Neil Patrick Harris can do just about anything — other than one of those graceful Cirque du Soleil style press-up handstands, but he’s working on that.
In 2009, he won raves for hosting both the Tony and Emmy broadcasts, a feat the “How I Met Your Mother” star will complete again with this year’s Emmys. Each requires its own special brand of Harris.
“The Tonys is its own beast,” Harris explains. “It’s much more ringmaster, P.T. Barnum — I feel like a huckster, trying to get people to tune in, and more importantly, embrace theater and want to go see shows. The Emmys is a different animal.”
An important distinction he makes is that the Emmys’ broader audience comprises people who are already fans.
“The job shifts to trying to honor and unite everyone,” he says. “The unity at the Emmys is the toughest shell to crack, because you have a very disparate group of people sitting together after having just gone through the exhausting gamut of the red carpet machine, so they’re all in weird headspaces for various reasons.”
Harris’ ability to shift focus and juggle multiple duties is nothing new.
“I spent my childhood as a jack-of-all-trades,” he says. “Even in high school band, I was the kid who would be handed a new instrument for any given recital and had to learn it quickly. If we needed a French horn part, or a bassoon track. … ‘We need a tuba in this one, so Neil, you’re going to learn to play the tuba!’ ”
While he didn’t master every task, he took on every challenge — which is how he approaches work today. Some of his project choices might seem random, but those decisions have allowed him to move beyond the “Doogie Howser” persona.
“I’m fortunate that I’m now in a position to choose things that amuse me and that I enjoy doing,” he says.
A few examples include “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” voicing videogames, and recently directing Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimaraes’ magic show, “Nothing to Hide,” which earned rave reviews at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse in spring and is headed to New York.
“I made a decision after a small period of reclusive bitterness that you need to take jobs that you like to do — with ‘like’ being italicized — even if it’s a commercial for a product,” Harris says. “You need to like it while you’re doing it, and to represent it authentically.”
That enthusiasm translates to the audience. To Harris, authenticity is as vital as creativity: “If I agree to host an awards show, I’m going to commit to it, and I want people to feel like a good choice was made.”
Hard work helps, too, especially with live events such as the Emmys.
“Having done a few awards shows before, it’s a little less stressful for me than it used to be,” Harris says. “There used to be a lot of insecurity that came with it. There’s still crazy insecurity the week before. And five days before you feel like a terrible stand-up comic that’s just about to tank. On the night of the show you trust things are going to work. There’s a nice 10% of spontaneity built in, in case someone runs long so you cut a bit, or if someone trips and falls — which I always love — you can comment on their lack of dexterity.”
With A-listers like Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Al Pacino and Helen Mirren among this year’s nominees, Harris is hoping for some interesting moments. “It’ll be fun to see how they rub shoulders with ‘The Real Housewives,’ ” he says. “Do you think they’ll be dismissive? Or do you think they’ll secretly be fans?”
The Emmys’ Sept. 22 broadcast kicks off a busy week for Harris. The next night is the season premiere of “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” for which he provides a voice, opens Sept. 27.
Entering the ninth and final season of “HIMYM” is bittersweet, even for someone who’s been in showbiz since childhood. “I don’t want to overthink it,” he says. “I don’t want to spend the majority of the final chapter of a glorious ‘How I Met Your Mother’ run thinking about what’s next,” he says. “I just kind of want it to sink in.”
It’s not that he doesn’t have projects in the works. Harris just wrapped production on Seth MacFarlane’s film “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and has signed on as the lead in next spring’s Broadway revival of the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
One other project: With the end of “HIMYM,” Harris and his fiance, David Burtka, will set up residence on the East Coast.
“We’ve had a West Coast lifestyle for the run of the series — which will be nine years — and we just bought a brownstone in New York,” Harris says. “So we’re going to uproot ourselves and plant ourselves there. Let the kids go to school there and see what happens.
“I don’t doubt that random things will come my way. In the meantime, I’d love to be able to hop in a cab, eat a delicious meal and see an amazing show.”