An American Idol audition episode is like a can of Diet Coke ([un]official sponsor of this late-night writing session): No matter where you pick one up Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, Los Angeles, or Dallas it's going to pretty much look and taste the same as the next one.
Things will kick off with a grim joke of a tryout. There'll be at least one crying montage in which a third of the weeping rejects will be full-figured women. Any soul who is revealed as ''the last singer of the day,'' or whose intro package contains sentimental music, a story about triumphing over adversity, and/or a phrase that sounds like it could end up appearing in the season 9 victory anthem (i.e. ''the odds were stacked against him'') will make it to Hollywood. And Randy will defy basic mathematic principles (''one billion percent yes, dude'') and the laws of grammar (pick a critique, any critique).
Tonight, however, the standard operating sameness got a needed twist of lemon in the form of guest judge Neil Patrick Harris. No, he didn't reinvent the audition-episode wheel (he was only filling Paula Abdul's chair, after all, not Ken Warwick's). But the How I Met Your Mother star's presence added biting wit and insight to even the most tiresome moments.
Take, for example, this evening's opening act, starring repeat audition offender Julie Kerelighan, who brought the same brand of delusional desperation to the show this year as she did in season 1. For her second trip to the rodeo, Julie also carried a homemade sign declaring ''This Is My (Last) Year (to Get on National Television Before I Age Out of Idol Eligibility).'' (For the record, those are my parentheticals, not hers.) The brilliance of NPH, though, was the way he immediately honed in on the fact that Julie's poorly planned and executed poster with her surname scrunched uncomfortably in the bottom corner was more offensive than her butchery of Alannah Miles' ''Black Velvet.'' Because, in all seriousness, if you know you have no business singing outside the shower, and you're going to be one of those annoying fameosexuals who's just hoping to score yourself a bit part as ''Simon's Punching Bag No. 874,'' you should dig into said role with the fury of Paula Abdul driving needles into her Ellen DeGeneres doll. Buy a couple extra pieces of poster-board from your local Target and make your signage a week early don't just throw it together in the parking lot outside the audition venue. In other words, commit!
NEXT: Erica Rhodes whips the panel into submission, just not with that voice