LOS ANGELES — Hosting awards shows gave Neil Patrick Harris the skill set he figures he needs for something as eclectic as “Best Time Ever.”
Based on a British variety series called “Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway,” the new NBC series (9 p.m. Tuesdays, premiering Sept. 15) will find him interacting with celebrities, audience members, home viewers and innocent bystanders. Juggling games, surprises, impromptu performances and elaborate skits, it’s a bit of a throwback and the kind of must-see TV broadcasters don’t always program.
“TV, especially network television, finds itself in a bit of a rut now,” Harris says. “Because of the overabundance of DVRing and binge-watching of shows, you don’t have to sit down and watch at a specific time. The fact that our show is live – and you’ll want to talk about it the next day – you need to be watching when it’s on.”
In short, it’s event television — just like an awards show or Super Bowl.
In the British version, hosts Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly interact with folks all over the country. Sometimes they’re in disguise (think: “Borat”), sometimes they’re on stage (“America’s Got Talent”), sometimes they’re Skyping someone at home. It moves so quickly, it’s very easy to leave something that isn’t working.
“It’s bits,” Harris says. “It’s me including the audience in on an hour’s worth of ridiculousness and random adventures. So, I’m sort of a ringmaster.”
Broadcast live from a studio in Queens, N.Y., the weekly program will include taped bits, celebrity surprises and, yes, prizes. “I want to make sure that of the 350 people there, any one of them can be chosen and can win,” Harris says. “I don’t care that they’re not the best for television. That’s my job. I want it to feel very real when you’re watching it.”
“Knock Knock: Live,” a game show with similar aspirations, lasted two episodes.
“I didn’t even know that it was on,” Harris says. “I think what they did was ambitious, but it’s a hard conceit to do these things as a new idea. I love variety and I was interested in the notion that I can show people, at home or in an audience, cool, interesting things that are clever. I love magic. I love the circus. I love juggling. But there’s already those shows. ‘America’s Got Talent’ is doing better than ever. There are singing-competition shows and there’s dancing-competition shows. While I love that stuff, I didn’t think there was room in the world for another version of that.”
And then, Harris says, he saw “Saturday Night Takeaway” and fell in love. “It’s all fun.”
Hosting the Academy Awards and the Tony Awards (for which he won several of his Emmys), Harris says he learned how to think on his feet. “If this was scripted and something went wrong, we’re a little bit screwed. But the fact that it’s legitimately a variety of things makes it more interesting. If something goes wrong, I get to comment on it, joke about and move on to the next thing. If it runs long, I know you have to somehow make up the time.”
Hosting, he says, requires one to “fly by the seat of your pants. I love that."
“I’ve been (acting) since I was 14 years old and I’m 42. I’ve gotten to play a lot of characters. I got to have a good run of a character I relished and chomped my teeth into and now I get to do this. I’m not nervous but I know we’ll do Week One and see how it goes.”
Because the show is live, “Best Time Ever” doesn’t have built-in hooks to attract an audience. It’ll take a week of buzz, Harris says, to get momentum. But if it does roll, it could be “a little bit game-changing.”
Harris, who was one of the stars of “How I Met Your Mother,” says after the show’s eight-week run, he and the other producers will assess what did and didn’t work. “If we get the chance to do it again, we’ll come back, all guns ablazing.”