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'American Idol': On the scene for 'Idol Gives Back'

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Mary-Blige-RandyImage Credit: Michael Becker/FoxFolks, I’ll be toning down the snarkiness a bit for this on-the-scene recap. It’s impossible (as well as inappropriate) to make fun of Idol Gives Back itself, for here’s a TV program that admirably uses its staggering fan base to improve the lives of others. Furthermore, the nearly two-and-a-half-hour show was impeccably constructed, combining memorable performances (most notably from Mary J. Blige and her all-star band), solid comedy (thanks to George Lopez, Wanda Sykes, Russell Brand, and Jonah Hill), and some genuinely moving stories. I was in the Idoldome, where Blige and Alicia Keys sang, while Nicholas White was on hand at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to take in Sir Elton John, the Black Eyed Peas, Jeff Beck and Joss Stone, and Carrie Underwood. Nicholas will post his own recap later today, but for now, let’s proceed with all of the happenings from my vantage point.

First, Corey the Warm-Up Comic was nowhere to be found, which means he was likely due for repairs. Instead, we were left with Jay the Back-Up Warm-Up Comic, who’s about one-quarter as energetic as Corey. In other words, Jay’s approaching the energy levels of most human beings, but he’s also a guy who dances to the Black Eyed Peas by himself, and they weren’t even in the building! Jay told the audience that the night will feature what he called “serious moments” and “dramatic videos,” and he instructed us to not hold back any tears. In fact, Jay had a lengthy list of suggestions for the audience. We were told to use a polite “golf clap” instead of our usual thunder-applause, and the Swaybot Pit was urged to make sure it swayed in unison. Jay then brought three fans onstage for a singing contest. The first guy bore a striking resemblance to Praetor Shinzon, that is, until he started singing Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” A young woman who sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” ultimately won the contest and received (what else?) an iPod Touch.

During Barack and Michelle Obama’s taped opening, Seacrest and Debbie the Stage Manager chatted, and Randy cracked up when the President remarked, “You’re all my dogs.” The Top 12 sang a group number, which I would recall if I hadn’t Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minded it. As the first Idol Gives Back montage aired (Jennifer Garner vouching for Save the Children), the judges quietly gave the clip their full attention. They continued this reverent behavior for the rest of the evening. During the first commercial break, Jay asked the audience if they were going to donate money to Idol Gives Back. An alarmingly low amount (maybe one-fifth of the crowd) raised their hands. Then the Top 7 emerged onstage and took their seats. Crystal played with her dreadlocks while waiting, and I don’t blame her. If I were sporting a bushel of dreadlocks, I’d play with them too.

The Russell Brand/Johan Hill telethon bit was actually taped, but Seacrest delivered his last line live to make it seem as if Brand and Hill were actually off in some deserted warehouse collecting calls. After watching the Black Eyed Peas’ “Rock That Body” on the JumboTron, Aaron and Siobhan politely clapped, but the other Idols (as well as much of the Idoldome audience) did not. Debbie scolded us, saying we should applaud the future performances, even if they weren’t being performed in front of us. During the next break, Jay asked if anyone in the audience was in their 60s. Tim Urban jokingly raised his hand, but Jay didn’t see him. Debbie yelled, “Ryan Seacrest, I need you,” and Seacrest finally stepped onstage as Didi Benami sprinted back to her audience seat a mere millisecond before cameras started rolling.

When it was announced that George Lopez would “judge the judges,” Casey, Lee, and Tim all stood up and cheered the idea. The Top 7 were clearly digging the skit – Casey, Siobhan, Aaron, and Mike were smiling throughout. Seacrest then revealed that Casey and Aaron were in the Bottom 3, and that Crystal and Lee were safe. Jeff Beck and Joss Stone impressed with their bluesy take on “I Put a Spell on You” – another Pasadena performance that Jay the Comic danced to all by himself. During the song, Randy leaned over to Simon and Kara, pointed at the screen, and (based upon my HAL 9000 lip-reading capabilities) said something to the effect of “They’re really good!” Debbie then brought out Morgan Freeman, who, upon being introduced, received a hearty round of applause from the audience and especially from Big Mike. After Freeman’s clip, Alicia Keys sang “Un-Thinkable” and “Empire State of Mind (Part II),” and all of the Idols grooved to the music. That is, except for Lee, who barely moved at all while standing with his hands interlocked.

After the break, the second clip with Jonah Hill and Russell Brand aired, and the Idoldome particularly chuckled at the sight of both Top Gun Tom Cruise and Risky Business Tom Cruise. Carrie Underwood sang “Change,” during which Crystal and Lee chatted. Later, while Wanda Sykes mocked American Idol for forcing the losers to sing a song on their way out, the five eliminated Idols in the audience (Lacey, Paige, Didi, Andrew, and Katie) gave the comedian a standing ovation. Ryan then brought Mike, Tim, and Siobhan to the center of the stage. When Siobhan was declared safe, Lee clapped enthusiastically (very surprising considering this is Lee we’re talking about), and Crystal nodded her head in approval. Tim was then named to the Bottom 3, and Mike returned to the blue chairs, where Crystal rewarded him with her patented fist bump.

Of all the Idol Gives Back video packages, the one that really got to me was Annie Lennox’s report on a 7-year-old girl who was born HIV-positive. When that second clip revealed how much this poor girl had improved since receiving medical treatment, there was an audible gasp in the audience – a gasp of pure joy. And Lennox’s new song, “Universal Child,” was simply gorgeous.

After the break, we were treated to a rockin’ “Stairway to Heaven” by Mary J. Blige and her all-star band (featuring Steve Vai, Orianthi, Travis Barker, and Randy Jackson on bass). Big Mike could barely contain how much he was relishing the song. The guy was stomping his right foot with such abandon that the United States Geological Survey picked up on the vibrations. Near the performance’s conclusion, Simon was the first judge to rise and start applauding; Kara and Ellen quickly followed suit. During the break, a middle-aged woman in the audience got Jay’s attention. Apparently, she wanted to donate money right now, but Jay explained that she’d have to do so through the Idol Gives Back website. The woman seemed disappointed that Jay didn’t take her money. I also got a kick out of watching “high-school student” Aaron Kelly, who was swinging on a staircase railing, and who later started fooling around with one of the stage’s spotlights. It’s reassuring to see that he’s still a 16-year-old kid at heart.

When Sir Elton John recommended that people wear condoms as a way to prevent AIDS, Tim couldn’t help but turn to Casey and repeat the words, “wear condoms.” And then, at last, it was time to find out who was heading home. Props to Teflon Tim for seemingly taking the bad news so incredibly well. The other six Idols hugged Tim and joined him center stage to watch his “farewell” montage. Tim laughed throughout the video package, and at one moment, Big Mike playfully slapped Tim’s rear end. Once the show ended, Tim ran to the judges to shake their hands and convey his gratitude. But Debbie needed the judges off the stage pronto. “Thank you, judges,” Debbie said. “You may go home to your little judge houses.”

The reason Debbie needed the stage cleared was that Carrie Underwood had flown to the Idoldome (via helicopter from Pasadena) to film a quick segment for an upcoming show. After a few tries, Carrie nailed her lines, which consisted of introducing the country band Sons of Sylvia to the stage. And, whew, that’s a wrap.

PopWatchers, did you guys contribute to Idol Gives Back? Which part of the telecast affected you the most? And are you guys disappointed or relieved to see Tim Urban heading home?

Originally posted April 22 2010 — 8:31 AM EDT

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