By Adam B. Vary
Updated March 31, 2011 at 10:57 AM EDT
Michael Becker/Fox

“Oh is Justin Bieber coming tonight?” asked the perfectly coifed woman named Eileen, prior to the start of last night’s American Idol. Eileen looked about the Idoldome in a mild panic, her green eyeshadow matching her jade jewelry matching her dusty green denim outfit, i.e. the Hip Grandma Look, which only accentuated the beautiful strangeness of her question. Finally, Eileen threw back her head in a jarring roar of laughter. “I don’t think he’s coming!”

So basically I’m saying that American Idol takes all kinds, from hip-and-possibly-arch-villain grandmas, to young adults brandishing signs that read “Decadent deliCASEY yummy,” to Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who sat one row behind me and appears to be a big fan of Casey, Pia, Jacob and Haley, in roughly that order. But before we dive any deeper into the behind the scenery of the Top 11 (take two) performances of the Elton John catalogue, I feel compelled to reiterate quickly something longtime readers of our Idol On the Scene columns have heard many times already: Things sound very different inside the Idoldome than they do on your TV.

Last night I sat much closer to the judges than I ever have before — close enough that if you squinted at the far corners of your TV whenever the show cut to friends and family (who are always seated in the same four seats and then rotated out at the next ad break), you may have possibly glimpsed me with a panicked smile that screamed “ohsweetjeebusIdonotwanttobeoncamera.” Anyhoo, very quickly into the show I realized that the closer to the judges table you get, the louder the Idoldome becomes, and by not a small order of magnitude either. Possibly this is due only to increased proximity to Steven Tyler’s fashion sense. But regardless of the cause, it meant that more often than not, my ears struggled to discern the contestants’ voices from the rumble of the house band and the cheers of the audience. Oddly enough, this problem was most acute with three of Season 10’s most distinctive voices: Scotty, Pia, and Jacob. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of that other than increasing my admiration for anyone who can get up on that stage and perform amid the aural and visual chaos and somehow not fall into convulsions of anxiety and panic.

As for the evening’s other highlights:

What the Heck Happened To Cory?! My colleague Tanner Stransky tells me Cory theWarm Up Comic was MIA last week at Idol, as he was again last night. Instead, we were treated to the comedy stylings of Jay Flats the Warm Up Comic, who introduces himself to the audience by getting everyone to say, “What up, Jay Flats!” (I did not.) Jay Flats’ warm up routine seems to consist of getting people to clap a lot, do the wave, and then pit the men and women against each other in a dance competition, in which we learned definitively that men, no matter what their age or background, will always dance inappropriately in front of a crowd of strangers. During the show’s ad breaks, Jay Flats often handed his mic over to audience members to get them to sing, with wildly varying results. One audience member turned out to be not only a former Season 7 Idol contestant who made it to Hollywood Week, but also Stefano Langone’s cousin, because why not? Also, fun fact! At certain points during the evening, Randy, Steven, and exec producer Nigel Lythgoe turned to watch one of the audience members perform, sometimes all three of them at once, their faces stuck in a polite grimace. Jennifer, however, never once joined them; she steadfastly kept looking at the crew setting up the next (official, you guys) Idol performance instead. Although part of me wants to believe her face was also frozen in a polite grimace.

Scotty’s grandma! She got a big smile from the camera man after Scotty’s performance was over; got a kiss on the hand from Nigel during the ensuing ad break; and got a hug from exec producer Ken Warwick later on. She also got to stay in the front row for the entire show along with the rest of Scotty’s group, a privilege none of the other friends and family received. In other F&F news, when it came time for Casey’s folks to relinquish the official F&F chairs to Jacob’s crew, Casey’s mom and Jacob’s mom gave each other a big, genuine hug.

Disappearing Howie! After Howie Mandel’s totally spontaneous plug for his Fox special that j’refuse to plug here, he conveniently disappeared from his Idoldome seat. The celeb situation is indeed frequently fluid at Idol, what with Marc Anthony arriving before the show and working the crowd like he’s about to open at the Copa, only to leave early on and have Leah Remini swoop in to take his seat, because, again, why not? Then again, Jesse Tyler Ferguson stayed put, as did Broadway legend Ben Vereen (who, at the end of Jacob’s performance, raised a gospel hand in approval). Some people are here for the show, dammit.

Did Pia knock Randy’s ass out of his chair? No. But the Idoldome did cheer like crazy at the prospect of it after Jimmy Iovine made the suggestion. Also, S. Ty did forcefully kick the air when Pia launched into chorus, but with his right foot, i.e. the one farthest from Randy. Still, just knowing Steven’s random flailings could take out his fellow judges at a moment’s notice is comfort enough for my snark demon, Smirkelstiltskin. In other Pia news, someone left their mic on during pretty much Pia’s entire judging panel critique, which was far more audible inside the studio than on TV and perhaps contributed to the general “We want you to sing uptempo ballads in which you stand still while also moving!” sense of needless confusion.

Nigel teaches the Idoldome to dance! Okay, not really. But in the ad break before James’ flaming performance, Nigel did commandeer the mic so he could first tell the peanut gallery to stand up and wildly cheer when James began his song amongst them. Then he teased that James would be working through the entire audience. And then the So You Think You Can Dance judge and exec producer instructed the audience on how to do the “arena stomp” while the Durbs rocked through the second half of “Saturday’s All Right For Fighting”: For future reference, the proper steps are stomp, stomp, clap, done to the beat, and, as Nigel implored, “Not too fast!” Alas, Nigel made it seem like we should start arena stomping immediately after James descended the Thunderstairs, which it turns out wasn’t the case and in my estimation led to a mess of confusion when James finally did try to lead us all in the arena stomp. Obviously, Tabitha and Napoleon would’ve crafted a better routine for us.

Thia’s fog! I found it mesmerizing.

Those were my highlights from inside the Idoldome — what were yours at home?

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