Emmys 2013: Neil Patrick Harris' Opener Includes Paula Deen Jokes, But Draws the Line at Twerking

Neil Patrick Harris Jimmy Kimmel Jane Lynch - H 2013

UPDATED: A Solid Gold-style dance number featuring Nathan Fillion and Sarah Silverman livens up the show at halftime.

With a host as charismatic, vocally gifted and light on his feet as Neil Patrick Harris, one can't help but wonder why producers chose to have him spend the majority of this year's Emmys opener locked inside a room made entirely of television sets from different eras. 

Led there by a security guard who looked a lot like CBS chief Les Moonves, Harris was confined to a chair and forced to binge-watch an entire season's worth of cable and network offerings, giving him ample time to deliver one-liners ("I love television because it's more than entertainment -- it's education," he says, right before a Duck Dynasty clip plays, for example.) But the setup -- which recalled an episode of Girls where Marnie is sadistically locked inside a similar video chamber by her artist boyfriend -- unfortunately got off to a rushed, claustrophobic and, thanks to all the clips playing around him, a literally flat start. That one of the clips was of Harris' Emmy-winning Tony Awards opener, an uproarious musical number with hundreds of moving parts, only served to remind the audience of just what was missing. (Luckily, a ridiculous dance number livened up the show at the midway mark.)

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But hope sprung anew when Harris rose from beneath the stage at the Nokia Theatre L.A Live, looking dashing in a wine-colored tuxedo blazer, and welcomed the 6,000 in-person guests and 30 million viewers at home. There he revisited the uninspired theme of the opener -- that there is a lot of TV out there right now, which you can watch in a lot of different places -- with a joke about watching American Horror Story on a pair of high-tech contact lenses. He then screamed in mock terror.

That joke received a polite response, as did much of Harris' safe, uninspired set, which took great pains not to ruffle any Hollywood feathers. A groan-worthy Paula Deen joke (the Southern chef must refer to Netflix's new prison comedy as "Orange Is the New African-American") was what passed for edgy humor. Though it was all scripted, a heckling from last year's host Jimmy Kimmel was a welcome diversion.

"Can I give you a smidge of advice?" Kimmel said as he took the stage. "Look around, take it all in, because there's a good chance they won't ask you back next year." Thus began a new bit where former hosts appeared, beginning with Jane Lynch, which led to an uncomfortable, borderline offensive exchange between the two openly gay actors (Lynch: "I wasn't asked back because I'm a woman." Harris: "I don't think anyone who watched the show that night though you were a woman.")

Leave it to Jimmy Fallon to bring some excellent advice to the proceedings: "You gotta give em a little song 'n dance thing like you gave them at the Tonys. You gotta give them a little tippy-tap!" he suggested, wisely, as he himself engaged in a spastic rendition of "tippy-tap" dancing. Then Conan O'Brien emerged -- unlike the others, a two-time host -- and played the part of the grumpy old man who liked things better back in the good old days: "I hosted the Emmys twice -- when it still meant something!" O'Brien said. "Those were simple times, no Honey Bee Boo. … You had to pay for pornography. Back then a host was a god. I mean look at us! A bunch of amateurs, hoping to get a selfie with the guys from Duck Dynasty."

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As the conversation between the hosts devolves into a five-way argument, Kevin Spacey turns to the camera and says, in character as Francis Underwood, his conniving, fourth-wall-shattering politician character from House of Cards, "It's all going according to my plan," a gag that likely played better in the room than it did at home -- but at least showed that Netflix had a significant seat at the table tonight.

If we couldn't have a song and dance, at least we could have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The THR Emmy Icons cover lady and her Golden Globes co-host injected some much-needed irreverence and laugh-out-loud funny into the opener, playing two crass chicks munching on popcorn and wearing 3D glasses who showed up for some hard-core twerking.

"Take your pants off and twerk it," Fey commanded Harris. "I come to awards shows for the twerkin'."

"It might be degrading," Poehler added. "But we would be degrateful."

Harris decided to keep his pants on and avoided Miley's signature dance move. Too bad. The show would probably have benefited from it.

UPDATE: A production number at the show's midpoint, appropriately titled, "The Number at the Middle of the Show," gave the audience what it was craving. At first a chorus line of strapping young men twirl a delighted Harris in the air, before the song takes a disco turn and the "Emmy Gold Dancers" -- among them Nathan Fillion and a ravishing Sarah Silverman -- emerge to liven up the proceedings with some '80s homage.