The day after boarding a last-minute flight for Dallas to sit in as a guest judge on American Idol, America’s Emmy-nominated Neil Patrick Harris sat down and shared a plate of nachos with EW for an upcoming feature. But the deets of his Idol jaunt — and the scoop he spilled on his upcoming gig hosting (and producing) the Emmys — were too fun to keep to ourselves. So read on for how the How I Met Your Mother star wound up on Idol, the words of wisdom he got from Simon Cowell, and an exclusive look inside his plans to bring a dance revolution to TV’s biggest night.
Entertainment Weekly: How did the Idol gig happen?
Neil Patrick Harris: Well, I’m friendly with Kara. I went and saw a couple American Idol tapings last season. I really just wanted to go to the first three [shows with] 12 kids at the beginning. That’s my favorite part. That’s when they’re green; they’re new to the camera. They’re not so confident. That’s where I think you can tell the most about them. I didn’t want to see all the fancy editing, I just wanted to go like this: “One of you is going to win, and I want to decide who it is.” I went another time with twin 11 year olds. We brought signs. And then all of a sudden it seemed like I was some kind of AI stalker. I wasn’t.
Kara texted me — I was doing a photo shoot for Playboy magazine with Josh [Radnor] and Jason [Segel] and a goat, for the launch of How I Met Your Mother. If that wasn’t weird enough, I get this text saying, “Hey, you want to get on a plane and be a guest judge on AI in Dallas, Texas?” And I said there was no way I could do it — we had a whole run-through yesterday. I called [HIMYM director] Pam Fryman, who’s our mentor, expecting her to say no. She called [HIMYM creators] Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, and then she called me back and said, “We think you should go for it. It sounds like a great, fun time.” So I said, “Oh. Really? I was kind of hoping for a no. It would have made life a lot easier. I could go home and take a nap.” But I didn’t. I jumped on a plane the next morning at 6:30, got there by noon, was filming by 2, and was out by 7, and home by 10.
Did you change lives?
I shattered dreams.
You have what I think that show needs, which is someone with an outside eye. Not someone who works in the music industry, not someone who is themselves a singing star, but someone who knows about singing, and entertaining, and can look at you and say, “What you’re doing right now isn’t good, and here’s why.”
I absolutely concur. I think it has been a weird mistake to have people with their own music careers going on and judging people because when they’re too critical, it affects them. They don’t want to be that honest, because they need to keep their appearance up. If you don’t have any ties to the music industry, you just love American Idol, you can sit there and do exactly what you do in your living room, which is stare at them and judge them. But it’s on TV and it makes a difference.
Did you pick a role? Were you the stern-but-kind taskmaster? Were you snarky?
I was more than a little intimidated by Mr. Cowell. It’s his show, you know, so when you’re on that panel, I was wondering if it’s impolite to disagree with him, on a business level. He could wander over to the producer and whisper something and you’re suddenly gone and Joe Jonas is back. But I asked him, “Is it okay if I disagree with you?” And he said, “Yes, do whatever you want. The one thing that you should know is that we’re totally winging it. We have no idea what’s going on. We have no idea what we’re doing here. We just judge the people as we see them.” Which I kind of thought was a joke. In point of fact, it really isn’t. I thought there was a lot more shady dealing going on in there. I thought they would say, “This is one that we held for two years, this is a ringer, we want to keep him in,” or, “Go to town on this one.” There’s nothing going on. It’s exactly like it is. There’s the four of you on the table with the red Coca-Cola cups.
Is there really Coke in the cups?
Mine had sugar-free Red Bull. I mean, four hours of judging, you need something to pick you up.
Does Kara feel that she was unfairly maligned last season, or has she settled into the fact that when you’re a judge on Idol, people just come after you? I wasn’t very nice to her.
Kara was not one to ever petition or lobby or angle herself for this job. So I think she feels calmer this season just because she’s been through it once before. She has a very strong point of view in the music industry, and I think that’s valid.
I feel like that goes away when you get on the panel for whatever reason, though, and you just start saying the same five words over and over again.
It’s hard when you’re up there to come up with different vocabulary. Nice. Good. Fantastic. I mean, you say those things over and over. They don’t have ghostwriters who come in. I think now that there’s only one girl on the panel, Kara’s taken on a more feminine role. She seems like a nicer and kinder Kara. But when someone sits outside for 11 hours in Dallas, Texas, to audition for American Idol, a show that they’ve seen, they know the beratement. They know the caustic judgment. And then they come out and they sing and they’re terrible. And they seriously think that they’re talented. They must be told that they’re terrible. They don’t need to be embarrassed. I would never tell someone that they’re ugly, or that they should be ashamed of themselves. But it’s now time for the family that’s always told them that they’re the best singer and that they could win it — it’s time to let them know that they should probably not audition for this show anymore. And I had no problem being the guy to say that.
Shifting gears to the Emmys: Your goal, from what I’ve heard you say, is that — much like while judging Idol — you are bringing the perspective of the person who has spent their whole life watching it from the couch at home.
Yeah. Nice. I like that. By being asked to host the show, I feel like it’s my job to honor the show. I need to be amusing enough that you are won over, hopefully, and then you trust me to do whatever I want. “Hey, watch these people do this award. Hey you guys! You having fun? Watch this number!”
Will there be musical numbers?
Yes. I love the So You Think You Can Dance show. I love it. I think it’s some of the best hours on TV. I think those dancers are extraordinary and, more so, I think those choreographers are uniformly amazing. So I pitched bringing back some sort of dance element to the awards show, which had been done away with because it seemed tepid. You have superstar dance people now that are outrageously talented. It’s like Cirque du Soleil level. They are doing things that are just sick. And so I got two of who I think are the best choreographers on SYTYCD — Tabitha and Napoleon — to be involved in some movement elements. Because I think when dance is mediocre, it’s painful. But when dance is really impressive, it destroys.
Will you be doing a musical number?
As it stands now, I’ll probably do some singing. I wouldn’t be surprised if I sing.