Unexpected laughs in Emmy comedy noms

'Family Guy,' 'Mother' among surprise picks

"So much about comedy is surprise," declared "Hangover" director Todd Phillips in a recent interview.

Emmy voters seem to agree. The TV Academy unexpectedly nominated longtime CBS underdog "How I Met Your Mother," raunchy animated hit "Family Guy" and HBO's little-seen "Flight of the Conchords" for outstanding comedy series, while Sarah Silverman received an actress nod for her work on Comedy Central's cult favorite "The Sarah Silverman Program."

Though all the picks are critically well regarded, none was considered likely to be nominated. So what happened? Or, more optimistically: What went right?

" 'Family Guy' had the added advantage this year of exposure to syndication, just like it helped 'Friends' win," said one network's Emmy marketing strategist. " 'Conchords' has a tremendous cult following here in Hollywood. 'How I Met Your Mother' is a question of exposure over time, plus Neil Patrick Harris' rise in stature this year has helped."

Another factor is the Academy expanding the number of nomination slots to six (and in some cases, even seven).

"That helped us," said Seth MacFarlane of the additional slots. "Those spots helped [voters nominate] the live-action shows they are comfortable nominating, but at the same time to be OK with trying to push the playing field a little bit."

Coming on the heels, of last year's "Mad Men" sweep, the nominations for shows like "Conchords" and "Silverman" also suggest ratings are becoming less significant to Academy voters. A marketing campaign combined with a show that appeals to the Academy's tastes can put a show into contention even without a wide viewership net.

"Our members are in a very rarefied atmosphere of perception," said John Leverence, the Academy's senior vp of awards. "The 'for your consideration' system of screeners and screenings ensures they're watching boutique shows that are not necessarily in the mass market domain. It's a situation that we share with the Oscars."

Unlike its big-screen cousin, however, Emmy's boutique entries are not just sober period pieces but hipper fare with dedicated younger viewers that might actually help the ceremony's ratings. 

"The Academy is under pressure to keep current and be trendy and topical," said TV historian Tim Brooks.  The "Family Guy" nomination in particular, he said, is "a suggestion that Academy voters are getting younger."