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).

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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.”