Emmys: Battle Among Late-Night Talk Hosts Should Make for Morning's Most Suspenseful Reveal

THR's awards columnist breaks down the cutthroat, too-close-to-call race among late night's biggest names to become one of six finalists for best variety talk series.
Courtesy of TBS; Courtesy of HBO; Courtesy of Comedy Central; Courtesy of NBC
Clockwise from top left: Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, Jimmy Fallon and Trevor Noah

Heading in to Thursday morning's Emmy nominations announcement, the category that strikes me as the most interesting and unpredictable is best variety talk series, which is the one dominated by late-night hosts. At a time when there are more late-night hosts than ever before, there are simply too many worthy candidates for just six slots, and it's harder than ever to figure out what will tip the scales in favor of some over the others.

At this time last year, just six months into the Trump administration, voters seemed to want to reward hosts who used their shows to unabashedly take on the controversial new president, nominating Samantha Bee (TBS' Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), Jimmy Kimmel (ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!), John Oliver (HBO's Last Week Tonight With John Oliver), James Corden (CBS's The Late Late Show With James Corden), Stephen Colbert (CBS's The Late Show With Stephen Colbert) and Bill Maher (HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher) — while shunning Jimmy Fallon (NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), who had been a finalist in each of the three prior years, but who had tried to play nice with Trump when the then-presidential nominee visited his show early in the season.

This year, with virtually every show targeting Trump, and some even tag-teaming him, other considerations may come into play.

Oliver, the two-time defending champion, seems like a slam dunk to return as a nominee, at the very least. So does broadcast's late-night ratings leader, Colbert. And Kimmel, who won plaudits this season for his strong moral stands on issues like gun violence and health care, and who went to war with Sean Hannity, should also.

Also likely to return is Corden, who finished strong during the voting period with a "Carpool Karaoke" episode featuring Paul McCartney that went super viral (it has been viewed more than 26 million times), and who has been popular enough to win two Emmys per year in each of the last two years (best variety special for The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Primetime Special and best interactive program for The Late Late Show With James Corden in 2016, and best variety special for The Late Late Show Primetime Carpool Karaoke Special and best special class program for The 70th Annual Tony Awards in 2017). Also another likely returnee is Bee, the sole female with any realistic shot, despite — or perhaps even because of — a stormy period, just before nomination voting began, when she called Ivanka Trump a "feckless [C-word]" (she apologized the next day while accepting a special award at the Television Academy Honors).

The general consensus is that Maher, despite possessing a very passionate and loyal following that has propelled him to variety noms in 12 of the last 13 years, is the 2017 nominee most in danger of losing his spot in 2018. Like Oliver and Bee, he is the host of a program that airs but once a week, but he is thought to have barely made the cut last year, after flippantly using the N-word on the air, and this year he may face a tougher road, with Fallon having dug himself out of the doghouse in the eyes of many. Fallon, in a THR podcast that aired during the voting window, emotionally apologized for the 2016 Trump interview — and then, as a result, wound up in a public spat with the 45th president that made it quite clear that there is no love lost between the two.

If Fallon can't knock out one of last year's nominees, then there's a chance that the host whose show follows Fallon's, Seth Meyers (NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers), can. Last year, Meyers' program made inroads by snagging a writing nom, just as Bee's program did a year before it broke through into the variety category. Meyers, through his "A Closer Look" segments, has been as ruthless a critic of Trump as anyone — but he has done so after midnight, and hasn't managed to become as big of an Internet presence as his time-slot competitor Corden.

Though their odds are long, to say the least, one can't entirely rule out a surprise showing by Trevor Noah (Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Trevor Noah), who continues to come into his own in the seat that once belonged to this category's perennial winner, Jon Stewart; Conan O'Brien (TBS's Conan), who, thanks to all of the turnover in late night, is now its elder statesman, but is also less a part of the cultural conversation than ever (and recently announced a forthcoming reduction in his output); and Andy Cohen (Bravo's Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen), the only openly-gay late-night host, whose show's format is unlike any of the others'.

It is a little too soon to expect a nom from any other prospects, but great strides certainly were made this year by Viceland's Desus & Mero, which was featured, during the voting window, in a huge New York Times Magazine piece, "How 'Desus & Mero' Conquered Late Night"; and YouTube's Good Mythical Morning With Rhett & Link, featuring the comedy duo Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, which has accumulated 13.5 million YouTube subscribers and attracted more than 100 million views a month, rivaling the numbers of some of the traditional late-night shows.

My own projection, which I share only because I am obligated to provide one, is that, after all this, we will land up with the same six nominees as last year — Oliver, Colbert, Kimmel, Corden, Bee and Maher — but, for all of the reasons stated above, I can't say that I feel particularly confident this year.