Burning Questions About John Oliver, Jon Stewart and the Emmys’ Messy Variety Categories

As we’ve written about before, the pandemic and the actors’ and writers’ strikes have dealt a blow to this year’s Emmy Awards, with fewer submissions across the board meaning fewer nominees at this year’s show. But few areas of the Emmys have been affected as much as the variety categories, which are in disarray.

The Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series category, for instance, dropped from 23 submissions last year to 11 this year, which puts it in line to drop from five to three nominees; Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series dropped from 21 to 14, which should cut its nominees from five to four.

As for the Outstanding Scripted Variety Show category – well, that’s a real mess, and it’ll be the first of our burning questions about this year’s variety categories.

James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" (Credit: NBC)
James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)

What’s the deal with the scripted variety category? How many nominees will it have? And how long can the category last?
According to Emmy rules, the Outstanding Scripted Variety Series category – and its predecessor, Outstanding Variety Sketch Series – has been facing the chopping block for years. If a category has fewer than 25 eligible entries for two consecutive years, as scripted variety and variety sketch have for more than a decade, it can be eliminated and folded into a related category. The Academy briefly merged sketch and talk shows a couple of years ago, but the outcry was so big that it reversed the decision almost immediately.

Since then, it has changed some category names and reclassified “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” from a talk show to a scripted variety show, giving “Saturday Night Live” a formidable rival in the category it had won for six years in a row.

Still, the category is now skimpier than ever. The Television Academy’s rules specify that for categories with between eight and 20 entries, the number of nominees is determined by dividing the number submissions by four and rounding to the nearest whole number – which basically means that 18 or 19 entries get you five nominees, 14 through 17 get you four, 10 through 13 get you three and eight or nine get you two …

For the last four years, the scripted variety and variety sketch categories have had between eight and 14 submissions and either two or three nominees, with “Saturday Night Live” the only common denominator.

But if there are fewer than eight nominees, the category is taken off the ballot and voting is put in the hands of a panel made up of volunteers who promise to watch all of the submissions. This year, that has happened to the scripted variety category. After regular Emmy nomination voting has closed, a panel of volunteers will watch all the submissions – “SNL,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “After Midnight,” “Painting With John” and probably not much else – and vote whether or not each one deserves to be nominated.

No more than two shows can be nominated, and a program is eliminated from contention if it doesn’t receive at least 70% approval from the panel. (Perhaps to stave off disaster, that threshold was changed from 90% to 70% only days before voting began.) If only one show makes the cut, it’ll be declared the winner on the spot.

As for how long the category can last, who the hell knows? It could have been killed or merged a few years ago, and things are now getting worse both for scripted variety programs and for talk shows. But the Emmys couldn’t do away with them in the past, so the category will probably just keep morphing and changing its name as long as they keep giving out Emmys.

John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (HBO)

Since the category’s not going anywhere this year, can John Oliver keep winning?
The variety and talk categories are known for long winning streaks, but “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” is on an awfully impressive run. It won in the Outstanding Variety Talk Series category for seven straight years between 2016 and 2022 — and then, when the Television Academy moved it into the newly created Outstanding Scripted Variety Series category last year and put it up against the winningest show in Emmy history, “Saturday Night Live,” it won again. It’s now two wins shy of the longest streak ever, which belongs to “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” with its 10 consecutive wins in Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series (nine wins) and Outstanding Variety Series (one win).

Given the paucity of contenders in this category, it’ll probably come down to Oliver vs. “Saturday Night Live” once more. Oliver’s streak has to end at some point, but it’s hard to pick against him without strong evidence that voters are getting tired of “Last Week Tonight.” In fact, it probably makes more sense to think that maybe the streak will get to nine this year and then end next year, just before it ties the record, at the hands of the 50th anniversary season of “SNL.”

“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” (ABC)

Is the Outstanding Talk Series category in better shape?
Yes, but only slightly. The category has had a full slate of five nominees for the last four years, but it’s going to fall short this year because it only had 14 submissions. Emmy math says that means four nominees, and history suggests those will be “The Daily Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and probably “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” all past nominees.

But that wouldn’t leave room for newcomers like “Hot Ones” or “John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in LA” or old timers like “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” or “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

Jon Stewart Says Trump Is the Real Cancel Culture
Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” (Credit: Comedy Central)

Is a part-time host enough to keep “The Daily Show” in the winners’ circle?
The exit of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” from the Outstanding Variety Talk Series category last year came as a huge relief to all the talk-show hosts who’d put on shows five nights a week only to lose to the guy who’d do less than two dozen a year.  But the award went to the last show besides Oliver’s to win: “The Daily Show,” which in the intervening years had changed hosts from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah.

So “The Daily Show” comes into this year’s Emmy race as the defending champion — except that it’s no longer Noah’s show, but one led by a rotating cast of guest hosts. You’d think that a shifting slate of 12 different hosts during the eligibility period would hurt the show’s Emmy chances for a repeat — but one of those guests is Jon Stewart, who has returned once a week to the show he led to its first 10 wins in the category. His 2024 return, even if it’s part time, could be the key to its Emmy hopes.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady in “The Roast of Tom Brady” (Netflix)

Besides awards shows and the Super Bowl halftime show, what else can break into the live variety special category?
Even more than usual, the Outstanding Variety Special (Live) category seems to be the province of awards shows: The Oscars, the Grammys, the Tonys, the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the CMA Awards, the BET Awards…  The Super Bowl halftime show is always a lock, as it will be for this year’s show starring Usher, but what else? There’s J-Lo’s live Apple Music concert, maybe. Katt Williams live standup special? Ryan Seacrest and the ghost of Dick Clark ringing in the New Year? And did enough people actually like the Tom Brady roast? We’ll see.

A woman with blond hair dances and sings on stage
Lady Gaga performs in “Gaga Chromatica Ball” (Warner Bros. Discovery)

Will music or comedy rule in the Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) category?
In recent years, voters in this category have nominated comedy specials about twice as often as music specials — though the slate each year is generally a mixture of the two, with a tribute or two thrown in. This year the comics include Dave Chappelle (he’s controversial, but he’s got five noms in the category in the last six years), Mike Birbiglia, Alex Edelman, Ricky Gervais, Kevin Hart, Trevor Noah, Amy Schumer and Ramy Youssef, among others. Musical entries come from Billy Joel (will he get sympathy votes for CBS cutting off the first broadcast in the middle of “Piano Man?”), Elton John, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Barry Manilow and the Grammy salute to hip-hop.

The safest bet is to pick two from column A (comics), one from column B (musical specials) and then throw in a tribute (Dick Van Dyke, “The Tonight Show” 10th anniversary or the Kennedy Center Honors) and something that mixes it all together, like “Hannah Waddingham: Home for Christmas.” But this is the most robust of the variety categories, so there’s an awful lot to choose from.

Taylor Swift performs “All Too Well” during “The Eras Tour” (AMC)
Taylor Swift performs “All Too Well” during “The Eras Tour” (AMC)

Why isn’t Taylor Swift eligible?
“Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour”was one of the events of the year, both the concert tour and the three-hour film of her Los Angeles concerts that played in theaters last fall and in an extended cut (“Taylor’s Version”) on Disney+ in March. In February, the Taylor Swift Museum (apparently there is such a thing) tweeted that “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” was “officially eligible for Emmy consideration.”

But sorry Swifties, Disney says it ain’t so, and the only mention of Swift anywhere on the Emmy ballot comes in the capsule description of the Grammy Awards. The bottom line is simple: You can get away with a limited theatrical release and still retain Emmy eligibility, but a 91-day release in up to 3,855 theaters? No way.

A version of this story first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews
Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews

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