NEW YORK — As host of Sunday's prime-time Emmy broadcast, Neil Patrick Harris offered up persuasive evidence that he can bring new waves of cool to the stalest of institutions — like the Emmys.
Aired live by CBS from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, the Emmycast with Harris in charge not only was remarkably stylish, fun and brisk but could even make viewers forget last year's disastrous format with five hosts, none of whom could rise to the occasion.
Harris surely did, from the broadcast's first moments as he launched into an up-tempo welcome titled "Put Down the Remote." Lyrics included the requests, "Don't touch that dial. It's been quite a while since the dial was in style, but you know what I mean," and, "Don't jump online, cause this fine mug of mine needs a huge high-def screen."
Harris, who co-stars on the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" among his portfolio of show-biz activities, took on co-producer duties for the Emmycast, which obviously contributed to his comfort level — and that of viewers.
The show seemed to fit him like his tailored dinner jacket, but without ever being about him.
Even when he wasn't smooth, he was smooth.
"It's not awkward, I won't let it get awkward," he told the audience at one point when a problem cropped up. "A change of plans: We're going to go a little bit faster tonight."
Not that there wasn't time to make fun of the TV medium, and its shaky status in the Internet age.
Harris briefly "hijacked" the broadcast for a sketch in his alter ego as Dr. Horrible, the mad scientist of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog," last year's online musical comedy in which he starred.
"Television is dead," sneered Dr. Horrible. "The future of home entertainment is the Internet. Why watch something like this (he spread his arms grandly) when you can see it like this," whereupon he snapped his fingers and the screen shrunk to postage-stamp size).
The broadcast was efficiently divided into five genres (including reality, drama, variety, and miniseries and movies), and got things off in frisky fashion with comedy.
On hand with Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" to present the night's first trophy, "30 Rock" star Tina Fey asked viewers "to linger in this magical time at the beginning of the evening when everyone is still a winner and ("Family Guy" creator) Seth MacFarlane is only pretty drunk." Cut to shot of MacFarlane in the hall, wearing a huge appreciative grin.
Speaking of "Family Guy," the Emmycast made one possible misstep. Playing off of the unlikely nomination of the Fox animation series in the best comedy series category (it lost), a film clip from "Family Guy" showed baby Stewie beating the family's talking dog Brian to a bloody pulp. Reason? Brian had confided to the demonic Stewie that he was voting for a rival show in that category.
"Family Guy" fans were probably amused at recognizing the scene repurposed from a classic episode of the series, with new dialogue inserted for the occasion. Everybody else, caught unprepared for all that cartoon blood and violence, was probably shocked.
As usual, a highlight of the broadcast was the category for comedy and variety writing — that is, the clever way each nominated show listed its writers. Comedy Central's "Daily Show With Jon Stewart" used a "Cash for Clunkers" theme; the writers for "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" appeared as Facebook friend requests; NBC News' Brian Williams recited the "Saturday Night Live" writers from his anchor desk.
Presenter Ricky Gervais was, as usual, helplessly hilarious. He razzed the Emmycast, which in recent years has had eroding viewership. After cracking an industry in-joke, he noted it was "just for the 5,000 people in this room — not for the 5,000 people watching at home." Ouch!
But the 5,000 (or however many) people who were watching at home Sunday surely had a good time.
"It was better than last year, anyway," Gervais said. Maybe the best ever. For that, thank Neil Patrick Harris.