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Neil Patrick Harris: Just What the Doctor Ordered for Emmys

Could a house call to the Oscars be next?

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Sep 21, 2009  |  Updated 2:13 PM CDT
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Host Neil Patrick Harris speaks onstage during the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards.

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Maybe the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should save itself the usual annual hand wringing and just sign Neil Patrick Harris as host.

Harris, who mended near-every broken heart on Broadway with his shining Tonys hosting performance in June, similarly revived the Emmys Sunday night, giving the few-surprises show an infusion of wit and music.

His opening song – a Rat Pack-style production number in which Harris teased the gathered stars and exhorted the TV audience to “put down the remote” – was, well, Oscar worthy. Throughout, he worked to keep the potentially ponderous three-hour broadcast hopping along with quips fired at a Mel Brooks-like pace.

“I’m here to make sure things run smoothly,” Harris said. “I sure hope Kanye West likes ’30 Rock.’”

Harris earned some kind words on his performance – mid show – from some the presenters and winners, including Jon Stewart, who said, “We’ve all been to a lot of these shows, and they usually suck.”

It also didn't hurt that this year's telecast was streamlined, with some awards announced last week.

The Emmy folks needed to make some bold moves after last year's event drew an anemic 12.3 million viewers, an all-time low. It wasn't immediately clear how the CBS telecast of the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards fared Sunday night against the Cowboys-Giants game on NBC – not to mention HBO’s "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and AMC’s "Mad Men," both cable shows with modest, but loyal audiences.

The tough, varied competition is symptomatic of the Emmys’  – and network TV’s – struggle to regain a mass audience amid a slew of choices on the tube and on the web.

Enter Harris, a 36-year-old all-around entertainer who bridges a range of audiences. The older crowd fondly remembers his debut two decades ago as boy wonder "Doogie Howser, MD." He stars on a hit sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” which packs some youth appeal. Harris’ musical theater background (“Assassins”) gives him cred with the song-and-dance set. He’s even a cult movie figure, since playing a nasty version of himself in the stoner comedy “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.”

He also commands an Internet following, largely thanks to “Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog,” Joss Whedon’s Web musical starring Harris as a lovelorn super villain. Harris donned his Dr. Horrible guise during Sunday’s broadcast, in a wink to those in the know, and in an introduction to those who still watch all their video on TV.

“Television is dead, that’s right sofa monkeys,” Dr. Horrible told the TV industry-filled audience at Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre. “The future of entertainment is the Internet!”

Whatever TV’s future, Harris at least has made the Tonys and Emmys fun to watch again. For the Oscars, he just may be what the doctor ordered.
 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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