Sitting in the audience at last week's live "American Idol" results show was akin to watching comic-book stars come to life.
You've seen them on TV, read about all their eccentricities online and know whose parents are good and bad. Seeing them all a few yards away felt almost surreal.
And what I saw in person was eye-opening. For example, learning the call-in portion of the show is pre-taped, hearing the judges was difficult as the microphones are built more for the at-home viewers, and Paula and Simon really like each other — I think.
A parking lot encounterAt 5:30 p.m., my wife and I went through the security check and took seats on cold benches behind the "Idol" stage in the middle of the CBS lot. Even though "Idol" is a Fox show, the show is taped at CBS, right next to "Dancing With the Stars" and "The Price Is Right."
Many audience members were already inside watching Ryan Seacrest tape promos for "Idol Gives Back" and other segments; monitors allowed us to see what was happening inside. For San Antonio's promo, he took about six tries to get it just right.
Outside, sitting right across from me and holding a "The Top 9 Rock" sign, was Ashley Ferl, and she looked much more grown up than when she bawled at the sight of Sanjaya last year. She's looking rather melancholy, sitting by herself with no one to talk to. I would’ve said hello, but I didn't want to interruption her mojo in case she's a method crier and was gearing up for the show.
At 5:40 p.m., we went inside, where my wife was shocked at how much smaller the set appeared in person, a common response. Our seats were only a few rows from the floor, the best seats I've ever had. Of course, with the teen-filled mosh pit, I had to bend and twist to get a clear view of the stage, but that's a minor complaint.
The warm-up guy asked four women and one man to come up on stage and dance, guess the lyrics to a Rick James and AC/DC song and generally make complete asses of themselves in front of the antsy crowd. Three of them happily obliged and had fun with it. As a token of his appreciation, the warm-up guy gave them each 10 free iTunes downloads, a more than generous gift considering the "Idol" machine makes about $300 gazillion a year.
With about 10 minutes to go, a woman put down the red drinking glasses on the judges' table. She placed each one so the Coke insignia was positioned so the camera could hit it just right.
In the audience, David Archuleta's dad, who has been skewered recently for being a horrible stage parent, looked and acted pretty normal for a father whose son is about to have his fate decided in front of 25 million people.
Just before the show began, the three people sitting next to me suddenly left their seats and "Idol" champ Jordin Sparks and a few others sat down. During the commercial breaks, a bodyguard stood next to her.
At previous "Idol" tapings, the warm-up guy introduced the judges individually, and they would run out, high-fiving fans along the way. Not last week. Simon, Randy and Paula walked out from a side door and made their way to the table, arriving at their seats without saying a word.
Watching the live show on tape After Ryan's introduction, the “Idol” contestants appeared on stage to sing Dolly Parton's signature hit "9 to 5." David seemed more nervous than the others, or maybe they are just better at hiding their anxiety. Ramiele Malubay looked so tiny that if she walked into a cornfield, we'd never find her again. Ever.
At 6:15 p.m., the commercial break ended but a pre-taped segment featuring the at-home questions started, and the studio audience stared at the big screen — just like home viewers. The folks around me looked fairly uninterested, probably like everyone at home, too.
Hello, America. Ramiele's family was sitting two rows directly in front of me, so when there was a camera looking straight at them, I wondered if I should look straight into the camera or turn away, like it's no big deal. Was that ketchup stain on my shirt from lunch still there?
During a commercial break, stage manager Debbie suddenly asked for a paramedic. Everyone stared at the front of the audience, toward the end of the stage where Ramiele and Kristy were sitting. The immediate buzz was that a girl in the crowd had passed out and was in immediate need of medical attention.
The production team frantically tried to help her while at the same time hoping she could recover before the show came back live. She appeared to be OK.
Bring on the tears At the 6:40 p.m. commercial break, Brooke White walked over to the couch and started sobbing. Carly Smithson, who has grown into the mom of this group with her unwavering compassion, grabbed a box of tissues. Even "Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe walked up stage to talk with Brooke. It's situations like these where you get a sense of the pressure all the contestants are under on a weekly basis.
Meanwhile, a makeup artist touched up Simon's face while he and Paula had an amicable conversation, which made me think that their spats are a bit dramatized for TV.
During the last commercial break, Simon and Randy both left their seats and headed through the side door, perhaps for a bathroom or cigarette break, with their respective bodyguards in tow. Paula was left sitting by herself.
At 7 p.m., Ramiele finished her final song as an “Idol,” Ryan signed off and Ramiele started crying again. Her compatriots gathered around and walked her slowly off the stage, a sort of "Idol" death march.
How can something that started with so much joy end so sadly?
The warm-up guy asked a few sections in the crowd to wait one minute before leaving — probably because they wanted to wipe up the floor near the stage so nobody would slip on all the tears shed.
Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at .