By Tanner Stransky
March 15, 2011 at 07:15 PM EDT
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Last night, the 28th Annual PaleyFest saluted TV’s biggest show, American Idol, with a lively panel discussion at Los Angeles’ Saban Theater. Those in attendance included judges Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler (both of whom were wearing wacky scarves, which you can see at left); executive producer Ken Warwick; head of alternative programming at Fox, Mike Darnell; and nine of the show’s Top 12 contestants. (Minors Lauren Alania, Scotty McCreery, and Thia Megia who were too busy with schoolwork to attend the event.)

“This… is PaleyFest!” said Entertainment Weekly’s own Dave Karger, who was enlisted to moderate the session and took on the task of channeling the absent Ryan Seacrest. Karger kicked off the night with a short introduction centered on the first story he wrote on the show, a cover article featuring Justin Guarini, Kelly Clarkson, and Tamyra Gray back in 2002. He chuckled over touting the show’s “10 million viewers” at the time — a laughable number, considering the show now garners about two and a half times that many viewers per episode. What a long way American Idol has come — that idea, indeed, was a theme of the night, as was everything from the crowd’s adoration for Steven Tyler to Naima Adedapo’s vocabulary. Here’s a rundown of the evening’s highlights:

ON IDOL’S BIG GAMBLE: Karger launched the question-and-answer portion of the panel with a discussion directed at the show’s judges and executives about what they did to make this season work so well, after many had left the show for dead. Warwick remembered thinking at the end of season 9, “The one thing we shouldn’t do is replace Simon. There aren’t many Simons in the world.” And he added: “It’s turned out to be one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

ON ADDING STEVEN TYLER: Darnell admitted that Tyler was “the 40th person I’d seen for the job.” Did Tyler have to think about taking the gig? “I had to think about it, like, I’ll do it,” he said, with a smile. “They were looking for a personality, so I dragged mine along behind me. Randy is the first one I had lunch with, and I thought, this is beautiful. I thought America wanted that disgruntled, cut-your-head-off thing. I wasn’t sure I could step outside of [Aerosmith].” The group recounted the dinner that Ryan Seacrest hosted at his home the night before the producers officially announced Tyler and Jennifer Lopez as new judges. “We got on like a house on fire,” Randy said. “It was like, we’d be friends forever.”

ON LOPEZ’S NOW-FAMOUS BREAKDOWN: Karger asked about Jennifer Lopez’s crying jag after having to let contestant Chris Medina go before the Top 24. Tyler said, “It was one of the hardest thing we had to do.” But EP Warwick summed up why the moment so affected Lopez. “People like Jennifer live in a bubble,” he said. “Real life isn’t in her face as much as the rest of us. You’re faced with this situation that is real.”

ON THE LACK OF INSTRUMENTS SO FAR THIS SEASON: “Last year we got into the situation where kids hid behind their instruments,” Warwick said. “Every week we got the same song.” Added Darnell: “You know, when they get to play, it’ll be special.”

ON CASEY ABRAMS’ HEALTH: After missing last Thursday’s results show, Abrams appeared very healty and said: “I’m feeling really good.” The jovial contestant also offered to get up and dance.

ON NAIMA ADEDAPO’S “OVERSTANDING”: “I like to overstand,” she told the audience about the term she used during last Wednesday’s performance night. “I don’t like to understand. I like to fully overstand what’s going on, you know? That way, you overstanding, there’s no doubt in your mind. It’s a bit part of Rastafarian culture.”

ON JAMES DURBIN RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT TOURETTE’S SYNDROME: He’s proud to be able to help. “It’s cool because it’s affecting a wider variety of people these days,” Durbin said. “There needs to be more education about it.”

ON STEFANO LANGONE’S WILDCARD MOMENT: “It’s kind of the story of my life,” he said. “I always had to work up to where I gotta be. I wouldn’t have had it any differently.”

ON JACOB LUSK’S MUSIC PHILOSOPHY: “For me, it’s really about blessing people and touching people with what you sing,” he said. Lusk recounted one moment when he connected with a fan who told him, “My mom has cancer, and when I heard you sing, I felt like I could keep going.” Lusk added: “Everyone here sings because they really believe and they love and they want to share that with the world.”

ON PAUL MCDONALD’S FRIENDSHIP WITH THE OUSTED KENDRA CHANTELLE: “She was one of my good buds in the show, we were both from Nashville,” he said. “As soon as I get back to Nashville, I’m sure we’ll get together and do some collaborations. I’m just super-pumped that we got to hang out.”

ON HALEY REINHART’S TRIP TO THE BOTTOM THREE: “I feel like I lost 10 years off my life,” she remembered. “I tried not to have a heart attack up there.” But, she added: “I’m content with everything. Of course I want the top.”

ON KAREN RODRIGUEZ’S PENCHANT FOR SINGING SELENA: “I feel like ever since I heard about American Idol, my plan has always been the same: I want to be a Latin American singer because that’s who I am,” she said. “I’m taking this experience and paving my own way. Whatever happens after this, people know me for what I am. I already know that I have some amazing doors opening.”

ON PIA TOSCANO’S QUIET ASCENT TO THE TOP 13: “It wasn’t a strategy,” she said. “I was kind of flying under-the-radar a little bit. I knew that was my moment, when I was in the Top 12 girls. I knew this was the time I really have to give the performance of my life. This is my time and I have to shine and I have to do it.”

ON PERFORMANCE ORDER: Karger brought up the point that, during the Top 24 round, the contestants who sang at the beginning of the episodes generally went home, while those who sang at the end usually made it through. So he asked the execs: How is the order chosen? “The order generally is chosen so there is a variation in the song,” Warwick explained. “You don’t want four ballads in a row.” And Warwick didn’t think positioning had any affect on who went home. “It doesn’t always follow,” he said. “It did on that occasion, but it doesn’t always.”

Before he turned the question-and-answer session over to the audience, Karger last asked the contestants about the other contestants: Who’s the loudest? Who’s perpetually late? Who’s the mom of the group? Here were their answers:

Loudest: Jacob Lusk

Shyest: Thia Megia

Most Confident: Stefano Langone (He asked, “With the ladies?”)

Always Late: Karen Rodriguez (“I like to take my time!” she said.)

Troublemaker: Paul McDonald (“I’ll take the title,” he said.)

Pigs Out the Most: Jacob Lusk (“I’ll take that one,” he said.)

Mom of the Group: Naima Adedapo

Dad of the Group: James Durbin (“I am the dad,” he said. “The only reason I’ll say I’m the dad is that sometimes I’ll run my mouth, and then other times I keep my mouth shut.”)

Next came the audience portion of the night. While most of this portion saw fans taking photos with Tyler, there were a notable moment too: One middle-aged man stood up and told Tyler: “Thanks so much for doing the show. It has been a joy to watch.” Tyler was visibly moved by the commentary and chimed in. “It gave me an area to be who I really am,” he said. “This is just how I am, always have been. It’s just been kept under the hood of that rock and roll. I love Idol for doing that. I’m still this kid from Yonkers. I’m in AA up to my neck. I’m so grateful you even said that. Thank you.”

Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky

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