"American Idol" has reached the kind of cultural status that thousands upon thousands of people show up to try out at every auditioning city.
Though few get the chance to sing before the judges, it still leaves an awful lot of people to fit on camera, particularly when Fox is so keen to get its celebrities-fall-and-hit-their-head-on-the-ice show on the air that the network limits two days in Denver to 60 minutes of airtime, minus commercials.
Given the limitations, the show's producers are judicious in who they choose to give airtime. Train wrecks are always fun, but it also helps to highlight at least a few contestants good enough to reach the next stage of the competition.
Particularly in the audition stages, the camera focuses on two types of hopefuls: teenagers who look like their next stop is a PG-13 movie and an ice-cream soda, and music veterans who know time is running out on their chances at stardom. The first chance and the last chance are always the most compelling.
Denver offered some of both. A teenager managed to impress the skeptics, a woman from Kansas facing a second eviction got good news, and a married father of two stepchildren came all the way from North Carolina to take his chance at the Hollywood round. And, of course, there were the usual screechers and screamers to keep the audience laughter flowing.
'Normally I loathe 16-year-olds'
At first, it looked like the Mile High City would turn into Death Valley for the entire region. Marlows Davis Jr. became the traditional first contestant in line who has his delusions of grandeur rudely shattered, but the three that followed were no better. It looked like the acerbic Simon Cowell would have to spend his bathroom breaks writing up new insults to keep the show moving.
Lisa Tucker shut everyone up. The rarest of all auditioners, a well-grounded 16-year-old with both of her absurdly normal parents on the scene, offering quiet but firm support, she became the first on the broadcast to make it through.
Even Simon was silenced, chewing on his pen thoughtfully as though he were shocked that someone at the Denver auditions wasn't completely terrible. "I think you're the best 16-year-old we've had through put the competition."
"Normally I loathe 16-year-olds," he added unnecessarily, since it's pretty obvious that Simon loathes all teenagers, as well as puppies, rainbows and most of humanity. Considering that then-16-year-old Diana DeGarmo was the runner-up in season three, it either says a lot about Tucker's performance, or Simon's lack of long-term memory.
It may well be the former; Tucker isn't the typical teen contestant. She was a finalist on "Star Search" as a 14-year-old in 2003, appeared as "Young Nala" in the Los Angeles production of "The Lion King" when she was 11 and was tabbed by Variety Magazine as one of their Top Ten Kids to Watch. Odds are small that she would be scared to perform in front of Paula Abdul.
From eviction to elation
Of course, if Tucker had succumbed to nerves and stunk up the joint, she still would have had plenty of chances to make her mark down the road. Not everyone was that fortunate.
Rochelle Elaine Dye may be the saddest audition story since Regina Brooks pawned her wedding ring to fund her trip to last season's tryouts. Dye said she had been evicted from her home in Kansas, moved to her cousin's house and was about to be evicted again. "I need this. I really do," she said, in what may be the understatement of the year.
Dye got good news — even Simon couldn't find fault with her performance. Of course, Brooks made it to Hollywood last year, but no further. Dye is hoping she has better luck.
Chris Daughtry also had a long journey to get to Denver. A 25-year-old who married a woman with two children, Daughtry wins the award for having the most supportive wife. After coming up from North Carolina to be with her husband for his audition, she told the cameras tearfully that "I just want his dream to come true. ... I'm so emotional because I just know that this is his chance."
Daughtry sang like he felt the pressure, and the producers milked it for all the drama it was worth by showing only Simon's no vote and Paula Abdul's usual yes. But since they'd already shown the video clips of Daughtry's family back home — and that almost always means the contestant advances — it wasn't surprising when he walked out with the golden ticket hidden under his cap.
A home video was the only indication that Garet Johnson stood any chance at all. The usual audience for this 18-year-old cowboy from Wyoming is a turkey. Literally. He said he'd never sang in front of people before.
Johnson was paralyzed with nerves and struggled to get the nerves out, but the footage doesn't lie. He made it through to Hollywood in the almost-unheard-of 2-1 vote with Paula Abdul providing the no. Apparently the show feels compelled in each city to push someone through with no chance at all of winning.
'Crying' all the way home
Of course, this wouldn't be the auditions if the show didn't provide untalented people to make fun of.
Simon was surprisingly benign, even when contestants were really struggling. His meanest comment was directed at Paula: After a contestant butchered "Rush Rush" he said, "[It's] very rare that I hear something better than the original."
That's probably because most of the rejected contestants were obviously just comic relief. Tiffany Christianson announced, "I'm gonna knock your socks off," and then failed to carry a tune. The judges quickly dismissed Nick "Flawless" McCord, who showed up in a yellow checkered outfit and proved true the old schoolyard axiom that if you have to give yourself a nickname, it doesn't count.
Ben Hausbach showed up with a "Cosmic Coaster," his invention that holds drinks steady a few inches above the table as long as the beverages are perfectly centered and nobody jostles the table. He too was quickly sent packing; maybe telling the cameras that he was hoping to find some new chess partners because he hadn't lost in three years wasn't a good indication that music is the right career. Kelly Clarkson is apparently more of a checkers person.
Countless rockers tried and failed to get the judges' attention, apparently forgetting that in order for Constantine Maroulis and Bo Bice to make it through last year's first stages, they had to leave most of their hard-core edginess behind.
Zachary Travis, however, took the cake. The final auditioner to get airtime, Travis flummoxed all three judges by, well, being a girlish-looking boy who sang a Whitney Houston song.
Of course, he was made fun of and quickly sent home, but even here the meanest person was the show's musical editor, who chose to set Travis' exit to the haunting theme from "The Crying Game."
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.