By John Young
May 27, 2010 at 01:06 PM EDT

Image Credit: Kristian Dowling/PictureGroupWell, at least he’s a nice guy. Say what you want about Lee DeWyze winning American Idol (to my ears, Crystal Bowersox outperformed him the entire season), but at least the guy sincerely appreciated the love America showered upon him. Fox ended the finale telecast while Lee was still belting out U2’s “Beautiful Day,” which is too bad because the sweetest (as in, awww, that’s sweet) part of the show occurred right after his victory song. Lee, with mic still in hand, took a moment to personally thank the audience in the Nokia Theatre. “You have no idea how much this means to me,” Lee said. “Everyone, all of you guys up top (on the balcony), I love you! And another round of applause for Simon, too!” Lee could have simply walked off the stage and started what will surely be hours upon hours of media interviews and photo ops, but instead he took an off-camera moment to thank those responsible for his ascent to stardom — a classy move.

About 40 minutes to airtime, I took my seat in the Loge section. (A coworker of mine is convinced that I’ve been mispronouncing the word “loge,” but, in its infinite wisdom, is backing me up). My seat was decent — not the best in the house, not the worst. However, the Nokia Theatre is such a gargantuan monument that I’m pretty sure Google Maps had just as good a view as me. From my vantage point, it was impossible to tell which celebrities were in attendance, so instead I occupied myself with such vital questions as “How many video screens are there onstage?” The answer: at least 61. And then, in a deliberate attempt to ruin my pre-show tranquility, Cory the I’m Going to Warm Up the Audience the Same Exact Way No Matter Where I Am Comic appeared. “All right, Los Angeles,” Cory started. “This is the biggest show in the world, and you’re here live!” The audience cheered upon learning that they were in fact here and live, although wouldn’t you prefer to be at a finale that was taped? Then you could learn who had won before anyone else in the country. What do you make of that, Cory? “Now, do we have any ladies in the house?” he continued. There’s no reaching this guy.

With 11 minutes left until ignition, I quickly scanned the audience for signs. There was a surprisingly low amount of signs — I counted maybe 20 or so in the orchestra section. Unfortunately, from my seat, I couldn’t make out what most of them said. One sign read: “I wanna be the next American Idol judge.” In my ideal world, Simon’s vacant spot would go to EW’s own Whitney Pastorek, who I’m sure is willing to work for less than $30 million per year. Cory introduced the judges, and Simon naturally received the most enthusiastic reception. Then, out of nowhere, Debbie the Stage Manager started counting down: “5, 4, 3, 2…” Stagehands scrambled around onstage, and the audience couldn’t believe the show was about to start already. But at the end of her countdown, Debbie yelled, “One minute left! I scared you all!” And, true to her word, one minute passed and the season finale of American Idol commenced.

Now, much of what I saw from my center-field seat is what you guys saw on TV, so I won’t bore you with detailed descriptions of the performances themselves. [Read reviews of all 16 performances in our finale-telecast recap here.] Throughout the night, the audience would stay seated for the beginning of a song, and then stand up and cheer as soon as a celebrity musician was revealed. Such was the case when Alice Cooper joined the Top 12 for “School’s Out.” During the break, Crystal put her arm on Alice’s shoulder as they walked off the stage, and the judges darted for the exit. Cory started walking around and talking to the audience, but since the theater was so massive, it was usually impossible to pinpoint Cory’s location. As a result, the commercial breaks felt like being treated to the inner thoughts of some omnipotent man you couldn’t see.

Kris Allen emerged onstage and shook hands with a few of the mosh-pit girls. Debbie’s voice took over the PA system: “Twenty seconds… clear the aisles!” All those who had gone to the restroom during the break quickly sprinted back to their seats. (By the way, each urinal in the Nokia Theatre prominently features a plaque that boasts about that particular urinal’s ability to save 40,000 gallons of water per year. Only in L.A.).

Since Kris Allen forgot to bring along a celebrity friend, the audience remained seated throughout the entirety of his “The Truth” performance. Then Siobhan Magnus and Aaron Kelly tackled the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” and Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb joined the two Idols onstage. For me, the most fascinating part of this performance was Aaron’s attempt to put his hand on Robin’s shoulder. Aaron went in for the attempt, and his hand rested on Robin’s shoulder for a millisecond before Aaron pulled it away. Robin seemed momentarily befuddled — did a high-school student just attempt to touch me? But then Robin realized what Aaron was trying to accomplish, and the British singer tried to rectify the situation by stretching out his left arm in an attempt to put it around Aaron’s shoulder. But by that point, Aaron had already backed a few feet away from Robin, so sadly, no arm-on-shoulder contact would occur. During the break, Cory handed out his first of many Samsung Strive phones. Throughout the night, Cory would ask each audience member he talked to whether they were rooting for Lee or Crystal, and EVERY SINGLE ONE said Lee. Sigh…

Back from the break, Big Mike and Michael McDonald took it to the streets. I was sitting behind the Nokia’s A.V. desk, and the guy in charge of controlling those 61 video screens was jamming to the performance more than anyone else in the audience. Then Dane Cook (whose popularity continues to confound me) did his “Simon Said” routine, which was bizarrely hijacked — in true Kanye West style — by Ian Benardo, a former Idol tryout who was the butt of one of Simon’s critiques. “Nobody cares, it’s all about Ian Benardo tonight,” the stage-crasher announced. “I’m going to replace you, Simon Cowell.” Fox promptly cut to a commercial, but in the Nokia Theater, Benardo was still going. He flirtatiously took off his jacket and started blowing kisses to the mosh-pit before finally being escorted off the stage.

The Top 12 girls and Christina Aguilera unleashed “Beautiful” and “Fighter,” while Xtina also performed “You Lost Me” and received an extended standing ovation. As for the Top 12 guys, they joined Daryl Hall and John Oates for a medley of, well, Hall & Oates songs. Crystal and Alanis Morissette rocked out to “Ironic” and “You Oughta Know” despite some awkward choreography that had each singer walking to opposite sides of the stage. As we headed into a break, Crystal cutely waved goodbye to Morissette, as if the Idol runner-up was worried that this would be the last time she hung out with Morissette. Don’t worry, Crystal, I’m sure you two will meet up again someday. After all, this isn’t Aaron Kelly and Robin Gibb we’re talking about.

The crowd went gaga for Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It,” while Lee and Crystal acted “surprised” about winning their custom-designed Ford Fiestas. Casey James started singing Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” while Bret Michaels slowly — and I mean slowly — crept out onstage to the sound of wild cheering. It was a dramatic entrance, as the front of the theater stood up first because they could see that it was in fact Michaels, whereas the back of the theater waited until the singer was in clear view. During the break, Michaels, who suffered a brain hemorrhage last month and a “warning stroke” last week, stayed around to shake some hands in the pit.

Lee and Chicago — a band I bet Lee’s younger supporters have never heard of — unleashed a trio of songs. I felt bad for the security usher standing at the bottom of my aisle. He was clearly a Chicago fan, but his job dictated that he stood with his back to the show. Still, I caught him glancing over his shoulder for a split second as he sang along to “If You Leave Me Now.” And then Larry Platt’s “Pants on the Ground,” which had already enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame, was inexplicably resurrected. Accompanying Platt were William Hung and a crew of dancers who, in a move of shocking creativity, dropped their pants on the ground. During the break, Cory picked out a 6-year-old girl named May and walked her up to the judges’ table to meet and hug Ellen and Kara. (“Awwwww,” the audience responded). Cory rewarded May’s cuteness with the gift of an iPod Touch, which I’m guessing will ultimately become the property of her mother or father.

After a video clip featuring Paula Abdul sharing her memories of Simon, the former Idol judge appeared onstage to give a rambling speech about Mr. Cowell. Eventually, every previous Idol winner (except David Cook) and an assortment of Idol finalists sang “Together We Are One.” During the song, Paula, in stealth cat mode, tip-toed over to the judges’ table and found herself sitting on Simon’s lap. Ryan Seacrest then asked Simon to come up onstage, and when Simon got there, Seacrest gave the judge what looked like a kiss on the cheek. (Fox didn’t show this public display of affection). A guy a few rows behind me yelled, “Don’t leave, Simon!” Other Simon chants could be heard around the theater as the judge discussed his appreciation for Idol and its fans.

At the break, Simon hugged Seacrest and Paula. Then Simon and Paula exited stage left as the former put his arm around the latter. Cory talked to a young boy named Bree. Whenever Cory chats with a kid in the audience, he asks the kid what he or she does for a living. “So, Bree, do you have a job?” Bree’s response: “Yes, I’m an actor.” Again, only in L.A.

Janet Jackson sang “Nothing” and “Nasty,” complete with laser beams and even more disrobing dancers. The little girl in front of me reached into the air in an attempt to grab the laser beams. A final video clip recapped Lee and Crystal’s journey from auditions to the finale — the clip was set to Sufjan Stevens’ lovely “Chicago,” a song that would have been a perfect fit for Lee this season. Crystal, Lee, and Joe Cocker sang “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and during the break, the judges left while Seacrest had his tie and suit readjusted by an assistant. Debbie positioned Lee and Crystal in the center of the stage, while the rest of the Top 12 lined up stage right.

Back from the break, it was time to learn which singer had been crowned champion by 14 and 40-year-old girls America. “Lee DeWyze!” Seacrest exclaimed, and the audience shrieked with enough positive energy to launch a space shuttle. Crystal walked over to the Top 12, which embraced her. And then the Top 12 moseyed on over to Lee, who had to jump into his rendition of “Beautiful Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay” while an avalanche of confetti threatened to crush him. After thanking the audience for its support, Lee headed toward a TV camera to record his immediate post-winning-AmericanIdol reaction. I waited around in my chair, hoping to witness one final image to bring this season to its proper close. And there it was: Simon, Kara, Ellen, and Randy enjoying one last group hug. It lasted a good five seconds, or just long enough for Simon to remark, “I cannot believe Lee beat Crystal… I’m outta here.”

PopWatchers, can you believe Lee beat Crystal? Is it now impossible for a woman to win? And will Idol be able to survive without Simon Cowell? Or is the show already making the noise of a cat that’s been thrown off the Empire State Building? [RELATED: The 20 Best Idol Performances of All Time; Adam Lambert rep: Report about canceled ‘American Idol’ finale gig was ‘completely fabricated’; Crystal Bowersox after ‘American Idol’ finale: ‘I wouldn’t have tried out if I didn’t think I had a shot at winning’]