NEW YORK – Say what you want about Paula Abdul, but give her this: She makes for great television, especially at her own wacky expense.
The water cooler moments she's provided as a judge on "American Idol" are endless. Like the time she told teenage contestant David Archuleta she wanted to squeeze his head off and dangle him from a rearview mirror. Or when she critiqued two songs by Jason Castro after he'd sung only one. And who could forget when she and frequent nemesis Simon Cowell costarred in an awkward sketch sipping champagne and kissing, causing the studio audience to howl.
But Abdul's latest stunt might be her most shocking. She dropped an online bombshell Tuesday night on her Twitter page, posting that she had decided to leave the show after eight seasons. That leaves a three judge-panel of Cowell, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi, who signed up for another season after joining as a fourth judge last year.
The abrupt announcement raises questions about the future of the Fox franchise — not to mention her own career.
She may be the show's craziest judge, but millions of viewers hung on every garbled sentence just to see what she'll do next.
"She is a major ingredient of the show," said Nigel Lythgoe, a former "Idol" producer and current judge on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance." "She's fabulously talented. The chemistry between her, Randy (Jackson) and Simon is incredible. Whenever anybody talks about reality shows and judges, they are the three that everyone would love to emulate."
Lythgoe said he talked to Abdul on Wednesday and plans to meet with her soon to discuss future opportunities, including an appearance on "So You Think You Can Dance."
He said there are no winners following Abdul's "Idol" exit.
"It's not just all about Paula losing out here," he said, "the show loses out, too. And Paula, and I've spoken to her this morning, is a major talent. She's an ex-dancer, an ex-choreographer, and now, an ex-judge. I would welcome her on `So You Think You Can Dance.'"
At the same time, he noted, "There is nothing stronger than the `Idol' format. It's worked in many, many countries all over the world without Randy, Paula and Simon. It's the format that counts, and it's the talent that goes on the show."
Still, Abdul's departure comes as "Idol" — like the vast majority of television shows — is losing viewers. The Wednesday edition of "American Idol" averaged 25.5 million this past season, still easily the most popular show on TV, compared with 26.8 million in the 2007-08 season; 30 million in both 2006-07 and 2005-06.
News of an Abdul exit left host Ryan Seacrest stunned and saddened. (Seacrest stays on: He recently signed a new deal, reportedly worth $45 million, that keeps him on as "Idol" host through 2012 and provides the opportunity for new entertainment ventures.)
"Everyone that I've passed today here has asked me `Is it true? Is it a publicity stunt?'" Seacrest said Wednesday morning. "As far as I know, it's real. ... At this point, she's decided to leave."
The first signs appeared last month when her new manager, David Sonenberg, publicly announced the feel-good judge may not be returning and was "not a happy camper" as a result of stalled contract negotiations.
She rejected an eight-figure deal that represented a 30 percent raise, a person familiar with the talks told The Associated Press. The person, lacking authority to speak publicly, asked not to be identified.
Seacrest said he and the three remaining judges are flying to Denver Thursday night for auditions.
That day, Abdul will tape another guest appearance on the Lifetime sitcom "Drop Dead Diva."
"I love Paula and I love what Paula brings to `American Idol,'" said "Drop Dead Diva" producer Josh Berman. "I like that she is the nice one. I like that she finds beauty in everyone. ... It's a loss. For me, Paula was the heart of the show."
Berman, who did not know the details of her "Idol" departure, said the cast and crew of "Drop Dead Diva" — starring Brooke Elliott as a plus-size lawyer — "instantly fell in love" with Abdul when she filmed her first cameo in early July.
Her episodes air Sept. 13 and Oct. 11.
Besides TV cameos, where else could Abdul turn to expand her prospects? The 47-year-old former pop singer-dancer and L.A. Laker cheerleader has a jewelry line that she promotes on the Home Shopping Network. She was recently was the subject of a Bravo reality show that lasted one season.
Abdul's former publicist, Howard Bragman, has no doubt she'll land on her feet — somewhere.
"Don't write Paula out," he said. "When the earth is destroyed, I am convinced that cockroaches and Paula Abdul will survive. ... When Paula Abdul was a Laker Girl, she was the most famous Laker Girl ever. When she was a choreographer, she was the most famous choreographer ever. She became the No. 1 pop star and then she's on the No. 1 TV show — and it's remarkable, but she seems to have a quality and ability to rise from the ashes."
Bragman called Abdul a survivor who considers herself a star and "lives in sort of Paula-land" where she sees the world through "the Paula lens."
In an interview session Wednesday with the Television Critics Association, NBC programming executive Paul Telegdy expressed interest in working with Abdul.
"We've got no specific plans for her," he told reporters. "But I read the breaking news last night and I wouldn't rule anything out."
Still, it's a wonder how she could walk away from the ratings juggernaut known as "American Idol."
"You know, for years Paula has said she was the worst-paid one and if I was on her business team ... my advice would be stay at the show even if they pay you a dollar because the visibility is so important," Bragman said. "There's nowhere else you're gonna get 30 million people a week."