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Handicapping sitcoms is no funny business

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It's a rare category and a rare year when you can say a major Emmy race is truly wide-open, but in the case of this year's outstanding comedy series nominations, that's the dead-serious truth. At least a semiconvincing case can be made for pretty much any one of the five nominees -- NBC's "The Office" and "30 Rock," ABC's "Ugly Betty," HBO's "Entourage" and CBS' "Two and a Half Men" -- claiming the big prize.

So here's the CliffsNotes version of that handicap overview: "The Office" won last year and continues to be seen as the primetime network gold standard; "30 Rock" is a wily freshman whose critical acclaim grew more enthusiastic as the season moved along; "Ugly Betty" copped the Golden Globe for comedy in January and is still perceived as a hot newcomer; "Entourage" is seen as hip and cool, with a nice dollop of buzz driving its momentum; and "Two and a Half Men" is the lone multicamera traditionalist in the field and could sneak in while all of the other shows are undercutting one another's vote totals.

The closest thing to a three-way horse race is between "The Office," "30 Rock" and "Ugly Betty" -- but in any horse race there are the dark ones, and there go the other two.

"We're just thrilled to be in the race for a second year in a row," says Chuck Lorre, co-creator and executive producer of "Two and a Half Men," one of only two repeat nominees from a year ago ("The Office" is the other).

"Winning is out of our hands," he continues. "But I can tell you we have a deep, dark thing we do here at our show that may help explain why we're included in this group: We try to write a show that makes everybody laugh. That's it. Oh, well, actually there is one other thing that maybe gives us an advantage. All of our writer-producers are on steroids and human growth hormone. We're all doped up, all the time. We like to think the pharmaceuticals grant us an extra edge."

That might explain a lot. But Greg Daniels, executive producer of "The Office" (which landed nine nominations this year), can do him one better: "We love getting another nomination, just as we loved winning last year; it was a great honor," he offers. "But we're also not going to exaggerate the importance of these awards. I mean, they had to give an Emmy out to somebody last year. It's not as if the quality would disappear from TV if they stopped distributing them."

That said, there are those who decry the quality -- as well as the quantity -- of good comedies on TV these days. Lorre calls that bunk, noting, "The people who say comedy is dead are mostly TV critics."

Tina Fey admits she has heard the pessimistic diatribes about the state of comedy -- and not just from critics. But the "30 Rock" executive producer, writer and star, and former "Saturday Night Live" (NBC) writer/troupe member, who landed three Emmy nominations in the show's first season, describes it more as a shift in genre than a downward spiral.

"You don't have comedy tentpole shows like you once did, with 'Frasier' and 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld,' " Fey notes. "But there's still a lot of great stuff being done. As soon as someone does a multicamera show that's a big hit, that pendulum will swing back, too. But I think the five nominees in this category is a pretty great group. In our case, to be part of the nomination scheme makes us feel suddenly like a real TV show that maybe isn't going away anytime soon. And just because of who I am, I'm already translating the Emmy attention into pressure."

Fey adds that what's extra special about landing a top series nomination for "30 Rock" is that "NBC could have pulled the plug on us given our ratings, and they didn't. Now, with this Emmy push, it might help convince some that we're hopefully worth checking out. At least once."

At the core of Fey's insecurity is the fact that "30 Rock's" ratings were less than stellar during its first season on the air, and if the experience of Fox's "Arrested Development" is an accurate gauge, Emmys alone can't be counted on to attract viewers in sufficient numbers to ensure survival.

But earning 10 nominations in a show's first year is at the minimum a strong indicator of a show's excellence -- and "Ugly Betty" earned 11. Creator and executive producer Silvio Horta is proud to have generated such double-digit love from the TV academy in his show's first season.

"If I could step into voters' shoes, I think this is an acknowledgment that we somehow manage to hit the right buttons as an hourlong comedy that also blends in heart and emotion," Horta says of the program adapted from the popular Colombian telenovela "Yo soy Betty, la fea." "Betty is also such a relatable, winning character, and when you combine her with villains whom people love to hate, we've managed to craft a fun world that is breezier and less dreary than the procedurals that are all over TV."

One of the more interesting subplots of this year's Emmys promises to be the association of recently minted NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman with two of this year's nominees -- "The Office" and "Ugly Betty" -- as his company, Reveille, produces both shows. He will no doubt be pulling for a two-way tie, though if that can't happen, you imagine his allegiance might fall to "The Office," given that it airs on NBC.

Still, "Betty" stands out from its peers in another way, too -- it's the only hourlong comedy among the nominees, a distinction that could be both a benefit and a detriment. Only one hourlong comedy has ever won an Emmy in the category, that being Fox's "Ally McBeal" in 1999. Further down the nominations line, seven-honor "Entourage" (tied with "Two and a Half Men") is the only cable program so honored, which gives it a greater content latitude than its broadcast brethren, but not necessarily access to as many eyeballs.

"You can't waste a lot of time thinking about that stuff," figures "Entourage" creator and exec producer Doug Ellin. "That's the great thing about playing golf. On the course, you're not concerned with anything like that. But being nominated in this category for the first time, that's wonderful, both because it slightly validates your work and because it's tougher to cancel an Emmy-nominated show -- though obviously it can be done."

Ellin likes to think that the Emmy attention confirms his suspicion that "Entourage" improves in quality with each passing season and has "amazing people" doing guest cameos, such as Martin Landau (nominated for guest actor in a comedy this year), producer-director-writer Peter Jackson and the late Bruno Kirby.

"We're very fortunate to have done what we've done with this show," Ellin admits, "and this nomination puts a little bit more icing on that cake."

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Spot-checks: Five things you might not know about the Emmy-nominated comedy picks

"Entourage" is bidding to become only the second-ever cable comedy to win the outstanding series statuette, the first being HBO's "Sex and the City"     in 2001.

America Ferrera's nomination for "Ugly Betty" marks the first time a Latina actress has been so honored for lead in a comedy since Rita Moreno for her performance in the series "9 to 5" in 1982.

Of its 16 nominations prior to this year, "Two and a Half Men" has won two Emmys: for multicamera sound mixing for a series and multicamera picture editing for a series.

Tina Fey of "30 Rock" has an opportunity to become the first individual to win Emmys for writing, acting and producing on the same series in the same Emmy year.

Should NBC's "The Office" repeat as the top comedy series winner this year, it would be the first to do so since "Frasier" won five in a row between 1994-98.

No comedy has been honored with trophies in successive years since.

--Compiled by Ray Richmond