Emmys: How Comedy Became the Awards' Most Eclectic Category

Atlanta and Transparent Split-Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Guy D'Alema/FX; Amazon Studios

With tone, runtime and even the need for laughs subject to debate, the one thing today's comedies have in common is a category.

In 2000, the Primetime Emmys' comedy race consisted of four broadcast sitcoms with a laugh track and one black sheep — Sex and the City, which lost to Will & Grace. That group, indicative of the TV ecosystem for that season (and the five preceding decades), is now impossible to imagine. The genre has turned its back on the multicamera ("filmed in front of a live studio audience!") sitcoms of yore, replacing them with a sprawling group whose only unifying trait often is the category in which they compete.

While dramas are generally either prestige or procedural, comedies can now fit into an almost infinite number of buckets — making comedy TV's most diverse genre by far. Yes, there are still a few classic sitcoms (CBS' top-rated The Big Bang Theory), but the majority of the offerings are contemporary broadcast fare (ABC's Black-ish and Modern Family), profanity-friendly cable hits (HBO's Veep and Insecure), soapy dramedies (the CW's Jane the Virgin), character studies (Donald Glover's Atlanta on FX) and even horror (Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet). There even are a few wild cards that prompt as many tears as laughs (Amazon's Transparent). Strange bedfellows, all of them. "I remember when people grumbled about Ally McBeal being in the comedy category, and it was a funny hour," says Robert Carlock, executive producer on Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the NBC freshman Great News. "Now, within half-hours, shows are more different than ever."

Ally McBeal was an anomaly in 1998, but what's followed has retroactively normalized the David E. Kelley breakout. By 2004, stylish single-camera shows, such as Arrested Development, were getting most of the Emmy noms, and the inclusion of hourlongs such as Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty ruffled few feathers. The rise of streaming services, unchained to advertisers, as well as the ascension of more adventurous cable executives, eventually paved the way for tonally ambiguous half-hours (see FX's Louie, HBO's Girls and TBS' Search Party) that blur the lines even more.

Merely fitting into the traditional runtime is now enough to be considered a comedy — at least by the Television Academy's current standards. Since 2015, the Emmys define the comedy category as any half-hour series. Hourlongs that don't identify as a drama are welcome to petition for a switch, but they're not always successful. Netflix's Orange Is the New Black was shuffled to drama in its second season, deflating the Emmy momentum it had as a comedy. Other hourlongs have been permitted to make the move, most notably Showtime's Shameless and the CW's Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. "We had to write a letter to be put in the comedy category," says Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creator and showrunner of the musical Ex-Girlfriend. "I remember getting really giggly while we were putting it together …. On what planet is a show with a song called 'Heavy Boobs' not a comedy?"

The most unexpected (and uncommon) move in comedy today is to make something traditional. Leaving aside the upcoming reboots of Will & Grace and Roseanne, recent Big Four broadcast series orders included only two multicam sitcoms — both of them on CBS. That's one reason why the Netflix remake of Norman Lear's One Day at a Time, which shifted the focus to a Cuban-American family to critical acclaim, is such an outlier. "It's a very different show from what we did years ago," Lear says of his latest multicam, a genre of comedy he says brings with it a unique value. "You get in front of an audience and it's magic time. You never really know the material until the performers step on set."

Writers may always protest the Ally McBeal of the moment, but nearly all are in agreement that comedy's loose leash has been a boon to creativity. "TV used to come from an almost cynical place, looking at audiences and advertisers as a monolith," adds McKenna. "Now you can program to specific audiences. I think the reason TV is so good is that it's finally controlled by the storytellers."

This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.