Neil Patrick Harris as Oscar Host: Edgier Than You Think

Neil Patrick Harris was the perfect choice to host the Oscars — but maybe not for the obvious reasons.

When Variety broke the announcement of the host Wednesday, industry reaction was positive. He’s like the Sara Lee of performers: Nobody doesn’t like NPH. But some shrugged that he was a safe choice.

Here are three reasons why TV viewers and the Academy should be excited:

1. He actually IS edgy: True, he has proven his ability when hosting the Tony and Emmy Awards. But Harris is also capable of being edgier than that. On Broadway in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” he showed a demented energy, like a combination of Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” and Anna Magnani in just about everything she made.

At June’s Tony Awards on CBS, he performed a “Hedwig” number, which took him into the audience. The lap dances for Sting and Kevin Bacon were funny, but the key moment was when he took Samuel L. Jackson’s sunglasses and licked them. Jackson is not only the King of Cool, he’s also the King of Don’t Mess With Me. NPH has enough charm that he can get away that, so it would be great if he can take the Samuel L. Jackson moment and multiply it. Let NPH unleash his inner demons and push Oscar’s envelope beyond the slightly cheeky industry in-jokes.

2. He’s a celeb for the Twitter age: Harris is digital-savvy, an important talent when the Academy is increasing its digital push. The March 2 ceremonies generated more than 1 billion impressions on Twitter and 25 million interactions on Facebook. The selfie (in which Ellen DeGeneres huddled with several nominees) became the most retweeted photo of all time with 32.8 million views.

NPH understands social media more than most celebs, with 10.7 million Twitter followers. So he can work with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to take this to the next step, and make the Feb. 22 Oscar ceremonies a deeper second-screen experience. Options include footage of rehearsals, special short films and conversations with viewers about the show so far and answering questions like “Is Hollywood out of touch?” and “Can you buy an Oscar?”

Harris is multi-talented, but no host can single-handedly overhaul the Oscars. But he can do a lot, and it may be OK that the reinvention isn’t radical.

3. Predictability has its fans: Some industry people — especially those who attend a flood of awards events every season — hope the Oscar format will get a facelift, but millions of TV viewers seem to LIKE the fact that it’s predictable. They grew up watching the show and want old-fashioned Hollywood glamour. They seem to like the Oscar tradition, even if part of the tradition is complaining about the show.

The Academy’s reluctance to experiment is understandable. It’s fun to imagine what Chelsea Handler or Dave Chappelle or Jimmy Kimmel might do as host. But the AMPAS-ABC group took chances with the James Franco-Anne Hathaway duo and Seth MacFarlane, and are still beating themselves up about it. Heck, they’re still beating themselves up about Snow White and Rob Lowe, and that was 25 years ago.

So they want to be safe. Neil Patrick Harris can provide that safety net while still pushing the boundaries – with an attitude that is more Hedwig than Doogie.

Here’s the rule of thumb: During pre-production talks about the show, if the question is “Could we get away with that?” then the answer should be, “Let’s do it.”

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