The Drama of Comedy Awards

Dec 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The success of ABC’s one-hour, single-camera “Desperate Housewives” in the 2005 Golden Globe nominations has again raised the question of whether shows that follow the traditional format of one television genre should be allowed to compete for awards in another genre.

Following in the footsteps of “Ally McBeal,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Monk,” “Housewives” is an hour-long

show competing in the comedy category, despite the fact that it is not a sitcom, skips the laugh track and was developed out of Touchstone Television’s drama department. Sources at the studio said that as of late last week, the decision was still out on whether Touchstone would continue to recognize “Housewives” as a comedy once Emmy season rolls around and instead enter it in competition for drama awards.

This category quandary is understandable, considering the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which administers the Golden Globes, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which administers the prime-time Emmys, do not have specific guidelines in their rules delineating the differences between dramas and comedies. The distinction lies in the eye of the beholder, which in most cases is the studio submitting the show for awards consideration.

A show winning in both comedy and drama categories in the same awards season may seem a far-fetched concept. It is, however, theoretically possible to win a best comedy Golden Globe and a best drama Emmy, because the voting process and voting bodies of the organizations that administer the awards are so different. The Foreign Press Association’s relatively informal rules and a voting body of fewer than 100 journalists is quite different from the TV Academy’s structured nominations process and the thousands of industry insiders who vote for Emmy winners.

HFPA has at times collaborated with studios to determine the appropriate category in which to honor a project.

“Basically, people submit them, and if we have a concern for what category something is in we open a dialogue with the studio and try to come up with something everyone is happy with,” said Jenny Cooney Carrillo, the co-chair of the TV committee for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Ms. Carrillo said there was nothing her organization could do to stop a studio from competing in the Golden Globe comedy categories and then turning around a few months later and submitting in the Emmy drama categories.

“I’d be surprised if they want to do that, but that’s really their decision,” she said of Touchstone’s reported discussion of genre flip-flopping for “Housewives.”

“We felt comfortable with the submission as a comedy and that’s really all that matters,” she said, adding, “If we universally disagree [with a studio] we have the final rule.”

That doesn’t mean that television studios can’t target a category with weaker competitors to increase the chances of a win. But John Leverence, senior VP of awards for ATAS, said series that straddle both comedy and drama face the same obstacles any other shows face in terms of getting nominated or winning an Emmy. “Desperate Housewives” faces no more or less a challenge to success than past nominees such as “Gilmore Girls,” he said.

“Because the competition is quantitatively and qualitatively brutal in each category, I don’t think that one is an easier go than the other,” he said.

And as for flipping back and forth between genres, Mr. Leverence said that wasn’t necessarily unprecedented. “I recall that “Moonlighting” entered comedy series one year and drama series the next year,” he said of the 1980s ABC show and its submissions for the Emmys.

Ms. Carrillo said trying to define the difference between a comedy with dramatic elements and a drama that’s also comedic is a losing battle. She pointed out the challenges raised by FX’s “Rescue Me,” which has been nominated in dramatic categories, including a nod for best actor for Denis Leary, who is well-known as a stand-up comedian. “`Rescue Me’ is another show that had a huge comedic element to it,” she said, “but at the end of the day do you want to call a show about firefighters after 9/11 a comedy?”

While the Golden Globe nominations are based on episodes aired during the calendar year, the Emmys require the producers of nominated shows to choose three sets of two episodes each to submit to blue-ribbon panels. Instead of a season of work, Emmys are won or lost based on a specific set of episodes. The dramatic or comedic subtleties that are evident in the arc of a full season could easily be lost, Mr. Leverence said.

“The producer entering a dramedy has to be certain that he [or] she will have six appropriate episodes,” he said. “Whether they are appropriate for the comedy or drama panels is the producer’s very tough decision.”

And while positioning a show in one category may be advantageous to a studio in terms of an award win, there is the risk of confusing an audience that tunes in and finds an unfunny comedy or a lightweight drama.

“We sometimes point out that it could go either way,” Ms. Carrillo said. “They have to live with the consequences.”