By Adam B. Vary
Updated March 14, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT


ou would think I’d be wise to this by now, what with the entertainment journo gig and all, but every single time I step onto the set of a popular television show, my immediate reaction is, without fail, “It’s so small!” And such were my thoughts upon entering Stage 36 on the CBS Television City lot for the first live performance episode of American Idol, season 6: the darn stage is frakkin’ tiny. My old high school’s auditorium is bigger than Idol stage. By a good, oh, 33 percent at least. Yeah, wide-angle lenses really do work wonders. So if you heard someone giggle last night after Paula tried to soothe Brandon Rogers’ nerves by describing the joint as a “big, big concert hall,” well, it was probably me. Seriously, that’s like calling the local YMCA’s basketball gym with pullout rafters the Staples Center. And that metaphor is totally solid.

So, yeah, as you may have figured, it was my very first live Idol experience, and it may have left me just a wee bit jaded. Which isn’t exactly the best sign, as my trusty colleague Shirley Halperin and I will be typing up our On The Scene dispatches from Stage 36 for the rest of the season. Shirley is a live Idol veteran — she’s done, like, eight tours of duty on this show… or something — and she assures me the hangover fades quickly, so I’m going to trust her experience and give myself a serious attitude adjustment right in the here and now. Because, dear readers, there were definitely some interesting things going down behind-the-scenes. Here’s the skinny from where I sat (Sec. D, Row 5, Seat 7, i.e. waaay in the back, stage left).

addCredit(“Blake Lewis: Frank Micelotta”)

I arrived around T-minus-70 minutes or so, and for the nexthalf-hour, as audience members quietly filed in, there was little moreto do than try to guess the two songs playing in the series of funkyremixed mash-ups — like “Bootylicious” jelly-ing over the horns from”Superstition.” But just as I began to wonder, “Hey, shouldn’t thisthing be starting soon?” — and all I could do was wonder, since cellphones are verboten and I use mine as my timepiece — Corey the Warm-UpComic took to the stage with a massive burst of energy. We’re talkinggoing from 0 to, I dunno, does 200 mph in one second sound fast to you?Soon enough, he had (most) of us on our feet, pumping our arms andclapping in unison before beginning his night-long shtick of workingthe crowds by speaking exclusively either to women who wanted to hugSimon and/or Ryan (sorry, ladies, but I think it was made pretty clearlast night that each steadfastly believes the other is a homosexual) ortween-and-youngers, many of whom wanted free stuff. Before I get toocynical yet again, it seemed a little unnerving to me how many of thesewee ones were from far- flung states like Texas and New York but stillsomehow managing to hitting their second or third live Idol show before reaching puberty.

Actually, Corey the Warm-Up Comic was pretty solid; he kept it lightand up and moving, and he managed to have this exchange with some ofthe aforementioned tweenies (these ones from Beverly Hills) during anad break:

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What you really want to know iswhat Randy, Paula, Simon and Ryan are like when the cameras aren’t on,isn’t it? Well, when the first ad break arrived, they all made abeeline for the door, but as the evening wore on all four began to workthe crowd, Ryan going to the girls who wanted to hug him, Simon amiablysummoning the girls who wanted to hug him up to the judges table. Andthere’s a lot of conferencing with executive producer Nigel Lythgoe,who spent most of the taping sitting just to the judges’ left in theaudience. Did you notice how Randy stopped keeping score for the womenvs. the men after his “one for the women, zero for the men” comment toMelinda? Well, I have no way of proving this, but soon after, Nigelmade his first trip to the judging table, and I have the feeling he mayhave said, “Dawg, can it with the scorekeeping,” ’cause he knows thewhole battle of the sexes thing only calls to attention how lacklusterthis Top 12 is turning out to be thus far. (I so miss me some season 5.)

What was most surprising, however, was how often the judges wouldtalk with each other through pretty much a contestant’s entireperformance. And not just talk, but act like a bunch of eighth-graderssitting in the back of the auditorium mocking all the theater geeksrehearsing The Music Man. Not that Sanjaya really earned theirundivided attention, but did Randy and Paula really have start actingout cheesy dramatic arm moves during the “Can’t Hurry Love” bridge? Howcan Randy justify criticizing Phil Stacey’s performance chops when hewas nattering away with his judging BFFs for half the song?

Because at least Phil has an idea about how to work a stage. I don’tmean to step on my colleague Michael Slezak’s brilliant TV Watch toeshere, but without all the whip-pans, dutch-angled zooms and extremeclose-ups, I really got a solid feel for which contestants rocked outtheir real estate — that’d be Melinda, Phil, LaKisha, and Blake (pictured) — andwhich wandered around like a lost little puppy — that’d be Brandon,Sligh, Gina, and Chris Richardson, who looked like he was psychinghimself up to take that walk into the audience. Gina, meanwhile, washandicapped by the fact that the center of the Idol stage islittered with these dark ovals made out of a textured material that arerecessed into the main flooring — in other words, absolute murder onthe high heels. Perhaps that’s why Haley Scarnato was limping as sheleft the Idol stage after her performance?

Finally, I’ve got make a quick note on the sound. After watching theshow back on TV this morning, it was stunning to me how much bettereveryone sounded live on stage. Or, um, how much loudereveryone sounded on stage, the volume blasting out some of the moresubtle imperfections in the vocals. Even the deafening roar of theaudience after Melinda’s and LaKisha’s performances barely translatesto the tube. (I had no idea what Randy said to them until I saw it onTV.) And perhaps the reason none of the judges took too well to Blake’supdated version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was because no one in theaudience could really hear those electronic beats Blake put down overthe live band. Like, at all. I kept waiting to hear those zerps and bloopsI saw splashed over Blake’s slick Apple laptop, but they never reachedmy ears. In fact, I’m even wondering if the producers may have justpiped them in directly to the TV soundtrack, because we definitely didhear the beats during the recap at the end of the show. Huh.

Annnnnd… scene! I promise tomorrow’s recap of the results showwon’t be nearly as a) world-weary; b) long; and c) generalobservation-y.

Meanwhile, do you have any burning questions about the live Idol shows, PopWatchers, that I can try to root out answers for you?