Emmys: Why Comedy Nominees Aren't Funny Anymore

22 BIZ COMEDY VARIETY Laura Linney Oliver Platt The Big C
Ken Regan/Showtime

Laura Linney and Oliver Platt

Voters must separate the humorous from the dramatic before the "comedy series" category betrays its name, writes THR's chief TV critic Tim Goodman.

When -- not if -- Nurse Jackie gets nominated for an Emmy as outstanding comedy series next month, it's vitally important to remember what voters will have overlooked about the Showtime series.

It's not funny.

For that matter, neither is Fox's Glee, outside of a few brilliantly placed bits from this year's Emmy host, Jane Lynch, as Sue Sylvester. Both shows were nominated as comedies in 2010 -- thankfully, neither won -- and there's a chance they might be joined this year by Showtime's other half-hour series of bleakness, The Big C.

Let's be clear: The Big C is funnier than Nurse Jackie and funnier than Showtime's other humorless half-hour series, United States of Tara, but it's not particularly funny in and of itself.

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Do you see a trend? Or do you need to be reminded that Weeds, the long-running Showtime half-hour that started out funny before becoming both bleak and ridiculous, also was nominated for outstanding comedy series in 2009?

To be fair, HBO's half-hour series Entourage was nominated for outstanding comedy series three years in a row -- 2007, 2008 and 2009 -- rightfully losing each time to NBC's 30 Rock, an actual comedy. Oh, sure, Entourage can make 30 minutes disappear like nobody's business, but do you ever laugh out loud? Really?

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Herein lies the problem at the heart of this Emmy category. Shows are being nominated because they are half-hour dramedies or hourlong whatevers, like Glee. Just because a series chooses to enter itself in the comedy category does not mean it's an actual comedy. Or funny.

Or a show that deserves a nomination, for that matter.

Most of the blame for muddying the category falls to cable channels. They had the brilliant idea of packaging what might be described on paper as "black comedies" in 30-minute bundles traditionally housing sitcoms. The dark half-hours were essentially dramas with a few bits of humor tossed in. They also had very famous stars who could win in the acting categories and possibly influence voting in the series category.

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Luckily, funnier shows ultimately prevailed most years.

But there's a stink in this category. It's as if Emmy voters have been mesmerized by star power (not always present in a network ensemble sitcom). How can anyone ignore the trio of brilliance that is Edie Falco, Toni Collette and Laura Linney fronting series that have been or could be (in the case of Big C) nominated as comedies? Their names alone make watching the Emmys a must.

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The angry riffs of Falco, the tone-shifting, multiple-character performance pieces from Collette and Linney's exasperated railing against encroaching death (or cackling in the face of faux empathy) are something to marvel at. But even a cursory look reveals that those are not hilarious performances -- they are astonishing dramatic turns. How in the world is anyone supposed to judge those against the self-loathing of Tina Fey's Liz Lemon on 30 Rock or Martha Plimpton's disheveled snarkiness as Virginia Chance on Fox's Raising Hope, which conceivably could get nominated?

Since 1953 -- if you're keeping track at home, that's a long time ago -- comedy series winners have almost always been straight-up, no-doubt-about-it comedies. It makes sense, yes? Certainly M*A*S*H, the 1974 winner, had elements of drama, but jokes always lightened the tone. It wasn't until The Wonder Years in 1988 that something very different from a standard sitcom walked away with the statuette.

It took another 11 years, when Ally McBeal won in 1999, for another "dramedy" to win (the show was nominated but didn't win the previous year). McBeal was the first hourlong series in decades even to be nominated. It also went up that year against HBO's first-time nominee Sex and the City, which now can be branded the seminal pay-cable 30-minute series that started this whole mess.

Of course, Sex, while not fall-on-the-ground funny, was certainly more of a laughfest than Jackie, Tara, Weeds, Glee or, if it's nominated, Big C. Emmy voters need to take a stand against star-saturated cable series that run 30 minutes but are not geared, essentially, to be funny. The same principle needs to apply to Glee.

Give Lynch a nomination in the actress category but understand fully that Glee is a musical first, a frothy soap second, a drama third and, yes, a comedy (fourth).

Including Glee, Jackie (or any of those other truncated cable dramas) takes away slots that would be better used for FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie and Archer or such network fare as Raising Hope, NBC's Parks and Recreation and Community, ABC's The Middle and CBS' The Big Bang Theory -- or any other comedy that actually makes you laugh.

The suspicion -- or worry -- here is that members of the TV Academy are forced into an unenviable position because of their own rules. If series can choose to be nominated in the comedy category rather than drama, then voters are faced with a dilemma. Block out all of those cable stars and those popular Glee kids to squeeze in Louie or even something more mainstream like Community -- two truly deserving shows -- and you risk dulling the glamour of the Emmys.

And let's not forget that once you don't take a stand against high-profile, mostly pay-cable dramas pretending to be comedies, you damage the affiliated acting categories.

Last year, Fey and friend Amy Poehler of Parks joined Julia Louis-Dreyfus (CBS' The New Adventures of Old Christine) in wondering how three wonderful comediennes might fare against two astonishing actresses in Falco and Collette (Glee's Lea Michele also was nominated in the category). Not well, as anyone could probably guess: Falco took home the Emmy. Collette won it a year earlier.

For whatever reason -- probably because fantastic actresses of a certain age are all the rage on the cable side -- this lopsided pairing doesn't usually happen in the lead actor category. Outside of Glee's Matthew Morrison being nominated last year, most nominees and winners have been comic actors. And seriously, has Morrison said anything remotely funny on Glee?

Here's hoping this year the esteemed members of the academy remember one simple truism: It's a comedy category. And if comedy is truly outstanding, it really makes you laugh. Consider that.      

COMEDY SERIES CONTENDERS:  Emmy's likely choices for best comedy series.

30 Rock (NBC)

Glee (Fox)

Modern Family (ABC)

Nurse Jackie (Showtime)

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

The Big C (Showtime)

The Office (NBC)

United States of Tara (Showtime)