If variety is the spice of life, the Emmys for variety series have been inordinately bland for the last two decades. Yet if the awards have been characterized by repetition — characteristic of an arena generally known for its stability — this year and next year’s voting actually come at a sort of crossroads, reflecting a choice between nostalgia for its past and preparing for its future.
Comedy Central has owned this category for a dozen years, with “The Daily Show” claiming the prize for a gaudy 10 straight before giving up that mantel to sibling “The Colbert Report” in 2013. That was preceded by a five-year run by “Late Show With David Letterman,” which also won in 1994, its first year of eligibility.
But now the latenight field is in the midst of a deck shuffling, with Letterman having retired, Jon Stewart about to hang up his spurs and Colbert having exited cable to replace Letterman at CBS — in a new “Late Show” that will make its debut two weeks before the Emmycast.
That’s a lot of activity all at once, and it gives TV Academy members a chance to look back with appreciation, forward or even sideways, at a moment when prestige — which never seemed to do Letterman much good in his ratings battle with Jay Leno — could actually be a kind of currency as these hosts jockey for whatever advantage they can find.
Colbert has been off the air for months, and thus might have the most to gain from a third straight Emmy for his show, as he seeks to refurnish the house that Letterman built. And while all the latenight personalities expressed their admiration for Letterman during his final weeks, Colbert — having demonstrated his astonishing ability to improvise within a character — looks the best suited to create comedy magic at the desk, in the way Letterman, and before him Johnny Carson, famously could.
By contrast, the other latenight contenders have generally come down with a bad case of niceness, accompanied by the infectious desire to go viral, which usually means enlisting celebrities to engage in some sort of goofiness that will yield an echo effect beyond the limited confines of latenight. Jimmy Fallon, the current ratings leader as host of “The Tonight Show,” has been especially adept in this regard, but Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden have also carved out niches of wackiness.
From a bottom-line perspective, Fallon’s shtick is clearly working, but it’s easier to like, frankly, than it is to respect. Colbert might be hard-pressed to unseat him as the ratings leader, but there seems to be a rather sizable opening to lay claim to the patina of being the cool kid, the one that mixes inventiveness and creative risks with a knack for making the program worth watching even on nights when the guests elicit a shrug and the lead-in’s lousy.
Nevertheless, there has also been a fair amount of second-guessing CBS’ choice, with some arguing that nobody knows the “real” Stephen Colbert, inasmuch as he played a character for the 10 years he spent on Comedy Central. Of course, that relies on the highly questionable assumption there’s no play-acting involved in the other personas on display, or that having been funny in one venue, a change of location will completely flummox him.
Whoever wins the 2015 Emmy — and there are other interested parties in the mix, obviously, including HBO’s John Oliver (the one Comedy Central improbably let get away) and Bill Maher — the awards will essentially close the door on one chapter in latenight’s history and inaugurate a new one.
As a bonus, this year’s turnover will bring a dividend to the Emmy race in 2016: The prospect of some actual variety, and an election (OK, popularity contest) where the outcome is once again in doubt.