Why the Emmys Needs a Separate Category for Sketch Comedy Performers

ONE TIME USE ONLY - THR - Illustration by Ryan Garcia- H 2020
Ryan Garcia

A separate award would solve the problem of throwing the 'SNL' actors into the supporting/guest comedy groupings, forcing voters to compare performers representing worlds-apart art forms.

For more than a decade, the supporting and guest actor in a comedy Emmy categories have been dominated by performers from Saturday Night Live. In fact, this year alone, a total of eight castmembers (including Kenan Thompson, Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong) and celebrity hosts (Brad Pitt and Phoebe Waller-Bridge among them) have been nominated in just 28 available slots, accruing more than a third of the entire honors in these categories.

Since 2008, 10 individual SNL players have received a total of 24 nominations in the supporting actor fields (while a smattering of other sketch comics like Portlandia's Fred Armisen, Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key and Inside Amy Schumer's Amy Schumer have also received noms). Truthfully, however, this taxonomy has never suited sketch's whimsical style of performance. One could even argue that their inclusion here is category fraud. This isn't to say such veterans as McKinnon (a seven-time nominee) or Strong (a first-time nominee this year) don't deserve awards recognition for their work. They do — indeed, they should be honored with their own performance categories that credit the creativity, versatility and plasticity of their art form. It's time to create new Emmys fields for sketch comedy actors and guest stars (yes, it's worth it even as it would add to the current 123 Emmy categories).

To be fair, these performers already have been shunted from category to category for decades, toggling between "supporting actor," "lead actor" and the now-retired "outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program" categories until 2008, when the latter formally disappeared from ballots. That particular classification astutely matched the popular programming of the '50s, '60s and '70s — when "variety" actually referred to a variety of entertainment per episode and wasn't just a catch-all term for anything the TV Academy can't quite define. In the last few decades it was around, the honorees in this category often ranged from landmark SNL players to bigwig talk show comedians (with the occasional awards-show presenter thrown in the mix). Nominations for women or people of color were rare.

But embodying a diverse assortment of characters from week to week is unlike the quippy work of interviewing guests or carrying an awards ceremony. And it's also separate from the intimate process of developing a single character's arc over the course of a series via longform narrative storytelling. Sketch comedy actors must engage in intense training and self-discipline to continuously invent madcap personae, master celebrity impersonations and cultivate feedback loops with in-person and at-home audiences. They need to be open, collaborative, improvisational. They need to balance mugging theatrics with coruscating politics. And they need to do this all on camera, sometimes live. In other words: Sketch comedy players require an almost uncanny protean flexibility that goes beyond simply making people laugh for a living.

Since Amy Poehler received a surprising but well-earned nod for her uproarious work on Saturday Night Live in the supporting actress in a comedy category in 2008, SNL castmembers have become de rigueur in this category, with at least two to four performers receiving nominations each year. McKinnon won consecutive supporting Emmys in 2016 and 2017, and Alec Baldwin won in the male category in 2017 for his multiple appearances as Donald Trump.

TV hasn't exactly been short on biting sketch comedy in the past 30 years, with programs ranging from Tracey Takes On … and Mr. Show to Chappelle's Show and Portlandia each spurring cult fandoms. In 2015, an Emmy Award was created just to recognize "outstanding variety sketch series." Now imagine how merited it would have been if 1996 nominee Tracey Ullman won for her impersonations alongside Tony Bennett, who took the "variety" Emmy for Live by Request: A Valentine Special. Or how exciting it would have been to see 2015 nominee Schumer give a thank-you speech for her sketch series Inside Amy Schumer the same year her category competitor Julia Louis-Dreyfus won in the lead actress field for Veep. It's unfair to all to simply lump together and compare performers representing worlds-apart art forms.

Sketch comedy acting categories would not only make way for a larger diversity of actors to be nominated in the original supporting/guest comedy fields, but it would allow for actors other than SNL players to be honored for such work. While the genre continues to rebound with more racially diverse and intellectually innovative programming like A Black Lady Sketch Show or Random Acts of Flyness, I would love to see more castmembers on these shows thrive at the Emmys among the SNL stalwarts. As the paradigms of television change, so should the way we honor the medium's trailblazers.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.