Harry is not only daytime TV’s biggest bet for this fall, it’s also looking to bring something very different to the daypart.
From Jimmy Fallon’s dressing-room performances with singers, playing musical instruments they found in a toy box somewhere, to James Corden’s carpool karaoke with megastars such as Adele, Jason Derulo and Justin Bieber, to Stephen Colbert’s more intellectual but still funny approach, late-night is going gangbusters right now. And why? Because it’s fresh, funny, entertaining and constantly available on YouTube.
So, why not bring that formula to daytime? That’s exactly what NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution hopes to do with its upcoming daytime show, Harry, starring versatile entertainer Harry Connick Jr. Connick’s name may be in the title, but the show is really the brainchild of both the singer and brothers Justin and Eric Stangel, who spent 16 years (1997-2013) executive producing Late Show With David Letterman.
Much the way many Hollywood relationships blossom, the trio came together at the behest of their agents and quickly became thick as thieves. The original idea was to create a new sitcom starring Connick, who “always was a fun and memorable guest on the Letterman show,” says Eric Stangel.
“Eric and I had stepped down in the final years at Letterman and taken a development deal with Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants,” says Justin. Worldwide Pants was one of the producers of Everybody Loves Raymond, which was a huge hit on CBS and in broadcast syndication, so of course Letterman and Worldwide Pants wanted more of that. But as we all know, creating the next broadcast sitcom hit is far easier said than done.
In pursuit of this dream, the Stangel brothers hung out a lot with Connick, spending off-hours in his tour bus working on sitcom concepts and watching him on stage while he performed.
“Harry Connick Sr., Harry’s dad, was on the tour bus with us and Eric, Harry and I would be laughing for hours. Finally, his father said, ‘When do you guys actually start working?’” says Justin.
In fact, the three have become such good friends that they often watch football together on Sundays. “Usually, we laugh so much that Justin says ‘my eyeball hurts and I have to go to the doctor,’” says Eric. While all of that hanging out did not produce the intended sitcom, it revealed that a show idea did exist for the trio, and one that was literally playing out right in front of their eyes.
“The way Harry approaches comedy and performing in general is very similar to how Eric and I approach things,” says Justin. “We like things that are open to families. We miss the old Carol Burnett Show, these family-friendly funny shows.
“If you see Harry in concert, everyone is laughing. It’s open to everybody. I brought my eight-year-old daughter and my parents. As we started building our show, we really based it on what Harry does live on stage.”
“When we went to see Harry’s concerts, they were far more than a musician performing for an audience. We realized that what he puts out each night on the concert tour could be a daytime show,” says Sean O’Boyle, executive VP and general sales manager of NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution. “We looked at the success of entertainers like Jimmy Fallon, James Corden and Ellen DeGeneres and knew that this was an opportunity.”
Dean of Daytime
For Connick, the daytime show is a perfect blend of everything he’s good at, which is a lot of things—singing, chatting with people and being funny. “Spontaneity is paramount for me,” says Connick, who’s also finishing up his final season as a judge on American Idol. “I don’t like rehearsing very much. When I do a show, I don’t go out to the audience and tell them the same stories every night. I go out and feel out the crowd and take it where it takes me.
“I’m not saying this show has never been seen on television but in many ways it’s very different from what people are used to. The great thing about Justin and Eric is that they helped build the show around my skill set as opposed to saying, ‘We’re going to put you behind a desk and plug you in.’ The closest thing that I’ve seen on TV that feels like what we’re going to do is The Dean Martin Show.”
When Connick and the Stangels produced the pilot, they approached all the segments with this spontaneous mindset. The result was three hours of material that they all say could easily air as three shows.
Those shows were filled with fun segments, and Connick never wanted to know exactly what was coming at him. Ahead of one segment, which featured kids showing and telling their favorite things, Connick made a point of not knowing any of the kids’ names or what they were going to show him.
“One kid brought in a chicken,” says Justin. “Other shows might think, ‘that’s your joke.’ But the kid held that chicken in a certain way and Harry picked up on that. He thought it would be funny if he held the kid the same way the kid held the chicken. As soon as he was faced with it, that’s what popped into his head and he did it.”
“It ended up being a fantastic segment and it was as good as one of those segments can be without us having to produce Harry almost at all,” says Eric.
In another segment, actress, writer and executive producer Mindy Kaling started talking about a Broadway audition in which she had to sing “Somewhere Out There” from Disney’s An American Tail. Instead of just letting Kaling finish the story and move on, Connick cajoled her into singing it with him.
“I personally don’t see those kinds of things on TV,” Connick says. “She didn’t know it was coming. I didn’t know it was coming. What it was was a room full of people all walking across a tightrope together. That’s the feeling I want to have on my show.”
Of course, Connick will include music, and his band will be on stage with him every day. But Harry is decidedly not a music show, nor is it a talk show nor, strictly speaking, a variety show. “Many of the shows that are working best right now in daytime exist to entertain,” says NBCU’s O’Boyle. “We didn’t think we could do a daytime show just based on music, but when we realized how funny he is we knew we had something.”
Net GainsNBCUniversal surprised the industry when Fox bought Harry instead of the NBC owned stations, for whom everyone assumed the show was being developed. But Fox came in with a stronger offer, wanting to air the show in the afternoons, and NBC was looking at adding local news in the afternoons on many of its stations. So the math worked out in Fox’s favor.
“What’s interesting about the Harry project is that it’s a different swing for us and an opportunity for us to bring some demographic power to that 2 p.m.-5 p.m. block,” says Frank Cicha, senior VP, programming, Fox Television Stations. “Harry has been on our air with American Idol, and they are bringing in the executive producers of the Letterman show, which means it isn’t going to look or feel like every daytime talk show that’s failed. This daypart has needed something like this for a while.” Of course, nothing is guaranteed in daytime, a TV space where it’s gotten harder and harder to break through, and Connick and the Stangels are well aware of that.
“I think we are all just concentrating on what we know we can do,” says Eric. “Justin and I know our way around producing a show and Harry knows his way around performing a show. We’re confident in each other.” “I’m not scared that we are doing a show during the day,” says Justin. “We just want to do the best show that we can and hopefully people will find us.” And none of them are in the least worried about having to produce several shows a week. The Stangels did that for Letterman for years, and Connick basically never stops working. Right now, he’s going from Idol to a concert tour to promote his new album, to production on Harry.
“I’m so excited that everything I love to do is going to be under one roof,” says Connick. “This show is built around me—I’ll talk to amazing people and play and sing. I’m not going to do things I don’t like to do.”