It’s not hard to spot familiar names on the drama side of this year’s guest actor and actress Emmy ballot, whether that’s Ron Cephas Jones in NBC’s “This Is Us” or Cicely Tyson in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” who have each recurred heavily over the course of several seasons. But on the comedy end, it’s a different story, with five of this year’s 12 guest actor and actress comedy nominations going to “Saturday Night Live” hosts or visiting stars alone — essentially, players who mostly pop in for one-off roles.
What’s with the disconnect? Blame the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, says one awards expert.
“For the [shelter-at-home] TV audience, comedy became medicine for the heart and soul that you could [use to] temporarily transport yourself from the headline horrors that we’re all experiencing amid the pandemic, and the political purgatory we’re in, to a safe place where you could get in touch with your lighter self,” says Richard Licata of Licata & Co.
Licata says viewers’ sprawling search for lightness on screen was borne out in more than just the guest categories, and the proof may be in the comedy series race, which saw four freshman nominees this year (Netflix’s “Dead to Me” and “The Kominsky Method,” FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows” and HBO’s “Insecure”). That dynamic may have also drawn viewers and voters alike to NBC’s sketch comedy staple, “SNL,” which settles into the politics of the day while extracting its absurdity, and spotlighting its high-profile guests.
Licata says his friends who are Television Academy voters were “so tired of the darkness that we’re living in” that they gravitated toward “fun” programming.
This allowed performers such as Angela Bassett, Dev Patel and Wanda Sykes to break onto the ballot for their singular performances in “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” “Modern Love” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” respectively. Meanwhile, “SNL” hosts from last season, including Adam Driver, Eddie Murphy and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, also made the ballot. So did movie star Brad Pitt for his impression of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as Maya Rudolph, for her take on presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris.
Rudolph racked up three nominations this year alone, with two noms in the guest actress in a comedy category: one for her impression of the senator and the other for her recurring role as the Judge in NBC’s “The Good Place.” (The third is in recognition of her voiceover work in Netflix’s “Big Mouth.”)
The former “SNL” cast member says her respect and admiration for Sen. Harris allowed her to “poke fun at the entire thing as a whole.” Her Harris is a cocktail-nursing, meme-creating “fun aunt,” or “funt,” as she says on the show.
“My aim and my interest has never been to go after people,” she says. “I like to look for the joy and the fun and the game in something they say or do or mannerisms that make it that make you want to join in on the joke.”
Meanwhile, the omniscient Judge is a character that Rudolph has played for a dozen episodes over the course of three seasons. It was not a difficult role to step into even from her very first appearance, since it was tailor-made for her.
“The joy of the Judge is that my old friend [“The Good Place” creator] Mike Schur, who I watched grow up at ‘SNL,’ created the Judge for me,” she says. “So when someone knows you well and has your voice in mind, it’s like seeing an old friend. You just jump in where you left off. And it was so much fun that it connected me to the show instantly.”
Rudolph had never before had a role crafted specifically for her, “where it took into account my voice, my strengths and also the amount of time I’ve put into the work I’ve done. I felt like the Judge had been around for a while and seen it all, and it’s nice to lean into that.”
On the drama side, Cephas Jones has once again been recognized for his work as William Hill on the broadcast family series — the fourth nomination for the same role on the same series, for which he won in 2018. It is a rarity, he says, to be able to hold onto a television character for this long, comparing it to acting on stage.
“To be able to have four seasons, going into five, and have that consistency, it really is very close to what I’ve been doing in the theater,” says Cephas Jones. “It gave me an opportunity to find more richness, more levels, and do the kind of work that I’m used to doing, which is creating deeper, more complex characters.”
Not all the guest-acting nominees in drama are as heavily recurring. But being woven in and out of those rich, complicated storylines allows dramatic actors the opportunities to create entire worlds around their characters, even if they, as in the case of Harriet Walter’s Lady Caroline Collingwood on HBO’s “Succession,” only appear in one episode during the entire season.
First-time nominee Walter, as Logan’s second wife and mother to three of the four Roy children, threaded together in just a few scenes the emotionally distant relationship that she has forged with her kids, pulling away from Kendall (Jeremy Strong) as he seeks her out for comfort.
“Normally you go, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t just jump in here. I haven’t built a relationship with these actors,’” says Walter, who appeared in the last two episodes of the first season. “But because the writing is so good, I can’t explain exactly why, but you know exactly who you are just from the way the character speaks. And the other actors are so open that you instantly get an instinct for what the relationship might be.”
And of course, there are some special cases in which a beloved actor, often on the ballot in another category, appears in one of the buzziest new series of the television season.
Giancarlo Esposito, who is also up for a statue in the supporting drama actor category for his long-running character Gus Fring in “Better Call Saul,” made a splash as the villainous Moff Gideon on Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian.” Contrary to the depth with which he has explored Fring across dozens of episodes since his time on “Breaking Bad,” Esposito’s Gideon is a man of mystery.
“How does he know everything about everyone? He is the mastermind and he is the warden of this particular section of the universe, but is he the guy?” he says. “We really don’t know, but we know he’s pulling the strings and orchestrating the capture of this Baby Yoda. But there are other things at play: Where does he come from? What is his past? How does he have this lightsaber? Did it belong to him?
“I love the secret and the secret of him,” Esposito continues. “We don’t know how he knows everything, and that’s an interesting piece of this.”