Emmys: Is There Too Much Variety in the Variety Talk Category?

TOO MUCH VARIETY IN VARIETY- Illo-Dominic Bugatto-H 2016
Illustration By Dominic Bugatto

On Emmy nominations morning, many were shocked to learn that Crackle's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee — the Jerry Seinfeld web series shot with three GoPro cameras and this season comprising six episodes, each ranging from 16 to 23 minutes — was nominated for best variety talk series over several late-night stars: CBS' The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers, TBS' Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and Conan, and Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Trevor Noah and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore (which was canceled Aug. 14). Why? Because the unconventional streaming show beat out the sort of network or cable late-night series that had become synonymous with variety talk at the Emmys: those that air four or five nights a week, for 30 or 60 minutes an episode.

We've been heading in this direction for some time. In 2015, the TV Academy split the variety category in two — variety sketch (e.g. NBC's Saturday Night Live, CC's Inside Amy Schumer) and variety talk (the hosted shows in late night and elsewhere) — in recognition of the recent explosion of sketch offerings. This division was intended to ensure that similar shows compete against one another. But the variety talk category still is filled with apples and oranges.

How is an Emmy voter supposed to compare Seinfeld's sporadic schmoozing with nominees who follow the traditional monologue/interview format every week for a half-hour (HBO's scripted Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) or an hour (HBO's debate-centric Real Time With Bill Maher) or nightly for an hour (CBS' The Late Late Show With James Corden, NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!)?

Maher has hosted both nightly network and weekly cable shows — ABC's Politically Incorrect (1993 to 2002) and Real Time (since 2003), respectively, accruing 18 series noms between the two yet no wins. One might assume Politically Incorrect was the more demanding gig, but Maher insists otherwise. "[Real Time], even though it's on once a week, takes so much more out of me and so many more hours," he says. "There's only so much preparation you can do for an every-day show, the charm of which has to be, 'We're throwing some shit against the wall, and we're going to see what sticks.' But this is a different kind of show, and I want it to be somewhat polished."

That perspective is not one that resonates with Kimmel, who will host the Emmys Sept. 18. "If we only had to do 30 shows a year [Maher does 35], I can guarantee you 26 of them would be very strong," he told THR this summer. "The advantage for me is you can be looser and there's not so much pressure and focus on what you're doing. You can try new things. From a creative standpoint, it's probably more fun to do the show every night. But from a 'What one episode are your voters going to look at and judge?' it's probably disadvantageous. I get jealous [of weekly shows] at midnight when I'm still working on the show or when I spend a whole Saturday working on something."

Corden certainly isn't phoning it in, either. On top of nightly monologues and interviews, his frequent "Carpool Karaoke" segments — by the way, what is it with funny people in cars? — require immense planning. There's a reason they are beloved by viewers (Adele's appearance has attracted 122 million views on YouTube, more than any other late-night clip ever) and voters (The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke Prime Time Special got a variety special nom of its own).

Does there need to be another category split to ensure the talk contenders have a more level playing field, separating the shows by minutes per episode or episodes per season or something along those lines? There already are 113 Emmy categories awarded over three nights, so what's one more?

Corden, though, envisions a future in which such distinctions don't really matter. "TV channels are just going to become apps," he postulates. "The line between your phone, iPad and TV is already blurred. Your screen is going to be a group of apps that you will either subscribe to or not, and that's it. And there's not going to be any notion of, like, 'When's it on?' "

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