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American Idol: Sanjaya and Simon both say goodbye to all that

"Sanjaya, you are going home tonight."

American Idol actually put out two fires Wednesday night, evicting its most-maligned contestant and exonerating judge Simon Cowell.

Prime-time's most popular show went to extraordinary lengths in its opening minutes to derail a mostly Internet-fed "controversy" over whether Cowell had disdainfully rolled his eyes Tuesday night after singer Chris Richardson expressed sympathy for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre.

The reliably acerbic judge had been talking off-camera to Paula Abdul about Richardson's "nasally" performance and didn't hear his post-song comments about Virginia Tech, viewers were told. And Idol offered seemingly conclusive proof by rolling previously unseen and unheard footage of Cowell and Abdul conversing. You mean he actually talks to her when it's not required?

"There's another show happening at that table every night," Seacrest explained.

Cowell told viewers, "I may not be the nicest person in the world, but I would never, ever, ever disrespect those families or those victims."

"We all know that," said Seacrest, who regularly is on the receiving end of disparaging comments from Cowell.

The night otherwise belonged to Sanjaya Malakar's eviction after he first joined two surprise members of Idol's Bottom Three -- Blake Lewis and LaKisha Jones. Earlier declared "safe" for another week were former Bottom Two residents Richardson and Phil Stacey.

"Simon, you're grinning from ear to ear," Seacrest said after Malakar, Lewis and Jones were lined up.

"I'm beginning to sense something here," he replied.

All concerned had ample time to sit on their hands. Idol first went about the business of an in-show informercial during which the seven contestants were used as pawns to promote Shrek the Third. They got to meet movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and actor Antonio Banderas before seeing the movie and laughing it up on camera.

"It was so good," said Idol frontrunner Melinda Doolittle, who probably really meant it. But what else could she say?

Finally, a teary-eyed Malakar faced the music with the far more accomplished Jones after Lewis was told to take a seat. He wore a "Life Is Beautiful" t-shirt, and for a few more moments it was. Then Seacrest made Cowell's day with the announcement that Idol would no longer in a sense be punk'd.

A pair of relative dullards -- Richardson and Stacey -- remain in play with two weeks to go before the show at last reaches its Final Four. The contestant who was "in your own universe," as Cowell put it, has been brought down to earth before he could seriously threaten Idol's reputation as a marketer of million dollar babies fronting bestselling CDs.

Not that we've heard the end of Sanjaya Malakar. As a Top 10 finalist, he'll take his rightful or wrongful place on the show's annual cross-country tour after a champ is crowned in May. Maybe he can't sing but probably that doesn't matter. There are any number of things he can do for any number of networks.

Idol has seen to that.