EMMYS: Comedy Lead Acting Handicap

Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.

Although both lead acting races in comedy feature plenty of familiar faces from last year, lead actor is an especially tough category to gauge. A pair of previous winners (Alec Baldwin for NBC’s 30 Rock and Jim Parsons for CBS’ The Big Bang Theory) will face off against a heavyweight wild card (Louis C.K. for FX’s beloved Louie). In the case of C.K., the love and admiration the comedian receives for being a multihyphenate (writer, director, producer, editor, etc.) is rather unprecedented. But Baldwin and Parsons, who have made their roles iconic over the past several seasons, are unique talents in their own right. Their deserving competition includes Jason Bateman for Netflix’s resurrected Arrested Development, along with a pair of past nominees from Showtime series: Matt LeBlanc (Episodes) and Don Cheadle (House Of Lies). On the lead actress side, the big question is, how do you stop Julia Louis-Dreyfus from repeating? The actress is seen as having only strengthened her performance as Vice President Selina Meyer in the second-year HBO comedy Veep. Her chief competition comes from Laura Dern for the canceled HBO comedy Enlightened and previous winner Tina Fey for NBC’s departed 30 Rock. Plus, there are three repeat nominees looming as dark horses: Lena Dunham for HBO’s Girls, Amy Poehler for NBC’s Parks And Recreation and Edie Falco for Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Let the speculation begin.


Baldwin has been nominated seven straight years for his sublime performance as Jack Donaghy, winning twice (in 2008 and ’09). Sentiment figures to be on his side to win a third for 30 Rock’s final lap. His divisive politics and frequent controversial outbursts (most recently via Twitter in early July) work against him. He’s his own worst enemy. If Baldwin weren’t so good, he’d be easy to hate.


The novelty of having starred in the same role in the same series for two different networks could work in Bateman’s favor. He has the nostalgia factor working for him in spades. Unfortunately, Arrested Development didn’t land a comedy series nom, greatly reducing the star’s chances of pulling an upset. In fact, it’s historically nearly impossible to win if your show isn’t nominated. Not a lot of buzz, either.


Cheadle is a great actor with an Oscar history (he was nominated in 2005 for Hotel Rwanda). Pressure could also grow to finally honor an African-American performer at the lily-white Emmys. Too much competition in the category. Too little attention paid to House Of Lies. And it’s simply a fact that African-Americans almost never win Emmys (except Alfre Woodard).


C.K. is, more than ever, considered comedy’s gold standard, and it’s clear that TV Academy voters agree—bestowing on him another nine Emmy nominations (versus seven last year). He also enjoyed some magnificent notices this season for his work opposite Parker Posey. The FX comedy is still seen as being too small and unknown. Despite the acclaim of the multihyphenate C.K., he’s considered more of a writer and comic than an actor.


It’s possible that a rush of Friends nostalgia will overwhelm Emmy voters, leaving them no choice but to honor LeBlanc. Some late buzz is also adding fuel to his candidacy. LeBlanc was quoted on Emmy morning saying, “I’m pretty much always the bridesmaid.” Looks like he will be again proven right—his series is way off the radar, even by Showtime standards.


Parsons already has won twice before (in 2010 and ’11). Now all he has to do is beat Alec Baldwin again. Simple. And his previous wins came before Big Bang became hot with the cool people. He has to beat Baldwin again, and Parsons’ submitted Big Bang episode—“The Habitation Configuration”—isn’t really his best. Of course, his best was probably a few seasons back.


It isn’t unprecedented for a star of a canceled series to overcome the long odds and take home the gold, and Dern’s work in Enlightened was widely praised. She’s also got an indie-feature pedigree that resonates. Not enough people embraced the comedy to lift Dern to the Promised Land, which is why it was canceled in the first place. It’s simply doubtful voters are enlightened enough to vote her the trophy for Enlightened.


Dunham has established herself as a polarizing personality, as beloved for her fearlessness as she is loathed for her exhibitionism. But controversy can pay off. And no one denies her talent. And fearlessness. And sense of the offbeat. She’s viewed by too many as being manipulative and not terribly funny. And in image-obsessed Hollywood, Dunham’s round body and exhibitionist ways can elicit derision.


Residual sentiment for her Sopranos costar, the late James Gandolfini, could again push Falco into the winners’ circle. That would go double if her character’s name were Carmela Soprano. When she won in 2010, Falco stood onstage and admonished voters, “I’m not funny!” No one wants to risk a repeat of that. In truth, she’s right. And usually comedy requires that one’s character be funny.


Fey has already won once, in 2008, and she’s hauled in noms each of the seven years she’s been eligible for 30 Rock. A farewell win isn’t out of the question. She also happened to be terrific this season, which has to count for something. Her show is seen by most as yesterday’s Emmy news. For Fey, it’s also never really been about the acting but the writing and producing.


With her record 14th nomination for comedy series acting, Louis-Dreyfus surpassed a lady named Lucille Ball in Emmy annals. Not too shabby. As the category defending champ, she has momentum on her side to take home another. Someone like Laura Dern or Tina Fey could pull off an upset, however unlikely. Or the fact that she’s won three times could also inspire a backlash, convincing voters that it’s time to honor someone else.


A symphony is building to honor Poehler, nominated for the fourth consecutive year. Everyone seems to adore her. She’s the brainy blonde you root for—and in Emmy terms, she’s overdue.
If Poehler is going to win, it will probably have to be for a show that has more cachet than her current one. Parks is considered funny but not quite funny enough.

  1. “Parks is considered funny but not quite funny enough.” That’s a hot load of bullshit. Funnier than every other show on this list.

  2. I don’t get a lot of these stations, so I can’t judge some of these. I’m addicted to “The Big Bang Theory” because of the re-runs. I adore Jim and the rest of the cast. Everyone they add seems so perfect together too. Why not vote the whole gang in? As far as Jim, I’ve never seen anyone able to play such nuance — someone who has so many faces/voices. This is truly “pee in your pants” comedy. And it’s all down to the fact that everyone is so great, the writing is so funny, they do research for the show, and the music for the show is “kick-ass” as well. Please do a movie somehow!

  3. I don’t expect that you guys watch everything on television, but how could you ever say Parks “is not funny enough…”? That’s the most ridiculous claim I’ve seen in the media press. Parks outshines each of the shows that are mentioned on the list (with maybe the exception of Louie or 30 Rock). It has humor and heart, which is more that can be said about the trash (supposedly called “comedies”) that showtime is peddling and the melodrama that HBO markets as a comedy (Girls).

  4. African Americans don’t win Emmys often because there are not that many series with strong African American leads, a sad fact indeed but this does not make the Emmys racist. It is just because they have a smaller statistical chance of winning because their are less of them nominated. I don’t think don cheadle should win because house of lies isn’t funny and I don’t think Kerry Washington should win because no one should win if Tatiana maslany isn’t nominated. It has nothing to do with race, so leave it out of your predictions.

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