When you think of television comedy legends, the low-profile Tony Shalhoub probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind.
But with this year’s nominations, Shalhoub has a chance to become only the second actor to win four Emmys for a single comedic role, joining Kelsey Grammer of “Frasier.”
No slander at Shalhoub’s ability is meant by the relative surprise that comes with his dominance. If anything, it underscores the impression the former “Wings” and “Big Night” actor makes on “Monk,” the USA hourlong that is anything but the traditional big-audience sitcom.
Nevertheless, it won’t get any easier for Shalhoub to win this year.
On the one hand, there’s Charlie Sheen of “Two and a Half Men.” Sheen might have the greatest claim to Shalhoub’s throne: His show is the longest-running alternative to Shalhoub and the most popular half-hour on television. And rather than hitting the lowest common denominator, it’ s sophisticated enough to defy being a guilty pleasure.
On the other hand, you have Alec Baldwin and Steve Carell, representing true critical darlings “30 Rock” and “The Office.” Baldwin’s performance won universal raves, and Carell’s brilliance has received wide affirmation.
And then there’s Ricky Gervais, whose Emmy nomination parallels the BAFTA nod his character, Andy Millman, received for the fictional BBC2 series “When the Whistle Blows.” Millman provided a reminder that winning isn’t everything: Sometimes it’s victory enough just to avoid getting ejected from the ceremony.
Show: “30 Rock”
Emmy pedigree: Four noms
Best scene: In “Blind Date,” Jack nearly meets his match in trying to out-bluff Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) in a poker game. Afterward, he ruminates: “The Italians have a saying. … ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ And although they’ve never won a war or mass-produced a decent car, in this area they are correct. In five years, we’ll all either be working for him … or dead by his hand.”
Why he may win: Baldwin brings true star power and line readings so smooth that he’s practically the Barry White of sitcoms.
Maybe not: The crisis over the widely circulated, blistering voicemail Baldwin left for his daughter is on the back burner but still could cost him votes. And some might conclude that while he’s much more than your average supporting performer on “30 Rock,” he’s not a lead.
Show: “The Office”
Emmy pedigree: One nom
Best scene: The oft-bumbling Michael shows his wiles while manipulating a power-hungry Dwight in “The Coup.”
Why he may win: It’s Carell’s name that first comes to mind for many who ponder television comedic actors today. No one does (mostly) inept with a heart of gold better.
Maybe not: Perhaps he hasn’t found the Tony Shalhoub voodoo doll yet.
Emmy pedigree: First nom in this category; one win, one other nom
Best scene: Already burdened with a critically indefensible sitcom, Andy gets himself in hot water in “Episode 9” by complaining about a boy’s behavior at a restaurant — not realizing that the boy has Down’s syndrome.
Why he may win: Gervais goes even darker in this series than his original British”The Office,” to laudable results. He not only showcases his genius comic timing but his ability to play a character at war with himself.
Maybe not: Six episodes a year for a British import might not give Gervais enough ammunition, and it can be hard to find voters who are even aware of it existence.
Emmy pedigree: Three wins plus one other nom
Best scene: Reacting to the news of his beloved Dr. Kroger’s retirement, Monk goes through the five stages of grief in about a minute in “Mr. Monk Gets a New Shrink.”
Why he may win: With three statues to his credit, no explanation necessary other than to say he’s an Emmys darling. Moreover, Baldwin and Carell could split the NBC “Thursday Night Done Right” vote.
Maybe not: There are no weak links in the category, which could encourage voters to give someone else a chance at the podium.
Show: “Two and a Half Men”
Emmy pedigree: One nom
Best scene: In “Smooth as a Ken Doll,” Sheen shows Charlie’s underrated depth in figuring out how to deal with Myra (Judy Greer), who flirts like a champ.
Why he may win: Popularity counts, and “Men” is the most-watched show featuring a nominee. Further, more and more people have reversed their early dismissals of Sheen and “Men” as unhip.
Maybe not: Sheen still doesn’t have a lot of kudos heat, maybe because his character is fairly laid-back. His work strikes many as sharp but not memorable.