Late-Night Laughs: Variety Talk Show Chiefs Frustrated & Angry About Emmy Category Changes

(L-R_ Emmy winners Lorne Michaels and John Oliver Everett

Lorne Michaels, who is the most nominated individual in Emmy history, may find his chances of winning an award in 2021 a little tougher after the Television Academy introduced a swathe of changes to the rules.

The Saturday Night Live creator will now see his weekly NBC sketch series go head-to-head for nominations against two other shows that he exec produces – The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers as well as five-time winner Last Week Tonight with John Oliver after the awards organization merged the late-night talk show and variety sketch categories.

The move, which was announced late last Friday night, has caused anger and frustration among the late-night crowd.

It pits SNL, which has won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series four years in a row, against HBO’s Last Week Tonight, which has won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series five times on the trot and will likely mean that at least one fewer late-night show is nominated in the category. It could be up to two fewer late-night nominations depending on the premiere and reception of HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, which was seen as SNL’s biggest competitor last year.

Fallon Meyers
Gregorio Binuya/Everett Collection

The showrunners behind the late-night shows were already disappointed that the category had one fewer nomination last year – The Late Late Show with James Corden lost out in 2020 – as a result of previous changes.

“It’s going to be an uphill climb for everyone now,” said one late-night source.

The changes were labelled “asinine” and “absurd” by those in the late-night world, who admitted to being frustrated and disappointed by the changes, which were announced after 6pm on Friday night in New York, where the majority of these shows are based.

The move has been made as a result of the Academy’s Rule of 25 – which was an update of its Rule of 14 – meaning that if there are less than 25 entries in a category for two years in a row, it will be combined with another category. Last year, late-night had 24 entries and the year before it had 20. But it has had as many as 28 in 2015 and in 2021, with the likes of Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show and Wilmore and possibly HBO’s Sam Jay show and Showtime’s Ziwe show, it was likely to be higher.

It’s clear that the lack of sketch entries played a part. The sketch category has had dwindling numbers of entires with only 14 in 2020. The boom years of sketch shows such as Inside Amy Schumer, Key and Peele and Portlandia is over, while Drunk History has also ended.

“Our annual review of Emmy rules and procedures is more important than ever,” said Television Academy Chairman and CEO Frank Scherma in a statement on Friday. “Our Awards Committee and Board of Governors undertake this annual evaluation with a very thoughtful and analytical approach to ensure that the Emmys remain relevant and in step with our industry’s ongoing evolution.

The frustration for the late-night hosts and teams is that their genre seems to being punished for the lack of sketch shows.

The move also comes in the face of intense lobbying from networks including CBS, NBC and ABC for a separate change – that of breaking the daily shows into their own category rather than going up against weekly shows like Oliver’s.

Deadline understands that reps for CBS, which has The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show with James Corden, NBC, which airs The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers and A Little Late with Lilly Singh, and ABC, which airs Jimmy Kimmel Live! have petitioned the Academy to split the category into nightly versus weekly. But late-night reps say that the Academy has never acknowledged this campaign.

James Atoa/Everett Collection

It would, many argue, make more sense to put Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee into a category with SNL and A Black Lady Sketch Show rather than put them all together. As late-night showrunners regularly point out, what a show like Last Week Tonight does, with a week to research and plan one episode, is markedly different to what a show like The Late Show does, where often a host like Stephen Colbert is regularly forced to rip up the script minutes before shooting (often depending on what the President of the United States has tweeted or done).

The change does, however, bring it back into line with the Outstanding Variety Series category that was split out in 2015. Back then, Comedy Central won every year between 2003 and 2014 for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. SNL was regularly nominated – missing out in three of those years – with its last win in that category coming in 1993, having been regularly beaten by shows including Late Show with David Letterman.

The other frustration is that the move comes in a year in which late-night shows have been particularly nimble and relevant. The Covid-19 pandemic, which saw all of these pivot to shooting from home for a large part of 2020, and the chaotic Presidential election have seen their stock rise for many viewers.

A number of late-night sources have questioned whether next year they will put the same effort into FYC campaigns, which cost millions of dollars, as a result of the changes.

The hosts themselves may feel a bit hard done by, given that they are regularly asked to host the awards. Jimmy Kimmel hosted the 2020 event on ABC and seven of the last 11 ceremonies have been hosted by late-night stars including Colbert, SNL’s Michael Che and Colin Jost, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon. In fact, one of these years includes the year that Fox, which does not air a late-night show, went hostless.

The 2021 ceremony is set to air on CBS and you’d imagine that James Corden would be a likely candidate to front the show. But will The Prom star, who has hosted the Tony Awards and the Grammy Awards on multiple occasions, be inclined to say yes when there’s a very real chance that The Late Late Show is not nominated again. “They want these people to host the Emmys but they don’t treat their category with any respect,” said one late-night source.

To add to the ignominy, the Academy made another, smaller change to the categories. Deadline understands that writers on game shows and competition formats can now submit in the variety writing category. “It’s another way you’re discounting the art form and making a sham of the genre,” said one source.

“Friday night was really shocking,” another added.

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