Two big questions hang over the comedy categories in this year’s primetime Emmy Awards. First, will Modern Family officially become TV’s most-decorated comedy, breaking its tie with Frasier to win six trophies for outstanding comedy series? And which sketch comedy will become the first winner of the Academy’s new category?
There are far fewer comedies than dramas in contention for Primetime Emmys, but the field is no less competitive than drama this year, with some rookies likely to force out veteran nominees. Plus, at the request of many industry representatives, this season the Academy introduced a new category to honor sketch comedies, which have multiplied across network schedules in recent years. Previously, both late-night talk and sketch comedy shows fell under the variety category. (The sketch award will be presented at the Creative Arts Emmys on Sept. 19; the Primetime Emmys will be held the next evening.) “Over the last few years, there’s been so much great sketch comedy on television,” says Michele Ganeless, Comedy Central president. “It really was a glaring omission that it didn’t have its own category.”
That sentiment was shared by many others in the industry. Led by Comedy Central and IFC, producers and executives in the space teamed to petition the Academy to split the variety category into two, talk and sketch.
“This is one of the few times when the industry bands together, and there is strength in that,” says Jen Caserta, president and general manager of IFC, which five years ago turned its brand into all-comedy, with the tag line “Always On, Slightly Off.” The network’s Portlandia has been nominated 12 times in different categories, but the variety category has been dominated by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report for the past 12 years. That duopoloy has made it hard for any other nominees or comedic formats to get much traction.
“This isn’t something any one entity can do on its own,” says Caserta. “There has to be volume, willingness and a need for change. Once that happened, we were met with zero resistance from the Academy,” although the request did have to go through a formal process.
As a result, breakout shows including Portlandia and Comedy Bang Bang and Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Tosh.0 and @midnight all have a chance to have their moment in the Emmy spotlight.
“It’s a clichéd comment, but it would be an honor just to be nominated,” says Caserta.
On the scripted side, Modern Family has a chance to break two records: the number of Emmys won by a show for outstanding comedy series and the most total wins of any show. It is currently tied at five with Frasier.
Mike O’Malley, who was nominated for an Emmy for his guest-starring role on Fox’s Glee, wrote for Showtime’s Shameless and is now showrunner and writer on Starz’ Survivor’s Remorse, gives Modern Family its due. “All of its success is earned,” O’Malley says. But he also likes the freedom that producing comedy for premium cable affords.
“The freedom to write a lot of different stories is good for comedy,” O’Malley says. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity to create a show in which you aren’t hampered by network standards and practices when you are working in the world of cable. You are able to write more truthfully about things that people experience or say, and you might not be able to do that on broadcast.”
Modern Family has some stiff competition this year, with new shows including The CW’s Jane the Virgin and ABC’s Black-ish likely to grab nominations and others including CBS’ still-top-rated The Big Bang Theory, HBO’s Veep and FX’s Louie continuing to produce strong seasons. Another vote magnet figures to be Amazon’s Transparent, which grabbed a Golden Globe in January. Some critics view it as a dark-horse possibility for series champ, although it’s likely that many more Emmy voters have seen Modern Family than Transparent.
Will Modern Family’s continued broad appeal be enough to secure its record sixth win? “As someone who has seen a lot of new shows, I think audiences have much more diversity of taste when it comes to comedy,” one top programming exec mused about the show. “Many times, the most innovative comedies take the audience time to figure out.”
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