EMMYS: Unfunny Comedies?

Ray Richmond is a contributor to AwardsLine

Boardwalk EmpireIt was in 2010 that Edie Falco caused something of a stir at the Emmy Awards when – after winning the lead comedy actress Emmy for Showtime’s Nurse Jackie – she began her acceptance speech, “Oh this is just the most ridiculous thing that has ever happened in the history of this lovely awards show. Thank you so much. I’m not funny!”

No one seemed to think that Falco was ungrateful so much as genuinely flabbergasted. And those who were regular watchers of her show may have agreed with her, underscoring how the definition of an Emmy-worthy comedic actress had so changed since the days of Mary Tyler Moore (a six-time winner in the category divided between The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Candice Bergen (who won for Murphy Brown five times) and even Helen Hunt (a four-time victor for Mad About You).

Related: EMMYS: Comedy Series Overview

Over the past seven years, four of the lead actress Emmy winners in comedy were cited for roles not specifically designed to generate laughs: Falco for Nurse Jackie, Toni Collette for Showtime’s United States of Tara in 2009, America Ferrara for ABC’s Ugly Betty in 2007, and Felicity Huffman for ABC’s Desperate Housewives in 2005. While Melissa McCarthy took home the prize last year for CBS’s Mike & Molly, one of the nominees she had to knock off (Laura Linney) played a woman fighting cancer (on Showtime’s The Big C ).

Indeed, the advent of hybrid half-hours over at the pay-cable channels has changed the Emmy game over the past decade dramatically, in every sense of the word.
“It gets very difficult to compartmentalize and contrast these actresses on TV now,” believes Mike Schur, co-creator for NBC’s Parks and Recreation. “It’s now a very large umbrella that actress-in-a-comedy encompasses. As a person who works with and for Amy Poehler every year, I wonder how she can be denied. And Amy also continues to do incredibly dramatic things, as in our season finale. I just hope that whatever instincts have led people to vote more drama than comedy carries over to our show, too.”

Related: EMMYS: Comedy From Female Perspective

The apples-and-oranges measuring stick that could favor Julia Louis-Dreyfus (HBO’s Veep), Lena Dunham (HBO’s Girls) and Laura Dern (who triumphed at the Golden Globes this year for HBO’s Enlightened) over those playing more traditional funny lady roles like Zooey Deschanel (Fox’s New Girl), Poehler and Tina Fey – a 2008 lead actress winner for NBC’s 30 Rock – gives pause to 30 Rock co-showrunner and exec producer Robert Carlock.

“I like to think that the comedy award should maybe emphasize comedy a little bit
more,” Carlock stresses. “If not, let’s just start a dramedy category, because shows like The Big C that have so much dark humor are really a different animal. What Laura Linney is doing is pretty fearless. But I’d love to give the comedy award to someone who’s hammering home jokes every week.” Carlock added that what Fey and co-star Jane Krakowski do week in and week out on 30 Rock “is to me the definition of comedic actressing. To some degree, I think Emmy voters tend to measure the achievement based on the running time of one’s show instead of the intention of the writer and actor.”

It was far different in the old days, confirms Kristen Johnston, currently starring in the TV Land original sitcom The Exes. She won a pair of comedy supporting actress Emmys (in 1997 and ’99) for the NBC hit 3rd Rock From the Sun, before there was a pay-cable world to have to compete against. “There ought to be a category for just Edie Falco and Laura Linney by themselves,” Johnston quips. “Back in the day, I was competing against Lisa Kudrow, Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Christine Baranski, who all were great actresses but all in really the exact same kind of show. Edie is kind of right. Nurse Jackie should be a drama. And if you’re on a show where you’ve got cancer, I mean, come on, my vote’s going to you.”

Wendie Malick goes back to the days before cable even was allowed to compete for Emmys, winning four CableACE Awards for her HBO comedy Dream On while also receiving a pair of Emmy noms for NBC’s Just Shoot Me. Now co-starring on Hot in Cleveland for TV Land, she admits that she looks at the Emmy lead actress category and wonders “what is this thing anymore? Is it people who make you laugh? Is it a character you fall in love with and has an effect on you? It’s all become a blur of overlap.” While acknowledging that Falco portrays “one of the most gnarly, brave, courageous, balls-out characters ever,” that shouldn’t necessarily give her an inside track for awards attention over those doing straight comedy.

“People like Tina and Amy have done so much in terms of being really smart and not just the cutesy-girl butt of the joke,” she believes. “The characters they play are interesting and multi-layered and have faults, and that’s where you find the humor.”

  1. Not much to add here, spot on.
    Would be nice to read a comment by Linney, Falco or someone from Showtime but that’s probably not gonna happen.

    1. I completely agree with you. And you’re right, it would be quite interesting to hear from Linney, Dern, and Falco. Although, I think Falco pretty much said it all in her acceptance speech: “I’m not funny” on live TV.

  2. You know who’s painfully unfunny? Mayim Bialik on The Big Bang Theory. Why the showrunners freaking insist that she can do the hilariously annoying shtick like Jim Parsons pulls off weekly is profoundly baffling. She’s just annoying, period. Her obnoxious presence is ruining the show for a lot of early Big Bang fans – me included.

  3. Why don’t they simply separate cable TV from local TV? After all, why pit family-friendly shows against envelope-pushing, no boundaries drama or comedy?

    Premium cable stations can bring so much more to their original series, because they need not worry about advertisers pulling ads due to controversial content. They have much more freedom to write sophistcated, adult programming.

  4. Do they have definitions of what constitutes a comedy for the Emmys? I would love to see it if they do. Nurse Jackie and The Big C sure seem like dramatic shows to me.

  5. How did you only manage to interview writer’s from the more straight-ahead comedies and allow them to comment on “unfunny” comedy like Big C and Nurse Jackie?? Fair reporting would have also included comments from Jenny Bicks, Mike White, Liz Brixius, etc. I’m sure they have their own POV’s on what’s funny and what category they should be in.

  6. Carlock is 100% right. We are in a new Golden Age of television where there is simply too much quality television being made and not enough time to consume it. And if we will continue with the age-old tradition of honoring this product and the people who create it, then why not expand the categories? Everything from acting, to writing to directing categories should be sub-categorized three ways, i.e., Best Network Drama, Best Premium Cable Drama, and Best Basic Cable Drama, the same for the Comedy, Reality Competition, Reality “Documentary” (like Pawn Stars or Intervention) and then create a new slot for Dramedy. I am sure everyone can easily come up with five deserving nominees for each of these new sub-categories.

  7. For me, she isn’t ruining the show, she has already ruined it. I loved BBT since the pilot and thought her character might be a fun addition for 3 or 4 episodes. When it ecome clear she was a permanent fixture (halfway through s4), I stopped watching. Although I must say, I think the show was getting stale anyway.

  8. If you plaster the trades in ads saying Nurse Jackie is a comedy, and you get the trade writers to say Nurse Jackie is one of their fav comedy series, people start to believe its a comedy.
    Why are Emmy voters so easily fooled?
    Maybe deadline.com (currently plastered with campaign ads,) doesnt want to talk about this, but campaigning has long destroyed the credibility of the Oscars and its doing it to the Emmys.

  9. Nurse Jackie isn’t a comedy, it’s half hour drama. If Nurse Jackie is categorized as comedy then you might aswell submit Mad Men or Shameless as comedy, because those shows’re funnier!

  10. I think Nurse Jackie as a show has a lot of comedy in it, but Jackie as a character is not so comedic. Zoey, Gloria, Thor, Cooper and even dr. O’Hara are much funnier. In the way they are presented to us, through hilarious lines they say and situations they get themselves in.

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