By Adam B. Vary
Updated March 11, 2009 at 02:59 PM EDT
Michael Becker/American Idol/Getty Images

This is only my third year driving myself across West Los Angeles from the EW LA bureau offices to CBS Television City, parking at the nearby mall, trundling up to Stage 36, and settling into the American Idol Thunderdome for an hour (or two) of rotating Idol logos, warm-up comics, flat-screen monitors, standing spectators, brushed steel, blue neon, lighting packages, judge bickering and, oh yeah, musical performances by potential Kelly Clarksons (or Sanjaya Malakars). But it certainly wasn’t a surprise for me that yesterday was the start of three months of on the scene, here’s-what-you-didn’t-see-on-TV Idol reports. Apparently, though, the fact that there was a live television show to put on at precisely 5 p.m. Pacific Time kinda snuck up on the folks at Fox and CBS Studios. The studio pages were still shuffling in audience members, and set PAs still fixing up the set, with just nine minutes to go before showtime. The seats were incorrectly labeled, making finding section G, Row 6, Seat 6 a super fun challenge. And come showtime, there somehow still weren’t enough bodies to fill the seats, which meant my fellow row-mates — including Season 7 favorite Chikezie (pictured, inset) and Season 6…contestant Phil I-can’t-remember-his-last-name-oh-that’s-right-it’s Stacey — and I had to “fill out” the row by sitting astride two seats each. Maybe everybody was thrown by the early switch to daylight saving time?

Most shocking of all: No Cory the Warm-Up Comic! (For those of you new to Idol and/or these write-ups, Cory is — or, perhaps, was — the regular Idol warm-up “comedian” notorious among those of us paid to cover the Idol stage each week for the simple fact that he does the exact same warm-up routine for every single show. Two years ago, I broke down and gave a detailed account of this routine, which you can read here — if you dare.) Suffice it to say, Cory’s become such a fixture of my Idol experience that his absence from the first finalist show of the season was a bit like the shock of a Paula Abdul capable of speaking in complete, cogent, insightful sentences. But just a bit.

As for the rest of the show, from my seat it was the most satisfying start to Idol‘s final rounds I’ve experienced since I started covering this pop-culture steamroller in season six. This could be due to my drastically lowered expectations for the season — I only counted a single fan-made sign before the show started (“Anoop Dog: Chapel Thrill! Represent!”), which played right into my fear that we’ve barely had time to get invested in any of the contestants this season. But as the show neared its close, my row-mate Chikezie put it as well as anyone: “This is a great night!” After the jump, I’ll give you the full breakdown of the evening, including why so much of Jorge’s performance was shot from the waist up, whether Adam Lambert (pictured) came over better live and in-person or live-on-the-East-Coast and on your TV, and how the audience knew it was Megan’s brother’s birthday well before home viewers did. Also: More commentary from Chikezie!

addCredit(“Michael Becker/American Idol/Getty Images”)

Instead of Cory, we were treated to the more free-wheeling comic stylings of Johnny D., a sometime sub for Cory in seasons past whose main warm-up strategy consists of getting the audience “to an 11!” by offering to reward the loudest audience members with iTunes gift cards, Coca-Cola merch and you-can-only-get-’em-here-folks iPod Touches with the American Idol logo engraved on the back. Although a successful strategy, Johnny was not immune to recycling his old jokes; I distinctly recall hearing the guy yap, “We don’t let the ugly people in anymore — we send them over to The Price Is Right” once or twice before. I wasn’t paying too much attention, though, since I was too busy eavesdropping on Phil Stacey explaining to another audience member that he, Chikezie, Gina Glocksen and Melinda Doolittle are launching a tour beginning this Sunday. Before I knew it, it was just a minute before airtime. As the Idols were lined up on stage and Allison Iraheta “waved” to someone she knew in the audience by breaking into some kind of spastic chicken dance, the judges were nowhere to be seen.

We quickly learned Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon were hiding behind the Idol Thunder-door, and although Ryan Seacrest seemed convinced Simon loved the grand entrance, literally a half-second before the show began, everyone in the studio heard what sounded like Simon saying “…humiliate ourselves.” No, Simon, I’d say forcing Ryan to walk down stairs that were like a Bubsy Berkeley musical by way of Starlight Express was what drifted far into the land of indignity. But I digress.

Lil Rounds sang first, and I caught the judges talking through parts of her introductory video package. (For the newbies, this isn’t really all that shocking; during the show, the judges tend to whisper among themselves pretty much whenever the cameras aren’t focused on them. Well, save for Kara. Throughout last night’s show, Simon and Paula nattered away pretty much during all the introductory video packages, but Randy kept running smack into Kara’s “Randy! I’m watching this!” face whenever he tried to natter with her. Clearly, Ms. DioGuardi doesn’t quite understand how things work in her new clique.) At the first ad break, while the Idol roadies wheeled in Scott’s grand piano, Simon pulled all the judges in for the rare all-judge conference, Paula made for the exit, Randy and Simon high-fived, Kara meekly waved to the crowd, and Scott was guided on stage and took his seat at the piano. Chikezie, meanwhile, made a bathroom run, but headed for the one reserved for crew and contestants backstage. Old habits and all. By the time he was redirected to the temporary toilets lined up outside the studio, we were back from the break, and he missed the entire second segment, forcing poor Phil to straddle three full seats.

Scott MacIntyre sang, and the dreaded Swaybots — their numbers drastically cut with the addition of the new Idol Videodrom performance space in front of the judges — got bold and initiated Operation Hand Clap Above the Head. “Keep the Faith” co-songwriter Siedah Garrett was on her feet barely the moment after Paula name-checked her on live TV, but she sat down so fast that I couldn’t tell how she felt when Simon subsequently slammed her on live TV. During the ad break, Johnny D. gave out his first Idol-branded iPod Touch of the night to a kid named C.J. celebrating his 21st birthday. (Johnny D. even checked his ID to be sure.) Only later when Megan Corkrey announced it on air did we learn that C.J. was her kid brother; it could have just been me, but I could feel a sudden, palpable sense of injustice at someone connected to the show “winning” an Idol iPod Touch, birthday or no, wash over the audience at that moment. OK, it was probably just me.

Next up, Danny Gokey growled and jived through M.J.’s “P.Y.T.,” and, believe me, the judges’ fixation on his dancing was well founded. It looked like a lot of it was either cut-off from the frame or missed completely when the camera cut away, but the dude was high-steppin’ all over that stage, and I gotta agree with Randy — it actually kinda worked. (I’d seen Gokey’s dancing at the Top 13 party last Thursday, and last night was a distinct improvement.) Chikezie and Phil were certainly up and grooving with Gokey, to the point where Chikezie began looking around him at all the people still in their seats with a face that screamed, “What is wrong with you? Get up and dance!” When Michael Sarver launched into his key-changing high note halfway through “You Are Not Alone,” meanwhile, Randy swung around to Simon to share some bit of clearly vital information, earning a quick nod from Mr. Cowell. My guess: “Dude, we’re liking this dude this week, right dawg?” At the ad break, Randy was back whispering sweet nothings into Simon’s ear while Johnny D. took stock of the five total (!) fan-made signs in the audience. (The count: Two for Anoop, and one each for Danny, Jasmine, and Alexis.)

After Princess Jasmine bleated through “I’ll Be There” — and I detected no boos when Simon called her robotic and like a little girl trying to be a grown-up — the judges left for the ad break, and I took a (desperately needed) pee break (thanks Coke Zero!), so hopefully nothing of major import went down while I was scurrying outside to the quite well-kept Port-a-Johns. I got back just in time to see Kris Allen take the stage, or, rather, hear Kris take the stage, since the Swaybots were all atwitter (and, if they managed to sneak the verboten cell phones and Blackberries inside the studio, probably all a-Twitter too) at the mere sight of Season 8’s resident adorable/sexy singer. But the moment Kris mentioned his wife in the intro package, their squeals of adolescent delight turned on a dime into gasps, groans and even a few squeals of adolescent outrage, and though I didn’t see it, I daresay Kris’ wife probably began to fear for her person. That’s certainly what Simon picked up on when he told Kris he shouldn’t have brought out his wife so soon; when Ryan asked Simon about his relationship, Chikezie busted out laughing: “Oooo! Got ‘im!” (For the record, Simon’s ex Terry Seymour was in the audience, and the two were perfectly friendly with each other.)

One of the most interesting phenomena about watching the show on stage is marking the contrasts between how the singers sound live and on TV. Usually, the studio’s speakers blow out minor imperfections that you can easily catch through your television, but last night, the bias worked in the opposite direction. Due respect to Slezak, but in the room, Allison’s “Give Into Me” had several audience members (including me) a bit nonplussed. Beyond the fact that no one knew the song, the sound system muddled her lower notes, favoring the band over her vocals — but I still loved the way Allison giggled right into the mic before her song began. Anoop Desai, alas, came over even worse live than on TV, where he at least could benefit from close-ups to carry over the energy missing from the blah monotony that crept into his singing. Still, ‘Noop Dawg did get the obligatory standing O, which is more than I can say for poor Jorge Nuñez. I was a bit taken aback at how, um, vigorously he chose to swing his hips as he performed, something you didn’t really get to see on screen at all given that the producers made sure the 21-year-old’s seemingly double-jointed pelvis was kept out of camera range. It wasn’t until I watched the show back, however, that I realized just how potent the Puerto Rican’s pipes are. On stage, he was overwhelmed by the 1970s easy listening arrangement blasting out from the band, and for the first time that night, I noticed many audience members chose to render their applause with their keisters rooted to their chairs.

At the ad break, Hell’s Kitchen‘s Gordon Ramsay entered with a flourish (and, I believe, for the first time that night), and greeted the judges and the crowd with nary a whiff of his make-the-bad-man’s-pulsating-neck-vein-stop-scaring-the-crap-out-of-me temper. (It would seem he and Simon are pals; the two talked incessantly, during intro packages and ad breaks, for the rest of the show.) I’ve got nothing much to share about Megan Corkrey’s “Rockin’ Robin,” thankfully, other than I was utterly transfixed by the day-glo ’70s graphic playing behind her on the Thunder-screen. Adam Lambert, however…well, jeebus, where to start? As good as it played on TV, his “Black or White” was fifty times better live: Electric and bracing in the best way, he had the audience so charged up, it reminded me of David Cook’s best performances last season. That said, Paula’s praise was so over-the-top effusive that it caused Chikezie to wonder out loud, “Is she crying?” No, she just always sounds like she is. (I’m loving Paula’s streak of lucidity this season, truly, but try closing your eyes the next time she talks and you’ll see what I mean.)

By the time the Idol roadies were rolling out the grand piano for Matt Giraud, the show was running desperately long, so both he and Alexis Grace got the short shrift with the judges comments. I didn’t mind it so much for Matt; Simon’s “meat and potatoes” assessment of his “Human Nature” sounds about right to me. But I don’t know what performance the judges were watching when Alexis took the stage, because from the back row, the tiny mom knocked me silly with her ferocious-yet-graceful attack of “Dirty Diana.” Seriously, I don’t know how a performance that muscular could come out of a woman that tiny, and from how vigorously the judges talked with each other during her performance, I thought they agreed with me. I guess not. (When Alexis finished, Kara started pointing at Simon, imploring him to go first, but Simon evidently does not enjoy having the first word nearly as much as he does the last, or next-to-last.)

Annnnnnd scene. Mostly. After Ryan closed the show and pointed us to our local Fox affiliate news, he immediately threw off his jacket and made a bee-line for backstage — only to be pulled back onstage, sans tie, by Debbie the Stage Manager for a quick Idol promo set to play tomorrow during Lie to Me. Two takes later, we were headed out the door, listening to Phil Stacey rhapsodize over Megan with the LA TimesRichard Rushfield. Chikezie leaned over to me and whispered, “Which one’s Megan?” The one with the tattoos down her arm, I answered, who sang “Rockin’ Robin.” Chikezie made a stank face. “Seriously? They’re joking, right?” No, Chikezie, no they weren’t.

Phew! Tomorrow, I’ll have a report from tonight’s results show, which promises performances by Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson — and I’ll take your bets now, PopWatchers, as to whether they pre-tape their performances before the show begins or go for it live. While you’re at it, who stood out for you last night? Were you impressed by what you saw of Danny’s dancing? Did you agree that Alexis was merely good, not great? And given the pics of Adam Lambert engaged in some same-sex smooching that’ve made the rounds recently, were you as impressed as I was by the Swaybots congregated outside the Idol studio, all twitterpated over which aspect of Adam they found the absolute dreamiest?