In Latenight Emmy Race, Letterman’s Swan Song Aims for High Notes

There’s been a remarkable consistency among variety series Emmy candidates, starting with Comedy Central’s powerhouse pair. Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” has enjoyed back-to-back wins, while Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” took top honors in 2012 and the previous nine years.

They keep going up against HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” now at 10 consecutive nominations, and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” in the mix through breakthrough and routine seasons alike.

Then there are the network Jimmys: NBC’s Fallon, cited in 2014 for “The Tonight Show” after two years for “Late Night,” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

All told, those same six comprise the lineup over the past three years. But 2015’s seismic latenight shifts, with a host of hosts having left or on their way out, could affect the Emmy battle as well.

First rumbles came from the TV Academy itself, which is instituting a separate award for variety sketch in which “SNL” can now square off against the likes of Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer” and IFC’s “Portlandia.”

This leaves at least one slot up for grabs in variety talk, for which a widely viewed fast-tracker is “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” HBO’s year-old, Peabody-winning wrap-up of world events.

Also primed is CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman,” six-time Emmy winner knocked off by Stewart in 2003, and which stopped being nominated altogether in 2010.

Brian Abrams, author of the oral history of Letterman’s NBC years entitled “And Now …,” has followed the man he calls “just about the greatest talk show host ever.” Once Jay Leno cemented a hold as latenight ratings leader, Abrams says, “People perceived Letterman went on autopilot, as if he threw up his hands and decided it wasn’t worth it.”

But hoopla leading up to Letterman’s departure has reminded everyone of the legacy which, to author Russell Peterson, examiner of political comedy in “Strange Bedfellows,” was largely attitudinal: “His skepticism about everything, especially celebrity. His not taking having a talkshow too seriously. All the remotes he’d do, letting real people make fools of themselves. That attitude changed comedy, and influenced a lot of what came after.”

Today, says scribe Joe Toplyn, who won four Emmys for his work on Letterman’s “Late Night,” “There’s great respect and love for Dave and his body of work, and I think (Emmy voters) might factor that in.”

Abrams, by contrast, says, “It’s more likely Oliver will take that open slot. He gets so much play on line. Every Monday morning the blogosphere embeds his clips. He’s very much in the conversation. You don’t see Letterman in your Facebook feed every day.”

However an Oliver vs. Letterman smackdown plays out, multiple tyros will be shut out unless other usual suspects are vulnerable in a way few anticipate.

Conventional wisdom holds neither Jimmy, tops in the ratings, will be denied a slot. Consultant Steve Kaplan, author of “The Hidden Tools of Comedy,” says: “Kimmel does these great spoofs and has these ongoing faux feuds. Fallon has boundless joy. There’s nobody who enjoys entertaining people more.”

Yet he says “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” are “cleaning their clock,” kudos-wise anyway, because of a subtle “smart factor” at work.

“Their writers are well versed in the topics,” Kaplan says. “They don’t do the easy fat jokes others might do at the top of a show, next to a picture of Chris Christie. So there’s the sense this isn’t only satire, but also wit, great writing, great performances. These are hard guys to beat.”

Toplyn perceives additional ammo for Comedy Central’s big guns. Most talkshows lean on “refillable pieces, where the format stays the same so you can reuse the pieces again and again, just filling in new jokes each time. The top 10 list on ‘Late Show,’ for instance, is a refillable piece.”

But for Stewart and Colbert, “Every night the whole show is refillable. Not only does the staff have to write all completely new material every night, they have to find the right graphics and video clips to produce that comedy. That’s not easy to do. I think there’s a degree of difficulty that the voters take into account.”

If the Jimmys, Colbert and Stewart are locks (as widely believed), do Oliver or Letterman sneak in? TV Guide’s Matt Roush boldly predicts nominations for both the HBO newcomer and the CBS vet. “I can’t see that Oliver gets ignored for the sort of performance art he’s doing, so funny and ferocious.”

As for Letterman, “I think they’ll acknowledge the strength of this last run, where he rekindled his joy in doing the show and people reconnected with him.”

To make this happen, Maher would have to take the fall. Peterson does note, “He seems to go out of his way to make himself radioactive,” while Roush speculates, “After 10 years, there may be a feeling that it’s time for new blood.”

That commodity is certainly available should voters seek it. James Corden and Seth Meyers are still finding their footing, but Larry Wilmore, Colbert’s successor at Comedy Central, is staking out strong positions. “With all the issues flying around now, it would be great for him to get in there,” Abrams says.

Another familiar face could be heard from via Conan O’Brien’s Havana remotes. O’Brien’s shows have competed seven times in Emmy’s top category, and Cuba could help him toward No. 8.

All in all, voters’ predisposition toward the familiar nominee roll call seems manifest, for the time being.

A year from now, neither Wilmore nor Stewart replacement Trevor Noah will be guaranteed his predecessor’s Emmy love. How Colbert will fare in Letterman’s stead is unknown. And though Stewart will still be Emmy-eligible, he’ll have been off the air for nine months. Unexpected hosts may appear. Formats may change.

Mike Sacks, who interviewed comedy heavyweights in his anthology “Poking a Dead Frog,” hopes latenight will come to reject satire and celebrity worship altogether. “I’d like to see more comedy that’s character-based and evergreen, untethered to any current situation that’ll make it dated. Politically based things seem to go bad so quickly now.”

For his part, Abrams approvingly cites CBS’ rotating hosts in the hiatus between Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show” departure and Corden’s arrival. “It was like, nobody’s watching, do whatever you want. It felt like Letterman back in the ’80s again.” Tomorrow’s audiences may hanker for regular doses of anarchy, Steve Allen or Ernie Kovacs-style.

Whoever steps in to offer something new, or at least different, has a shot to become Emmy’s next perennial sweetheart. Applications now being accepted.

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