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Last Year’s Winner: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”
Still Eligible: Yes.
Hot Streak: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” has won five times in a row, starting in 2016, following Jon Stewart’s final season on “The Daily Show.” Since then, the nominees around HBO’s heralded favorite have shifted — “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden” both made their way in — but Oliver’s winning streak has not been interrupted.
Fun Fact: In December 2020, the Television Academy announced a handful of rule changes, including that it would be combining the Outstanding Variety Talk and Outstanding Variety Sketch categories. In theory, the move made sense given the dwindling submissions for Variety Sketch (only 14 shows were on the ballot in 2020), but the Academy soon reversed course after near-universal backlash: When both series were housed under the Outstanding Variety category through 2015, sketch shows didn’t fare too well. Meanwhile, talk show representatives have been angling for further delineation; pitting late-night shows that air five nights a week against once-a-week programs isn’t exactly fair, especially when their formats and restrictions are so different. (“Last Week Tonight” doesn’t have guests, for instance, nor does it have censors, commercial breaks, or strict runtime requirements.)
At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Variety Talk Series. This article will be updated throughout the season, along with all our predictions, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest news from the 2020 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys will be held from Thursday, June 17 through Monday, June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out in September, at a date (or dates) to be announced. The 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place Sunday, September 19. CBS is broadcasting the ceremony.
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The State of the Race
For a brief moment late last year, it seemed like we might see a real fight in the Variety Series race, when the TV Academy merged the Outstanding Variety Sketch and Outstanding Variety Talk categories. Had they stuck to their misguided plan, there would’ve been a showdown like we haven’t seen since 2014: “SNL” vs. “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” aka “SNL” vs. an alum from “The Daily Show,” or “The Daily Show” itself. Thankfully, the categories were separated — it’s what’s best for both parties — but no further changes were made. That means there will still only be five nominees in 2021, which just aren’t enough slots to house all the worthy contenders.
So who’s in the running? First and foremost, we have to look at last year’s nominees, where (unlike in many of the scripted Emmy races) all five shows are still eligible. “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” has to be feeling pretty good, given its long winning streak, and it would be surprising to see “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” or “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” drop off after strong seasons. Meanwhile, “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” continues to cement new fans, and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” was one of the more innovative late-night shows throughout the pandemic-riddled last year.
All five nominees from 2020 could repeat in 2021. All are even good choices! Only when looking at what would be left out does it really start to hurt, especially when it comes to celebrating new, exciting voices. This past year saw the premiere “Wilmore” on Peacock, the end of “Conan” on TBS (come June 24), and the continued evolution of “Desus & Mero” on Showtime, all of whom have pushed the late-night realm into fresh territory. “Late Night with Seth Meyers” has also been having a nearly criminal amount of fun with recurring segments and impressions, while its NBC partner in “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” has seen a ratings resurgence. That still leaves the likes of “Real Time with Bill Maher” (which has received 12 nominations over the years for HBO, but none since 2017), “The Late Late Show with James Corden” (which has earned four nominations in the category, but was shut out last year), and “A Little Late with Lilly Singh” (which was recently canceled by NBC), among others.
Proposing changes to the category was the right idea. Without hundreds of submissions to force their hand, but with a growing disparity in how talk shows are made and executed, the TV Academy doesn’t have an easy task ahead in making sure the vast array of programming is duly honored. This year should serve as another reminder of the need for adjustment, and for now, we can only hope voters are seeing as much as they can — and casting their ballots accordingly.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
“Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”
Contenders: “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” “Conan,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “Desus & Mero,” “Wilmore”
In a Perfect World: There would be further delineation between Variety Talk series.
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