When I first met Neil Patrick Harris to talk about his new NBC variety show, Best Time Ever — which premieres Tuesday — it was under the most appropriate of circumstances. He had just arrived at the training facility for new members of the Blue Man Group to prepare for an installment of the End-of-the-Show Show, the episode-capping ode to randomness that will close out all eight installments of Best Time Ever. By the end of the segment, he’ll be covered in blue paint and accompanied by a pint-sized dopplegänger called “Little NPH.” So yeah, it was perfectly odd.
After song-and-dance-filled stints hosting both the Tonys and the Oscars, a variety show seems like a no-brainer for the multitalented Harris, but Best Time Ever won’t resemble the musical hours from the ’60s and ’70s. Best Time Ever is more the sugar-hyper offspring of those shows, and Harris couldn’t be more excited about that.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We just came from your Blue Man Group training session. Were you nervous going in?
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: No, I wasn’t nervous at all. I’m just more excited for these segments to be good. I’ve got my executive producer helmet on all of the time now. I’m fine to be able to learn drum sequences and practice on the subway, but I just want to make sure that the spot itself is going to be strong because I want to impress upon them that I wanted more and not less.
You picked it up quickly. Did you have any previous drumming experience?
I played the xylophone. That was the first instrument I ever played. When you were seven or eight, you’d start in music class. So you’d go, and one day they’d show off all of the instruments, and then your parents would be asked to shell out money for them. Then you’d have to buy, and for some reason, my friend Laurie and I chose the xylophone.
If you walked up to a xylophone now, would you be able to—
Bust out “Flight of the Bumblebee”? Why, yes, I would! That’s about all I can play on xylophone. I’m a bigger fan of the marimba. Let’s be honest. It’s got a wooden, hollow sound. A xylophone is very pingy metal.
Watching you train, there was a sense that you really want this to be good, not just novel.
It’s all bucket-list fun, and the End-of-the-Show Show, by design, is supposed to be some live theatrical one-off that’s super creative and potentially difficult to execute, so I’m anxious to ramp up the fear factor of it all within reason. For the End-of-the-Show Show, which is the last thing we have in every show, we just don’t want people to change the channel by the time we get there.
Do you think variety shows are making a comeback?
How do you define variety? That’s been our biggest, most interesting question and contemplation. What does “variety” mean to an audience? I look at variety as the definition of the word: all kinds of different things. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s a true variety, this show. A lot of people still consider variety a troupe of actors that do sketch comedy à la Carol Burnett, which I watched incessantly and loved. That’s a harder show to produce now, I think. Back then with Carol Burnett, there weren’t a lot of comedic options. There were fewer channels on TV, so you would sit and watch the whole show. Sometimes even those sketches weren’t home runs, but you were willing to sit and watch the whole show. Today, with the way people watch content — not even television, just content — is parceled out in much smaller, much more random viewing habits. You watch GIFs of things now. You watch short, tweeted, edited chunks of Jimmy Kimmel, instead of the whole show. You can watch hilarious comedy of every sort, of hidden camera sort, of Jackass-y sort, of scripted stuff, without needing cable. There just a lot of options. We were trying to honor the way that people watch everything, but the live-live element, if you’re at home watching the show, it’s really happening right now. I think there’s something intimate about that experience.
Are you nervous about being live?
No, not at all. I’ve done live stuff. The award shows are live. Things will go wrong inevitably, but given that we’re not a scripted show — we have writers and we’ll have scripted parts — but we’re not a fictionalized scripted thing. If something goes wrong, we can adjust or comment on it and laugh and move to another thing. As opposed to quickly having to recover and act like it never happened. I would be much more nervous doing Peter Pan because that’s — you’ve got one chance to do it. You’ve rehearsed for months. If something goes wrong, if the door doesn’t open and you’re supposed to walk out there, that’s a problem because you can’t really fix it. If a door doesn’t open on our show, we can laugh about it, go around, and open the door.
Where are you in the process now? A lot of rehearsal?
Right now, we’re doing things with people who will unknowingly come and see the show, and they won’t have realized that we’ve done all of these things. We’re stealth right now. We’re going as a small troupe of people, hidden camera-ing it up, getting one or two people who know. Everyone else doesn’t know. I’m appearing or creating havoc, and then I leave without them ever knowing. What I’m excited about is seeing if and how it’s observed. I think once people get what the show is, they’ll want to be a part of it more. It’s the unknown right now, to the media, to the critics, to the audience, to the celebrities, when we’re pitching ideas for A-list stars to be a part of it, their teams are saying, “Show us what the show is.” No. We don’t have any content to show them because it’s live.
Do you have a good idea of what the eight shows look like now?
Yeah, the board is pretty set. There are a couple blank spots. There are a couple blank celebrity spots. I’m writing frantic emails to friends that I’ve met once or twice. It was so funny. I was on the phone with [husband] David [Burtka] just outside, and Jonah Hill walked by. So I’m on the phone, and I see Jonah. We both kind of laugh. We couldn’t stop because I was on the phone. But I was laughing, saying to David, it took a lot of me to not rush him and ask if he would be a part of the show. I don’t want to be that guy, but if Jonah’s reading this right now, he’d make a great guest announcer.
All of this seems like such a big production. Is this sustainable beyond the first eight episodes?
I didn’t want to commit to a show that kept me working all year long. I think I would burn out fast. I think this will be fun. We’ll do eight. The circus will come to town. The tent will go away. We’ll see what worked and what didn’t. We’ll work toward season 2, if we’re lucky. We’ll start banking stuff. The Olympics are coming up. A treasure trove of opportunity for pranks. “What this ski jumper doesn’t know is that we’ve replaced his skis with chocolate. His bindings are now incredibly loose. Let’s see what happens.”
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