By John Young
Updated March 31, 2010 at 12:23 PM EDT
Credit: Michael Becker/PictureGroup

Image Credit: Michael Becker/PictureGroupAs Aunt Whittlz and Adam “The Beav” Vary previously revealed, I’m the Idol on-the-scene newbie. This was the first time I’ve ever stepped inside the Idoldome, which is not so much a dome as a futuristic black box, and let me tell you, I had a blast. As I walked up the stairs to my seat, I couldn’t help but feel a slight tingle on the back on my neck as I caught a glance of the neon American Idol logo. Oh, this place really does exist! The thing is, on television, Idol takes on an almost mythic quality — you watch knowing that you’re one of the 20 million viewers tuning in. But in the Idoldome, it’s just you, the judges, and 1,000 or so fellow human beings, including the 7-year-old girl sitting next to me (Crystal’s stilettos had nothing on this girl’s pink hippopotamus shoes). Simply put, I’ve been to Sigur Rós concerts larger than this, and they don’t even sing in English. Ah, but there goes a camera crane whizzing by, capturing this medium-sized concert and zapping it to TV after TV after TV. That little girl instinctually knew to wave at the camera, and if I wasn’t waving, it was only because I was furiously jotting down notes.

I’m going to attempt to streamline this on-the-scene report and highlight only the most intriguing developments that you didn’t see on TV. Sadly, Corey the Warm-Up Comic’s pre-show routine wasn’t one of them. However, I relished observing all of Fox’s scurrying stagehands, who were making last-minute preparations as time was running out. A production assistant walked around holding a paper cup, urging audience members to spit out their chewing gum (guests could reclaim their gum at the end of the show). Debbie the Stage Manager was refueling with a cup of yogurt while this week’s mentor, Usher, entered the building. Corey alerted the audience that Ryan Seacrest would be starting this show backstage, and that we were all supposed to start screaming our heads off when Ryan said the word “doors” in the line, “Once the contestants cross this line and walk through these doors…” With less than a minute to airtime, the Idoldome’s lights switched to the show’s trademark blue-and-violet tint, causing the audience to ooo and ahh while making me feel like I had been inserted into the computer world of Tron. And there’s Mr. Seacrest, and we’re off!

During the video clip that introduced Usher, Ryan walked over to the singer and pumped his fist in the air in lieu of a traditional greeting. Ryan then turned around to the judge’s table and proceeded to hold his water bottle high in the air while putting on a little dance for Ellen, who looked befuddled/amused. Siobhan sang “Through the Fire,” which sounded much worse in person than on TV. And then we arrived to the first commercial break. As was the case with every break, Simon was the first judge to bolt out of his chair and leave the studio. Ellen greeted Usher with a hug, and Randy came over to chat with the musician. Corey handed out the first of many prizes to the audience. Corey singled out a 10-year-old boy named Ben, who said he’d like his younger sister to win a Siobhan gift bag. Corey was so impressed by Ben’s concern for his little sister’s happiness that the Warm-Up Comic also rewarded the boy with an iPod Touch, momentarily making the world seem like a better place.

Casey’s performance of “Hold On, I’m Comin” rocked the joint. On TV, the Idol band and Casey’s electric guitar sounded subdued, but in the Idoldome, the audience (and Kara) was grooving to the classic soul song. During the break, Ryan went up to Kara to reassure her that he was only kidding about bringing up her comment regarding Casey “showing it all.” Jeez, Ryan, way to dash the dreams of all the older women in the audience who were waving their arms when Corey announced he had some “Cougars for Casey” shirts.

Big Mike was positioned behind the judges while he sang “Ready for Love,” so the judges relied on watching the mini-TVs embedded in their desk. It appeared that Kara’s TV wasn’t working, so she shared Simon’s TV. (We all know that Kara actually broke into the stage Monday night and intentionally disabled her TV so she’d have an excuse to get closer to Simon.) During the break, Corey gave a shirt to the guy in the pit who yelled, “Yeah, Big Mike!” during the judge’s critiques. “Thirty-five seconds left, I need a Seacrest,” Debbie the Stage Manager ordered over the intercom when Ryan was still missing from the set. Is there a robot army of Seacrests backstage ready to go on Debbie’s command?

My favorite “you didn’t see it on TV” part of the night came as Didi was on stage being unfairly lambasted for her decent if unspectacular take on “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” While Ryan repeatedly (and awkwardly) tried to make Didi reveal why the song was so emotional for her, Debbie brought Tim Urban into the center of the pit for a “going to commercial” shot. The camera was positioned above the pit, looking down. Tim stared up at the camera, armed with his insta-smile, but the shot kept getting delayed due to Ryan’s interrogation of Didi. Instead of just chilling out and maybe chatting with the fans surrounding him, Tim continued to look up at the camera, then down, then up, then down, then up. Camera still not moving. Up, down, up, down, up, down. My neck started hurting just watching Tim continue to tilt his head up as he hoped, yearned, prayed for that darn camera to film its two-second shot.

During the break, Chris Rock (who attended the show with his daughter) filmed a promo for Idol Gives Back. Then Tim sang “Sweet Love,” providing the judges with an opportunity to see who could find the funniest way to ridicule Mr. Urban Outfitters. After Ellen asked Tim why he was “walking like you were sneaking into a bedroom,” a man in the audience yelled, “I love you, Ellen!” And we all applauded Simon’s frustrated conclusion that, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter what the judges said about Tim.

During Andrew’s performance of Chris Brown’s “Forever,” Randy nodded his head, Ellen rocked her head and shoulders, and Kara joyously shifted from side to side. Simon simply leaned back into his chair and then glanced at Kara, who, in return, nodded her head at Simon as if to convey her approval of Andrew. During the break, Chris Rock was brought on stage (again!) to film another promo. “The first thing my mother gave me was a smack,” the comedian said while the cameras were rolling. Debbie asked Rock to redo the end, so Rock continued repeating “a smack” until Debbie was satisfied. How will this be incorporated into Idol Gives Back? Your guess is as good as mine.

During Katie’s critique, Randy, Kara, and Simon argued over her potential and her genre. When Idol went to its next commercial, the judges (sans Ellen) enjoyed a quick group hug. Lee walked onstage, and it took the expertise of two stage assistants for him to get his guitar strap on his shoulder. One stagehand held Lee’s guitar as the singer put his arm through the strap, while the other stagehand shined a small flashlight on Lee’s back so that the first stagehand could see what he was doing. On next week’s show, the Idol stage crew will demonstrate how to replace a lightbulb while utilizing 52 people.

Lee received the largest standing ovation of the night. Crystal likewise received much applause for her rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which was lovely but couldn’t match last week’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Ryan and Simon chatted with each other during the first 20 seconds of Aaron’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and then the Top 10 came out on stage to watch the “phone number” clips of the night’s performances. When Casey’s clip came on screen, he started dancing to his own performance — how meta! As the contestants continued watching the clips, Crystal turned around and appeared to be looking for someone in the audience. (After the show, Crystal revealed to reporters that her boyfriend “and better half” Tony was in the audience.)

The evening concluded with Ryan shooting a promo for tonight’s results show. Mr. Seacrest isn’t given enough credit for so effortlessly pulling off a rather formidable job. The guy’s a pro who can knock out a promo spot on command. He can also be a little testy, though. Debbie asked Ryan to redo the promo because she thought he was speaking too quickly, and Ryan jokingly pitched a little fit. “This is why Ryan’s still unmarried,” Debbie explained to the audience. On the next take, Ryan nailed the take, the audience applauded, and Seacrest out.

PopWatchers, I’ll be back in the Idoldome tonight for the results show. Was R&B/Soul Night an improvement over last week? Who do you predict will be sent home tonight? And which Star Wars nickname have the guys given to Aaron Kelly? Come, the answers will.