Emmy Late-Night: Autopilot Again

Harper Smith/ABC

Jimmy Kimmel's snub after a particularly strong season signals a need to redefine what makes a night-owl legend.

Looking at Emmy's six nominees for outstanding variety, music or comedy series, there don't seem to be any major surprises. Or are there? Let's take a look.

Naturally, there are the predicted and essential noms for front-runners Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; the acknowledgment that Conan O'Brien has come out OK as cable's new kid on the block; Bill Maher was rewarded for his topicality and unhinged opinions; and Jimmy Fallon defied the odds and proved he could make Late Night his own. And SNL landed its annual homage for, well, just staying alive.

"Wow, no Letterman or Leno?" a longtime TV watcher might react upon looking at this list. Jay Leno might be suffering backlash from the NBC/Conan debacle, and David Letterman could be the victim of being around long enough to be taken for granted.

My reaction, however, was, "Wow, Jimmy Kimmel got royally screwed." It's Kimmel who has put on the best late-night show in this country for the past two years. And in a crowded field -- don't forget Craig Ferguson, Chelsea Handler and George Lopez -- that's really something.

Gone are the days when Johnny Carson's monologue was the talk of the town the next day. With so many hosts in late-night, a monologue filled with jokes merely adds more watered-down jokes into the ether.

This is why a Kimmel snub is meaningful: He's changed the late-night game by stressing videotaped bits, and in almost the same way musical acts want to be on with Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live!'s skits draw A-list actors who know their hip factor goes up when they get in on the joke. His videos (think: the gloriously silly Oprah farewell duet with Boyz II Men) go viral, garnering millions of hits.

That Kimmel has enormous cred for supporting O'Brien and having the balls to cut Leno to ribbons on The Tonight Show -- a near-legendary bit of audacity -- is why someone like Tom Cruise will do pretty much whatever Kimmel asks in live or taped bits. He's still an outsider doing an insider's job, but Kimmel is beloved among the stars (and isn't far behind Fallon on musical bookings). It's one thing to win the Nielsen battle, but if you're judging on genius and dynamism, Kimmel is the king. And yet, no Emmy love.

But nomination gripes are pointless, so back to reality. Let's focus instead, at least temporarily, on the big battle here: Will this be the year The Colbert Report and its intellectual spoofery beats The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, which has won eight consecutive times? I doubt it. People tend to giggle along with Colbert's shtick without truly engaging in how incredibly sophisticated the whole ruse is, but they adore Stewart for his more straightforward take.

The rest seemingly are dark horses:

Conan The show has struggled to retain the glory of O'Brien's Late Night days and the pop and crackle of the post-Leno/NBC implosion that fueled his appeal for months. But it's that latter part -- when Team Coco was most potent -- that got him this nomination.

Fallon Completely deserving. He overcame the skeptics and fashioned his own thing: a music-heavy, low-stress environment where musicians and actors feel at home and the host can goof off in harmless, fun bits.

Saturday Night Live Its nomination has more to do with the Digital Shorts -- like 2009's "Motherlover," which Justin Timberlake sang and co-wrote -- than the show. Head writer Seth Meyers is funny, but SNL has the same problem it has had for ages: bloated skits that desperately need editing. That the show hasn't won for series in nearly two decades is telling.

Maher Rounding out the category is Real Time With Bill Maher's spot -- which should have gone to Kimmel because Maher isn't doing anything Stewart and Colbert don't do five times better and with more subtlety.

Whatever happens in September -- another year of Stewart domination is likely -- Kimmel's absence will be sorely felt. But maybe that's a good thing. After all, years of being ignored have served him -- and us -- well.           


THE P.M. PACK: A look at late-night's contenders for the 2011 Emmy

The Colbert Report
Comedy Central's resident faux blowhard has earned multiple Emmys for writing but never for series.

The erstwhile NBC fixture marks his first series nomination for a slow but steady start on TBS.

Daily Show With Jon Stewart
The veteran Comedy Central hit has taken home the series hardware each of the past eight years.

Late Night With Jimmy Fallon
The NBC upstart scored his first series nom for a strong sophomore season as Conan's heir apparent.

Real Time With Bill Maher
HBO's irascible comedian-cum-talk-show provocateur has never won despite six previous series noms.

Saturday Night Live
The most-nominated show in Emmy history hasn't scored a series win for NBC since 1993.

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