Emmys: Comedy Nominees Getting Serious (and Serialized)

Perusing the list of this year’s Emmy comedy nominees, it’s hard not to feel like Lisa Loopner, the “Saturday Night Live” nerd played by Gilda Radner: “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh.”

The contenders, not surprisingly, feature some first-rate series. What relatively few of them do, consistently, is generate laughter, reflecting how the drama category has not only grown in complexity and ambition, but also has, in some respects, oozed its way into the half-hour field.

The crowded nature of the drama ballot, perhaps, reflects why you don’t see half-hours petitioning for admittance to the drama race, unlike the high-profile series (“Jane the Virgin,” “Shameless” and, unsuccessfully, “Orange Is the New Black”) that sought admission to the comedy dance. The TV Academy’s decision to alter its rules to define content by duration — hours default into drama, and half-hours into comedy — brought some order to the proceedings, but hasn’t fully addressed the move toward programs that can’t necessarily be judged by their humor.

While this dynamic has prevailed for several years (witness Edie Falco’s “I’m not funny” protestation when she won lead actress in a comedy for “Nurse Jackie,” or the debate over “Girls”), the pace has seemingly quickened. And while sitcoms have long developed narrative arcs, it’s become increasingly common for programs like HBO’s “Veep” and “Silicon Valley” — both series nominees again this year — to follow a continuing storyline throughout a season. Even “Mom,” Chuck Lorre’s latest multi-camera show for CBS, has explored darker themes and the characters’ ongoing struggles.

Moreover, the exclusion this year of a perennial nominee that held down the fort for multi-camera half-hours, “The Big Bang Theory,” meant one of American TV’s signature forms was entirely squeezed out of the category. As it is, the last winner from that discipline was “Everybody Loves Raymond” a decade ago.

Arguably, the dominance of “Modern Family” — which remains in the race, and could make Emmy history with a sixth consecutive victory — might speak in part to the subtle influence that labeling something “comedy” has in the minds of voters. Because while “Transparent” has pushed Amazon into the awards chase, and “Louie” displays the auteur instincts of Louis C.K., both are filled with bittersweet moments of melancholy and discomfort.

The other nominees, notably, are also single-camera efforts: the final season of “Parks and Recreation,” and the first season of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a series whose commercial prospects made NBC so skittish the net handed it over to Netflix. (Will Forte garnered a lead-actor nom for Fox’s “The Last Man on Earth,” which rather conveniently skates around the detail that most of the world’s population in the show is, you know, deceased.)

The Emmys aren’t always a clear bellwether for industry trends, but in this case, the evolving nature of the awards dovetails with a broadcast primetime lineup characterized by a comedic retreat. NBC will offer just two sitcoms in the fall — the first time that’s happened since the late 1970s — and both are scheduled on Friday, a night that faces extra hurdles because of lower TV-usage levels and heavy DVR playback.

In some respects, one can argue that the audience is growing up — no longer dependent on studio audiences to cue them in regard to what’s funny. Whatever the cause, TV comedy is clearly more ambitious in its tone and drifting further away from the old set-up/joke construct, delivering a richer individual experience, potentially at the expense of mass appeal.

So for those who aspire to awards on the comedy front, the answer seems to be, “You want an Emmy nomination? Get serious — and serialized.”

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