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'American Idol' Exclusive!: Ellen and Simon are friendly, Ellen and Portia even friendlier on the scene at Top 8 girls night

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Hello, Idoloonies! Normally, I would be coming to you live from inside the American Idol studio in a week’s time, when the Top 12 contestants enter the gaping maw that is the Idoldome and my colleague-in-snark Whitney Pastorek and I soak in the behind-the-scenery for your unceasing bemusement. And we still plan to do that, along with our newest Idol correspondent, the intrepid Mr. John Young. But this year, EW is getting an exclusive chance to sit in on the final week of the Idol semis, when the stage is much smaller, the audience sits in the round, and Cory the Warm Up Comic delivers an opening routine that is exactly the same as every single other opening routine he’s ever done on the show since at least I started covering it four years ago.

Another difference: Unlike the Top 12 shows, I am not technically sitting in the audience — those precious seats are reserved strictly for family, friends, and squealing co-eds. So instead I’m sitting in a backstage phalanx of seats roughly 20 feet to the left of the judges’ table, reserved for guests who don’t want to be on camera and staff who work on the show. From my vantage point, I could clearly see all four judges and about 75 percent of the stage, as well as the general to-and-fro of the crew and the backstage stairs leading up to the Coke Room of Ryan’s Awkward Interviews. I could not, however, see the Top 8 guys at all, nor the Coke Balcony of Contestants’ Awkward Standing itself.

I did, though, give the stage a good inspection about 45 minutes before the show was due to start. Like every other TV set ever, it looks markedly different in real life. The Coke Balustrade of General Awkwardness sits at far more of an angle to the stage than I’d thought. The band pit, meanwhile, is much larger than the often flimsy semi-final song arrangements would suggest. And while on TV the stage seems like it’s pretty much totally enclosed, there is a giant gap between Simon’s left shoulder and the right wall of the Coke Portico of Overdone Running Gags. That gap is where the cameras live, of course, but it also meant that the entire set felt more porous and casual than the behemoth Idoldome, with its traditional proscenium. The semi-final stage lives in the same soundstage at CBS Television City (Stage 36) that the Idoldome eventually will occupy, but takes up about a third of the space, and all the extra room significantly softened the tension. In the Idoldome, you feel like you’re watching a national television obsession. In the semi-finals’ Idolcupola, you feel like you’re watching the local news.

Well, that is, if the local news had Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres as anchors, which is about as far as I can reasonably bury the lead here: No, despite what you may have read, I detected zero frostiness between Idol‘s two most famous judges last night. Of course, despite what you may have inferred from Ellen’s nuzzling of Simon at the opening of the show, they didn’t act like the bestest of buddies off-camera, either. Ellen and Simon were, quite simply, professionally friendly with each other, which is about as much as one could ask of fellow judges in their first weeks together on a top rated reality competition program.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now. Let’s start from the top: After my aforementioned once over of the Idolcupola, I took to my seat, which happened to be directly behind the seat reserved for Idol vocal coach extraordinaire Debra Byrd. As the minutes to air ticked down on the monitor in front of us, I watched Katelyn Epperly, Lilly Scott, and Didi Benami bound up the stairs behind the Coke Veranda, each of them in heels that I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking at a brisk clip in. (Lilly’s shoes looked especially wobbly to me; the woman must have ankles of steel.) The band and crew began to trickle in as the overhead music blared “Bad Romance” and “Boom Boom Pow,” and with 13 minutes to air, the fog machine began pumping grey mist into the studio as Cory began the umpteenth iteration of his I’m-seriously-beginning-to-wonder-if-he’s-just-a-wind-up-robot warm up routine.

With ten minutes to go, Ryan and Kara sauntered into the studio, Ryan greeting the when-exactly-did-she-start-making-the-most-sense judge with a rather wandering hand. (Seriously, when did Kara DioGuardi become good? When did I start nodding along with her? When. Did. That. Happen? With Paula gone, my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin has been counting on Kara for sustenance, and for weeks now the poor horned imp has had to turn to old YouTube clips of Paula to sustain him.) Seven minutes to air: Cory welcomed the Top 8 guys, and then Kara strode up to the stage, snatched Cory’s mic, and said to the crowd of literally dozens of people, “Are you guys psyched?!?” Kara then began to agitate for Randy to show himself: “Where’s Randy? Can anybody say Rannnn-dy?! Rannn-dy! Rannn-dy! Randy, get your a– up here!” Randy didn’t take the bait, but Smirkelstiltskin sure felt sated.

Five minutes to air: Randy finally showed up, followed two minutes later by Ellen and her wife, Portia de Rossi; Cory, who managed to get his mic back from Kara, introduced the two judges. Two minutes to air, and Ryan took to the stage. The backstage area became such a swirl of people at that point that I somehow missed Simon’s entrance, but I definitely didn’t miss Ellen crawling onto Simon’s lap during the opening credit sequence. Alas, it wasn’t until about 20 minutes later that I realized Portia was sitting two rows behind me, so I have no idea what she thought of Ellen’s shenanigans.

Katie Stevens sang “Breakaway,” sounding just as flat in the room as she did on TV, but there were still audible gasps around me when Simon said that she “kind of sucked…the energy out of [the song] a little bit.” As they would for much of the night, Kara and Simon chatted over Ryan’s delivery of Katie’s call in number. At the ad break, as they would for almost the entire night, Ellen and Portia gravitated to each other like magnets or some other less clichéd simile, and the two talked while sipping bottled water. They also — well, how to put this politely? Let’s just say that Ellen and Portia are what some people would term affectionate with each other, and others would term handsy. It was adorable.

While Siobhan sang “The House of the Rising Sun,” Debbie the Stage Manager positioned Paige Davis Lacey Brown right next to the judges table, to best position her to get to her mark while Ryan gave out Siobhan’s numbers. Annie Potts Lacey stood right next to Simon, directly in eyeshot, for a good two minutes. And yet, after Ryan had finished with Siobhan’s numbers, Simon and Kara still got up to leave, thinking they were going to an ad break, only to quickly jump back into their seats when they finally realized that Nikki McKibbin Lacey was seconds away from singing.

When the ad break finally did come, all the judges scattered, Simon swiftly walking past saying to seemingly no one in particular, “Chop chop, baby!” Kara walked the other direction, saying to someone in a head-set, “I literally lost where I was on that girl.” Ellen and Portia…talked, and the crew wheeled out Katelyn Epperly’s keyboard. Randy strolled by the backstage seats, and said to no one in particular, “Party crew!” Simon returned with his fiancé Mezhgan Hussainy, and Debbie the Stage Manager began gushing to Simon about his appearance with his betrothed the night before on The Tonight Show: “I’ve never seen you so sweet!” Nearby, Kara chatted up Ellen and Portia, and all this schmoozing meant no one was exactly paying attention to the countdown. The judges had to race back into their seats as the show came back to air.

Katelyn bricked “I Feel the Earth Move,” and at the ad break, Ellen intercepted her for what appeared to be a serious pep talk, ending in a lovely hug. Didi Benami chilled on stage with her guitar, and this time all the judges were back in their seats with 30 seconds to spare. After Didi delivered a lovely take on “Rhiannon,” she walked by the backstage seats, and vocal coach Debra Byrd rushed up to congratulate her, a welcome distraction from Paige Miles’s unfortunate rendition of “Smile.” It was at this point that I realized just how far apart the judges are from the contestants when they get their critique; on TV, it looks like maybe five feet, but it’s at least double that, and when the news is as bleak as it was for Paige, I’m sure it felt even farther.

At the ad break, Simon stalked out of the soundstage with his arms folded the entire time. Ellen intercepted Paige for another pep talk, but this time Idol‘s backstage film crew — which had been busy capturing everyone’s post performance interviews by the backstage stairs leading up to the Coke Belvedere — swooped in to record this iconic exchange for posterity. This time, it ended in smiles, no hugs.

Crystal Bowersox killed with “Give Me One Reason,” so much so that I’d like to think it was the reason Ellen stayed in her seat for the first time at the ad break. Debbie took to the loudspeaker to order all the ladies “to the railing” of the Coke Crow’s Nest. Lilly Scott and her titanium ankles bopped around the stage with her mandolin, and I was intrigued to note just how intensely Kara was staring at the clear-haired contestant. The show came back from its final ad break, and Lilly sang “I Fall To Pieces,” sounding far better in the room than she did coming out of your TV speakers. As the performance recaps played on the big screen, Katelyn practically mauled Lilly with a bear hug, and then all the ladies turned to watch their pre-recorded dress rehearsal performances. (There’s a reason you can’t make out any of the judges in those clips.)

And with that, the show was over. Kara delivered some high fives to the audience, while Randy, Ellen, Simon, and Ryan all quickly went their separate ways. As I walked out of the studio, I realized just how close we are to the true start of Idol season 9: The massive rafters and steel set pieces that make up Idoldome were neatly stacked two stories high throughout the parking lot directly behind Stage 36, patiently awaiting their assembly.

I’ll return tomorrow with a recap of the Top 8 boys night, but until then, dear readers, does this behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt satisfy your curiosity about Ellen and Simon’s relationship? (Or is that even possible?) What else would you like to know about the semi-final experience? And, for realsies, how in the name of Paula Abdul did Kara become the most consistently thoughtful and constructive judge on the show?

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