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Political Satire Recedes in Late-Night Emmy Race

Jon Stewart's streak of wins got an assist from news events that are now MIA

If inspired silliness and Internet ubiquity are the controlling factors in this year’s Emmy race, then Jimmy Kimmel just might be able to break “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” stranglehold on the gold statue for variety series.

The Matt Damon take-over was a payoff for the long-running joke about Damon being bumped from the show, which led to two viral videos in 2009 and an Internet explosion. The kerfuffle culminated in a veritable who’s who list of celebrities from Robin Williams to Robert De Niro taking part in Damon’s revenge on Kimmel.

But is it enough to wrestle the gold from “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which has decimated the competition for a consecutive 10-year streak?

“The Daily Show” has become a staple of pop culture and an Emmy juggernaut. Based on the show’s political satire slant, it would appear such news-driven talkers as “The Daily Show” and its spinoff “The Colbert Report,” “Real Time With Bill Maher” and the topical “Saturday Night Live” have an edge over more celebrity-driven fare like “Jimmy Kimmel Live” or “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” when it comes to Emmy voters.

“What they are doing is going back to the old Jack Parr and Dick Cavett days before the jokes, celebrity plugging and music that Letterman and Leno give you,” says Jeffrey P. Jones, George Foster Peabody Awards director and author of “Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement.” “Satire and irony are a contemporary currency that’s different from the joke culture, and we are attracted to it. Even Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have more of that than Leno and Letterman.”

Jones says Maher — like Stewart and Colbert — harks back to the days when latenight talkers offered a wide variety of guests discussing more than just their current movie projects.

“(Maher) does a good job of bringing a levity to public events,” Jones says. “Maher can walk in, not take himself too seriously, and pull out public figures for ridicule because they deserve it.”

Shows hosted by Stewart, Maher and Stephen Colbert, as well as “Saturday Night Live” skits, offer an effective launching pad for public discourse.

“Those moments when Jon speaks out as an Everyman become a way for the public to articulate and discuss the issues,” Jones says. “Stewart and Colbert engage in activism that the Lettermans, Lenos and Carsons would never do. Their forms of engagement in the public square contribute a lot to them being part of the zeitgeist.”

Letterman was on a four-year winning streak from 1998-2002, but beginning in 2003, “The Daily Show” has dominated the variety series. It took home writing honors for seven of those years, only bested by “The Colbert Report” in 2008 and 2010 and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in 2007.

“The Colbert Report” has long been waiting for its chance to shine, perhaps in this year when Colbert pushed the envelope of both comedy and politics by taking on former President Clinton and his Clinton Global Initiative with the host’s own Colbert Galactic Initiative. Last year, Colbert won the prestigious Peabody Award for launching his own SuperPAC as a protest against big bucks in politics.

“Colbert took a satirical approach to reporting on a landmark event in political history,” Jones says. “With these shows, it’s not so much about planning as good comedians responding to the moment.”

A lack of big political moments in the past year, however, could potentially turn voters toward the more light-hearted fun of the other competitors.

This year the competition is rife with latenight shows tapping into the power of Internet to reach an even larger audience. Fallon’s good-times video with Robin Thicke and the Roots playing “Blurred Lines” on classroom instruments in the Late Night “Music Room” scored 9 million YouTube views and counting.

Or you can watch, as did more than 1.4 million viewers, Fallon’s “Game of Desks,” one of his Late Night digital originals that playfully parallels p.m. talkshows and “Game of Thrones.”

“Saturday Night Live,” a launchpad for dozens of performers and writers, has been slowly retooling over the past few years, and boasts a farm team as good as any.

“Everybody gets a turn based on the cyclical nature of this business,” says Arsenio Hall, who is starting a talkshow this year. “Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think having a celebrity-driven vehicle keeps you out of the Emmys.”

Even Stewart, in his 2012 acceptance speech, noted, “no more, no mas … Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, I spend way too much time watching their shows on the Internet.”

Perhaps that includes Emmy voters as well.

“If anyone can break that decade run, it’s Kimmel based on that Matt Damon episode,” says Bill Brioux, veteran TV writer and historian. “It went viral, everyone was talking about it. He had almost every major star you can imagine on the show. So if not now, then I’d say a (celebrity driven) talkshow might never win.”

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