Emmys 2011: Will 'The Big Bang Theory' Cancel Itself Out of the Comedy Actor Race?

Justina Mintz/CBS
Tom Parsons (left) and Johnny Galecki in "The Big Bang Theory"

Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki face off for lead acting honors against Louis C.K., Matt LeBlanc, Steve Carell and two-time winner Alec Baldwin.

If Steve Carell walks away from the Emmys on Sept. 18 with his first trophy for NBC's The Office, he will be good -- and familiar -- company.

The only other actor to score a win in the last year of playing his lead comedy role was, ironically, the actor who originated The Office's bumbling manager persona: Ricky Gervais, star of the British series, took home gold in 2007 for his performance in HBO's two-seasoner, Extras.

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Although many feel Carell should be a lock this year, he has two glaring strikes agianst him. One, Emmy history shows that no comedy lead actor has ever won for the first time after a long run of nominations -- in Carell's case, six, one for each year he was on the show. Second, the pool of contenders this year is so diverse and spoiler-ready, a win for Carell would be the least exciting of possible outcomes.

In the absence of Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David (the HBO series didn't air in 2010), Carell has formidable competition: stalwart contender and two-time winner Alec Baldwin (NBC's 30 Rock), last year's surprise victor Jim Parsons (CBS' The Big Bang Theory) and his co-star Johnny Galecki, FX's one-man band Louis C.K. (Louie) and Matt LeBlanc in his first cable series (Showtime's Episodes).

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This year's leading-man race boasts perhaps the most meaningful mix of talent -- and networks -- ever assembled in this category, which had never had two entrants from cable comedies in a single year until now.

Like Thursday nights throughout the 1990s, the lead comedy actor category has been unabashedly dominated by NBC, which has registered a record 18 wins since 1974. Compare this run to CBS' eight, ABC's seven, USA's three -- that would be Tony Shalhoub's bizarre run of Monk wins in the early to mid-2000s -- and, perhaps in its worst-performing Emmy niche, HBO's paltry one for Gervais. NBC still has a strong presence this year with noms for Carell and Baldwin, but the latter's Emmy run during 30 Rock's peak years is likely to have been his last. CBS' insular rivalry is actually making bigger news this year: With Big Bang, it's the only network that can boast two lead nominees in the same show across the entire Emmy ballot.

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The milestone isn't lost on academy chair John Shaffner. "It's like Oscar and Felix being nominated in the same year," he says of the history-making 1975 race that pitted ABC's The Odd Couple stars Jack Klugman and Tony Randall against each other (Randall won). "Parsons and Galecki are a similarly unique straight man/funny man duo."

Unfortunately, the most recent time two lead network actors battled each other, it didn't work out for either of them: In 2002, the Friends duo of LeBlanc and Matthew Perry went head-to-head but lost to Ray Romano. That doesn't bode well for Big Bang's Galecki and Parsons as being great at different roles within large ensembles can put voters in a pickle.

This is what makes cable underdogs Louis C.K. and LeBlanc -- both of whom play tweaked versions of themselves -- exciting spoilers. It's hard to believe LeBlanc netted Showtime's first comedy actor nomination for playing … LeBlanc. His hilarious game-for-anything spin on his own celebrity in Episodes has proved a crucial moment in his career. Turns out, the guy can act.

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"I am delighted for Matt -- he gave one of the most remarkable performances as someone playing himself, but not quite himself, I've ever seen," Shaffner says.

The same can be said for FX's first comedy nominee -- that's a first for actor, actress or series -- Louie creator and star Louis C.K. Like LeBlanc, the New York-based comedian plays a divorced fortysomething guy with kids who is trying to manage loneliness, love and career. But it's pretty clear that there's little distance between TV Louie and his real-life counterpart. Sure, David's Curb has never won an Emmy, but that doesn't mean Louis C.K. isn't poised to make history. With his nomination, you might say he already has.

But where does this leave Carell? Much as we'd love to watch him ride a last swell of "that's what she said" jokes to Emmy glory, he simply has too much competition to rely on nostalgia votes.

Whatever happens in September, chances are very good there's gold in Carell's future regardless. For as TV grads go, few have been better poised for Oscar glory.