Eye on the Emmys: Working the Loophole

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Betty Goodwin

Special to TelevisionWeek

The drama-or is it comedy?-continues.

When “Desperate Housewives” entered-and won-in the best comedy series category at the Golden Globes in January, its rivals raised a ruckus, contending the hour-long hit series didn’t fit into the traditional 30-minute sitcom mold.

The controversy isn’t new-“Ally McBeal,” like “Housewives” an hour show with its share of drama along with the laughs, took the comedy Golden Globe in 1997 and 1998 and the comedy Emmy the following year-and it probably won’t be going away anytime soon.

With the 57th Primetime Emmys just around the corner, the debate has intensified and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences says it’s listening.

“I do watch [“Housewives”] and enjoy it-it’s on my TiVo season pass-but I don’t think it should be in the comedy category,” said “Scrubs” creator/executive producer Bill Lawrence, who has been an outspoken opponent of allowing “Desperate Housewives” to compete for the comedy award. TiVo, by the way, lists “Housewives” as a drama.

Mr. Lawrence has a vested interest, of course. “Scrubs” and “Desperate Housewives” are both vying for the same award and both were developed by Touchstone Television. “‘Desperate Housewives’ has got dark, thematic story lines, but it’s still edgily funny,” Mr. Lawrence said. “It just seems weird for a bunch of half-hour shows to compete against a great late-night soap.”

Complicating matters is that ATAS provides no rule-book definitions of comedy or drama.

“You know it if you see it,” ATAS Senior VP of Awards John Leverence said. “Everyone knows ‘Law & Order’ and ‘CSI’ are dramas.”

Essentially, if it looks like a fish and smells like a fish, it’s a fish. “But,” Mr. Leverence said, “There are flying fish such as ‘Gilmore Girls’ and ‘Desperate Housewives.'”

The academy has considered creating a category for dramedies. “It comes up all the time,” Mr. Leverence said. “I’m sure it will come up next year. Virtually the whole carcass is picked over every year.”

Determining what defines a comedy, drama or dramedy is the job of ATAS’ producers branch, which, like all the branches, reviews its awards, rules and procedures each year. “Ninety percent of changes are reactive to changes in the industry,” Mr. Leverence said.

There’s nothing to stop a producer from entering a comedic drama or a dramatic comedy into either the comedy or drama categories. And there are no rules preventing a series from being submitted as a comedy one year and a drama the next. For instance, “Moonlighting” entered as a comedy some years and as a drama other years. “It’s like having dual citizenship,” Mr. Leverence quipped.

When asked an Emmy categories question during a “Boston Legal” panel at the recent Television Critics Association press tour, creator/executive producer David E. Kelley replied that categorizing shows “is kind of a futile exercise. But we are what we are.” Would he ever move “Boston Legal” from the drama category-where it was submitted last season-to comedy? “It’s possible,” Mr. Kelley said.

The “Housewives” camp isn’t apologizing.

“We mean to be a comedy. It is our ambition to be funny,” said Tom Spezialy, an executive producer and showrunner for “Desperate Housewives.”

Nevertheless, the series was developed in Touchstone’s drama department. “Everything in an hour format has fallen under the drama development slate,” Mr. Spezialy explained.

“I’m not sure why some people are miffed,” he said. “Isn’t the test about whether it’s funny or not? Couldn’t the argument be it works against us if we aren’t funny? Isn’t that what it comes down to? If you submit in the comedy category, you better be funny.”

OK, but is it a dramedy?

“I don’t know,” Mr. Spezialy said. “It depends who you ask. We’re basically a black comedy and deconstructionist soap. I’m not sure that would qualify under the category dramedy, either. It all depends on what your definition of dramedy is.”

Mr. Spezialy suggested that a one-hour comedy category might be the solution. “If they could fit that in, it would ease tension on everybody for sure,” he said. “Maybe, by default, comedy of late has been defined as a half-hour sitcom. That is the purest form. Now there are half-hour single-cameras and hour comedies. I agree that there probably needs to be some flexibility or some widening of what we decide to be as comedy.”

Touchstone Television President Mark Pedowitz said laughs are the litmus test.

“If something is funny, it’s funny,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 30 minutes or 60 minutes. I believe TV is evolving and the comedy form is evolving.”

Mr. Pedowitz said that there never was a time when Touchstone seriously considered entering “Desperate Housewives” as a drama: “We made a conscious decision at the Golden Globes to submit it as a comedy and submit it for all awards as a comedy.”

Mr. Pedowitz said that while Touchstone was aware of the relative strength of the competition at the Golden Globes, that wasn’t a determining factor in choosing a category.

“You don’t look at things as a vacuum,” he said. “We saw there was a dearth of comedies and a plethora of dramas.” But that wasn’t the key, Mr. Pedowitz added.

“We thought we’d have a good chance of winning in drama also,” he said. “It is an unbelievable show. We just thought it was a funny show. I think of it as a comedy first and a drama second.”

“Scrubs” creator Mr. Lawrence is convinced it all comes down to ABC’s wanting to win one award for drama series with “Lost” and another for comedy with “Desperate Housewives.”

“I think it’s a business decision,” Mr. Lawrence said, “and a good one.”

But he put his opinion in perspective. “Most comedy writers, because we’re all jealous, don’t like to think ‘Desperate Housewives’ is a comedy. We’re all catty, jealous people.”