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Emmys 2018: Late Night and Sketch Series Offer More Variety (Column)

With more news to cover than ever, TV’s late-night talk and variety shows have had their work cut out for them. Luckily — if a bit overwhelming — for us, there are also more talk and variety shows on the air than ever to help us parse through it all. In fact, some of the year’s most poignant news coverage came from usually comedic shows, from Jimmy Kimmel’s earnest Obamacare monologues to John Oliver’s deep dives into decidedly unsexy topics including crisis pregnancy centers and Joe Arpaio’s horrific human-rights record.

Even when not making direct eye contact with the camera to plead some joke-free case, however, late-night hosts have found their own way of dealing with the onslaught of news. On CBS, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” runs on a steady diet of fuming incredulity, while “The Late Late Show With James Corden” opts for explosions of giddy pageantry. “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” hasn’t managed to sidestep politics nearly as much as its host likes to, but frankly, mixing up its usual parlor-game parade with more than a passing acknowledgement of the headlines hasn’t hurt its quality — even if the shift does, admittedly, coincide with its falling ratings.

Meanwhile, Trevor Noah has comfortably settled into his spot behind “The Daily Show” desk, churning out segments that, if not always breathtaking, are reliably solid. “The Chris Gethard Show” (TruTV), “Desus and Mero” (Viceland), and “The Rundown With Robin Thede” (BET) are trying to do something, anything different with the late-night format, to wonderfully bizarre effect.

One of the biggest Emmy question marks at this point likely belongs to “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” which stumbled into controversy right before voting opened up when Bee called Ivanka Trump a name that set off an uproar. But Bee has otherwise been doing exactly the incisive job that got her show a nomination last year, and it would be a shame if this uncharacteristic lack of foresight knocked “Full Frontal” out of contention completely. (It would also be a little eyebrow-raising, given that HBO’s perennial lock “Real Time With Bill Maher” got a nomination shortly after its host dropped another unprintable word.)

When all’s said and done, though, the one late-night show that feels primed for a first nomination in this category is “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” which has had a stellar year fueled by meticulous news coverage and a generous, inclusive spirit. Meyers’ signature Closer Look segments have found their groove, and the singular Jokes Seth Can’t Tell bit — starring “Late Night” writers Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin — show the host’s willingness to hand over the mic to let someone who might be more in on the joke to better land a punchline.

“Late-night hosts have found their own way of dealing with the onslaught of news.”

If the talk category feels pretty locked in, the variety categories have a little more room for, truly no pun intended, variation. Sure, “Saturday Night Live” is a shoo-in for sketch despite having a relatively lackluster year (Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression feels as if it’s about ready to check into intensive care), and “Portlandia” will likely get a final nom before it’s over for good.

Drunk History” is in solid shape, especially with this season’s premiere turn from star Tiffany Haddish. And to bring things full circle, Comedy Central’s been pushing its Trump-skewering “President Show” hard enough that Anthony Atamanuik’s uncanny impression might have wormed its way into people’s hearts before Trump fatigue set in.

But hopefully there will be room for something like “At Home With Amy Sedaris,” TruTV’s new sketch show that lets Sedaris act as the hostess of her own demented DIY show. The show’s rotating cast of characters — including Nick Kroll, Cole Escola, Michael Shannon, and even her longtime collaborator Colbert — keeps it fresh, but it’s Sedaris who gets to show off what has made her one of comedy’s sharpest and weirdest acts. “At Home” lets her be exactly as specific and bizarre as she wants to be, and if that’s not what peak TV is good for, what is?

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