'Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris': Can it revive the variety show genre?

Harris's new show, in which he presides over a live program full of sketches, trivia, and hidden camera segments, debuts tonight on NBC. Will the format of the show succeed with viewers?

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Neil Patrick Harris presents an award at the 2015 Tony Awards.

Neil Patrick Harris is singing and dancing on TV again like he’s done on awards shows, but he’s doing it in a primetime weekly slot.

Harris is debuting tonight as host of the new NBC show “Best Time Ever,” which is a live variety show featuring stunts, trivia, and sketches, among many other segments. In addition to his time on the CBS long-running sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” Harris recently won a Tony Award for his work on the Broadway show “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and has hosted almost every major awards show, including the Oscars and the Emmy Awards.

“Best” is a return to an old format for NBC. Variety shows were incredibly popular in past decades, with such programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” and “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” proving popular. Even currently famous personalities like the Muppets and the “Star Wars” cast got in on the trend, with the Muppets headlining “The Muppet Show” from 1976 to 1981 and the “Star Wars Holiday Special,” which included songs by Bea Arthur and Jefferson Starship, airing in 1978.

The program that may come the closest now is another show by NBC, the long-running “Saturday Night Live.”

So what made NBC decide to go with “Best” now? Look no further than Maria von Trapp and Jimmy Fallon. With viewers’ attention being drawn away to multiple channels and streaming platforms, the main networks are always working to hold viewers’ attention (and if they watch a show live rather than DVRed, even better). NBC scored in 2013 with “The Sound of Music Live!,” which starred Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer and became a ratings hit. With “Music,” the network had gotten people to tune in and watch a program when it aired, and part of the appeal was likely the built-in suspense of the live aspect. Last year’s “Peter Pan Live!” didn’t get as many viewers but still did well in the ratings. "Best" is live, too, and could draw viewers curious to see what will happen. 

Meanwhile, Fallon as host of “The Tonight Show” has recently been the highest-rated host in late night (he's now battling Stephen Colbert, who debuted last week) and Fallon's show is full of celebrity guests playing unusual games or showing off talents, especially in the popular “lip sync battle” segments (that part of the show is so popular it was spun off into a Spike TV show). The audience for “Tonight” and the hits the segments get on YouTube show interest from viewers in the games and in celebrities playing them. While they may not be involved in every aspect of “Best,” the NBC program will include guest appearances by celebrities that will include Reese Witherspoon and Jack Black, to start.

If “Best” does well, you can expect to see a lot more variety segments popping up on your TV schedule.

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