'It' host Neil Patrick Harris takes on the Emmys

If only one awards show host at a time holds the “it” title, then the current darling is Neil Patrick Harris.

Harris entered the big leagues with this year's Tony Awards, using his musical theater skills and easy charm to win over the audience and critics. A phone call enlisting him as host of Sunday's Emmy Awards (8 p.m. EDT, CBS) followed — which leaves a certain movie ceremony for the hat trick.

“Tonys, Emmys, and then there's only one thing left — the Telemundo Awards,” quipped Harris.

Harris, 36, who gained teenage fame in “Doogie Howser, M.D.” before moving onstage to “Rent” and other plays, stars in “How I Met Your Mother” and is a best-supporting actor nominee for the CBS comedy.

Emmy executive producer Don Mischer says he has the right man for the job, one who will prove a graceful and funny host and can be entertaining in “short pops.”

“He's terrific with that,” Mischer said. “And because Neil doesn't feel the need to come out and hit a home run every time he makes an appearance, that frees him up to have a more consistent presence in the show. … I think that keeps the energy of the show up.”

Harris says his focus is less on himself as emcee and more on the ceremony. He asked to share producer duties for the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the downtown Nokia Theatre.

“I didn't want to walk into a situation where I was handed a script not to my liking. I wanted the ability to have a say in the structuring and creation of the show,” he said. “Maybe it's the wannabe director in me, but I was way more interested in how the show was structured and not as interested in how the host is doing.”

Harris also wanted to ensure he has “decent material,” asking comedian-writer Paul Greenberg, a longtime friend, and writer Joe Kelly from “How I Met Your Mother” to help craft it. The sitcom's executive producers, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, joined in.

Harris' hands-on approach appears sound. With him and fan-favorite musicals on board for the Tony ceremony, Broadway's big night posted a 19 percent increase over last year's show and drew its biggest audience in three years.

In contrast, the 2008 Emmys were the least-watched ever, with 12.3 million viewers, and offered perhaps the worst-received hosting performance since David Letterman brought his late-night act to the Academy Awards.

It took five reality show hosts to push the Emmys off a cliff, as the ceremony tried to woo viewers of the popular genre. It was an understandable gambit, given the niche series that dominated the nominees, if poorly executed.

The same critically acclaimed but low-rated shows, including “Mad Men” and “30 Rock,” are leading the pack again this time around. They are facing more competition, with categories expanded to seven nominees instead of the usual five to make room for more popular fare such as “House,” which made the cut.

But Tina Fey, the “30 Rock” star and creator who was the belle of the 2008 ball, already waltzed off with a guest-actress trophy for her “Saturday Night Live” impression of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Fey received the award at last weekend's creative arts awards ceremony.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences made another attempt to breathe life into the main show, this time by proposing to give eight of the 28 awards earlier and show edited acceptances. The goal was to make room for viewer-friendly content, with proponents noting that the Tonys and Grammys won ratings bounces with more entertainment.

But the plan ran afoul of some, including members of the writers guild, who saw it as attempt to minimize their role in the ceremony and the industry. It was ditched.

Veteran producer Mischer says he's accepted the challenge of making the show work as is. He's grouping related awards — reality categories together, for instance — and asking some presenters to give two awards to keep the ceremony snappy.

“The last thing we wanted is to be in the room when people are unhappy. If it's a night celebrating the best of television, we need a celebratory attitude in the audience,” Mischer said.

But a key question lingers: Will the host take part in a musical number?

Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, who wrote the score for “Hairspray” and the upcoming “Catch Me If You Can,” dashed off a clever Tonys song for Harris and have done an Emmys tune for him as well.

Harris, however, was playing it cagey.

“We're weighing our options,” he said. “But I don't really want it to be the Neil Patrick Harris show and a bunch of awards. I want it to be the Emmy show, and I'm your camp counselor.”

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