Emmy Watch: The Late-Night Races Heat Up

Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

Nostalgia or new blood? That’s the big question Emmy voters will have to answer this year as they determine the nominees in the Outstanding Variety Talk Series category. With David Letterman’s Late Show, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report all eligible for their final full seasons, voters could decide to honor one of the hosts for his body of work. (Stewart, who is ending his tenure in August, can compete in 2016 but will have only a few months of qualifying material.)

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But waiting in the wings are new shows hungry for their first taste of Emmy glory: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, stronger than ever in its second year; the genre’s newest entry, The Late Late Show With James Corden; and Colbert’s replacement, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. All three have quickly established themselves with viewers, particularly online, where their clips regularly go viral.

A shake-up is also coming via a major Television Academy rule change. The Outstanding Variety Series category has been split in two: the aforementioned Outstanding Variety Talk and Outstanding Variety Sketch. This is the first time talk shows have a category to themselves, as late-night series have had to compete in different iterations of the Outstanding Variety category. At one point, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was up against primetime specials. “You’d have this odd face-off between The Tonight Show and the Academy Awards,” says Rick Ludwin, who ran NBC’s late-night lineup for most of his three decades at the network. “[One year] the glitz of the Oscars won out.”

In recent decades, talk shows and sketch-comedy series dominated the nominations (but the last sketch show to win was Tracey Takes On… in 1997). The Daily Show took home the trophy from 2003 to 2012, followed by The Colbert Report in 2013 and 2014. That streak was understandably frustrating for rivals, but it was even more difficult for sketch shows like Key & Peele and Portlandia, and the Academy agreed it needed a way to honor those series. Ironically, the rule change comes as Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Corden are adding more sketch to their formats. “It’s nice to think that there will be a wider group of nominees,” Ludwin says.

Adding to the unusual nature this year: Two Late Late Show hosts, Craig Ferguson (who left in December) and Corden, are eligible. Next year, the Colbert-helmed Late Show joins the race, and new Daily Show frontman Trevor Noah will attempt to keep Comedy Central’s Emmy legacy alive. Of course, categorizing TV shows, even in late night, is an imperfect science. Asks Ludwin: “Will [PBS’s] Charlie Rose say, ‘Why are we being put into the same category as Jimmy Fallon singing with Justin Timberlake, and we’re talking to the prime minister of Israel?'” Nominations are announced July 16.