LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - First-time Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris opened Hollywood's biggest night of the year on Sunday with a fleeting but pointed jibe at the homogenous field of Academy Award nominees, before launching into a spirited musical salute to the magic of movies.
"Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest, sorry, brightest," Harris enthusiastically dead-panned to hearty laughter that seemed to break the usual pre-show jitters among the movie royalty packing the auditorium of the Dolby Theatre.
The opening joke was a reference to the criticism Oscar voters faced this year for failing to nominate a single performer of color in any of the acting categories for the first time in many years.
Without wasting another moment, Harris, 41, segued into an opening song-and-dance tribute to the movies, showing off his chops as a live comedy-musical performer, and a conscious effort of Oscar producers to connect with tech-savvy younger television viewers.
"Check out the glamor, and glitter/ people tweeting on the twitter, and no one's drunk and bitter yet/ because no one has lost," he sang.
Before the number and the on-screen explosion of computer-graphic imagery of film classics had ended, Harris was joined by actress Anna Kendrick, a star of last year's fairytale film musical "Into the Woods," and then by Jack Black, leaping onto stage from the audience to play an angry contrarian before being driven away again by Kendrick's hurled shoe.
The performance ended with wild applause, as Harris notes a great paradox of the Oscar - that few of the most honored movies at the Academy Awards are blockbuster successes.
One notable exception this year, as Harris pointed out, was "American Sniper," which alone grossed at least half of the box office earned by the seven other best picture nominees combined.
"To put that into perspective, everybody on this side of the aisle is the seven other nominees, and 'American Sniper' is Oprah," he said, adding as the camera cut to a perplexed Oprah Winfrey, "Because you're rich."
In one of his zanier escapades, and an homage to a memorable scene from Oscar front-runner "Birdman," Harris ventured from backstage to the show's main stage, followed by a camera, dressed only in his underpants, shoes and socks to introduce presenters of the sound-mixing award, with the words: "Acting is a noble profession."
Harris, who previously has won three Emmys for hosting Broadway's Tony Awards, was recruited by Oscar producers as a hoped-for bridge between older movie fans and younger viewers that the Academy Awards have been desperate to attract in greater numbers.
Harris has a young following himself as a star of the hit CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother".
One obvious sign of the outreach to younger viewers came in a musical performance of the pop duo Tegan and Sara teaming up with former "Saturday Night Live" star Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island trio for a rendering of the kids favorite "Everything Is Awesome."
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Ken Wills)