When he’s not starring on How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris frequently moonlights as one of TV’s most consistently entertaining and hilarious awards show hosts. As the actor prepares to emcee his second Emmy Awards Sept. 22 on CBS, he looks back on his most memorable hosting moments: some wonderful, some painful.
Nearly Getting Burned at the TV Land Awards
7th Annual TV Land Awards (2009)
The TV Land Awards was the first one I ever filmed on any sort of larger scale. My entrance was that I was smoldering from the pre-taped thing that I had done, where Jeff Probst had set me on fire on Survivor, and I’m supposed to be smoldering while flying in on a rope. The effects guy just lit my back on fire with two smoke canisters, so there would be a lot of smoke coming out of my back, not really appreciating that my skin was right next to the smoke canisters.
In the dress rehearsal, I almost got some real proper, go-to-the-hospital burns. I think you heard me on-mic filled with expletives. The effects guy said to me, “My son did it before, and he was fine! You should be fine.” I was less than happy about that. You don’t want to do an awards show and then be rewarded with a skin graft! So we changed that into a fog machine blast right before I go on. That was the safer version.
Bret Michaels Almost Stops His First Tonys
The 63rd Annual Tony Awards (2009)
The first Tonys was notable because Bret Michaels was nearly decapitated through a gross lack of rehearsal on his part. [After performing the opening number with the Rock of Ages cast, the Poison singer was smacked in the face by a descending piece of scenery onstage, breaking his nose and busting his lip.] So I was backstage, about to host my first Tony Awards, and was legitimately concerned that I was going to have to come right out in minute seven of the show and let everyone know that something terrible had just happened and I did not know how to continue. Thankfully that didn’t happen. He was all right and revived by the cast of Shrek, so I’m sure his nightmares are crazier than most!
Interviewing Jon Cryer Backstage After Losing the Emmy to Him
61st Primetime Emmy Awards (2009)
I remember thinking that I was going to win an Emmy that year for How I Met Your Mother. The night before I was rehearsing, and part of my bit was if I won, then I was going to throw to presenters from all the different positions that the winner goes to, which is called the Gauntlet. So as we’re practicing, I’m in the Gauntlet, where you’d be standing if there were still photographers, and I’m throwing to the next two presenters, and as this is all happening, I thought to myself, This is bad karma! This is bad to assume anything. And sure enough, Jon Cryer won—and deservedly so; he’s hilarious. So that changed my bit, and then I just got to openly mock him on live national television, which was almost a funnier joke.
Going Solo at the Oscars
82nd Annual Academy Awards (2010)
I didn’t host, but I got to open the Oscars, which was supposed to be a duet with Martin Short. Marty had to pull out at the last minute, so I ended up doing what was supposed to be a duet as a solo, and introduce Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. That was very exciting and incredibly intense. I remember being crouched down behind a silver, gilded staircase as they counted down from 20 to zero until we were live and I was about to open the Oscars. I was probably as quiet and stressed as I’ve ever been.
Playing Angry Birds, with Real Animals
2010 Video Game Awards
The nice thing about the more niche-y awards like the Video Game Awards is that you have fewer people that will tell you that you can’t do certain things. So you get to run with certain things more. Hence, in the opening number of the Video Game Awards, I gunned down all the dancers with AK-47s, and I had a whole bit where I did Angry Birds, live. We had live chickens and I was trying to shoot them from a real-life catapult into painted green pigs in boxes. They won’t let you do that stuff on the Emmys!
Singing “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore”
The 65th Annual Tony Awards (2011)
I got to sing “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore,” which was great. I was really happy that the Theatre Wing approved that idea. It was a bold, more overt, starker sense of humor level than they have had in the past. That year was mostly honoring The Book of Mormon, so I think they felt like it was okay and they said yes to it. I’m glad they did because it was probably my second most successful thing I’ve done, so that was fun.
I knew [I would ask Angela Lansbury, “are those things real?”]. Because that conceit was straight/gay vs straight/straight, I could do a lot of overtly straight humor and it would be acceptable. I think the line goes right up to Angela Lansbury’s breasts. I thought about motorboating them, but that seemed a little past the line. So I went right up to it.
Getting “Stuck” Upside Down as Spider-Man
The 66th Annual Tony Awards (2012)
The Theater Wing is guaranteed 60 seconds where they get to talk shop. In the past, that’s tended to be a bathroom break moment where you wonder who that is and why they look so odd, so we wanted to embellish that with the Wing’s approval. I thought it was a funny bit to make it look like I was accidentally hanging on for dear life. That something had gone wrong in the background and that the foreground people didn’t know it. And again, Angela Lansbury!
It was fine the first rehearsal, it was a little more uncomfortable the second rehearsal and then after the actual show, I was coughing up blood, for real. I’m not sure why, I think it was because so much blood had rushed to my head and I had committed more than I normally would and was flailing about more than I would. I must have burst something somewhere. I have a bunch of hosting bumps and bruises.
This Year’s Magical Opening Tonys Number
The 67th Annual Tony Awards (2013)
The opening number from this year’s Tonys, that’s probably my favorite. That was the stars all aligning. And by “stars,” I mean the casts of Jersey Boys and Spider-Man! I had done the show at the Beacon Theatre for the past two years because a Cirque du Soleil show called Zarkana had a long-time lease commitment there at Radio City. So we had done smaller, more intimate shows there, which was exciting because it felt like you were in a Broadway house. Now we moved back to the massive Radio City Music Hall, so I just thought, there’s your opening number. You have to honor the scale of where you are and in doing so, you can let the audience at home and at the theater know that it’s going to be one big-ass show, so the song kind of wrote itself in that regard.
Then we thought, why not add on the shows of the season, and as long as we’re there, why don’t we have a big finish where we’re adding on every show we can think of. For a hot minute, we had Mayor Bloomberg in a trapeze, but we lost him. It was logistics: there was no fly space to hang the trapeze.
I have watched a lot of You Tube performances of Harry Blackstone Jr. and his unfortunate halftime show at the Orange Bowl [in 1987] where all the tricks were exposed and everything went terribly wrong. It’s one thing to say, “Sure, I’ll do a magic trick, I’ll be in this box and I’ll reappear over here … I know how to do it,” but then doing it live, you can’t redo it. If you screw it up, everyone knows not only how it was done but it becomes its own disaster footage. So I was more wrought with nerves about that than almost anything in that number.
There was one rehearsal with 150 people, because that was the only time you could get all these casts from all these shows. We broke it into sections, so we had 20 minutes per section, and you just had to learn it, rehearse it, do it once, and then leave, and then we really got to do it for the first time Sunday morning, like a couple times before the dress rehearsal. So all of that really only happened like 5 times in a row. There were a lot of variables. And for some reason, they all turned out really well, and it was a really fun number to be a part of.
As told to Jason Lynch.