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John Oliver vs. the Jimmys: Is It Time to Split Variety Talk Into Two Emmy Categories? (Column)

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” has been dominating the variety talk series category, winning the Emmy for three consecutive years — and is the favorite to win a fourth. It’s a great show, and deserves every accolade it can get. But Oliver’s streak also exposes another category conundrum for the TV Academy: As news-based comedy series take over the talk category, where does that leave traditional chat shows?

A new generation of single-topic, weekly comedy shows has sprung up in recent years, and it’s changing the face of talk. Among them are “Last Week Tonight,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj.” Online pop-culture journal the Ringer calls them “explainer shows,” as they often inform younger viewers with their deep dives into topics that sometimes get little attention in the mainstream media.

But here’s what they’re not: Variety shows that balance monologues, celebrity interviews, musical guests and comedy sketches in the 65-year tradition of “The Tonight Show,” and everything that came after. That’s frustrating to the talent and producers from traditional talkers, as the explainer shows tend to be seen as having more gravitas, educating audiences on important issues in a world gone mad.

There’s already an “outstanding informational series or special” category, but that field is more geared toward shows that are out of the studio and have a specific topic, such as “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” (last year’s winner) or 2017 winner “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.” Yet, adding to the confusion, some studio-based talk shows have also entered that field, including “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman” and “Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson.”

Here’s one solution: An Emmy talk split, separating the daily variety talk shows from the weekly news-based talk shows, and leaving the informational series/special field to shows like “Vice.”

An “informative talk” category could include both explainers like “Last Week Tonight,” as well as individual interview programs like “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.” And “variety talk” could be just that: A variety show that contains all sorts of elements, including interviews.

Meanwhile, “Late Late Show With James Corden” executive producer Ben Winston has another idea: Create a category that focuses on field pieces. “When we take over a crosswalk and shut it down and do ‘Sound of Music’ with Allison Janney in front of traffic, that’s a very hard thing to judge against John Oliver doing wonderful pieces from his desk,” he notes.

There’s precedent for making some sort of category split: In 2015, the variety series Emmy was divided into “variety sketch” and “variety talk” after it became apparent that sketch series beyond “Saturday Night Live” were being completely shut out.

The final year of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” won the first variety talk Emmy, but “Last Week Tonight” has picked it up every year after that.

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” has yet to win in variety talk (it was nominated for the first time last year), and there’s some irony to it now competing with the new crop of explainer shows: Most of those programs are hosted by “Daily Show” alums (Oliver, Bee, Minhaj). And after Stewart’s “Daily Show” bested the competition for a decade thanks in part to its news focus, it’s now probably seen as not newsy enough compared to the later hyper-focused, informative half-hours.

But that’s why “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” also deserves to be in a variety talk field with competitors with more shared DNA — including “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”

Like those programs, “The Daily Show” is nightly, and it balances guest interviews with several other segments.

“I understand why Lorne Michaels and ‘SNL’ wanted to separate themselves from the talk shows,” Noah says. “They’re not doing the same things. Jon Stewart wasn’t doing the same thing as ‘Saturday Night Live.’ That’s a fair thing to say. Comedy’s comedy and obviously there are going to be ideas that bleed between different forms. But it’s safe to say what John Oliver’s doing, what Hasan Minhaj is doing, what Sam Bee is doing, they’re very different shows.

“I watched Hasan’s episodes on cricket and on Supreme [streetwear], and I watched John Oliver talking about trailer parks, and that’s completely different from what we do, because we don’t have as much time to compile all of that with the news of the day. They don’t have news happening to them every single day. So each has pros and cons. But I agree with people who say we’re not all doing the same thing.”

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