With key perennials gone, laffer awards are wide open

Emmy’s about to get an extreme comedy makeover.

With usual contenders “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Sex and the City” history — and critical fave “Curb Your Enthusiasm” having not aired this season — the comedy categories will have new looks.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences generally hates to shake things up, mostly nominating the same series over and over again.

The best comedy category, in particular, has been a restricted race for years — just 13 series have scored a nomination over the past decade.

But with so many perennial noms gone, and few hits stepping up to replace them, Emmy’s comedy category doors are wide open.

Or, as Sacramento Bee TV critic Rick Kushman puts it, “What a grim year.”

The transformation actually started last year, when quirky critics’ fave “Arrested Development” shocked the mainstream by pulling off an Emmy victory vs. stalwarts “Sex,” “Curb” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Sensing an opening in what had previously been a tightly packed race, ABC promises to turn the comedy category on its ear by nominating series phenom “Desperate Housewives.”

” ‘Desperate Housewives’ is one of those rare shows that defy description,” says ABC senior VP of communications Kevin Brockman. “It’s a one-hour, yet it’s one of the funniest shows on TV. It would be great to be nominated, but nothing is a given. It comes down to people voting.”

Meanwhile, outgoing sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” is expected to snag its seventh consecutive mention (the show won in 2003), given the hoopla surrounding its finale and the general consensus that the show went out on top.

Of course, a swan song doesn’t necessarily equal Emmy glory. “Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City” failed to win in their final seasons; “Friends” and “Frasier” didn’t score noms.

Also likely to return for a second time is “Arrested Development,” which continues to earn raves, but might find it hard to defend its title against the “Housewives” juggernaut.

“Arrested Development” also will have to break a six-year curse that has seen no laffer post consecutive wins. “Frasier” was the last sitcom to win back to back, notching up five straight victories between 1994 and 1998.

The only other previously Emmy-nominated comedies even still on the air are “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Will & Grace.”

“Malcolm” hasn’t picked up a nom since 2001, while “Will” has landed five straight (having won in 2000). Both shows are considered long shots, however, potentially opening the door for some new faces.

Even if “Housewives,” “Raymond” and “Arrested Development” get their noms, that still leaves room for new blood.

But given the ongoing comedy drought, finding new contenders won’t be easy.

That could be good news for “Two and a Half Men,” which has secured a large fan base, not to mention heir apparent status from CBS as the successor to “Everybody Loves Raymond.

“Right now, you can say the only traditional sitcom giant left is ‘Two and a Half Men,” notes Bill Lawrence, exec producer of NBC’ single-cam laffer “Scrubs.” “It just shows that any time someone makes a multi-camera sitcom competently, it won’t be rejected.”

Accolades from his peers aside, “Men” creator and EP Chuck Lorre wouldn’t be disappointed if “Raymond” picked up one final Emmy.

“I think we’re doing good work, but in my humble opinion, ‘Raymond’ created a body of work that should be acknowledged,” Lorre says. “It’s a classic comedy that will be in syndication decades from now.”

Beyond “Two and a Half Men,” this could be the year that Emmy nominates a surprise or two — such as NBC’s “The Office,” HBO’s “Entourage,” Showtime’s “Fat Actress” or even the WB’s “Gilmore Girls” (in case nominating comedic hourlong series becomes contagious).

Still, speculation could be a moot point: Most execs and producers expect that hugely popular Golden Globe winner “Desperate Housewives” will glide to an easy Emmy win.

“It’s over,” a rival net exec says of the Emmy comedy race.

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