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Neil Patrick Harris on the Journey to His ‘Best Time Ever’

Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t scare easily.

He is, after all, the guy who strode across the Dolby Theater stage in nothing but his tighty-whities as the host of this year’s Oscars.

So the idea of fronting a live hour of hard-to-describe television for NBC in the first eight weeks of the 2015-16 season doesn’t faze him in the slightest. Or so he insists. “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris” is getting the Rolls-Royce treatment from NBC as the tentpole of the Peacock’s fall launch, fueled by his star power.

Terence Patrick for Variety

“At worst, it fails. And if it fails, then I’ll do something else,” he says over a late breakfast in Beverly Hills in August between a packed schedule of production meetings. He’s doing a good job of making it sound like an easy thing for him to take a flier on; that’s the same approach he’ll have to take on air to convince viewers to join the party. And stay.

“But I have no intention of it failing,” Harris adds. “It’s chock full of fun things. It would really have to crash and burn to fail. But even crashing and burning, I think it would be watchable.”

He compares the job of clowning around live on TV to performing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, where he strutted on stage in drag, night after night for months, a role that earned him a Tony Award. “I relish taking challenges and trying things that might make me uncomfortable, and realizing it doesn’t affect me that much,” he says.

The multihyphenate, who grew up in the public eye, had to chart his own course — both personally and professionally — after his days as boy genius “Doogie Howser, M.D.” That’s only fueled his ambition to take on difficult opportunities when they arise. “You can say the same thing for coming out,” he explains of his decision to share details of his personal life. “It’s much scarier before it happens. And once it does, it’s either inconsequential or freeing and positive. I hope the same thing is true about the show. It’s scary to think how people will respond, and then once it’s done, we’ll enjoy the things that worked, and then we’ll move on.”

Few TV execs in the U.S. had heard of “Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway” when ITV Studios began to shop the project in the summer of 2014. But at NBC, the show — filled with trivia, games, pranks, practical jokes, stunts and more — had already been on the radar, thanks to Paul Telegdy, the British-born president of alternative and late night, who’d gone so far as to show his boss, entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, a few clips via the Internet. Intrigued as they were, they knew it would be impossible to pull off without the perfect host. And their wish list was very short indeed.

“We kept saying to ourselves that it would be a high-wire act to produce, but it will only work if we have that amazing frontman who can be so playful and fun,” Greenblatt says. “Punking people and pulling off the hidden camera stuff without seeming mean — that’s not something that everyone is able to do.”

Meanwhile, Harris, who’d kept his options open after wrapping his nine-season run on CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother” in March 2014, was presented with the idea by ITV Studios. He was dismissive of the show until he sat down to watch it — an experience, he says, that left him giddy. “I’m super-random in what I like and what I do professionally,” he notes. “I love that I can bounce from ‘Gone Girl’ to ‘Hedwig’ to ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ to hosting an awards show. This show exemplifies that.”

With Harris formally on board not only as host, but also as executive producer with his shingle, Prediction Prods., the project ignited interest among the broadcast nets, including CBS and ABC, but the Peacock ultimately won out.

“Mr. Moonves has been nothing but super-supportive and parental, and great to me and my family,” says Harris, who’d discussed a late-night gig with CBS honchos. “But right now, they are not in the business of primetime, live variety explosiveness (the show will settle into its Tuesdays-at-8 slot after a pair of initial airings at 10). And I just was blinded by Bob and Paul’s enthusiasm for what this show could be for me, for them and for the audience. That made it an easy decision as far as I was concerned.”

NBC gave some thought to shifting the show to an entirely taped format, which would have eased some of the complications of production, but soon realized that would sap it of its vitality. And Harris was more than game for the challenge, given his experience on Broadway as well as hosting live kudocasts. Four of his five Emmys have come for his work on the Tony telecasts — and he’s nominated again this year for fronting the Oscarcast.

“If something doesn’t land like we thought it would, we’re not required to do the same thing week after week and panic,” says Harris. Photo by Terence Patrick for Variety.

Earning his EP title, he’s been waist-deep in adapting the British format for American audiences, shaping and executing the segments — much more so than simply taking on the emcee functions of traditional variety-show hosts.

“Stars get producer credits for a lot of reasons, not many of them having to do with actually producing,” Greenblatt says. “He’s involved in every way in making this thing sail.”

Harris even chose the title: “Best Time Ever.” “It’s intentionally sardonic,” he says. “Declaring the best time ever for a show filled with nonsense, I think has its own sense of humor. I hope it explains everything and it explains nothing.”

The scene at a “Best Time Ever” rehearsal at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens — which features extreme pogo stick performers; nubile female dancers; male dancers juggling bottles, glasses and martini shakers; and crew members standing in for the marching band to come — underscores the creative chaos that will unfold on Stage K when the show beams live on Sept. 15. Seven days from the premiere, Harris and the troupe are honing in on the “End of the Show Show” segment, a song and dance number that will close each hourlong episode.

Harris runs, jumps, pogos, juggles and gyrates throughout the number that will feature Pitbull’s hit “Don’t Stop the Party.” The level of synchronicity with choreographers and camera operators that goes into every step that he and regular sidekick Nicole Scherzinger take in the number reinforces the wildly ambitious nature of doing such a production every week. Harris is literally all over the stage — which is much bigger than the typical talk show set — and ends the number standing on top of a bar prop balancing a baton on his chin.

The amount of direction that “NPH,” as he’s referred to on set, delivers in the rehearsal reflects his familiarity with live productions. The sweat stains on his checkered Oxford shirt after his fourth run-through of the “End of the Show Show” number speak volumes: If “Best Time Ever” doesn’t live up to its lofty title or connect with the American public, it won’t be for lack of trying on Harris’ part.

Of course, his ultimate contribution will come when the show premieres live, when he will undoubtedly have to make choices on the fly, whether in reacting to a surprised participant, or on-the-spot editing if the program is running long. “No one is a harsher critic of my presenting things than myself, so I will know right away if something is not working,” Harris says. “If something is sloppy, something doesn’t work, a sound feed gets cut, then I’ll just be able to comment on it, and that might make it even funnier.”

Telegdy says he’s fervently hoping that Harris and Co. face some curveballs, if only to reinforce to viewers that anything can truly happen.

“There are live shows we do on ‘The Voice’ where the team is working together flawlessly, and absolutely nothing goes wrong,” Telegdy says. “I don’t think (‘Best Time Ever’) will be one of those. This is going to be about meticulousness with a spot of anarchy.” The show will air with a seven-second tape delay, as does all of NBC’s live programming, to guard against F-bombs or anything else that would send the FCC into fits. That’s a genuine concern with a format that incorporates hidden camera material and live reaction shots from people who had no idea they were going to be on live TV. “Someone cursing on camera is the least of our worries,” Telegdy says. “The big worry is someone not giving us the big reaction we want.”

Also vital to adapting “Takeaway” for the U.S., the show needed a seasoned hand to manage the circus. That meant importing “The X-Factor” exec producer Siobhan Greene to New York City for an extended stay as an exec producer, alongside showrunner David Hurwitz of “Fear Factor” fame.

“She’s a five-foot-one barrel of dynamite,” Greenblatt says of Greene. “She’s done all the trial-and-error; she knows what works and what doesn’t. We needed her to show us how to pre-produce the show before you go out there live without a net.”

Greene says NBC execs didn’t have to work hard to convince her to make the move. “ ‘Takeaway’ is a show very close to my heart,” she says. “But it’s not about re-creating what’s gone before. That wouldn’t be worth it to me. It’s about the challenge of executing it with somebody completely new. Neil isn’t just talent. He’s a proper producing partner. He’s absolutely the real deal.”

She admits she’s nervous about showing off what she and the team have produced. But she’s confident their around-the-clock, around-the-country work will have paid off.

“You’ve got to have guts to commit to a show like this, because it’s expensive, it’s nerve-wracking, it’s live, and we’ve got a big star doing it. You need balls of steel. And we’ve got them,” she says.

Harris won’t be alone on stage with just his wits: He’s recruited his celebrity friends not only as prank victims but also as guest announcers (Reese Witherspoon and Jack Black are among the first).

“I’m definitely nervous about being on TV for my very first time,” says Little NPH, who got his hair cut to look more like Big NPH. Photo by Terence Patrick for Variety.

And besides Scherzinger, there’s Little NPH, his 7-year-old doppelganger (played by Nathaniel Motulsky). That’s a bit they borrowed, too, from the British version. Little NPH’s role is to fill in when Big NPH is otherwise occupied with his many on-stage tasks. One role the producers envision for Little NPH is interviewing celebrities about whatever comes to mind.

“I hope it’s more fun for an audience to see someone who’s new at this, asking authentic questions and misbehaving in a real way as opposed to a theatrical, infomercial kind of way,” says Harris. “I hope he doesn’t clam up. And if he does, then I suddenly will do a ventriloquism act for five minutes,” he adds with a laugh.

On set shooting the title sequence, Harris checks in frequently with his Mini-Me, his paternal instincts coming through as the camera crew takes a bit too long between setups, leaving Nat standing around awkwardly.

Once the director’s satisfied with the take, both NPHs watch the playback. Nat’s not a child actor (he got the job through word-of-mouth), and that was ultimately what sold everyone on him for the role.

Harris is keenly sensitive to making sure every moment feels authentic. “I find it a little bit tricky in our unscripted television world now,” he says. “Everyone knows what seems to be reality isn’t, and what seem to be authentic reactions aren’t. When the Bachelorette is crying over the three guys, do you think she is really crying, or is she TV crying? I don’t like that inauthenticity.”

As much as the show is live, months of prep work have gone into the eight-week run. Since January, producers have been laying out the groundwork for a wide range of stunts that will play out in real time on unsuspecting guests. “The ethos of the show is anything can happen, and it can happen to you,” Hurwitz says. “Whether you’re a viewer watching at home or you’re sitting in the audience, you could be a participant in the show without realizing it, because Neil’s been orchestrating things behind the scenes, getting to know things about you or been somewhere you were and you didn’t know it.”

Harris got his own boot-camp training in “Takeway” in March when he, Telegdy and Meredith Ahr, exec VP of alternative programming, took a field trip to London to immerse themselves in the British production. Harris served as guest announcer of that week’s installment of “Takeaway.”

“Ant and Dec were incredibly generous,” Ahr says of comedy duo Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, who host the show. “We got to live a week in the life. The whole staff opened the doors to every meeting, and let us ask every question. Neil was so engaged in the process and very specific in terms of wanting to know every detail of what goes into pulling off every type of segment.”

Calling “Takeaway” a finely-tuned machine, Harris says “Best Time Ever” borrows heavily from the British version, now in its 12th season. “I feel like it would be ineffective to diverge too far from what they do, just for the sake of being American,” he says. “I want this to be inclusive of as many demographics as possible, and yet the one gap demographic I’m going to be keen on entertaining is that ‘Funny or Die,’ Sarah Silverman, Andy Samberg, Amy Sedaris kind of world. I still want them to think the show is fun so it just doesn’t feel like giant, mainstream commercialism.”

Yet, just as important, Greene says, is to make sure their version makes the most of its host. “It’s got to have Neil all the way through it. It’s got to have his DNA, his personality in every element and every segment of the show,” she says. “You’ve got the roadmap of something that you’ve had before, but then the execution of it will absolutely feel different in every segment.”

The plan is that every week, each episode will look different than the next. That, ultimately, is what appealed to Harris. “There just hasn’t been a show like this,” he says. “It’s not just a game show and it’s not just me showing off magicians and jugglers. You are in for a ride, and I am a pretty good driver.”

“I’m super-random in what I like and what I do professionally. I love that I can bounce from ‘Gone Girl’ to ‘Hedwig’ to ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ to hosting an awards show. This show exemplifies that.” says Harris. Photo by Terence Patrick for Variety.

That it was only an eight-week commitment, he says, made it a far easier than taking on another Broadway musical or a scripted TV series.

Harris credits his parents, both attorneys, with helping him navigate Hollywood and making sure his morals didn’t get twisted along the way.

“I’ve always really enjoyed the process of work. I’ve enjoyed some of the fruits of the labor of it all, but I’ve never been that interested in how famous can one get,” he says. Now he’s hoping to do the same for his own twins, Gideon and Harper, 5, who are back in New York at the moment with his husband, David Burtka.

He hopes they don’t become actors, but concedes, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up industry-adjacent just because they know so many people.” But right now, Gideon has his sights set on being a Jedi, while Harper is showing off her directorial tendencies. “Her favorite game is to try to convince you to play a game with her, and then the game has as many rules as she can possibly throw at you, so you are constantly doing whatever it is wrong,” he laughs.

NBC’s hope is that the Harris charm and the anything-can-happen appeal of a live format will draw the curious — with the help of the network’s top lead-ins: The “Best Time Ever” premiere follows the season finale of “America’s Got Talent” on Sept. 15, while the second episode, on Sept. 22, follows the second half of the “Voice” season opener — the biggest platform the network has to offer. The 10 p.m. airings are not ideal, execs acknowledge, because the show is meant to appeal to a family audience. But given the newness of the concept, the most important thing is to get as many people to sample it as possible.

Explaining exactly what “Best Time Ever” is to viewers has not been easy, Greenblatt admits, which means the drive to tune in rests largely on Harris’ shoulders. “We’re all so conditioned to the ‘It’s a blankety-blank show,’ ” Greenblatt says. “We’ve been tiptoeing around the word ‘variety’ because it’s not a traditional variety show. You’re not going to see rock bands and singers come on and do performances. It’s a lot of things — it’s stunts and playing with the audience, hidden camera bits and a little bit of razzamatazz in the finale. But it’s not ‘The Sonny and Cher Show.’ ”

For his part, Harris says he’s not going to pay attention to ratings, but to audience retention. “I hope once people start watching, they will be encouraged to watch again, the way I left smiling when I watched ‘Takeaway,’ ” he says. “I’m going to work hard to make it fun, and I have no intention of coasting my way through a show like this. I think for Americans who work all day and come home and don’t want to be stressed, they can just sit back and have a laugh with their family. But they better dress decent, because they may be on TV.”

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