Road to the Emmys: Drama
Emmy pedigree: Fifth consecutive nom.
Highlight: Colbert took his act on the road, training with the troops and then hitting the ground in Iraq last summer. He also headed north to the Winter Olympics to rag on the Canadian host for not being American enough.
Why it might win: Colbert’s fictional pundit persona has a lovable quality that makes him funny across the political aisle in a way Stewart and in particular Maher can’t. He also has pure comedy instincts and is unafraid to do anything for a good laugh.
Maybe not: In a category that’s full of political humor, voters could see Colbert’s more comedic approach as falling short in the depth department. Colbert’s character also occasionally has its limitations and could come off as a bit too one-note for voters. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”
Emmy pedigree: Won in 2003-2009, 10th consecutive nom.
Highlight: Nothing this past year hit as hard and as funny as host Stewart’s lengthy, spot-on and devastating parody of Fox News pundit Glenn Beck. Declaring the segment a life-and-death matter, Stewart nailed everything about Beck’s show, down to using the chalkboard and the monogrammed logo background.
Why it might win: Stewart remains in a class of his own when it comes to combining searing news commentary with gut-busting laughs. And despite his liberal leanings, he admirably welcomes guests he disagrees with and never hesitates to skewer worthy Democrats with his silver tongue.
Maybe not: Having dominated the category with nominees and multiple wins, there is always a chance that voters will take “Daily Show” for granted. Also, the show had a cloud of its own to deal with — a dustup in which a blogger accused the show of sexism, prompting a scathingly sarcastic rebuttal from Stewart — that could tarnish its chances just enough to miss out. “Real Time with Bill Maher”
Emmy pedigree: Sixth consecutive nom.
Highlight: It was a race to the bottom as Maher pitted the states against each other in the 2010 Stupidest State Showdown. The running segment skewered both over-the-top sportscasters and the current political climate without losing any laughs.
Why it might win: It’s hard to resist Maher’s skill at drawing out detailed, in-depth and relevant conversations from so diverse a list of guest speakers. That he manages to keep it funny at the same time is even more impressive.
Maybe not: Maher relishes tackling topics that make many viewers — and likely many Academy members — uncomfortable, from women’s rights in Afghanistan to atheism. Its being a lesser-seen show on HBO and Maher’s politically incorrect history also could play a role. “Saturday Night Live”
Emmy pedigree: 15 noms, won in 1976, 1993.
Highlight: The long-running sketch laffer hit a high note with a blockbuster episode hosted by Betty White that came about after fans started an online campaign to land her the gig. White didn’t disappoint, delivering raunchy jokes in her unique, grand-motherly style.
Why it might win: It was a relatively strong season, bolstered by a strong series of hosts and gueststars that could put it over the top. The popularity of White’s episode, on which multiple former cast members appeared, is pretty irresistible.
Maybe not: Despite the star power, the show didn’t break out any major new stars or sketch characters. With overall average content marked by a few stinkers, the show faces an uphill struggle with voters. “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien”
Emmy pedigree: First nom.
Highlight: Though it was short, O’Brien’s run as “Tonight Show” host was nothing if not eventful. Despite being banned from the city of Newark, getting a concussion during a stunt and running up licensing bills for NBC, it’s O’Brien’s heartfelt farewell that sticks out.
Why it might win: Earning a nomination shows that O’Brien is well-admired by the Academy, which could be looking for an excuse to slap down NBC for its poor handling of the offscreen fiasco. O’Brien also injected his own brand of comic energy into the series, which voters might find a breath of fresh air in the genre.
Maybe not: Despite the outpouring of support for O’Brien, his version of “The Tonight Show” failed to find a big enough audience and was not the success story everyone had anticipated. That could leave even fans feeling the nomination is sufficient reward and casting their ballots for others.