About midway through the 2009 Emmys, the last time Neil Patrick Harris hosted the salute to all things television, award winner Jon Stewart quipped, "We’ve all been to a lot of these shows, and they usually suck.”
The joke packed high praise for Harris, whose relentless energy, quick wit and musical prowess (he crooned “Put down the remote” Sinatra-style in the fun opening number) elevated not only the Emmys but the awards show genre at least for one night.
Four years later, Harris returns to the Emmys with high expectations – and nearing a crossroads in his career with CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" in its ninth and final season. Harris’ Emmys encore may not be a command performance as much as part of a long-term audition for an even bigger stage: the Oscars.
Not that he's getting to the Dolby Theatre anytime soon. Ellen DeGeneres, a Mark Twain Prize winner and daytime talk show powerhouse, is hosting the next Academy Awards in March. DeGeneres, it's worth noting, hosted or cohosted the Emmys four times before first being tapped for the Oscars in 2006.
Harris, meanwhile, has been honing his hosting chops by helming the Tonys four of the last five years, making the show accessible and entertaining even for those who don't breathe Broadway. The Oscars would give him an opportunity to play before the largest showbiz in-crowd of them all, the Hollywood glitterati and billions of their close, personal friends watching at home.
Seth MacFarlane’s irreverent Academy Awards performance this year, in a sense, makes it easier for Harris to hurdle the barrier of not being known much beyond U.S. television (“Harold and Kumar” and “Dr. Horrible” aside). MacFarlane, the voice and creative force behind “Ted” and “Family Guy,” arrived at the Oscars as an unfamiliar face to most of the world – yet he managed to boost ratings, even if some uptight types don't want him to show his face on the big stage again.
Harris is funny, without irking too many folks – unlike MacFarlane or our dream Oscars host Ricky Gervais who spent three turns at the Golden Globes podium skewering the Hollywood elite to their primped faces.
With the 2009 show, Harris kicked off a good run for the Emmys, which has seen fine performances in the years since by Jimmy Fallon, Jane Lynch and Jimmy Kimmel, all possible future Oscar hosts. The sometimes thankless job (just ask Anne Hathaway and James Franco) has no shortage of potential takers. DeGeneres might not be going anywhere anytime soon. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's tag-team Golden Globes gig this year proved a worthy successor to Gervais and prompted Oscar-hosting buzz. Stewart, who made his 2009 Emmys crack about a year-and-a-half after last hosting the Academy awards, could return.
Harris, no doubt, will be dancing as fast as he can Sunday as he shoots for far better than an Emmys broadcast that doesn't "suck” – and perhaps aims for a higher platform as his career enters a new stage.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.