Late-Night Laughs: Can ‘Conan’ Topple Five-Time Winner ‘Last Week Tonight’ After Receiving Emmy Leaving Gift?


Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s Emmy campaign appears to have been pretty prescient.

“Celebrating almost 25 years of male late-night host winners,” the TBS show’s FYC billboards joked.

This year’s late-night Emmy will be won by a man after the former Daily Show correspondent’s show, which has been nominated for the last four years, missed out on a nomination for Outstanding Variety Talk Series.

Bee was replaced in the category by Conan, ten years after the show’s last main nomination, sending mixed messages to the folk who run the WarnerMedia basic cable network. On the one hand, they will be thrilled that they’ve remained in the game and the TV Academy voters have deigned to give Conan O’Brien a lovely leaving gift, but on the other, they’ve robbed their last remaining late-night show of a spot at the table.

Late-night giveth and late-night taketh away.

The genre is a funny beast; it’s incredibly competitive in terms of ratings, guests and viral moments, but, certainly over the last 18 months during the pandemic, was a relatively cordial environment. The hosts genuinely seem to get along and there’s more goodwill between the showrunners and teams than you’d expect (many of whom got together to lobby the Academy to prevent a major category change).

This goodwill was clear when Conan was the first name out of the hat on Emmy nomination morning. Many late-night execs that Deadline spoke to were pleased that O’Brien, who influenced and was friends with many of the current crop of late-night hosts, was being feted with the nomination as he makes for the late-night stage door.

It is easy to root for the guy who’s leaving but the pandemic did seem to give the former host of The Tonight Show and Late Night a jolt of creative freedom and he was the first late-night host to move his show out of his own home, moving to comedy club Largo in July 2020.

Conan O’Brien, who received an incredible outpouring of support for his final show in June, was a regular Emmy nominee between 2003 and 2011. Late Night with Conan O’Brien was nominated five years on the spin between 2003 and 2007, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien was nominated in 2010 and TBS’ Conan was nominated in 2011. Being on a slightly under the radar network and a slew of shiny new late-night shows and hosts probably didn’t help in the last ten years but timing was on O’Brien’s side this year as voting coincided with an increased spotlight on Conan.

Conan O'Brien John Oliver
Team Coco

Could O’Brien topple John Oliver (left) in September? The latter’s Last Week Tonight has won five on the bounce and the category could use a bit of competitiveness.

The pair even joked about Oliver’s success on the Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend podcast in 2019. O’Brien called his winning streak “ridiculous”. Oliver responded, “It’s objectively ridiculous, it’s indefensible”.

The category could use a shot in the arm, particularly this year. There’s a feeling among the nightly shows, of which The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert are also nominated, that their flexibility and creativity during the pandemic should be rewarded above the weekly contributions of John Oliver, who made just over 40 episodes in his “blank void” during the crisis, a figure they plough through in two months. Kimmel and Colbert, in particular, also navigated studio moves and the return of live audiences.

Desus & Mero

The other disappointment for many in this category was the absence of Desus & Mero (right). There was a growing hope that their fresh take on the genre, while also staying relatively within the bounds of a traditional late-night talk show (see their interview with President Obama), would connect with Academy voters. In a year where there was evidently an improvement in diversity across the board, it definitely starts to put them in “Susan Lucci territory” as Desus Nice has previously said.

Much like the limited series category, there’s arguably too many genuine candidates for the category. You could have made a decent case for The Late Late Show with James Corden, which lost out last year thanks to rule changes around submission numbers and has found a freshness without an audience, Late Night with Seth Meyers hit new highs with his A Closer Look segment in his in-law’s attic and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon has embraced a post-Trump silliness since becoming the first late-night show to return to the studio.

But while all of this does underscore Bee’s FYC point about the exclusively male club, the category will only stop being male dominated, when the big six shows are no longer all hosted by men.

It should also be noted that the women that Bee is referring to in her billboard was not a late-night host. Tracey Ullman beat David Letterman, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Dennis Miller in 1997 with her HBO sketch show Tracey Takes On when the categories were combined. The year before could have seen the Muppets beat these four men.


There are other categories that the late-night shows will battle it out for in September.

The Amber Ruffin Show

The Amber Ruffin Show (left) became the first streaming late-night/variety show to nab a nomination in the Outstanding Writing For A Variety Series. Ruffin and her team will compete against series such as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, SNL and A Black Lady Sketch Show.

The most interesting thing about this category may be the fact that Ashley Nicole Black has more of a chance than most to win, having written for both the Peacock series and Robin Thede’s show.

Stephen Colbert received the most nominations – seven – across late-night. The Late Show scored five noms, his election night special on Showtime – Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020: Democracy’s Last Stand: Building Back America Great Again Better 2020 nabbed three noms and Tooning Out The News was also nominated for Outstanding Short Form Comedy, Drama or Variety Series.

In the latter, the former host of The Colbert Report will compete against Late Night With Seth Meyers for his Corrections segment (of which he amusingly used an online episode as its own FYC campaign) and Carpool Karaoke, which is exec produced by James Corden and his Late Late Show EP Ben Winston, the latter also being nominated for his work on the Friends reunion.

Also in short form, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee can take consolation with a nomination in the Outstanding Short Form Nonfiction Or Reality Series category for its Pandemic Video Diaries: Vaxxed And Waxxed.

The other category where late-night folk compete is in Outstanding Directing For A Variety Series. It’s also another category where The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, with its live show following capitol insurrection, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, with its desert explosion in its F*ck 2020 episode, would be among the favorites, but realistically, it’s probably going to be won by SNL, which has won nine times since 2010.

Now attention turns to September. As O’Brien said on his final episode of The Tonight Show in 2010, “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

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