are going home tonight.” Ruthless.
The bottom three reveals
American Idol’s bottom three could often be more brutal than The Bachelor’s rose ceremony. During each results show, Seacrest would get creative with revealing which three contestants received the lowest number of votes, and could place the show’s stars in a difficult situation.
Take this clip—albeit with poor video and audio quality—from Idol’s eighth season, in which Seacrest all but asks eventual runner-up Adam Lambert which grouping he thought was worse during last night’s show. American Idoldid its best to steer away from contestant infighting by having everyone maintain appropriate levels of gee shucks humility, but you could see Seacrest almost trying to create a rift here.
He once spoiled the results on Twitter
TV spoilerphobia became so severe that there was a minor market for apps that could block out social media mentions of your favorite shows. Unfortunately, most of these came along too late to stop the diabolical Seacrest. After the live taping of a 2010 episode, the Idol host accidentally tweeted out the show’s results before it aired on the West Coast.
Even if anti-spoiler sentiments have gone a little too far over the years, fans were not amused, and we imagine his producers weren’t either. At the time, Idol had suffered its smallest audience among 18-49 year-olds for a regularly scheduled episode in series history.
Sending someone home during a feel-good charity show
In one sense, Seacrest, the American Idol host, isn’t far off from Wolf Blitzer, the election doomsayer. He’s just conveying whatever America chose. But in the case of Idol alum Michael Johns, who died unexpectedly in 2014, Seacrest feels more Wizard of Oz than messenger.
It was during Idol Gives Back, the series’ annual charity episode, which had previously forgone elimination to focus on the warm and fuzzies. “Last year during Idol Gives Back, we didn’t eliminate anybody at this stage in the competition,” he said. “Tonight ... we’re going to say goodbye to Michael Johns.”
Of course, the producers were behind this decision far more than Seacrest—you only have the budget for so many new episodes—but he still has the conviction of an influencer here. Every pause is drawn out to ratchet up the sting.
Earlier this week on Live with Kelly and Ryan, Seacrest ended months of rumors and made his return to Idol official. He likened his time away from the show to a startling breakup. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a 15-year relationship, and then for a reason you really don’t know, you break up,” he said. “It’s like all of a sudden, the show’s going well, and we broke up.”
Seacrest didn’t initiate the first split with American Idol, but he’s given us more than enough evidence over the years that he can rip a heart out with the best of ‘em.