'Colbert,' 'SNL' strive for recognition

Emmy’s variety, music or comedy series category has been remarkably stable and even predictable the past few years. This year’s nominees are identical to last year’s, when Comedy Central’s popular “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” won for the sixth consecutive year.

But with some signs among the top categories that the Academy is letting in some fresh blood, it may be time for a change in this group, too.

The most obvious competition for “The Daily Show” comes from its Comedy Central cohort “The Colbert Report,” which has proved adept at grabbing its share of the zeitgeist, with Colbert running for president and petitioning to get bridges and space stations named after him.

“Saturday Night Live” is a true veteran of this category, owed in large part to its almost 35-year run on NBC. But it has never won this category, so the show — enjoying a renaissance in recent years — could definitely be considered overdue for recognition.

HBO’s political talker “Real Time With Bill Maher” has been nominated the past four years in a row, but has been shut out in not just this but other categories. Maher’s highly political — and unapologetically liberal — brand of talk could resonate more with voters in a year of political change.

“Late Show With David Letterman” was once the powerhouse in this category, having won in 1994 and from 1998-2002. Letterman’s ability to excite viewers remains intact — as seen by his recent back-and-forth with Sarah Palin — albeit perhaps less frequently than before.

THE COLBERT REPORT

Network: Comedy Central

Exec producers: Jon Stewart, Ben Karlin, Allison Silverman, Stephen Colbert

Highlight: Colbert’s successful campaign to get viewers to vote to name the new node in the Intl. Space Station. Getting the most votes, NASA still went with its preference, Tranquility, but did name the station’s treadmill “C.O.L.B.E.R.T.” for “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.”

Why it might win: Colbert’s sly humor has been growing increasingly popular and relevant, and may give him the cachet he needs to outpace Stewart.

Maybe not: Colbert’s broadcast persona may be too subtle an in-joke to be appreciated by enough Academy voters.

THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART

Network: Comedy Central

Exec producers: Rory Albanese, Josh Lieb, Jon Stewart

Highlight: Stewart’s scathingly hilarious polemic and subsequent interview with MSNBC’s Jim Cramer about ethics and standards in financial reporting.

Why it might win: It’s had a stranglehold on this category for years, and there’s no reason to think that anything’s changed. Stewart remains a touchstone for an entire generation, and his cultural power is hard for anyone to counter.

Maybe not: In a year of political change, the Academy may be ready to vote in a new administration in this category. Stewart’s attacks on the likes of Cramer also cross a line beyond comedy that may make voters uncomfortable.

LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN

Network: CBS

Exec producers: Barbara Gaines, Maria Pope, Jude Brennan, Rob Burnett

Highlight: Letterman showed he can run with the other big boys when it comes to politics, grilling presidential candidate John McCain about Gordon Liddy and skewering President Bush in a hysterical running series called Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.

Why it might win: Letterman is an old-time favorite, and voters may find comfort in his consistency in an otherwise turbulent year. He also remains a strong performer in a field that’s currently in transition, with Conan O’Brien taking over “The Tonight Show” and Jay Leno debuting a new primetime talker soon.

Maybe not: Letterman plays it safe for the most part, and only rarely shows the kind of edginess his competitors do. And it won’t take much of a shift in the Academy’s taste toward either safer or edgier fare for Letterman to fall short.

REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER

Network: HBO

Exec producers: Bill Maher, Billy Martin, Brad Grey, Marc Gurvitz, Scott Carter, Sheila Griffiths

Highlight: Maher put both filmmaker Ron Howard and author Gore Vidal through their paces in thoughtful and entertaining interviews in a single episode.

Why it might win: Maher’s mix of serious talk and comedy is deeper and further out there than anything else on TV. Liberal Academy members in particular may find it tough not to reward Maher’s sharp and witty advocacy.

Maybe not: Maher’s unapologetically political discussions are far from free of controversy — he hasn’t won an Emmy since his infamous post-9/11 remarks on ABC’s “Politically Incorrect.”

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE

Network: NBC

Exec producer: Lorne Michaels

Highlight: Any episode hosted by or featuring Justin Timberlake, whose collaboration with Andy Samberg on the SNL Digital Short “Mother Lovers” — the sequel to the Emmy-winning “Dick in a Box” — was raunchy, hysterical and an instant classic.

Why it might win: It’s never won this category. And with the show turning out some of its best material in years — even without the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler voters may finally see fit to rectify that oversight.

Maybe not: The show’s irreverence and youthful orientation may not connect well enough with the older Academy voters, whose support is needed to take home the trophy. It also remains true that while the good bits can be very good, many sketches are instantly forgettable.

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