Traditional comedies overlooked by Emmy awards

Not even top ratings, critical acclaim and a massive Emmy campaign could secure a comedy nomination for “The Big Bang Theory.”

The CBS laffer managed to score an acting bid for star Jim Parsons but was shut out of all other major categories — easily the biggest no-show of Thursday morning’s Emmy nomination announcement.

But TV Academy voters didn’t just exclude “Big Bang.” Of the six series nominated for comedy this year, not a single one was shot in the traditional multicamera format.

More than 10 years after “Ally McBeal” crashed Emmy’s comedy race, the category has become much more unruly — much like the genre itself.

As the ranks of traditional multicamera sitcoms dwindle, the comedy form has evolved into hodge-podge of single-camera half-hours, hourlong dramedies, animation and, now, even a musical.

Emmy is struggling to keep up but, in the process, appears to be leaving the most traditional series behind — despite the fact that shows like “Big Bang” and “Two and a Half Men” remain the most-watched comedies on TV, while “How I Met Your Mother” continues to perform well for CBS.

And all the more puzzling, Emmy voters are frequently branded as older and more traditional with their picks but have demonstrated a willingness to make bold choices in comedy. (Witness last year’s “Family Guy” and “Flight of the Conchords” noms.) It’s an issue the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and comedy producers have been grappling with for the past decade.

Showtime Entertainment prexy Robert Greenblatt was an exec at Fox when “Ally” was first submitted as a comedy, which he said was creator David E. Kelley’s decision. “To some degree that label was arbitrary because we needed to pick one or the other, but in David’s mind, in spite of the length of the show, it was a comedy,” Greenblatt recalled.

Since “Ally McBeal’s” win in 1999, single-camera series have dominated the category. The last multicam laffer to win the award was “Everybody Loves Raymond” in 2005.

The debate has particularly centered on hourlongs that enter the category. “Ally,” as well as more recent comedy contender “Desperate Housewives,” contained just as much drama as they did comedy. (Some may argue than any good drama contains a dose of comedy.)

“I think it’s fantastic that we’re seeing a lot of series on TV that have a mix of both elements in their shows,” said Greenblatt, whose half-hour “Nurse Jackie” earned a comedy bid — even though the Edie Falco starrer could have just as easily been entered as a drama. “Shows like ‘Nurse Jackie,’ ‘Modern Family’ and even ‘Glee’ are unique combinations of characters and situations that can range from broadly comedic to dramatic and introspective, sometimes even dark.”

“Nurse Jackie” co-creator Liz Brixius said she felt that the show would be criticized no matter which category was chosen.

“If we were to submit our show with drama, there would be people who say ‘That’s not a drama, that’s a half-hour.’ Now we’re in comedy, people will say, ‘Edie Falco is not a comic actress,’ ” Brixius said. “With our show it’s just a different kind of humor. It’s gallows humor, and with that humor comes the gallows. It’s a new kind of TV and sadly, there are only two categories (for series). We’re thrilled to be in any category.”

In the case of “Glee,” TV’s most-nominated comedy this year was a single-camera hour that dealt with teenage pregnancy, homophobia, virginity and deception.

But “Glee” at least balances much more comedy with its drama — thanks in part to the presence of Jane Lynch, nommed for supporting comedy actress.

“Glee” defied classification to begin with: Was it a drama with comedic elements? A comedy with dramatic elements? A musical with both comedy and drama? Ryan Murphy, “Glee” co-creator and exec producer, said he believed the show fit in the comedy competish.

“I do think it’s a comedy — it’s a musical comedy,” he said. “If you look at all the shows that are nominated (for comedy series), they all have moments of drama, or moments of what we call ‘heart.’ This genre is never called ‘musical drama.’ We’re a comedy.”

Twentieth Century Fox TV chair Dana Walden said the “Glee” situation is reminiscent of “Ally McBeal,” also a 20th series. “It’s an hour that’s very comedic in nature and feels like it belongs in that category,” she said.

Greenblatt suggested that perhaps the TV Academy should drop the “drama” and “comedy” labels and instead award “outstanding hour-long series” and “outstanding half-hour series,” in order to end the classification controversy.

Every year, the TV Acad discusses how it should address the murky world of comedic dramas and dramatic comedies, according to ATAS awards senior VP John Leverence.

“The question is asked, should we have comedy series and drama series at both ends of the spectrum, and in the middle have something devoted to dramedy?” Leverence said. “In that case, you’d have ’30 Rock’ and ‘The Office’ and ‘Modern Family’ clearly on the comedy side, while ‘Curb’ and ‘Glee’ might move more toward the middle. And ‘Nurse Jackie’ might be somewhere between dramedy and drama.”

The TV Academy to date has nixed any major changes, as the org tries to avoid adding even more categories to an already crowded mix when it can. “There’s a feeling on the board that the proliferation of categories equals a dilution of the significance of the Emmy,” he said.

Instead, many shows wind up with dual citizenship. Because series have to submit six episodes, Leverence said shows will frequently pick a side depending on whether producers feel they have six strong comedic or six strong dramatic segs. “It’s one of those situations in which you make your best choice as a producer,” he said. “Not only for the nomination, but also for the win.”

As for “Big Bang Theory,” the move toward awarding more complicated fare, particularly from the cable nets, makes it harder for more traditional shows to break through.

“The ultimate award is an incredibly successful run and high ratings and a huge syndication sale,” Walden said. “No one is throwing a pity party for (‘Big Bang’ exec producer) Chuck Lorre right now. It’s a cyclical phenomenon of a group like the Academy. They’re rewarding certain genres on TV, and right now there’s a premium for being bold and distinctive.”

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