When the Television Academy announced in December that it would merge the variety talk and variety sketch categories back together, I understood why they did it from a logistical standpoint. There had been just 14 sketch series submissions for the Emmy competition last year, and just 24 talk shows — so putting the two categories back together, as they had been prior to 2015, was nice and tidy.
Except it wasn’t, and the org opened a can of worms that I don’t think it had anticipated. Part of it was the surprise announcement late on a Friday in December. But the talk world had long been griping about the category, which hasn’t budged much in recent years. In the six times that the variety talk category has been awarded it has only gone to topical/headlines minded shows (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” then “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”) while variety-based nightly entries like “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Late Late Show” have had to settle for nominations.
Under new rules implemented last year, categories with between 20 and 80 contenders are capped at five nominees. That means variety talk, which had previously allowed six, had already shrunk prior to the reunification of talk and variety. Consider that at least one of those slots would have probably gone to the behemoth “Saturday Night Live,” and that would have left room for just four talkers. (And likely prevent any other sketch shows from getting in, including the breakout “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”)
Even then, Lorne Michaels knew such a plan would break his show’s Emmy streak. He told me as much earlier this year: “I love Jon Stewart, and when he was in our category he won literally ten years in a row. So there’s an entire ten years of ‘SNL’ where nothing happened,” he said. “I’m not asking for awards because we deserve this or that, but I only mean in the sense that it’s just a different kind of show.”
Indeed, Stewart’s “Daily Show” ran the tables, winning the combined variety series category from 2003 to 2012, followed by spin-off “The Colbert Report” in 2013 and 2014. When the sketch category bowed in 2015, “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Key & Peele” won, and then “SNL” took it the last four years.
After both the talk and sketch TV communities balked at the category merger, talk of a boycott even surfaced — a problem when the Emmy hosts generally come from this field. The TV Academy reversed course and decided to keep the categories separate. But that only solved the self-inflicted crisis created by that December announcement. What it doesn’t answer are the still unresolved questions of where to ultimately put sketch shows (since their numbers are dwindling and it is a bit out of step to keep them in their own category) and how to better recognize the wide diaspora of talk.
Maybe we should merge the variety-minded late night shows (which often contain live and pre-taped skits) with sketch shows. And perhaps a straight-ahead talk category should focus on shows where yammering is the key sport — John Oliver, Bill Maher, Desus & Mero. True hybrids, like Stephen Colbert, can choose where to compete.
But I will resurrect my idea from last year: Why not follow the lead of the L.A. Area Emmys, where *every* newscast is nominated, and the winner is selected from the entire field? Especially in a year where TV’s talk shows did an amazing job pivoting to virtual shows, and then limited in-studio shows, they all deserve to be in the game. That’s one way to also get more recognition out there to the newbies like Amber Ruffin or Ziwe, who deserve a seat at the table as well. The TV Academy managed to stick a Band-Aid on its variety conundrum, but it still needs a permanent salve.