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Emmys: Variety Talk and Sketch Races Make for a Tale of Two Categories

Two years ago, the TV Academy split the Emmy for outstanding variety series into two separate categories: talk shows and sketch programs. Creatives like “Comedy Bang! Bang!” host Scott Aukerman lobbied for the change, arguing that such disparate programs as “The Colbert Report” and “Kroll Show” should not be competing in the same arena.

It was a fair point. After years of spotty recognition in the variety category, when shows like “Tracey Takes On…,” “Da Ali G Show” and “Saturday Night Live” managed to break through only sporadically, the sketch format appeared to be on the rise. Series such as “Drunk History,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Portlandia,” among others, made the case for a separate playground.

But what appeared to be a ballooning field has since thinned out. Previous winners “Key & Peele” (concluded) and “Inside Amy Schumer” (delayed) won’t be in the mix this year. A few of last year’s contenders are off the table due to hiatus or limbo, like “Adam Devine’s House Party,” “Nathan For You,” “Netflix Presents: The Characters” and “W/ Bob & David.” Two more — Comedy Central’s “Not Safe with Nikki Glaser” and Fox’s “Party Over Here” — have been canceled.

The aforementioned “Kroll Show” has also sailed off into the sunset.

There will be new blood, however. Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, should they be remembered, are an enticing option (NBC’s “Maya & Marty”). Billy Eichner could finally get in on the action (TruTV’s “Billy on the Street”). The triumphant return of Tracey Ullman would certainly make for a fun story (HBO’s “Tracey Ullman’s Show”). But the category mostly feels uneventful outside of what’s been previously nominated. Moreover, it just doesn’t look like the format is booming enough to maintain an Emmy schism.

And to be clear, there were only 20 eligible titles last year anyway. That number will probably drop. On the talk show side, there were only 17. Does the TV Academy really need two categories to cover 37 eligible contenders? Those are some enviable odds.

(“Comedy Bang! Bang!,” incidentally, hasn’t been nominated yet.)

All of this does, however, make for an interesting tale of two categories. Because while the sketch competition feels muted, the talk show race is catching fire.

Most are assuming it’s John Oliver’s to lose, as “Last Week Tonight” has forged ahead in this realm. But it could get interesting. “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden” could all be primed to return with nominations, but there’s going to be a bottleneck.

On CBS, Stephen Colbert has righted the ship at the “Late Show” helm, basking in the glow of 10 weeks on top of the late-night ratings mountain. Seth Meyers has finally found his footing on NBC, turning out inspired “Late Night” work (spurred, like Colbert, by the Trump era), while Trevor Noah has gotten more comfortable in the “Daily Show” chair over on Comedy Central. And Samantha Bee remains formidable, despite the fact that TBS only secured a writing nomination for “Full Frontal” last year.

The real question is whether the variety Emmy landscape will remain divided going forward. These tweaks don’t last forever. Movies and limited series were combined for a three-year stretch recently, only to go back to their separate corners. At the Oscars, original comedy scores enjoyed their own space for a decade before being consolidated with dramas once again.

It always seem like a good idea…until it doesn’t.

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