LOS ANGELES - An annoyed look from

American Idol

judge Simon Cowell as a contestant expressed sadness over the Virginia Tech shootings was drastically misinterpreted, Cowell and the show said yesterday.

Cowell rolled his eyes and raised his eyebrows as contestant Chris Richardson of Chesapeake, Va., followed his performance on Tuesday's show with a comment about the 32 people killed by a student.

"My heart and prayers go out to Virginia Tech. I have a lot of friends over there. . . . Be strong," he said.

The camera caught Cowell's expression and showed him tapping his hand once, in apparent impatience, on the table in front of him and fellow judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. In contrast, Abdul could be seen nodding in approval.

The show went into damage control yesterday, with Cowell - known for his acerbic comments - and a series producer denying that he had heard what Richardson said.

Instead, he was talking to Abdul about Richardson's contention that he deliberately sang the Rascal Flatts' song "Mayberry" in a nasal tone, Cowell told American Idol announcer Ryan Seacrest on Seacrest's radio show yesterday morning.

"I was saying to Paula, 'What does he mean, he sang nasally on purpose?' I didn't understand what he was saying. So I hadn't even heard what he did. Then my eye rolled, given what I was saying to Paula," Cowell told Seacrest.

On last night's show, Cowell stood firm.

"I didn't hear what Chris was saying," he said. "I may not be the nicest person in the world, but I would never, ever, ever disrespect those families or those victims. And I felt it was important to set the record straight."

Cowell earlier said he supported Richardson's comments.

"I did want to clear this one up because, you know, this is a very very sensitive subject. The irony is that we did want to try and set the right tone on the show. And then something like this happens, and it just starts fanning the flames," Cowell said.

Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe defended Cowell.

"This is a sad time for everyone, so it is especially disheartening that a quick camera cutaway could have been misinterpreted," Lythgoe said in a statement yesterday, noting that Seacrest opened the show with a statement of sympathy for Virginia Tech.

Although the Internet was awash in discussion about Cowell, the network said it had received few complaints. One Fox affiliate forwarded two e-mail complaints to the network, which declined to identify the station and its city.

But the Fox station that serves Blacksburg, Va., where Virginia Tech is located, hadn't received any complaints as of midday yesterday, WFXR station manager Dave Bunnell said from Roanoke, Va.

Bunnell, who didn't catch Cowell's reaction, dismissed the matter as unimportant. "Everyone second-guesses everything these days," he said.