Unlike the usual format, in which each "Idol" performance is judged immediately, Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell were made to take notes, then offer individual critiques in rapid succession at the end of each round. The reason, Seacrest explained, was because "this show is so tight."
So after each of the final five contestants sang one Neil Diamond song, Jackson zipped through his appraisals, offering a few terse words for each before kicking it to a visibly flustered Abdul.
"Oh gosh, we've never had to write these things down ... fast enough," she began, shuffling through her notecards. "Jason, first song, I loved hearing your lower register, which we never really hear, um ... ."
And that's where it started going off the rails.
"The second song, I felt like your usual charm wasn't — it was missing for me. It kind of left me a little empty."
All six people on stage, including Seacrest, stared blankly (except Syesha Mercado, who wore the furrowed brow of mystification).
"The two songs," she continued, "made me feel like you're not fighting hard enough to get into the top four."
After a smattering of nervous crowd laughter, Jackson finally broke the tension.
"That was just on the first song," he said sheepishly, pointing up to Castro. "Just on the first one."
Simon Cowell closed his eyes and shook his head, and began to guffaw as Abdul's confusion mounted.
"Oh my god, I thought you ... I thought you sang twice!" she said.
She explained that she got confused by looking ahead at the notes for David Cook.
At that point Seacrest, who makes his money by smoothing over situations just such as these, pointed to Abdul, saying: "You're seeing the future, baby!" before cutting her off and throwing to Cowell.
Even Cowell gathered himself to help patch up the moment, patting Abdul on the shoulder and asking, as if to speed things along, "Paula, who was your favorite?"
Her reply: Cook (the same contestant whose performance she supposedly noted as having left her "empty").
Pressed for time, Cowell then put an end to the awkward-fest by bursting into his own rapid-fire valuation: "Jason, forgettable; David Cook, just above average; Brooke (White) a nightmare; David Archuleta, I thought it was amateurish; and Syesha, I thought it was old-fashioned.
"So guys ... I want to see the performance of a lifetime coming up," he said, as if to ensure absolute clarity, "the second time around."
Abdul told "Entertainment Tonight" after the show that she was thrown for a loop when producers apprised the judges of the change "in the dark" at the last minute.
"This was officially the strangest show we've ever done," Cowell said at the conclusion of the telecast, "but I like that. It's kind of a bit chaotic tonight."