Why voters favor Lettermanesque 'tude over latenight's top show

“The Tonight Show” just turned 15 Jay Leno years old. How’s Emmy going to celebrate the anniversary of latenight’s most popular show?

If the past few years are any indication, the answer could be: It won’t.

NBC’s long-reigning late-night ratings champ hasn’t been up for the Variety, Music or Comedy Series Emmy since 2003. And the only time it won the category was in 1995.

It’s not as if “Tonight” has suffered in the absence of Emmy love. Through late May, the show was averaging 1.6 million more viewers than its nearest competitor, CBS’ “The Late Show.”

“(Leno) gets to laugh his way all the way home because he keeps winning,” notes Robert J. Thompson, the pop-culture expert.

Chalk it up to another case of dissonance between popularity and awards consideration.

Certainly, “Tonight” had plenty of contender-worthy moments this past season: There was Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat making a bed with (and clumsy passes at) Martha Stewart; there was Leno graciously pitching Barack Obama a softball about whether the presidential hopeful, who’s copped to past drug use, ever inhaled (“That was the point,” went the Obama-smacked punchline); and there was Mitt Romney, yet another 2008 White House contender, using Leno’s easy chair to make himself look like an easygoing guy — no simple task (“I can kick back. I can have a good time,” Romney insisted.)

But were there enough moments for “Tonight” to win out in the increasingly crowded Variety, Music or Comedy category?

The conventional sitcom may be in a commercial lull, but the convention-tweaking comedy talkshow is in a boom time.

The field of potential contenders in the stacked category includes: Comedy Central’s four-time defending champ “The Daily Show,” its upstart sibling “The Colbert Report,” HBO wild-card “Real Time With Bill Maher,” and perennial broadcast-network nominees “Late Show With David Letterman” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”

That’s five. “The Tonight Show” makes six. (NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” last nominated in 2004, makes seven, but that’s another story.)

“The Emmys get blamed a lot for not going out on a limb, but the latenight world is where they do reward edgier programming,” adds Neal Justin, TV critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

TV historian Tim Brooks agrees that the Variety, Music or Comedy Series competish is one area where Emmy likes heat, and right now “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are “hot, hot, hot,” he notes.

Like Johnny Carson before him, Leno appeals to a broad audience with an enduring blend of thoughtfully prepared monologues and signature bits like “Jaywalking” — stuff that isn’t edgy in the way that Colbert attempting zinging Bill O’Reilly is.

“I think Leno’s success and appeal are very similar to Carson’s,” Justin adds, “and he wasn’t a big Emmy winner either.”

When Carson was perfecting the latenight model, his “Tonight Show” often squared off at the Emmys against specials, with Dick Cavett’s PBS talker providing his only regularly scheduled competition.

(Not that winning is ever easy. “Tonight” ended up in a tie one year with the NBC medical documentary series “Lifeline” for the Emmy for Program Achievement — Special Class.)

Indeed, “Tonight” has a lot more competish these days.

Like Leno, Letterman and O’Brien, who are both about to mark their 14th years behind the desks of their CBS and NBC shows, respectively, aren’t exactly newcomers.

Yet, both are penciled in year after year after year by Emmy voters.

O’Brien’s “Late Night,” which was more than a decade old before it notched its first nomination, is currently in the midst of a four-year run as a contender.

Letterman’s “Late Show” has been tapped every year since 1994, its first Emmy year of eligibility. Not only that, it’s won six times.

The question as to why Emmy voters side with “The Late Show,” and not necessarily “The Tonight Show” is as old as, say, why do TV critics side with Letterman and not necessarily Leno.

“Jay Leno is still working in the old Carson tradition,” says Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse U. “And Letterman is working in the tradition that was developed in the 1980s and the ‘new irony.’ “

The short answer: “Leno still tells jokes; Letterman and everybody else who imitates him cops attitude.”

And come Emmy time, the theory goes, ‘tude sells better than jokes. Or crowdpleasing Jaywalking bits.

“(Letterman’s) considered to be a bit more edgy, a bit more of the outsider,” says Brooks, who’s also an Emmy voter, albeit one who won’t disclose his vote in the Variety, Music or Comedy Series category. “I don’t know if that’s fair or not, but he’s always been the guy who’s done more off-the-wall stuff.”

Daniel Frankel contributed to this report.

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