Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris has his wit about him for big night

Neil Patrick Harris on hosting the Oscars: 'I understand it's a pretty mammoth undertaking'

Neil Patrick Harris knows what he's up against hosting the Oscars on Feb. 22. Topping Ellen DeGeneres' ratings triumph last year isn't the half of it.

"I understand it's a pretty mammoth undertaking," he said over the phone, multi-tasking in the back of a Manhattan cab recently. "In many ways, it's lose-lose. There's so much scrutiny. And so much anticipation, and so many [Oscar-viewing] parties where people are hoping that things go wrong. It's not really an audience wanting you to win."

Like every Oscar host before him, Harris has to win two persnickety audiences: the movie stars inside the Dolby Theatre and the folks at home who envy them and are not afraid to criticize the show — these days, quickly and vehemently on social media.

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It's the toughest emcee gig in show business that has humbled pop culture's greatest wits from Jerry Lewis to David Letterman. Oscar night itself has become a sort of National Day of Schadenfreude.

It's no wonder that Harris has returned to his yoga practice.

"When they're seeing you standing tall for many hours, I don't want to be locked up," he quipped.

Harris has his work cut out for him in matching last year's Oscars. DeGeneres led the marathon telecast to its best ratings in a decade, with 43 million viewers on average who stayed tuned as she ordered pizzas for the audience and tweeted in real time from the stage.

Harris may not have been the film academy's first choice — DeGeneres, Chris Rock and Julia Louis-Dreyfus all reportedly declined first — but he's rapidly become a sought-after awards show host, leading the Emmys twice and the Tonys four times. He has proved he can goose celebrities, but not hard enough to leave a bruise, and grab his audience by the lapels and rattle their teeth with an opening number.

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He's even earned the admiration of the Oscar host master himself — and the contemporary host whom Harris most admires — Billy Crystal.

"He's done some remarkable things on those shows," Crystal said in a call from New York. "He's ready. What I love about him is he's fearless, he's musical and he's theatrical. He also has the mind's eye of a producer, so he'll think big."

Personally, the baby-faced Harris has a bawdy sense of humor, most recently on display for his 13.6 million Twitter followers as he live-tweeted the Grammys, flirting at Nick Jonas and calling out Anna Kendrick ("No bra. Well played."). The Oscars may require more delicacy.

"The duality I'm currently overthinking [is] how do you play to a roomful of people that all know each other, sort of, and concurrently play to a much, much larger audience at home that realistically hasn't seen all eight of the nominated films for best film?" he asked. "It's going to be interesting to read the room and make quick snap judgments on what group sense of humor level everyone's going to have."

Crystal, a longtime stand-up comic who's hosted the show nine times, pointed out that the room gets tougher as the night goes on.

"It's not like you can go try out jokes some place," he said. "They have to make sure they're comfortable and appropriately biting. …Within the first hour, you have a lot of losers in the audiences who are not happy. And toward the end of the night, you have to look out and see four out of every five people have lost. It's important to be as funny as you can be and as appropriate as you can be. "

To prepare, Harris has spent hours studying clips of past Oscar hosts, emailing ideas back and forth from his Manhattan brownstone to his writing team in Los Angeles, even testing material on a few key "players," as he calls them. He's also stacked the odds in his favor with a team of veteran award and talk show writers.

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In addition to performance artist Derek DelGaudio, Harris has recruited head writer Dave Boone, known for his work on the 2013 Tonys, the 2012 Oscars and this year's Tina Fey and Amy Poehler-hosted Golden Globes. Other writers are Liz Feldman, one of DeGeneres' own talk show writers and show runner of DeGeneres' new NBC sitcom "One Big Happy," as well as veterans of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show."

"I love approaching the position from a different angle," Harris said. "I think that will serve me well. I don't plan on just repeating bits I've done before, and yet, what I've done before has informed me in a good way."

Though Harris didn't share his bet for best picture, he had some interesting things to say about one of the nominated films — and considered one of the favorites — "Birdman."

"Actors are eccentric by nature, so when you include a bunch of them in a movie [about acting], you're going to have a lot of spontaneous combustion," he said. "Placing it in a theater and coming up with the great conceit that it all happens in one long edit-free experience — those two go hand in hand."

Sounds a lot like Oscar night, doesn't it?

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