For thousands of years, Aeschylus, Sophocles and the rest of humanity knew the difference between comedy and drama. Comedy made you laugh. Drama made you cry. Or think. Or do anything but laugh.
Then the 2005 Emmys rolled around and changed everything.
” ‘Desperate Housewives’ was neither a pure comedy nor a pure drama,” says exec producer Michael Edelstein of the first season of ABC’s one-hour skein. “We were very funny, and by looking at the competition (in comedy), it made more sense to submit ourselves as a comedy. We made the strategic decision to enter as a comedy.”
Sure enough, “Housewives” was the only hourlong series to enter itself as a comedy in a field that included “Will & Grace,” “Scrubs,” “Arrested Development” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which ultimately won. Although hourlongs had won comedy series before — “Ally McBeal” anyone? — this marked the first nomination for what was, essentially, a primetime soap.
“Prior to ‘Desperate Housewives,’ everyone believed in nonserialized dramas,” says Edelstein. “One-hours had to be about cops, lawyers, doctors. Then, suddenly here’s this monster hit that blows all the current logic out of the water. It went against everything creative executives at the networks believed shows needed to be successful.”
The troublemakers of Wisteria Lane caused such a splash, in fact, that the Academy instituted a new “clarification” in this year’s Emmys rules. The clarification, in bold, reads:
“Comedy and drama series are defined as multiple episodes (minimum of six, with a majority of the running time of at least six of the total eligible episodes primarily comedic for comedy series entries, or primarily dramatic for dramatic series entries) in which the ongoing theme, storyline and main characters are presented under the same title and have continuity of a production supervision.”
In other words, Emmy entrants must submit six episodes from this year’s season … but those shouldn’t simply be the “best” episodes, they should support the claim of comedy or drama. Translation: Put your money where your mouth is. “Law & Order” wants to position itself as a comedy? No problem, as long as it submits six episodes that are funny as hell.
“The policy is tied in with the way judging is done,” explains John Leverence, the TV Academy’s awards maven.
The Emmys’ first round of voting determines the nominees. All 12,429 national members vote on their favorite shows, and the top 10 vote-getters are then screened by panels of nearly 300 members. The top five series become the official nominees, which is where the six episodes come in. At-home panels of approximately 700 members watch all six episodes of the five nominated series, then vote on their favorite.
“If you’ve got a dramedy,” says Leverence, “you’ve got to look down the road from the nomination to those six episodes. They’ve got to be able to compete against the other nominations. You’re not doing yourself a favor by positioning yourself in a comedy category, even if you have the nomination … if you’re unable to come up with the basic goods.”
Those are wise words to anyone mounting an Emmy campaign, especially in a television universe boasting more dramedies than ever before. “Desperate Housewives,” after all, may not be the first series to blur lines between comedy and drama, but it’s arguably the most successful, and it has certainly paved the way for similar genre-bending shows such as ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” CBS’ failed “Love Monkey” and upcoming programs like “Men in Trees” and “Betty the Ugly” (both on ABC this fall).
Indeed, the Academy’s message is clear: If you think entering a contrary category is a simple way to make some noise, think again.
“If you’re going to play this game to win, you have to be absolutely certain that when the day of reckoning comes, and your six are going up against those other 24, you’ll win,” says Leverence. “If you’re being overly clever, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”