Sit-down affairs take on stand-up comics

Once again this year, it’s a battle between comedy specials and awards shows.

Last year, four comedians competed against the team writing the “81st Annual Academy Awards,” and Chris Rock emerged victorious for “Kill the Messenger.” This year, the ratio has tilted toward kudocasts: “The 82nd Annual Academy Awards” team will compete against scribes from “The 63rd Annual Tony Awards” and “The Kennedy Center Honors,” along with Bill Maher and Wanda Sykes.

Comedy-special writers tend to have an advantage: It’s a lot easier for them to strut their stuff than it is for award-show scribes. Sykes created comic arias about aging, race and her decision to come out gay in “I’ma Be Me.” Maher moved easily between familiar topics — religion, drug wars, dick jokes — and newer material about the economy and Obama’s sex life in “… But I’m Not Wrong.”

The kudocast nominees had a different role: scripting material around the unscripted moments of the evening — the presentations and performances that, when all goes well, provide the backbone of the show.

This year’s Oscar team had two hosts for a change, and the arrangement mostly worked. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin developed an easy rhythm from the start, Baldwin playing off the former standup like an old pro. Dave Boone, a veteran award-show writer, had big support on the Tonys from host Neil Patrick Harris, who went on to host the Emmy Awards after his bravura turn.

“The Kennedy Center Honors” scribes helped put together another memorable program, though their words were no match for the personal tributes — Jon Stewart calling Bruce Springsteen the love child of Bob Dylan and James Brown, for example — or emotional reactions like the expression on Dave Brubeck’s face when he saw his sons onstage to salute him.

Jon Macks, Bruce Vilanch, Steve Martin, Beth Armogida, Dave Barry, David Feldman, Carol Leifer, Jeff Richman, Marc Shaiman, Colleen Werthmann, Scott Wittman
“82nd Annual Academy Awards”
Emmy pedigree: A combined eight wins and 34 nominations.
Highlight: During his opening bit with co-host Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin quipped that nominee Christoph Waltz “played a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews,” and then gestured to the Hollywood crowd, drawing laughter from Ethan Coen, co-writer and director of “A Serious Man,” a movie about a professor in deep need of spiritual guidance from his rabbi.
Why it might win: Martin and Baldwin played off each other like two refugees from the Borscht circuit, proving two hosts can work together as well — or better than — one.
Maybe not: This is 2010 … and the presenter bits fell flat more than once.

Bill Maher
“… But I’m Not Wrong”
Emmy pedigree: 24 noms.
Highlight: Riffing on the absurdity of the drug wars, he observed: “Keith Richards is alive, but Michael Jackson’s dead.”
Why it might win: Politically incorrect as always, Maher takes on the Republican Party and President Obama’s sex life in this show.
Maybe not: Some of his observations — especially regarding religion — seemed overly familiar.

George Stevens Jr., Michael Stevens, Sara Lukinson, Lewis Friedman
“The Kennedy Center Honors”
Emmy pedigree: A combined 16 wins and 33 noms.
Highlight: Harvey Keitel fondly recalled his first encounter with Robert De Niro — the two started laughing without exchanging a word — during a group testimonial about the taciturn honoree.
Why it might win: Emmy voters really like “The Kennedy Center Honors,” and this year the program was full of warm tributes and powerful performances.
Maybe not: The personal salutes clearly came from the heart of those delivering them — and they’re not the nominated writers.

Dave Boone
“63rd Annual Tony Awards”
Emmy pedigree: First nom.
Highlight: Host Neil Patrick Harris’ bravura closing number recapping the evening to the tune of “Tonight” from “West Side Story” and “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from “Guys and Dolls.”
Why it might win: Considered one of the best Tonys in years, it was brisk and efficient — everything the Oscars is not.
Maybe not: “The Tony Awards” just don’t command as much respect as the Oscars — or as much opportunity for writers to strut their stuff as comedy specials do.

Wanda Sykes
“I’ma Be Me”
Emmy pedigree: One win, five noms.
Highlight: A hilarious bit about her loose midsection — nicknamed “Esther Roll” — clawing out of her Spanx during a “Tonight Show” appearance.
Why it might win: Sykes tackles sensitive topics — coming out as gay, lesbian parenthood and biracial marriage — in an accessible way.
Maybe not: Voters still may not be ready to hear it — or reward it with a statuette.

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Miniseries, movies or dramatic special nominees | Drama nominees | Comedy nominees | Variety, music or comedy special nominees
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