Jon Stewart himself might be feeling a little greedy at this point. Never in the history of the variety, music and comedy series category, established in 1951, has one show had such a monster run. The Daily Show has 14 wins, eight of them sequential series trophies. But with Jay and Dave snubbed and Fallon and Conan in the mix, a sea change could finally be on the horizon for a cool category plagued by predictability.
The Colbert Report
Why It Could Win: Of any series on network or cable -- variety, comedy drama, reality -- nothing makes me laugh like a fool more than The Colbert Report. Between faux-blowhard Stephen Colbert's incredible aptitude for newsworthy absurdism and so-weird-they're-wonderful moments, like his musical road trip to Nashville to hang with Jack White, he'sthe most entertaining personality on the tube. It's inconceivable this series hasn't won (though it's scored two Emmys for writing) because, frankly, Colbert is a helluva lot more fun than The Daily Show.
Why It Could Lose: As he has often joked on the air, Colbert's worst enemy is Stewart, with whom he shares not only a network but also a post-primetime slot. Until now, the race seemingly has always come down to them. Yes, Colbert is essentially "acting" on his show, so voters have favored -- and might continue to favor -- Stewart's real-life approach to news analysis over spoofy theatrics.
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
Why It Could Win: On Emmy nominations morning, still giddy on the phone from New York, Jimmy Fallon said something interesting: "We are the only late-night show that is truly a comedy, music and variety series, aside from SNL." He's right: Among the weeknight nominees in this category, Fallon consistently creates the most original music content, comedy sketches (many filmed) and variety-esque displays of silliness (beer pong with January Jones!). The Lorne Michaels protege inherited a tough-to-beat legacy from Conan O'Brien and has handled the honor with utmost aplomb. His killer Emmy hosting gig last year didn't hurt, either.
Why It Could Lose: Fallon could suffer from the new-kid-on-the-block shutout that plagued O'Brien, whose NBC series Late Night never won.
Saturday Night Live
Why It Could Win: With a slew of outstanding hosts last season, including guest-star nominees Tina Fey, Zach Galifianakis and front-runner Justin Timberlake, the 36-year-old staple has managed to retain its youthful appeal (digital shorts starring Michael Bolton!) while maintaining the old-school spirit of its creator, Michaels. Head writer Seth Meyers, also nominated, is the perfect merry prankster to oversee SNL's antics in the modern era, and its cool cast -- Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, et al. -- has made a dying genre relevant again.
Why It Could Lose: The variety, music and comedy race has morphed into something unfriendly to SNL (it last won in 1993) as its format no longer has a peer.
Why It Could Win: O'Brien hasn't lost any of the underdog quirk that made his NBC series such a hit among young viewers throughout the 1990s. His well-publicized Battle With the Man in early 2010 only bolstered his appeal, and even though his TBS incarnation pulls in modest numbers (about 1 million viewers), O'Brien is a survivor, and Emmy loves a meaty backstory. And hey, being on basic cable hasn't hurt The Daily Show one bit.
Why It Could Lose: Voters might feel a nod for Conan is premature this year and that his inclusion in the absence of other stronger contenders -- no Letterman, Kimmel or Handler? -- feels a bit gratuitous.
Real Time with Bill Maher
Why It Could Win: No one provokes with less self-consciousness than perennial nominee (and loser) Bill Maher. The stand-up comedian and filmmaker (Religulous) clearly has an impressive reach in the industry, assembling killer lineups of controversial talking heads each week, including the bipartisan, controversial likes of Richard Clarke, Ann Coulter, Eliot Spitzer and Dan Savage. Love him or loathe him, Maher is the only soul on TV brave enough to shirk any pressure to be likable.
Why It Could Lose: His acerbic routine, though his calling card, is a turn-off to some. And airing only once a week, on Fridays, doesn't position him to compete with Stewart and Colbert, who get to skewer four days a week.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Why It Could Win: Stewart is the most trusted man in news and an outspoken advocate for U.S. soldiers and 9/11 victims. He's also overseen the winningest variety show in Emmy history. And even when Daily Show side bits don't kill, Stewart is always good. Oh, and he just returned from a surprise trip to visit the troops in Afghanistan.
Why It Could Lose: The show's eight-year Emmy monopoly. With a lot of new names elsewhere on the ballot, it's clear that voters are craving new blood.