In his Dateline interview with Tom Brokaw last week, David Letterman confessed to not missing his Late Night gig at all since leaving it in May of last year. He told Brokaw that he actually thought he might, but when he watched the debut of Late Show With Stephen Colbert he knew it was now “someone else’s problem” and he felt completely free of it. Letterman may not miss Late Show, but one place he will be missed is the Emmy race for Outstanding Talk Series, a category he once dominated (when it also included Variety series) winning five times in a row between 1998 and 2002. But then along came the reign of Comedy Central, which triumphed with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart no less than 11 times until Stewart called it quits—also last year. Only Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report was able to dent that run, winning in 2013 and ’14.
This year could be a whole other story, with other talkers genuinely poised to break the Comedy Central stranglehold on the category. Also making it easier is the change by the Television Academy last year to split talkers and variety sketch series into two different contests. This makes this year’s talk competition perhaps the widest open – and least predictable – in memory. Will the broadcast networks make a return to glory with The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, newbie Late Show With Stephen Colbert, along with the relatively new 12:30 AM entries Late Late Show With James Corden and Late Night With Seth Meyers? Or can TBS break through with Samantha Bee’s sharp Full Frontal assault on the crazy political landscape, or Conan’s yearly attempt to land in the race? Will Comedy Central somehow hang on to its Emmy fiefdom by landing Stewart’s replacement Trevor Noah in the running for his first year stewardship of The Daily Show despite minimal buzz, along with Colbert’s successor, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore? Creative problems and a late start for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix entry make her very much a long shot to join this crowd. But if there is any justice, HBO’s perennial nominee, Real Time With Bill Maher—as politically sharp and urgent a show that exists in this genre—will also return to the fold after missing last year’s race for some reason. Well actually, that reason was the emergence of HBO stablemate Last Week With John Oliver, who is clearly the cool kid on the block and looks easily to return to the competition for a second time with renewed momentum, especially with Comedy Central’s duo on the ropes thanks to meh ratings and mixed critical reaction.
So how does the Talk Show race stack up for 2016? Here’s the rundown as I see it.
The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon (NBC)
Fallon has kept the nominations coming for NBC with his iteration of the landmark Tonight franchise, although the network hasn’t scored the big Talk Emmy with it since Jay Leno managed his one and only win in the category in 1995. In a heated political year, though, Fallon’s fun and games come off a little light, but you have to give his good time show credit for convincing President Obama to slow jam the news. That was a classic bit that could help him gain traction in the Emmy race and bring The Tonight Show back to glory here. It also doesn’t hurt to be the dominant force in the ratings game for Late Night.
The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (CBS)
Colbert is obviously no stranger to this Emmy competition, having seen his Colbert Report nominated in all 10 years of its existence since the 2006 race, winning in both 2013 and 2014. But in that show he was playing a character—now he is playing himself. And the series, though full of buzz-worthy moments lately and a different kind of guest list, has gone through growing pains since he took the show over last Fall. CBS has been conducting an aggressive campaign on his behalf and Colbert is well-liked so there’s a decent shot.
Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC)
It took Kimmel a while to find his way into Emmy’s heart, but this year’s Primetime Emmy host is also looking to land his fifth consecutive series nomination, and he likely will do it thanks to YouTube-friendly, social media-buzzed segments and an annual post-Oscar show that is always sent to voters. Getting a win might be another thing altogether.
Late Night With Seth Meyers (NBC)
NBC is trying to give Meyers a higher Emmy profile with a little more of a campaign behind the show, which has found its footing by keeping the host behind the desk for his monologue, recalling his glory days on SNL’s Weekly Update. It was a smart move, and a comfortable one for Meyers who also seems among the most capable Late Night hosts in terms of conducting intelligent interviews. Last week’s banning of Donald Trump from ever appearing again on Late Night is the kind of thing he should do more of to keep people talking about him.
The Late Late Show With James Corden (CBS)
This all-around British talent scored right out of the box with his enormously popular Carpool Karaoke bits, culminating with his 11-minute Broadway version that not only went viral, it was a big hit as part of his well-timed Tony hosting gig last week. He’s the dark horse here and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Corden possibly joining Colbert in carrying CBS’s flag in this race—or maybe even doing it all on his own.
The Daily Show With Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)
To say Jon Stewart is missed is an understatement. In this wildest of all Presidential election years Noah has had minimal buzz with his material and not much water-cooler action, at least so far. Despite 13 consecutive nominations and 11 wins (including last year) The Daily Show minus Stewart is unlikely to make the grade this time around.
The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central)
Also falling victim to the imposing shadow of his successor in the time slot, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore probably wasn’t helped much by his highest profile gig this year as host of the Washington D.C. political correspondents dinner where much of his material landed with a thud. He’s a long shot here at best.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
Although having it a lot easier by only doing a weekly show, Oliver is definitely considered hip to watch and talk about. He’s a smart cat with sharp political observations that cut like a knife. He’s in like flint here and actually could be a front runner to take this crown, a likely successor to the kind of show that Stewart and Colbert fronted that has done so well here.
Real Time With Bill Maher (HBO)
Maher is one of the all-time Emmy losers as a host of his own show, but that distinction is entirely unfair. Real Time is cutting, funny and sharp as ever. It’s also urgent this year, and that may be enough to get him back in the race where, until going AWOL in the category last year after ten consecutive nominations, he has always been a bridesmaid since the days of Politically Incorrect.
Conan O’Brien still shows off effortless flair doing the most traditional talk show of the bunch with faithful sidekick Andy there with him on the couch, a throwback to the days of Johnny and Ed. Even though Conan is no Carson, he is highly entertaining and has made interesting moves like his trip to Cuba to try and give him traction. Being lost down the dial from higher profile contenders doesn’t help but he keeps going – probably not enough.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)
As the only woman with a realistic chance to break through this year in the Late Night boy’s club, Bee, a Daily Show vet like Oliver and also only having to deliver a weekly show, is gaining lots of social media action for her strong, stinging, even daring-politically fearless material all delivered with the edge that a female can bring to the party. She’s a dark horse and TBS’s best hope.
Chelsea – Netflix
Chelsea Handler is back, but needs more time to find her footing with this first attempt by Netflix to get into this game, a format that doesn’t exactly work quite yet. Not a chance, but hopefully it will evolve as her previous series, Chelsea Lately, made a real dent for women in this genre and there need to be more.
So who are the likeliest to make the cut of six nominees? I would say Oliver, Fallon, Kimmel, Maher, Colbert and Corden. But watch out for Bee.