For most of its run, “Saturday Night Live” has been a minor Emmy contender. Between 1976 and 2008, the NBC late-night sketch comedy series earned 101 nominations and 23 wins. Respectable — but not a juggernaut.
And then the dam broke. Since 2009, “SNL” has been on a tear, scoring 151 nominations and winning 44 more awards. That now brings the series’ grand total to 252 nominations, the most ever for any program.
Driving that dominance is a rule change that wound up propelling “Saturday Night Live” at the Emmys, but upending the supporting comedy actor and actress categories. In 2008, the Television Academy decided to retire the Emmy award for individual performance in a variety or music program — a bit of a hodge-podge category where talk-show hosts, sketch comedy players, musicians who fronted their own performance specials and others faced off.
In that category, “Saturday Night Live” rarely received much attention. Tina Fey was nominated in 2008, and before that, Will Ferrell in 2001 and Molly Shannon in 2000. But the last “SNL” cast member to win in the category was Dana Carvey, back in 1993.
As the variety/music performer race continued to be won mostly by stars headlining their own specials — think Don Rickles, Barry Manilow, Tony Bennett and Elaine Stritch — it seemed unfair to stick cast members from comedy sketch shows there.
That’s why, starting with the 2009 ceremony, the category was removed and eligibility divided up to other existing races, and performers on variety sketch series were given the opportunity to enter in lead, supporting or guest comedy categories.
Since then, “SNL” stars have done quite well in the supporting comedy categories. Last year, three of the eight nominees (normally it’s seven, but there was a tie for the last slot) for supporting comedy actress were from “SNL”: Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. The previous year, “SNL” also took three of the seven noms, with McKinnon winning. (She also won in 2016.)
On the supporting comedy actor side, Kenan Thompson and Alec Baldwin (as Donald Trump, who appears enough to be credited here, instead of in guest actor) were both nominated last year, and Baldwin won in 2017.
It’s great to see “SNL” stars getting their due, but the decision to add sketch performers in the series categories has inadvertently caused another dilemma: Does it make sense to pit performers who play multiple characters in various short sketches against thesps who are focused on honing in on and exploring the arc of a single character?
There’s a huge difference between showcasing your talent by creating a wide variety of characters, and having to only perform them each for about five minutes, versus embodying a character over an entire season. Both require skill and, at their best, deserve an Emmy. But ideally these different types of roles wouldn’t be pitted against one another.
The unfortunate truth is that by cramming everyone into one category, it also limits the number of nominations — particularly on the supporting comedy actress side. That might not leave room for contenders like “The Good Place’s” D’Arcy Carden, “One Day at a Time’s” Rita Moreno, or (ironically) former “SNL” star Molly Shannon, now on “The Other Two.”
With so much varied competition in TV now, it’s nearly impossible for the Academy to figure out one-size-fits-all categories anymore. This solution, like most, isn’t perfect. It’s still better than having an “SNL” cast member facing off with Tony Bennett singing the Great American Songbook in a weird catch-all category.
But perhaps it’s time to create a new variety series performance category, giving them their due, while returning the supporting actor and actress categories to the performers doing great series work. If anything, that would give “SNL” a shot at even more Emmys — and cementing its historic lead.