By Justine Elias
Late-night comedy-talk shows such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Late Show With David Letterman” now dominate the category of outstanding variety, music or comedy series, but that’s not how it’s always been. Is this Emmy category, which also honors sketch comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and music series such as “MTV Unplugged,” too broad and outdated to judge fairly?
Television’s first 30 years were an age of plenty for variety shows. On the longest-running of them, CBS’s “Ed Sullivan Show” (originally called “Toast of the Town”), viewers might see a Borscht Belt comedian, a Broadway vocalist, a performing animal act, a ballet duet between Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn and a youth-oriented rock act like the Doors, defying the censors by singing banned lyrics to “Light My Fire.” It was high-end pop culture for the broadest possible audience.
These days, narrowcasting rules, and the closest thing to a Sullivanesque anything-goes weekly lineup is Univision’s 40-year-old-and-counting “Sabado Gigante,” seen all over the Spanish-speaking world. In English-language America, there’s no Ed Sullivan, no David Frost, not even a Carol Burnett, a Red Skelton, a Jack Benny or a Sonny and Cher. Yet the category’s parameters have remained constant over the years.
“Variety programs are comprised of discrete scenes, musical numbers, awards, comedy stand-ups, audience or guest participation, or any mix and match of the above, without a story line, dramatic arc or characters to connect the pieces,” said Julie Shore, director of prime-time awards at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
“You can see how `The Ed Sullivan Show,’ which was nominated five times in its day and won once, would be the classic of that definition,” she said. “But perhaps variety doesn’t mean to people what it used to.”
This year’s five nominees have a different balance of comedy, music and sketches, Ms. Shore noted. “Saturday Night Live” offers sketches, musical performances and comedy stand-ups (in the host monologue); “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “Late Show With David Letterman” have guest interviews, stand-up comedians and musical performances (from the house band and guest acts), as well as comedy sketches. “The Daily Show’s” politically themed interviews, whether in studio or in remote filmed segments, still fit the category’s broad definition of “sketches” though they are often a combination of scripted and improvisational, and it’s sometimes difficult to determine whether or not the guests are in on the joke.
“Chappelle’s Show,” a first-time nominee, has a cast of running characters, many played by host Dave Chappelle. His is the only show not taped mainly before a live audience, which is not a requirement for the category.
“You see it’s a better mix this year, with `Chappelle’s Show’ being nominated,” Ms. Shore said. “It’s not just late-night talk shows, which it has been for a while.”
Though music series are specified in the category title, it’s been tough for them to score nominations. The last prime-time music series to edge its way in against heavyweights like “Leno” and “Letterman” was “MTV Unplugged,” which earned three successive nominations in the mid-1990s.
Lauren Corrao, senior VP of original programming and head of development at Comedy Central, worked at MTV in those years. “So much of the voting is based on pure name recognition,” she said. “Besides `Unplugged,’ I’d be hard-pressed to think of a recent music variety series that has really broken out.”
The music networks have had more success in the documentary field, earning Emmy nominations in reality programming categories.
Ms. Corrao said any music series may be at a disadvantage with Emmy voters when compared side by side with perennial nominees Mr. Letterman, Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Stewart. Any music series, “however innovative and cool, isn’t funny-and the word `comedy’ is right there in the category title. Somehow all the winners and nearly all the nominees that I can remember have been funny,” she said.
With that overriding percept ion, is there a plan to tinker with the category, as has been done with this and other Emmy categories in the past?
“There hasn’t been any talk of that,” Ms. Shore said. “There have always been lots of [variety specials]. We’ve just seen a big shift away from variety series, and now we see a lot more sketch shows and late-night comedy shows. But nobody ever questioned changing the category.”