Category expansion leads to unusual choices

Who knew Emmy voters had such an offbeat sense of humor?

The biggest surprises in this year’s list of Primetime Emmy Award nominees came in the top comedy series and comedy acting categories, where the expansion of nominees from five to six (or seven in the case of a tie) yielded a bumper crop of unusual choices.

The TV Acad’s move to expand the categories, announced in February, came in response to criticism that the top noms tend to go to the same shows and thesps every year. But nobody expected Emmy voters to get quite so adventurous. For one, Fox’s “Family Guy” became the first animated series since “The Flintstones” in 1961 to crack the comedy series competish.

“It’s nice to see shows I watch getting nominated,” said Jenji Kohan, creator-exec producer of Showtime’s “Weeds,” which earned its first comedy series bid after several years of acting noms for stars Mary-Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins.

“You can’t accuse the Emmys of running the playbook — there are new and interesting choices in the lineup this year,” said Craig Thomas, co-creator/exec producer of CBS’ “How I Met Your Mother,” another first-time series nominee.

“Mother” had been seen as a longshot contender for the past few seasons. HBO’s “Entourage” and NBC’s “30 Rock” and “The Office” are established Emmy darlings, but the inclusion of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” in the race was a jaw-dropper — even for HBO programming chief Michael Lombardo.

“It’s fantastic,” he said, given the odds, noting that the show hasn’t been on the air for several months.

The musical comedy series about two desperate Kiwi musicians trying to eke out a living in New York has a devoted cult following, and its stars, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, are headliners on the alternative comedy circuit with their folk-comedy routines.

But “Conchords” has a fraction of the audience of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” which didn’t make the cut despite the growth of its aud and critical esteem in its second season. Nor did CBS’ top-rated “Two and a Half Men,” which has been nommed in the category for the past three years. Like “Big Bang,” “Men” hails from Chuck Lorre Prods. and is a traditional multicamera production. Of this year’s contenders, only “How I Met Your Mother” is produced in the classic multicam style.

“It feels like an honor to represent that form among the nominees. In a way, that makes it a little extra special for us,” Thomas said, citing his “HIMYM” co-creator Carter Bays. For the “How I Met Your Mother” duo, their love of three-camera classic sitcoms like “Cheers” and “Taxi” was “the whole reason we wanted to become writers,” Thomas said.

“Family Guy” creator-exec producer Seth MacFarlane has made no secret of his desire to secure a seat at the big-kids table for his Fox animated comedy, something “The Simpsons” could never pull off even in its heyday. Of course, “Family Guy” already defied the industry odds, getting canceled a few years ago only to be resurrected thanks to its success in reruns and on DVD.

This year, the “Family Guy” crew gambled by submitting the show in the top comedy category and not the animated series field (Emmy rules stipulate that a show can’t try for both). To MacFarlane, the nom is akin to a civil rights victory for toon writer-producers.

“There are so many people who are putting out great shows the same way that people on ‘The Office’ and ’30 Rock’ are, but they’ve never been recognized appropriately,” MacFarlane said. “As the landscape of TV has changed, animated shows have become as much of a force as single-camera (comedies). My goal this year was to get people to open their minds about animation in the same way that they have for unconventional single-camera shows.”

It worked — and as the cherry on top, MacFarlane’s other Fox comedy, “American Dad,” pulled its first nom in the animated series category. As he savored the congratulatory calls, emails and texts Thursday morning, MacFarlane was quick to add that he’s impressed with the competition.

“It’s a great list (of comedy series nominees),” MacFarlane said. “It covers a lot of different types of shows and recognizes the quality of work that is being done in different media. … It’s nice to see that the creative prejudice (against animated series) is a thing of the past.”

A half-hour like Showtime’s “United States of Tara” also pushes the boundaries of what qualifies as comedy. Toni Collette scored a lead comedy actress nom for her perf as a wife and mother bedeviled by three other distinct personalities.

“It is a mix of comedy and drama, and that’s what life is like,” Collette said. “I think ultimately audiences want to see themselves when they watch a show so they can engage with it more. Even though ‘Tara’ involves mental illness, it’s not a purely heavy show. It has its poignant and its profound moments, and it has its funny and silly moments.”

The other trend evident in the comedy pack is the continued rise of the multihyphenate star. Sarah Silverman is a somewhat unexpected entrant in the lead comedy actress category for her outre Comedy Central skein “The Sarah Silverman Program.”

Silverman comes from the Tina Fey school of multitasking as a top writer, producer and star of her show. The same is true for “Conchords” star Clement, who is up for lead comedy actor honors. Fey pulled off the hat trick of wins for actress, comedy writing and comedy series last year. This year, Fey is vying for a third consecutive series trophy and for guest comedy actress gold for her turns as Sarah Palin on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Although Silverman had been talked up by the kudos cognoscenti as a dark-horse Emmy contender, the thesp had paid so little attention to the Emmy contest that she had no idea Thursday was nominations day until her phone starting ringing around 5:45 a.m. Once friends explained the sea change this year with the category expansion, the notion that her perf on the envelope-pushing, bathroom-humor loving show could merit the Emmy spotlight made a little more sense to her.

“It’s awesome,” Silverman said, still sounding sleepy at 10 a.m. “It must be the sixth category thing. I don’t know if I would’ve been nominated if it’d just been five.”

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