By Adam B. Vary
Updated December 20, 2019 at 08:56 AM EST

Here’s one way to know you’ve been covering American Idol for too long: You dream you’re standing on the Idol Thunderdome stage watching Scotty MacIntyre rocking out to a Ziggy Stardustian number while standing on his outsized, bedazzled grand piano, climaxing in a very rough, Greatest American Hero-style stage dive onto the piano bench. And then — after Simon Cowell asks you on live TV for advice on what Chikeze (yes, Chikeze) should sing next, and you somehow suggest doing an R&B spin on the folk stylings of Nick Drake — you wake up, and your first thought is that Smirkelstiltskin, the snark demon you invented that appeared on your shoulder one day while covering American Idol, has finally invaded your subconscious.

In other words: Hi everyone! I’ve missed you all! Gawsh, it’s been a long three weeks — during which, among other things, I fulfilled a years-long ambition and had my debut on Idolatry (woot!) — but I know my partner-in-crime Aunt Whittlz (as well as the most excellent subs Alynda Wheat and Lynette Rice) have kept you well steeped in juicy behind-the-scenery and scrumptious snarkitude. But I’ve got to ask y’all somethin’: I may have been gone a while, but this is the first week the band moved down to the stage, right? It was a startling sight, dear readers, but a welcome one. The singers so rarely use the extreme wings of the stage, why not bring the band — minus a couple drum sets and a bank of keyboards left all lonesome on the second level — down to occupy that real estate instead? It certainly helped amp up the energy in the crowd something fierce. Seriously, that was unquestionably one of if not the most electrified live Idol audience I’ve ever witnessed. And that was before Katie Couric (pictured) and Steven Van Zandt stepped inside the Idol Thunderdome. (Yeah, I know, Whittlz calls it the Idoldome, and while I admire her rhetorical economy, Smirkel’s made it clear he prefers the former. You try disagreeing with that adorable pockmarked punim of his.)

Yup, America’s (Newscasting) Sweetheart herself was in the house last night, swooping in with a sizable entourage before the show just as the PAs began teaching the Swaybot Pit how to clap above their heads. (Again.) Wearing a chic black coat and cream white scarf, Couric hobnobbed with her buddies for a bit, and then made a point to give a hello-and-a-hug to Christina Applegate (who, ensconced right behind the judges’ table, had to my eye the better seat) as the band began to settle in and warm up. Then, oddly, at T-minus 18 minutes to air, Couric’s handler pulled the CBS Evening News anchor and her crew out of their seats and backstage again. Huh, I thought. Why would they make Couric leave just minutes after she arriv…

“AwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwWWWWWWWWWW YEAH, MAKE SOME NOIZE!” Oh. Right. Cory.

addCredit(“Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty Images”)

To be fair, Couric was gone just long enough to miss only the first act of Cory’s warm up routine, a.k.a. Pull Grown-Ass Adults On Stage And Make Them Shake Their Bootay. Which is too bad, really, because she missed some unusually eager dancers, including, it turned out, a rather fervently spastic gentleman sitting in Couric’s row. Once Cory was through with the audience participation, Couric and Co. came breezing back in, all smiles, right as Steven Van Zandt made his first appearance in the Idol Thunderdome and sat in the row in front of Couric’s. “Do I have any East Coasters in the house?!” asked Cory. Last I checked, Couric and Van Zandt hail from back east, but I guess both have moved or something, because neither of them clapped in response.

Cory then briefly terrified me, and exhilarated Smirkel, when he told the audience that “you’re going to recognize all the songs, so sing along,” but thankfully, no such karaoke train-wreck ever befell the show. (Actually, come to think of it, it’s kinda amazing that an audience sing-along hasn’t ever happened in eight seasons of the show, huh?) The judges were introduced, starting with Randy, who took so much time shooting the breeze with his dearest old friend Katie Couric that none of the other judges had time even to throw The Woman Who Brought Down Sarah Palin a quick wave. Ryan walked in with 25 seconds to go, and took so much time chatting up his oldest bud Quentin Tarantino that Debbie the Stage Manager had to physically push RyRy to his spot when she was on second 5 of her countdown. “This,” glowered QT, “is American Idol!

It was during Ryan’s introduction of the judges that I began to realize Kara DioGuardi had seeded the audience with at least a dozen of rabid fans and/or friends and relatives. Three of them — one of whom I was convinced for half the night was Mary Alice from Desperate Housewives but, alas, was not — leapt to their feet at the mere mention of Kara’s name and did the kind of rapid, awkwardly enthusiastic fist pumps that only white moms seem to know how to do. These women were so deeply intriguing that I almost missed the moment during QT’s intro package when Simon beckoned Ryan over, Ryan placed his hand firmly on Simon’s thigh, and Simon began talking into Ryan’s ear, in the way that he physically placed his lips on Ryan’s ear. Smirkel nearly fainted.

As Allison’s intro package came to an end, she looked into the audience and gave the universal hand signal for “raising” the “roof,” which I think at least seven or eight people in the audience echoed back in kind — I’m fairly certain that at most half that number actually know her. I found Allison’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” to be surprisingly meh — I love the girl, but it’s fast becoming clear she isn’t so much with the higher notes (interrupt that, Averett!) — but judging from the audience’s rabid applause, I was steadfastly in the minority. Even Steven Van Zandt and Katie Couric gave standing Os in approval — which, I would learn throughout the evening, is quite rare indeed.

As the first ad break came to a close, the judges filing in with just 40 seconds to go, I noticed two burly men in conspicuously “plain” clothes, each with Secret Service-style ear-pieces firmly tucked into their right ear, take seats right next to QT and Couric. Huh, I thought. Don’t believe I’ve seen bodyguards assigned to celebrity guests before. Wonder why fellow bold-faced names Christina Applegate and Kimberley Locke didn’t get one. (To be continued.) Meanwhile, Anoop accomplished more with “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” than he had any right to — he sounded particularly choice on theThunderdome sound system — but Couric and Van Zandt remained seated.

Next up, Sasha Fierce Adam Lambert, who had the Swaypit in full shriek before ‘Noop Dawg had even a chance to leave the stage. About halfway through his “Born to be Wild,” I began laughing out loud, for several reasons: A) When he’s on stage, the kid refuses to make a single apology for who he is, and I just love that; B) He’s apparently always going to alternate between delicately sung, goosebumpley ballads and over-the-top up-tempo spectacles, and there’s something admirable in that consistency; and C) As Whittlz and I are scheduled to alternate weeks for the rest of the season, I am apparently fated to only experience Lambert’s outsized rock god and never his tender wounded dove. For some reason, Smirkel could not be happier.

Neither, for that matter, could the audience, which roared with such genuine elation that it even got Van Zandt, who I gathered from his body language wasn’t entirely a Lambert fan, on his feet. Couric, by contrast, was standing with the multitudes the moment Lambert began rounding for home on his final vocal run. “You dare to dance in the path of greatness,” pontificated Paula, and in one of my favorite moments of the night, some blessed person seated a few rows in front of me yelled out an incredulous “What?” in response. Seriously, go back to your DVR and listen — you can’t miss it.

The second ad break descended, and the bodyguards seated to QT’s direct right and Couric’s direct left quickly stood up and walked off. Huh, I thought. Wouldn’t bodyguards be most needed when we weren’t broadcasting on live TV? Before I had time to ponder the moment’s broader implications, though, I saw Simon hugging Couric, Paula and Randy talking with Van Zandt, and Kara…well, Kara was walking out the door. As the stagehands brought in Giraud’s piano, Debbie sat with QT until Van Zandt and some autograph-seeking fans came over to pay their respects to the director with floppy black hair that Smirkel kept whispering evoked the distictive coif of a certain Nazi dictator. (I didn’t see it personally.) Kara finally made it back into the Thunderdome, and had just enough time to give a warm hug to…Christina Applegate. So, to be clear, for Kara DioGuardi, the former Married…With Children sexpot takes priority over the national news journalist and Bruce Springsteen’s longtime mic partner.

I don’t know what to say about Giraud other than while he sounded better singing live in the studio than on TV, he was the first singer last night not to earn a perfunctory spontaneous standing ovation from the entire audience. Oh, and he’s my pick to go home in’s Idol Prediction Challenge. Sorry, dude. At the ad break, Kara intercepted Paula and Randy before they could escape and brought them up to meet her friends/family/cult followers, who made up what seemed like half the center section of the audience. After escaping the DioGuardian Swarm, Paula and Randy came upon Ryan talking with Couric, a roving photographer pounced, and before anyone knew what was happening, Kara darted in to take the photo you see at the start of this post. (OK, yeah, technically the photographer invited her to join in, but that’s only because the DioGuardian Swarm’s mental vibrations were fixed on the photog’s psychic microphone. I mean, clearly.) And where was Simon during all this? No idea, but I’m going to wildly speculate that he was rewatching the YouTube clip of Susan Boyle in his trailer and having himself a good cry.

Danny took on “Endless Love,” and afterwards when Simon deigned to point out that the arrangement was maybe a bit generic and safe, several people seated around me became enflamed —enflamed! — with righteous indignation. One gentleman two rows in front of me with frosted hair a laSeacrest circa Season 3 even jumped to his feet with French Revolutionary ferocity (I told you it was a frisky audience), and for the first time I seriously worried for the judge’s safety. I needn’t have been. At the ad break, just as my vexation was reaching a full boil over why the two bodyguards only sat next to their respective non-Fox affiliated film director and news anchor when the cameras were on, a full platoon of beefy men in ear-pieces who’ve all seen the softer side of Sears suddenly loomed into the studio, which corresponded to the first time all four judges remained in their seats. Huh, I thought. I’ve been covering Idol for two-and-a-half seasons now, but this is the first time I think I’ve really paid attention to just how many bodyguards are stalking the judges. You better believe that from now on I’m going to pay attention to whether they always station guards in the seats that just happen to be next to famous faces. Gonna blow this thing wide open, I am. Yessiree.

Just before we came back from the break, Debbie showed Ryan where he was due to stand to start the segment, but Ryan began panicking when he couldn’t read the prompter, parked far above the stage atop a crane-rigged camera. You must understand, Ryan Seacrest does not panic, but there he was, scrambling across the stage and demanding the steadicam prompter be turned on so he could go over his swiftly impending lines. Randy, meanwhile, was gabbing it up with his dearest old friend Quentin Tarantino, and although Ryan was able to make it back to his mark in time for the show to start, as you all saw, Randy wasn’t. By the way, if you could make out someone repeatedly bellowing “WHAT?!” after the Dawg announced that he just didn’t feel Kris’ exquisite take on the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly,” um, that was totally Smirkelstiltskin and not me. I’m pretty sure Kris’ dad was with me Smirkel on that score, too; the proud papa was smashing the air after his son finished his best Idol performance yet, and wiping away tears when we went to the ad break.

Randy and Paula made themselves scarce the moment they saw a photographer with a professional lighting rig pop up in front of Simon for a seemingly spontaneous photo shoot, while Kara dragged Ryan into the stands for his turn to interface with The Swarm. Then Lil Rounds mystified me by splitting “The Rose” into a half plain, half halfhearted gospel number, Simon and Lil exchanged words over whether a Bette Midler ballad was on its face the best choice for her, Ryan scrambled us into the recap package, and the other Idols surrounded Ms. Rounds with supportive applause, hugs and backrubs, the most sincere and emphatic of which emanated from one Kris Allen. Nope. Not in the tank for him at all.

OK, Popwatchers, the audience at CBS Television City was pretty much a single body electric last night, but was the show as electrifying for you on your TV? Would you sing along if given the chance to sit in the audience? And which do you prefer: “Ring of Fire”/”Born to Be Wild” Adam Lambert, or “Tracks of My Tears”/”Mad World” Adam Lambert? Or can you make a case for both?