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Been There, Dunked That by Brian Dunkleman: Free at Last


I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the Kodak Theater that morning. I know it’s now called the Dolby Theater, but I still refer to recording something on my DVR as TiVo-ing. I’m resistant to change.

The last time I’d been there was nearly 14 years ago. My sister was with me, just as she’d been a decade and a half prior. She had planned on flying out months before I was even aware I was going to be involved. She knew I’d need the emotional support that week.

We entered to see the stage glowing with a million lights and huge monitors with the American Idol logo everywhere.

She asked, “is this all just hitting you right in the face?”

It wasn’t. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since I’d been there. And I certainly wasn’t the same person. I was happy. And excited. I had envisioned this day for so long.

The first person I saw was the stage manager. The same stage manager from 14 years ago. She couldn’t have been kinder and seemed genuinely excited to see me.

Any apprehension I was feeling immediately started to fade.

I saw the same old cameramen, the same old script supervisor, the same old writer. Each was more welcoming than the last.

Walking through the halls, I saw Justin Guarini, the runner up from that first season. He gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear, “it’s so cool for you to come back and do this after what they f**king did to you.”

What they did to me? I know it’d been a long time, but I specifically recalled quitting.

As I made my way to the stage for the first run-through, I saw one of my old bosses, an executive producer who a few years prior had “moved on to pursue other opportunities.” He’d been asked back to direct the finale.

He walked toward me with a huge smile, gave me a hug and said to me under his breath, “you know what you and I have in common? We both got canned by American Idol!”

Wow, this was getting interesting. Did I have it wrong all these years? Had I just been fooling myself all this time? Had I blocked out what really happened because it was too traumatic? I just couldn’t for the life of me remember anyone telling me I’d been fired.

I didn’t have time to dwell on it, I had to start rehearsing to be on live television in front of millions of people for the first time in 14 years. No big deal.

There was one person I was nervous to see that day.


I hadn’t seen him or spoken to him since our last show in 2002. Did we get along? Sometimes. Other times, not so much. The number of instances he’s been brought up to me over the years is too high to count. Every radio show I’ve been on. Every television show. Every comedy club. Most auditions. On the golf course. At the store. You name it, he gets brought up. Apparently there are a lot of people out there who think that I am for some reason unaware of how much money he has. Trust me, I’m aware. It’s almost as if he’d been an ever present shadow following me everywhere I went for nearly a decade and a half. And I was about to finally see him again after all this time. But not quite yet.

He wasn’t at run-through because he was still recording his radio show, so the director stood in for him. It went great. But then again, run-throughs are in front of a couple dozen people, not 14 million. Dress rehearsal wasn’t for another two hours. I didn’t have a dressing room, but I was told that I could hang out in the “male holding room” with all the former contestants who were performing on the show. Yeah, that wasn’t gonna work. There was way too much happening in my brain to small talk, or rehash the last fourteen years, or to explain “what happened.”

Instead, my sister and I sat in the theater and watched some of the musical performances. Harry Connick Jr. was awesome. Keith Urban wasn’t there, so the director stood in and lip synced while playing air guitar, gyrating all over the stage. He obviously was loving every second. Theater people. Some of my nerves were actually starting to subside. After a while, I got up to use the restroom. As I walked out into the hallway and turned the corner, there he was.


He was standing outside his dressing room with his back turned to me, and was talking with about a half dozen people. The nerves all came flooding back. Not now. I didn’t want a bunch of other people around when I first talked to him, so I just hurried by without being noticed.

Real smooth Brian. Over the years I had gotten quite adept at trying to make myself invisible.

Twenty minutes later I was called to the stage for my final rehearsal. Seacrest was still in his dressing room, so I asked if there was time for me to go back and say a quick hello. I didn’t want some awkward, fake exchange in front of the whole crew. The stage manager led me back through the halls to his room, gave a quick knock, opened the door and announced “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back, Brian Dunkleman!!!”

…to be continued.

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