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High-Wire Act


Styling by Sharon Williams/Celestine Talent; Grooming by Cheri Keating/The Wall Group; Production design by Nick Tortorici. Shirt and bow tie by Brooks Brothers.  

In person, Harris is a graceful presence: tall and charismatic, with hollow cheeks, a rangy muscularity, and three expressive lines on his forehead. He lounges, legs spread, on his office sofa, wearing a suit and tie. A bronze skull sits on the coffee table; there’s a suitcase bar near the bathroom. On the shelf is a framed picture of his long-term boyfriend, David Burtka, bed-headed, smiling up from white sheets.

I mention that I’m staying at the Magic Castle Hotel, and he hocks me playfully. “You do know it’s not affiliated with the Magic Castle, right?” he says, looking concerned. “Is it all creepy and Bates Motel? Or cool and magicky?”

He glances down at his silver Mac, flooded with Emmy e-mails. This is Harris’s first major producing gig, and it’s more complicated than he’d expected.

“This may very well be the last year they’re on a network show,” he says of the Emmys on CBS, which he was invited to join after he got credit for the highest Tony ratings in years. “This wheel contract they have, where each year a different network gets the show, as the ratings decline it becomes less of a good thing to ‘get it.’ It’s a very expensive show. Which means they have to get more ad revenue. Ads are less expensive, because ratings are down. So you have to do more ads, which makes the show smaller—and inevitably, when it goes to ABC, the same thing will happen, and finally someone will do it on cable, where there won’t be any commercials. Which will be a wonderful show. Our three-hour show is only two hours and five minutes long, due to economics.”

Still, he’s trying to insert his taste into the proceedings. He’d love this year’s installment to be the “Classy Emmys,” he says, with self-mocking air quotes. Superb dancing. Uncheesy musical guests. He originally wanted the Muppets for the opening number—Statler and Waldorf up in the balcony!—but that plan proved too difficult to stage.

Muppets as an opening act are very much within Harris’s own aesthetic. Along with magic, he adores variety shows, Buster Keaton, slapstick and acrobatics, cryptography and treasure hunts. He worships Sondheim; he collects puzzles. He’s obsessed with competitive reality games—and friendly with several reality stars, including Dr. Will Kirby from Big Brother. He’s “very reverential” about puppets and has been reading Street Gang, a history of Sesame Street. (He hopes to reinvent the children’s-show format someday.) For his 30th birthday, friends created an elaborate scavenger hunt, involving kidnapping and horseback rides. The man is seemingly incapable of having a conversation without making a reference to Cirque du Soleil. This spring, in his spare time, he produced a Hollywood version of Accomplice, an interactive theatrical game in which participants mingle with actors and solve puzzles.

This is the stuff that most attracts him, he tells me—anything stylized, abstract, requiring skill and practice.

At a recent magic conference, Harris marveled at the dexterity of the younger magicians. “These card kids are like crystal-meth-heads, they’re so good. I say that as a compliment. They’re 13 years old, and they can do six cuts—that requires sitting for, like, five hours a day, just practicing cuts.”

He discusses his own performances this way, too, as a technical achievement. “For me, I’ve always had a desire to know how things were done. How things worked.” Though he respects Method actors, who delve deeply into motivation and history, seeking to become the character, Harris prefers to work from the outside in. “When we were filming Dr. Horrible, I was imagining watching it in my living room. When I’m co-hosting with Kelly Ripa, I’m not thinking Neil the Actor, I’m thinking, Housewife, ironing clothes, eleven o’clock. What kind of thing does she want to see?”

You talk a lot about the audience, I point out.

“Well, that’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?” he says. “We’re performing for people.”

Coming out is its own kind of theatrical performance: It’s a reveal. For most of show-business history, it’s been more like an exposure—often in the aftermath of a scandal, as with George Michael. But then there was Ellen DeGeneres, whose famous “Yep, I’m Gay” on the cover of Time seemed to presage a new era of openness, an end to the double life. Instead, it hobbled her career until she returned, years later, as a talk-show host. That was twelve years ago, and each year there’s more give in the social fabric, with openly gay newscasters (Rachel Maddow), talk-show hosts (Rosie O’Donnell), singers (Michael Stipe), American Idols (Adam Lambert), comics (Mario Cantone), and actresses (Wanda Sykes, Sara Gilbert, Portia de Rossi, Cynthia Nixon). Even some long-closeted female stars have quietly shifted their status, including Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and, most recently, Kelly McGillis.

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