TV

Host with the most: Why Neil Patrick Harris owns an awards stage

Sep. 22, 2013 at 8:56 AM ET

Neil Patrick Harris is known to many for his role as smarmy Barney on CBS' "How I Met Your Mother." But to many others, he's an awards show-hosting fool. It's an addiction, as he admitted himself at the 2012 People's Choice Awards, a show he did not host — but one he tried to crash with a song and dance number.  

“Neil, you have a problem," host Kaley Cuoco ("The Big Bang Theory") told him. "You are so used to hosting you can’t even attend an awards show without trying to force yourself in with a musical number.”

“I’m in a 12-step program,” he told her, “but I’m only on step 5 … 6 … 7 … 8!”

He had to be escorted out of the theater.

All in good fun, but the fact is that Harris — who returns to host the Emmy Awards for the second time on Sunday — is the ne plus ultra of award show hosts. He can take the microphone any time, and has done it at the Emmys, the Tonys and the TV Land Awards (among others). He's the right man for this very specific job, a position that is often very hard to fill well — and has earned three Emmy Awards thus far for those hosting duties.

“The camera is drawn to him,” says Bob Batchelor, the James Pedas Professor of Communication at Thiel College and the author of numerous pop culture books. “Neil comes across as an everyman, so the enthusiasm he demonstrates feels genuine. When there is a big star on stage, he has that wide-eyed look that makes him seem every bit a fan as the person watching at home.”

So what can audiences expect from Harris this time around? Harris offered some clues to Entertainment Weekly early in September: “No dunk tanks this year. No live animals this year. And I don’t think (two-time Golden Globes host) Ricky Gervais is allowed,” he said.

He added, “There might be some magic elements.”

What’s all but guaranteed is a big, song and dance-filled show, exactly the kind Harris was denied at the People’s Choice Awards. Graceful onstage, Harris can slide from one number to the next without breaking a sweat, and is physically deft enough to be able to bounce around acrobatically (remember him on the 2013 Tony Awards stage?) or dangle upside-down (a la Spider Man, as he did at the 2012 Tonys). He's also great in a pinch: He opened up the 2010 Academy Awards with a solo number, after his scheduled partner Martin Short had to cancel at the last minute. 

Hard to say if Emmy producers will fill the stage with dancers and singers as they do at the Tonys — in 2009 Harris was onstage alone for his opening Emmys number, save for shifting stage panels and screens, as he sang and scatted through “Put Down the Remote.” 

And as he proved later that night, he was perfectly capable of running the monologue without assistance, joshing about TV show theme songs and wondering why “Lost” essentially had none (“The last time there were a bunch of people stranded on an island there was a song about it, and dagnabit, it was awesome.”) And yes, Harris may be the only actor in Hollywood who can still get away with the use of the word “dagnabit.” 

With luck, though, Harris will pair with another song and dance man like Hugh Jackman, with whom he joked and jabbed during the 2011 Tonys, a repartee that (somehow inevitably) slipped into singing “any show you can host I can host better” to the classic tune from “Annie Get Your Gun." And if they're smart, they'll let Harris do a few impersonations; he can go from being Rod Serling to Johnny Carson in a heartbeat, as he proved at the 2009 TV Land Awards.

Whatever Harris does, though, it’s hard to imagine him making a misstep. As Batchelor notes, “Without a doubt, the simple fact that people love him gives him more slack than some past Emmy hosts. People want to love Neil Patrick Harris — not slam him.”

That said, he might have a bit of 'splaining to do thanks to a song from this year's Tonys: One of that show’s best numbers was a mash-up of classic Broadway tunes, with lyrics that reflected various theatrical stars who went on to make TV shows that were almost instantly canceled. One of the lines from the tune? "Television sucks!"

Hello, Emmy Awards!

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