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'American Idol': On the scene for Simon Cowell's last night in the Idoldome (and, oh yeah, the results)

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Image Credit: Michael Becker/PictureGroupThere was already a celebration underway on stage when I first walked into the Idoldome last night — the final night this season for the Idoldome, point of fact, as next week the show moves what is sure to be its mildly diverting positively riveting finale to downtown Los Angeles in the behemoth Nokia Theater, a.k.a. the IdolDeathStar. Surveying the scene back in the Idoldome, for a second I surmised the ongoing festivities were for Casey, Crystal, and Lee, since all twelve season 9 finalists were there (including that one with the red hair! and the other one with the color contacts!), as were Ryan Seacrest and Debbie the Stage Manager. But then I spotted several Idol PAs, a few network suit types, and three out of the four American Idol judges, all gathered around a giant cake with candles, and the audience was up on its feet, happily cheering away. “Oh, of course,” I thought, “the Simon Cowell farewell festivities have begun! This is the man’s final night inside the Idoldome, after all. That’s kinda sweet that they actually managed to do something for him off camera.” But wait, then why was Simon nowhere to be seen? And why did the Idoldome’s Thunderscreen read “Happy Birthday Mike” overtop old photos of a kinda nebbish looking kid who looked like he would grow up to become pretty much the exact physical opposite of Big Mike Lynch?

Oh, it’s because it was a birthday celebration for Mike Darnell, head of reality TV for Fox, and the man immediately responsible for hiring pretty much all of the on-camera Idol talent except for Simon Cowell. Which is perhaps why Simon was the only person not on the Idol stage 30 minutes before the show was to begin, helping Darnell celebrate his birthday. (And why Didi Benami just about tackled Darnell like he was her best of besties ever.) “Where is he?” asked Ryan at one point about the soon-to-be erstwhile Idol judge, before quickly concluding, “Oh, he’s taping his shirt on.” Ah, yes, it’s dry wit like that that I’m sure Simon will miss so terribly when he’s swimming in his money bin gone from the show.

After Darnell was feted, the cake was wheeled off, and the judges (sans Simon) began conversing with the final three Idols — Ellen had an especially earnest pow-wow with Lee, although I think most conversations with Lee likely fall into that general category — before Debbie finally shooed everyone off stage. To pass the time before the show began, Cory the Warm-Up Comic did something I’ve never once witnessed Cory the Warm-Up Comic do before an episode of American Idol: He broke free from the shackles of his tightly-scripted warm-up routine (which has not changed since I transcribed it beat-for-vexatious-beat four years ago) and did something completely new. And by completely new, I mean pulled audience members onto the catwalk behind the judge’s table for a game of Don’t Forget the Lyrics, something Cory often does before pre-taped Idol guest performances — but beggars can’t be choosers.

Cory’s five contestants made quick work of lyrics from the likes of “Billie Jean” and “Who Let the Dogs Out” when (as your Aunt Whittlz might say) Your. Bottom. 9. made their way to their seats in the audience. “Give it up for your top 10!” Cory mis-counted. As the Don’t Forget the Lyrics folk settled into mastering the complex wordplay of ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Aaron and Katie started a hug line for the lovely Idol audience seat coordinator, and Big Mike and Andrew high fived one of the growing swarm of bodyguards that’ve seemed to multiply like Tribbles every time I’ve returned to the Idoldome this season.

With five minutes to go, Cory’s mis-firing synapses unfortunately began working again, and in a flash he snapped back into his deeply worn pre-show groove, once again pulling a grown man onto the stage to “shake that booty.” Mercifully, that’s all he had time to do, as there were judges to (re-)introduce. Ellen worked the crowd into a frothy lather simply by doing a quick lasso dance move. Kara delivered hugs to everyone along the bottom 9. Finally, with 25 seconds left, Simon Cowell finally emerged for the final time into the Idoldome, and, oh yeah that’s right, we’ve got an Idol results show to do! There’s a final two to decide and stuff! It is going to be totally suspenseful and not foreordained at all! And Ryan certainly isn’t going to awkwardly sap away the audience’s will to remain conscious by engaging the top 3 contestants in an endless discussion that only serves to triple underline just how enervating this season has been, a discussion that at one point will cause Simon to drop his head back and stare at the ceiling with an expression that screams, “Dear God, I cannot be rid of this bloody show fast enough!” Nope! That won’t happen at all!

Oh that’s right, it did, and as we entered the first ad break, Simon gave Kara an exasperated shrug before just about sprinting out of the room. Debbie sat with the top 3 and fell into hysterics cackling over something or someone Crystal pointed out in the audience. And Cory caused a swaybot to burst into tears when he revealed that Justin Bieber’s appearance would not, in fact, be live. (Click here for John Young’s on the scene report from the week long ago when Bieber pre-taped his performance.)

Casey watched most of his visit back home sitting on the lip of the stage with Debbie, and Simon’s mood brightened after we met the woman who got Casey to sign her dog. At the ad break, Cory joked around with a female chaplain holding a “Cougars for Casey Jones” sign (not a typo), and I tried mightily to make sense of the young girl holding a professionally printed sign that read “My Vintage Baby [Hearts] Casey,” with the heart outlined in leopard print. (The preceding is currently leading the race for my favorite on-the-scene recap sentence this season.) Ryan, meanwhile, talked with Perez Hilton, the first time I’d noticed the online-gossip-doyenne-cum-burgeoning-musical-talent-scout-nonpareil had graced the Idoldome with his inimitable presence. There was no missing him, though, once the judges made it back into the studio, since Simon’s face brightened the moment he saw the former Mario Lavandeira; the judge made a bee-line to shake Hilton’s hand even as Debbie got to “2” in her countdown back to the show.

A quick study of the strange science that is Hollywood gravitational physics: If you didn’t already notice, Perez’s latest find, Travis Garland, pre-taped last night’s Idol performance about an hour before I arrived at the Idoldome. The judges never normally bother to come back into the Idoldome for pretaped performances, but they did for Garland’s, placidly taking in the pleather-vested Justin-Timberlake-usurper’s song-and-dance act on the Thunderscreen while Perez Hilton periodically nodded, cheered, and whoop-whooped his hands in the air. After we entered the ad break, the judges didn’t leave, either. Instead, Simon, Kara, Randy, and Ellen all crowded around the left edge of the judges platform, eagerly leaning over and concentrating on Perez’s every word and gesticulation to them. They remained that way for the entire ad break, until Perez finally jumped up on the platform for a quick photo op, and then like that, whoof, he was gone, never to be seen for the rest of the night. (For those wondering, no, Smirkelstiltskin was not in the Idoldome at the time; my snark demon must stay a half-mile radius from Mr. Hilton ever since he tried to steal a blood sample from the celeb blogger to prove paternity. The test was inconclusive.)

Crystal watched her going home segment on the velvet couches with Ryan, before moving to the silver stool about the time she was going home to see her pops on the Thunderscreen. Cue waterworks. Lee followed pretty much the same pattern for his going home segment, except this time, the waterworks were my own as much as Lee’s. (Crying dads + Crying sons = Crying Beav.) Indeed, after Lee’s segment concluded, Crystal was moved to give him a standing ovation.

The warm feelings must have spread to the judges as well; not only did all four stick around for the ad break, but they all dispersed into the audience to greet to special guests and sign autographs for squealing fans. Simon, in fact, stayed put the longest out of all four, gladhanding the crowd until the show came back from the break for the Bieber’s pre-taped segment. Perhaps the hard-hearted Brit was feeling a twinge of sentimentality about his last night in the Idoldome after all.

The Biebs showed off some decent drum skills, Siobhan and the one who butchered “Against All Odds” danced in their seats, and Tim and Big Mike shared a few laughs. In the final ad break, Lee shuffled over to the stage right swaypit, kneeled down, and chatted up the swaybots with the sheepish smile of a man who’d only just discovered he’s been exactly where he wants to be for months now. Crystal chugged some water and talked to a PA, and Casey wandered aimlessly upstage. Finally, Debbie arranged the trio stage center, and it was finally time to put the blond Texan bar singer out of his misery learn our results.

Curiously, right before Ryan launched into his always exciting summary of the judge’s comments, Simon ran his hands through his hair several times over, which only makes sense as a rare expression of anxiety, since the action made no difference whatsoever on the shape and position of the man’s hair. Anyhoo, when Ryan told Lee he’d made the finale, the audience just about exploded with happiness. For the first time I honestly believed the taciturn kid had a shot of winning the whole thing, a feeling compounded after Ryan rather swiftly told Crystal she’d also made the finale and the crowd mustered merely some rote cheers. As Casey sang his swan song, Crystal yanked Lee into a congratulatory hug, and I began to wonder if MamaSox was pulling for Lee to win as much as the Idoldome audience clearly was.

Then came the customary post-top-3-results-show finale coin toss. While Debbie arranged the camera crews and judges around the stage, Lee yelled out to the audience, “This is awesome, by the way — I just wanted to say that.” When Crystal saw the “coin” Ryan was going to toss, with her and Lee’s face on either side, she expressed disappointment that no one was going to “call” the coin toss. “Is it, like, chocolate wrapped?” she joked. But when Ryan tossed the coin and it landed in Crystal’s favor, the young mother turned to the former paint shop employee and said, “If I go second, promise not to hate me?” Lee sort of shrugged and smiled, as if to say, “What, I’m going to say I hate you for taking the finale pimp slot while cameras are in my face?” And then Crystal made it official: “I’ll do second.” Maybe MamaSox has a killer instinct to win after all.

What say you, dear readers? Did last night’s outcome satisfy you? Whose going home package had you tearing up the most? Did Perez Hilton’s presence help convince you that Travis Garland will follow in the formidable footsteps of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga? And are you Team Lee, Team Crystal, or Team Kradam-Would’ve-Blown-These-Two-Out-Of-The-Water?