Neither AMC’s “Mad Men,” up for its fifth Emmy, nor ABC’s “Modern Family,” up for its third, has anything on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which this year is seeking its 10th trophy for top variety series.

And even though Stewart and Co. are taking on a strong bunch of contenders, including spinoff, “The Colbert Report,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and the group’s veteran, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show” — to quote a Colbert turn of phrase — remains a “formidable opponent.”

“My feeling is that (Stewart) can be beat but he probably won’t be,” says Brad Adgate, senior veep and director of research at Horizon Media. “Stewart continues to be as relevant as he has ever been. He has a proven format that the Emmy voters like. And it’s been an election year, which always gives him a lot of grist for the mill. I think he’s probably going to win again.”

All the nominated shows have arguably been on the rise, especially Kimmel and Fallon. Kimmel is hosting the Emmys this year, so if he doesn’t win, expect at least one in-broadcast joke about the loss.

Fallon has been making a huge splash with hilarious mash-ups of himself imitating Neil Young and dueting with a costumed Bruce Springsteen on such pop classics as LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It” and Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” Fallon’s song clips frequently go viral, and the musical skits have been so popular that NBC aired a primetime special to showcase them July 25.

Fallon’s alma mater, “Saturday Night Live,” has been on the air for 37 years and also has its share of supporters — including inside the Academy, which nominated Kirsten Wiig for supporting actress in a comedy. “Daily Show” exec producer Rory Albanese credits the program as an inspiration.

“The only reason most of us do what we do is because of Lorne Michaels and ‘Saturday Night Live,'” Albanese says. “For us to even be nominated with shows like that is a huge honor, every year.

“This year in particular, we love ‘Colbert.’ Not only was he once a part of this show, but we know how hard he works and how good his show is consistently. Fallon, I can’t say enough good things about. Really no one in the category I wouldn’t be happy to have win or wouldn’t think is very deserving of winning.”

Still, many agree it remains Stewart’s race to lose.

“The main reason they are so successful at ‘The Daily Show’ is because they are clever and topical,” says Katz Media’s Bill Carroll. “Not only are they reporting on the news, but often they are making news. They also get rewarded for basically creating this genre.”

Well, “creating the genre” may be giving “The Daily Show” a little too much credit. HBO’s Bill Maher has been making fun of the news since he himself starred on Comedy Central in the first iteration of “Politically Incorrect” in 1993.

“Bill has remained true to himself and doesn’t pull his punches,” says “Real Time” exec producer Sheila Griffiths, who’s been with Maher for almost 19 years and HBO’s hourlong weekly version since 2003. “That’s the most important thing to all of us — that we do what we feel is right as opposed to being careful.”

“The Daily Show,” by contrast, launched on Comedy Central three years later, in 1996, and was hosted by Craig Kilborn for its first two years. It didn’t start evolving into what it is today — a sharp political satire — until January 1999, when Stewart came on the scene. “Daily” won its first Emmy for variety series in 2003 and hasn’t relinquished the title since. Over the past 10 years, the show has won 16 Emmys and is likely to increase its haul at the Emmys on Sept. 23.

If any show were to upset Stewart, it would likely be Colbert, Carroll says.

“It’s tough to say that anyone isn’t doing a good job, but it’s also tough to say that Stewart isn’t consistently doing a great job,” Carroll says. “The only person who could probably dethrone Stewart is his own protege.”

Road to the Emmys 2012: Variety, Music or Comedy
Correspondents cool | Can anyone dethrone ‘Daily?’
And the nominees are:
Series | Specials