When the Television Academy announced in December that it would remerge the variety talk and variety sketch categories, I understood why the org did it from a logistical standpoint. There had been just 14 sketch series submissions for the Emmy competition last year, and only 24 talk shows — so putting the two categories back together, as they had been prior to 2015, was nice and tidy.
Except it wasn’t, and the Academy opened a can of worms that I don’t think it had anticipated. Part of it was the surprise announcement — late on a Friday in December. But the talk world had long been griping about the variety talk category, which hasn’t budged much in recent years. In the six times since talk got its own award, it has gone only to topical/headlines-minded shows (“The Daily Show With Jon Stew-art,” then “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”), while variety-based nightly entries like “Jimmy Kimmel Live” have had to settle for nominations.
Under new rules last year, categories with between 20 and 80 contenders are capped at five nominees. That means variety talk, which had previously allowed six, had already shrunk prior to the proposed reunification with sketch. In a merged category, one of those slots would have probably gone to the behemoth “Saturday Night Live,” and that would have left room for just four talkers (and likely would have prevented any other sketch shows from getting in, including the breakout “A Black Lady Sketch Show”).
Lorne Michaels knew stitching sketch back with talk would break his show’s Emmy streak. He remembers what happened the last time they were combined: “I love Jon Stewart, and when he was in our category he won literally 10 years in a row. So there’s an entire 10 years of ‘SNL’ where nothing happened,” he told me earlier this year. “I’m not asking for awards because we deserve this or that, but I only mean in the sense that it’s just a different kind of show.”
After both the talk and sketch TV communities balked at the merger, word of a boycott surfaced — a serious problem, given that Emmy hosts generally come from this field. That’s when the TV Academy reversed course and decided to keep the categories separate.
The self-inflicted crisis created by that December announcement was resolved. But what it didn’t answer was the question of where to ultimately put sketch shows (since their numbers are dwindling and it is a bit out of step to keep them in their own category) and how to better recognize the wide diaspora of talk.
Maybe we should merge the variety-minded late-night shows (which often contain live and pretaped skits) with sketch shows. And perhaps a straight-ahead talk category should focus on programs where yammering is the key sport — John Oliver, Bill Maher, Desus & Mero. True hybrids, like Stephen Colbert, could choose where to compete.
But I will resurrect my idea from last year: Why not follow the lead of the L.A. Area Emmys, where every newscast is nominated, and the winner is selected from the entire field? Especially in a year when TV’s talk shows did an amazing job pivoting to virtual episodes, and then limited in-studio production, they all deserve to be in the game. That’s another way to also get more recognition out there to newbies like Amber Ruffin or Ziwe, who deserve a seat at the table as well. The TV Academy stuck a Band-Aid on its variety conundrum, but it still needs a permanent salve.
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