Emmy Watch: Comedy genre has many Emmy contenders

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Now that there's general agreement that TV comedy is no longer dead -- OK? -- it's time to discuss the more pressing issues surrounding the sitcom.

Such as: Is NBC's American edition of "The Office" actually better than the British original? Has cable caught up to broadcast in terms of comedy series quality? And can NBC's "30 Rock" become the first sitcom to repeat as outstanding comedy series victor at the Primetime Emmy Awards since "Frasier" had a five-award streak in the 1990s?

First, of course, "30 Rock" has to get nominated in the category for the 60th Emmys on July 17 (the Emmy Award telecast is Sept. 21). The show earned the most nominations of any comedy in 2007 during its rookie season with 10, though stars Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin were passed over for lead comedy glory in favor of America Ferrera (ABC's "Ugly Betty") and Ricky Gervais (HBO's "Extras"), respectively. But since the show went home with the big prize (more than mildly upsetting "Betty's" folks), it has shown a slight uptick in ratings since.

Not that Fey spends much time worrying about it.

"If I think about our ratings, it's to question how the system of counting in the ratings might not be fully accurate," she explains. "I doubt that our DVR numbers, for instance, ever get factored in. And I mean, we have to go up against stuff like (Fox's) 'American Idol' results show."

But, she adds, the prize itself was startling. "Emmys are a lovely thing to have. It was great to win last year. It came at the end of a long night when it seemed like we weren't going to win anything. So it came as a big surprise."

"30 Rock" creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels, who continues to oversee NBC's "Saturday Night Live" after 33 years, sees the success "30 Rock" enjoyed in its first season (winning the comedy Emmy and a lead actor Golden Globe for Baldwin) as nothing short of miraculous.

"We had every bad break on this show that you could possibly have," he recalls. "There was the confusion everyone had between us and Aaron Sorkin's show (the now-defunct "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"). There was NBC's shifting around of our time period. Then, as soon as we found a home, the writers strike hit."

But Michaels says the Emmy win last year was huge. "Do Emmys matter? Absolutely. If nothing else, the press pays attention to it, 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."

Of course, there's always "Arrested Development," which won multiple Emmys in 2004 and outstanding writing in 2005 and then disappeared not long after that.



Defending the Crown

Aside from the potential of a sophomore jinx, "30 Rock" will contend with a handful of top contenders in its quest to retain the top comedy series title. Its rivals are a mishmash of vets and newcomers (plus fellow second-year "Betty," which sits somewhere between), including HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage"; CBS' "Two and a Half Men"; and NBC's "The Office," the category victor in 2006. The most prominent newbies are ABC's "Pushing Daisies" and ratings success "Samantha Who?" along with Showtime's David Duchovny starrer "Californication."

The example of "Samantha Who?" -- starring Christina Applegate as a woman trying to recover her memory -- is the kind of genre hybrid that allegedly shouldn't work: a single-camera comedy that was "developed to feel like a light drama," explains creator/exec producer Don Todd. "We're designed to flow out of the other ABC shows more seamlessly. And it seems to have worked."

"Samantha" was a modest hit out of the box until the industry went on hiatus with the WGA strike. "We were really happy, going like crazy with this momentum, and had 'Dancing With the Stars' as a lead-in," adds exec producer Peter Traugott. "Fortunately, after the strike, we were able to start gaining some traction on our own."

Meanwhile, "Californication" already has won a Golden Globe for Duchovny as lead comedy actor, and was nominated for comedy series. But no one really needs to tell the show's creator and exec producer, Tom Kapinos, that his series is the kind that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. salivates over and leaves the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences yawning. In fact, no non-HBO comedy on cable has yet been nominated here.

"When you sit down to make a show, awards are frankly the last thing on your mind," Kapinos admits. "It's hard to conceive of a large group unifying to recognize your vision. It would be a complete honor to be nominated, but you never expect it."

Anyway, "Ugly Betty" creator/executive producer Silvio Horta recognizes the near impossibility of guessing games when it comes to who'll end up on the nominations shortlist. "If you're going to get beaten by anyone, there's no shame in getting edged out by such a funny show (as '30 Rock')," he says. "Would it be nice to win? Sure. But you can't ever count on this stuff."

Family Ties
Seth MacFarlane skips the animation categories and takes a shot at comedy series glory

Seth MacFarlane is not taking it anymore.

The creator/executive producer/chief voice of Fox's "Family Guy" (and companion series "American Dad") won an Emmy in 2000 for outstanding voiceover performance and shared one with composer Walter Murphy in 2002 for the show's music and lyrics.

But even though "Guy" has earned nominations for animated program three times -- 2000, 2005 and 2006 -- MacFarlane is no longer content to live in the Emmy ghetto of outstanding animated program. Instead, he's entering "Guy" into comedy series Emmy consideration, where it will push for recognition against NBC's "The Office" and "30 Rock," and HBO's "Entourage," rather than Fox's "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill" and Comedy Central's "South Park."

For MacFarlane, this is about getting animation the respect it deserves as a flat-out comedy, not just for being a well-drawn cartoon.

"As someone who has done both a live-action sitcom and an animated series, there is just no comparison as to which is the more difficult genre to pull off," MacFarlane explains. "In animation, you're working year-round with no hiatus. It's like producing a movie every single week. I think there's a lack of understanding about how intensive that is, particularly in the writing. The sense that animation is somehow easier is just completely wrong."

He's not alone in being left out -- no animated series has ever received an Emmy nomination in the comedy category, including "The Simpsons," which has been nominated for top animated program (one hour or less) 16 times, with nine wins. (In 1993, "The Simpsons" also tried a comedy series entry.)

But that's not good enough for MacFarlane, who figures he must have "pissed off someone at the academy" to have had "Guy" lose the animated program category three times.

"I'll never understand (the academy's) voting process," he admits. "I just figured it made sense this year to test the process in a different way, without any real expectation for a different result."


History Lesson
ATAS has shared the outstanding comedy wealth in the new millennium

Back in the 1990s, the comedy series Emmy was easy: Nominate five shows, hand the trophy to “Frasier” and go home. That happened five consecutive times — 1994-98 — tying the Emmy record for consecutive wins in the same category by a single series.

But over the past nine years, eight different series have won (only “Everybody Loves Raymond” repeated). In 2001, HBO marked the first and last time (so far) that a nonbroadcast network show has won, while ABC continues to nurse a 20-year drought: Its last win was in 1988, for “The Wonder Years.”

Here’s the scorecard since “Frasier” fell off the charts for outstanding comedy series:

1999: “Ally McBeal,” Fox
2000: “Will & Grace,” NBC
2001: “Sex and the City,” HBO
2002: “Friends,” NBC
2003: “Everybody Loves Raymond,” CBS
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