Late Night Shakeup
Kyle Hilton for Variety

What a nutty year it’s been in the world of TV talkers. Hosts bit the dust — some were expected; some out of the blue; one for the second time — as other hosts got promoted and handed the torch to a host of new hosts. Has the comedy-music-talk species ever occupied so many column inches over a single 12-month period?

Latenight may be, as Emily Nussbaum has charged in the New Yorker, “the most static genre on TV,” but its tectonic plates are shifting. And if a selection of media critics and Emmy watchers are right, the first consequence will be a shakeup in the nominations for variety series, virtually copied over the past decade.

Talk about static: 2012 and 2013’s slates were identical, with the TV Academy tapping “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” Bill Maher, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon’s showcases and “Saturday Night Live.” The only difference the year before was the substitution of TBS’ “Conan” for Kimmel.

But here’s how weird things could get. Since so many transitions occurred midway through the June-through-May eligibility period, it’s entirely possible for four of the (lately six) nominees to be: “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

Of course, no one thinks that’ll happen, if only for the presence of Comedy Central’s perennials. “The Daily Show’s” 10-year winning streak was only broken when “The Colbert Report” took last

September’s Emmy, after a string of seven nods. Both stayed strong this year.

Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik gives kudos to Jon Stewart and his writers for “fantastic, relevant comedy, and the best political criticism in this country on a daily basis.”

The host did take a summer break to direct a movie, but his most memorable interview was a doozy. Putting then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the spot over Obamacare enrollment was widely credited as the beginning of her demise.

Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, “cloaks his satire within a buffoonish character,” as David Hinckley of the New York Daily News puts it, which has garnered him the “hippest and coolest” status long associated with Stewart, and Letterman before that.

Voters may hold off anointing him again until they see what he does on CBS at 11:30 a year from now. Still, as Poniewozik points out, “Colbert had the #CancelColbert controversy, which he handled brilliantly. If I’m guessing, I’d say slight advantage Colbert there.”

Letterman is seen as the most likely beneficiary of whatever change is in the air, and not just for a nomination but perhaps a valedictory statuette as well.
After five consecutive Emmys in 1998-2002, and seven straight nods thereafter, Letterman’s trendsetting hour dropped out of the Emmy race.

But as TV Guide’s Matt Roush notes, “Everybody’s acknowledging now the influence, the impact Letterman has had on the entire field of latenight television. Since he’s preparing to sign off, conditions are really good for him to break back into the category.”

Veteran Emmy consultant Murray Weissman is categorical.

“Leno and Letterman are sentimental favorites this year. They’ve put in their time, and it’s been years since either one has taken a win,” he says.

The critics are less certain about Jay. “Leno is always going to do better in ratings than in nominations,” opines the Denver Post’s Joanne Ostrow. “Talk about not being cool enough for the room! He’s the hardest working guy in show business, but he’s never gotten the critical attention.”

If YouTube data are any indication, Kimmel and Fallon will easily repeat among the category’s sainted six. Kimmel’s third annual “I told my kids I ate all their Halloween candy” prank has pulled over 31 million views, while 24 million hits have gone to Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s “#Hashtag” sketch. But each has other factors going for him.

“I don’t think the Academy is going to ignore Jimmy Kimmel, because of the huge impact he’s having,” says Roush.

Poniewozik credits Fallon with a sea-change in latenight sensibility. “It’s less sarcastic and ironic, more sincere and joyful and earnestly happy. In the world of ‘guys sitting at a desk and doing interviews,’ and outside of Comedy Central, he’s probably been doing the most interesting things.”

“Saturday Night Live” has earned 10 nods since 2000, but to Hinckley this was “a down year.”

Roush explains: “The initial influx of interchangeable and hardly breakthrough new talent, (and) only adding a minority member to the group after an embarrassing media uproar, made the show look like it was off its game and not as relevant as it would like to be.”

(Hinckley does point out, “ ‘SNL’ is one of the few shows that doesn’t have to prove itself every year.”)

As for Maher (31 past nods in all), Roush sees a “cool ‘in’ factor” associated with his “anything-goes danger” and “explosively irreverent attitude,” which accounts for his consistent presence in the race. However, “his bad-boy act, which he’s been milking a long while, is no doubt off-putting to some elements of the establishment, which may explain why with all of his nominations he’s always an also-ran.”

Roush insists “the latenight field has become so volatile that a shake-up feels inevitable. Maher and ‘SNL’ seem like the most likely candidates to suffer for that.”

In assessing the variety series category, the scribes float such notions for change as separate awards for talk series and comedy-music programming.

Some wonder whether the whole topic has become moot. “There really aren’t any variety shows any more,” Hinckley says. Thanks to YouTube, “people don’t have to sit through the comedian to get to the singer they want.”

Ostrow agrees: “Maybe we don’t need them any more because we live in a variety world. Back in the day if you were tired of Westerns you’d turn to a variety show. Today, there’s always something different online, or on 500 channels, or on your phone.”

Yet today’s vast content array could inspire broadcasters to gamble on nontraditional tactics.

Already, John Oliver’s weekly “Last Week Tonight” on HBO provides doses of lively, thoughtful satire, and in replacing Colbert, Larry Wilmore’s “Minority Report” will offer a refreshing alternative to the hip-white-guy host model.

Viewers may be in for less straight gab. Ostrow is convinced “music is going to play a bigger role going forward. It’s the nature of these hosts, they bring it with them.”

Fallon gets out from behind the desk to rap and don dancing shoes, and surely Colbert’s musical theater bent and improv experience will play a major part in his new gig. (“The Mighty Colbert Art Players”?)

Whatever peaks and valleys are ahead, TV variety is as old as TV itself and Emmy will continue to reward it. Even if the genre decides to take a break, you can be sure it’ll be right back.

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