Emmy comedy nominees are veterans

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When it comes to funny business, Emmy voters are serious about consistency. How else to explain the deja vu generated by this year's crop of outstanding comedy series nominations, all of which are veterans of the nominating process?

Two of the five (NBC's "The Office" and CBS' "Two and a Half Men") have held top berths over the last three years, while the HBO pair "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is on its fifth nod and "Entourage" its second. And then there's the special case of NBC's "30 Rock," which not only took home the prize in 2007, but this year received the most nominations of any show: 17.

This, despite ratings numbers that have not appreciably improved. The rap on "30 Rock" continues to be that it's too hip and inside-baseball for mass appeal. But executive producer Lorne Michaels insists the victory last year was still "huge."

"Do Emmys matter? Absolutely," Michaels insists. "If nothing else, the press pays attention to them, and sooner or later the audience says, 'That's good!' It won't make a hit of something that can't deliver the goods. But it certainly helps in getting people to try it."

Proud as a Peacock

It may be common knowledge that HBO dominates the longform categories, but few outside of NBC realize the iron grip the network has had on the comedy Emmy since the mid-1990s. Over the past 15 years, NBC has been handed the top comedy statuette 10 times, a stranglehold that began in 1993 with "Seinfeld's" first and only win, then continued with "Frasier," which won a record-tying five consecutive trophies from 1994 to 1998. "Will & Grace" stepped up next in 2000, followed by "Friends" in 2002, "The Office" in 2006 and then "30 Rock" last year. During that time, no other network earned more than two Emmys for best comedy (CBS won in 2003 and 2005 for "Everybody Loves Raymond").

And for all the bluster about HBO's vaunted prowess in original series, the pay cabler has struggled in the Emmys with its comedies. Only "Sex and the City" has won, in 2001. Fox has earned two category wins in its history, including one for "Ally McBeal" in 1999 and the second for "Arrested Development" in 2004. But ABC hasn't copped a comedy prize since "The Wonder Years" in 1988. That's a 20-year drought, folks.

So network-wise, "The Office" and "30 Rock" seem to have just a bit of extra edge -- but that might make the other shows that much hungrier for a victory of their own.

For "Entourage" creator/executive producer/writer Doug Ellin, winning would be good not just for him and his network, but a triumph over the critics. "During this past year, the critics were bizarrely hard on us, and I'm not even sure why," he says. "I feel like we had our best season creatively. So it was both confusing and upsetting."

The WGA strike, he adds, put a crimp in everyone's seasonal series plans. He admits now that before the nominations came out he was privately telling colleagues that there was "no way we were going to get nominated this year. So I really couldn't believe we made the cut."

The impact of the strike made "Two and a Half Men's" third run at a nomination seem tenuous to creator/executive producer/writer Chuck Lorre, too. Only 19 of the show's planned 24 shows were made, but Lorre is convinced that what did get made was quality stuff.

"I feel like we shook off the three and a half months where we couldn't work and hit the ground creatively in a way that I'm proud of," he says. "Whether we win the Emmy or not is out of my control, but I know we did amazingly well this year considering the obstacles."

Dark Horses

Earning noms for "Entourage" and "Curb" partially offset HBO's first shutout in the top drama series lineup in a decade. Still, pundits were assuming that last year's Golden Globe winner for best comedy, ABC's "Ugly Betty," Showtime's "Weeds" or Fox's animated

"Family Guy" might show up on the shortlist. Instead, while NBC competes against itself in the category, so now will HBO.

Also missing from the top list: ABC's "Desperate Housewives," which failed to make the cut for the third consecutive year.

All signs indicate that NBC has the win sewn up, but there are a few statistics worth noting. It's been 10 years since a series has had a consecutive comedy win, the last being the "Frasier" juggernaut. Also worth consideration is the traditional camera setup: Unless "Two and a Half Men" pulls off an upset, this will be the third straight time a single-camera series has won the big prize.

But which NBC show? "30 Rock" is a reasonably heavy favorite, despite mild ratings and a notable drop in its buzz factor. "The Office" had a solid season creatively but is no longer on the radar quite the same as it was a year ago. Should any of the other trio of nominees emerge victorious, it would be officially classified as something of a shock -- which doesn't mean it can't happen. After all, Ricky Gervais won last year for HBO's "Extras" over "30 Rock's" Alec Baldwin in the lead comedy actor category. Voters like consistency -- just not every time.

The one thing that might ultimately drive votes may have nothing to do with the shows themselves. Just the idea of what exec producer/star Larry David might say during his acceptance speech should "Curb" finally seize the Emmy in the show's fifth try might in itself inspire a voting deluge.

And the Nominees are ...

Outstanding Comedy Series

"30 Rock" (NBC)

"Curb Your Enthusiasm" (HBO)

"Entourage" (HBO)

"The Office" (NBC)

"Two and a Half Men" (CBS)

Behind the Noms

Three things you didn't know abut this year's comedy nominees

1. The 17 nominations this year for "30 Rock" are the most ever for a comedy series in a single Emmy year.

2. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has now been honored in the category five times, one time fewer than fellow HBO comedies "Sex and the City" and "The Larry Sanders Show."

3. Excluding the seven consecutive nominations for "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Two and a Half Men's" three nominations are the most for a CBS sitcom since "Murphy Brown" chalked up five in a row from 1989 to 1993.
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