As the number of major late-night shows continue to shrink, so does the Television Academy’s window to figure out how to handle the variety talk and variety sketch categories. After the org faced massive blowback in 2020 when it attempted to re-merge talk and sketch (reversing that plan after producers cried foul), it has resisted making any more changes. But given the monumental shift going on in the genre, the Academy will have no choice but map out new rules for 2023.
The recent, tremendously disappointing news that “Desus & Mero” and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” — two of the few late-night shows not hosted by middle-aged white dudes — have officially ended, further shrinks next year’s Emmy submission pool. Technically, “Full Frontal” can compete for next year’s trophies due to the fact four episodes aired in June, but the odds are probably not in her favor: “Conan” did not receive voter recognition for his final month of episodes airing during a similar period a year ago.
Add the impending departure of “The Late Late Show With James Corden” next spring, and it’s clear this is a category in transition. Only 19 shows were submitted for variety talk this year, and the TV Academy rounded that tally up to 20, in order to at least maintain five nominees in the category. But it can’t keep doing that if the number continues to dip.
Variety sketch is even more paltry: just eight submissions this year, leaving it to only two nominees once again — “Saturday Night Live” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”
Part of the problem is figuring out how to categorize such different shows for an apples-to-apples comparison. Maybe that’s not possible; there aren’t many shows to begin with, and each is so different. Topic-based shows like “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” compete against variety-focused talkers (“The Late Late Show With James Corden”), talk shows with a heavy dose of politics (“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers”) and shows with a bit of everything (“Jimmy Kimmel Live!”).
And what about shows that don’t feature hosts sitting at a desk, but still interviewing people or doing a lot of the same things that the other late-night stars are doing?
This year, it became more clear that the hosted nonfiction series or special category is causing a bit of confusion in the talk field. Many of the submitted shows and nominees in that race are, well, talk shows. “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman” and “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” in particular, feature talk show hosts interviewing subjects and … talking. How are those shows different from, say, “Last Week Tonight”?
Here’s another issue: Most late-night viewers now watch those programs via clips, often the next day on YouTube. (That’s true both for talk and “Saturday Night Live.”) If that has become the way we consume talk and sketch, shouldn’t we now combine them with the short-form nonfiction and short-form variety series shows? Currently, short-form variety is lumped in with short-form comedy and drama in one category, and short-form nonfiction is combined with short-form reality in another category.
Ideally, “I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson,” nominated in the short-form comedy, drama or variety series category, should instead be competing against “SNL” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” As it stands, the short-form nonfiction or reality series category already includes late-night-adjacent entries “Behind the Scenes — The Daily Show,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee Presents: Once Upon a Time in Late Night” and “Saturday Night Live Presents: Stories From the Show.”
There are a variety of ways to solve this conundrum — but the time to talk it out is now.