The run for the gold in variety talk series has shaped up to be a maiden race — none of this year’s six nominees has previously gone home with an Emmy.
Two of the contenders, “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “Real Time With Bill Maher,” have been on the air since 2003, the same year “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” began a decade-plus run of dominance broken only by spinoff “The Colbert Report.”
But with those shows both now out of the race, it’s anybody’s category to win.
The field breaks down to two traditional talk shows (NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” ABC’s “Kimmel”), two snarky political commentators (HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”), and two surprise contenders (Crackle’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” CBS’ “The Late Late Show With James Corden”).
The most momentum rests with the current king of rant, Oliver, who has the advantage of covering an emotionally charged political year with two diametrically opposed candidates.
Trevor Noah may have been anointed Stewart’s successor to the “Daily Show” desk, but Oliver is the one carrying the banner of investigative comedy. Week after week, his topical show has generated headlines in his own right, with extensive investigative reporting and those epic rants.
The only other contender tackling political issues as a major part of his show is Maher.
This has been the most-watched season of “Real Time” since the show hit the air in 2003, according to HBO programming president Casey Bloys. The cabler just extended the series through 2018, although that may not have much sway with Emmy voters who have their hearts set on flashier contenders.
If Oliver is the electric cattle prod of late night, then Corden is a warm bear hug. The jovial host is Oliver’s closest competition in what could be a hotly contested finish.
While Corden and Oliver both launched in the same year, Corden has been able to put his own fresh spin on late-night talk — and do it five days a week instead of just one.
“He’s become an Emmy-nominated, nationally recognized creative force,” says Glenn Geller, CBS president of entertainment. “He’s essentially putting on a big variety show in late night five nights a week.”
Emmy voters may not be able to resist rewarding a “new” find in Corden, who is also an accomplished song-and-dance man and recently won raves for hosting the Tony Awards.
“Late Late Show” showrunner Ben Winston says they didn’t come to the format with the idea of making it different but instead to showcase Corden’s theater and musical talents.
Watching stars from Adele to Justin Bieber in candid moments on “Carpool” has solidified the Brit host’s appeal. “We just wanted to play to James’ strengths and what he’s brilliant at,” Winston says.
Corden follows the traditional talk-show guys more closely, and like Jimmy Fallon largely steers clear of politics. The two hosts rely heavily on entertainment and goofy bits that go viral.
Like Corden, Fallon has done incredibly well on the internet with his lip-sync battles. He’s also the undisputed ratings champion, which may serve him well with voters if it comes down to a popularity contest.
No one ever wants to count the scrappy Kimmel out. He continues in the footsteps of Carson, Letterman, and Leno while adding his own twisty comedy from man on the street humor to stealing candy from babies.
He hasn’t been able to snag an Emmy in this category through the 13 years he’s been on the air. One can only imagine the jokes he’ll make about it given that he’s hosting this year’s festivities.
Which leads us to first-time nominee Jerry Seinfeld. The comedian is the most well-known of the bunch, yet seems like the biggest underdog of all.
The Emmy veteran has hosted the unconventional digital series “Comedians in Cars” since 2013. His unique series is a close cousin to “Carpool Karaoke” — without the singing.
His quirky discussion series is on Crackle, a streaming network that’s been around since 2007, but maintains a relatively low profile compared to the likes of Netflix and Amazon. Crackle often airs multiple seasons in a year — three in 2014 — making 2016 the eighth season.
He’s had a roster of famous passengers including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Steve Martin, President Obama — and even his competition, John Oliver.
Anyone who has had their heart, and wallet, broken at the track knows how easily the favorite can lose when it comes down to the wire. And while handicappers give the edge to the ever topical Oliver, or Corden, the colt that bolted out of nowhere to capture the zeitgeist through viral videos, there’s always a chance for an upset.
Worth noting: Since 2002, this category has been won by a Comedy Central show.
The only sure thing is that, no matter who wins, a first-timer will finally cross the finish line.