EMMYS: Comedy Lead Acting Race Handicap

Ray Richmond is an AwardsLine contributor

Veteran nominees and previous winners make up most of the actor and actress nominations this year, with the exception of two first-timers: Lena Dunham of HBO’s Girls and Zooey Deschanel from Fox’s The New Girl. Here’s a look at each performer’s history with the TV Academy and where they stand in this year’s Emmy race:



Emmy Pedigree: This is Baldwin’s sixth nomination in a row in this category for 30 Rock, and he’s got 14 Emmy noms in total (including a pair this year because he is also honored as one of the show’s producers). He’s converted two of those into wins, in 2008 and ’09. That’s to go along with three Golden Globe triumphs (2007, ’09, ’10) and a record seven SAG Awards. Jack Donaghy, Baldwin’s impossibly colorful and bombastic creation on 30 Rock, is truly a character for the ages. As good as everyone on the show is, without Baldwin it would never have survived.

What We Say: Everyone is relieved that Baldwin never followed through on his annual threats to leave the show. Yet barring an unforeseen flood of late buzz, his Emmy-winning days appear over.

DON CHEADLE (House of Lies, Showtime)

Emmy Pedigree: This is Cheadle’s fifth Emmy nomination, and he’s still looking for his first win. His first pair came in 1999, as supporting actor in the HBO original The Rat Pack and as lead in the film A Lesson Before Dying. He also had a supporting nom in 2002 for the telepic Things Behind the Sun and guest actor in a drama in 2003 for an episode of ER. Oh, yes, and Cheadle also landed an Oscar nomination as lead actor in 2005 for his work in the film Hotel Rwanda. His only major award win came in 1999 when he took home a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sammy Davis Jr. in Rat Pack. His character on House of Lies, Marty Kaan, is a wonderfully bold and original creation. Too, Showtime is on something of a roll in placing lead actors in the
series categories.

What We Say: Cheadle has made a big impact on House of Lies in a short time with his comic vitality and effortless charisma. As such, he has a shot at an upset here.

LOUIS C.K. (Louie, FX)

Emmy Pedigree: Over the past two years, C.K. has exploded into an Emmy phenomenon, at least in terms of nominations. He racked up four in 2011, which opened some eyes. But he was just getting warmed up, earning a record seven this year, the most for any individual in a single Emmy year. It breaks the previous mark of five set by David Lynch for ABC’s Twin Peaks in 1990. This year, C.K. is nominated for acting, writing, and directing on his much-praised FX comedy Louie and four more for his standup special Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater. He’s won just a single trophy to date: as a member of the writing staff of The Chris Rock Show in 1999. This is his second straight honor in the lead acting category. C.K. is so smoking hot that even other comedians are loath to say anything bad about him—and that never happens in comedy. His work on Louie, on which he has unprecedented creative latitude as its writer, director, editor, and star, is the toast of the TV industry.

What We Say: The man deserves every ounce of the praise he’s currently receiving, rewarding every programming executive who has ever trusted the talent. It might be enough to push him to the win, though Jim Parsons has the more high-profile series and showier role.

Related: Louis C.K. On ‘Louie’, Emmy Noms, Stand-Up, And What He Likes To Watch

JON CRYER (Two and a Half Men, CBS)

Emmy Pedigree: It’s the seventh straight year that Cryer has been nominated for Two and a Half Men. However, the previous six all were for supporting comedy actor. This time, he’s the lead, having made a late decision to switch his category to reflect his stepped-up role on the longrunning CBS comedy in the wake of Charlie Sheen’s departure. He’s won once before, in 2009. There is a lot of residual affection and respect for Cryer in the business, and the fact he was able to so graciously survive the tumult of the past few years on Men surely convinced the TV Academy to continue to honor his work as Alan Harper.

What We Say: Cryer was able to embrace new costar Ashton Kutcher with a seeming effortless chemistry. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’ll win. He won’t.

LARRY DAVID (Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO)

Emmy Pedigree: One of the best-kept secrets in the Emmy universe is that David is among the most-nominated producers and performers ever. With two more noms this year, he’s now got 24 for his work on Seinfeld and Curb. And this is his fifth nomination as lead actor for Curb. That’s pretty impressive, particularly when you consider that David famously does no campaigning for this stuff and in fact wears his contempt for awards on his sleeve. He has only two Emmy wins to show for all of these nods, way back in 1999 for writing and producing Seinfeld. David’s misanthropic version of Larry as demonstrated on Curb is one that voters greatly admire and at this point, too, it’s almost reflexive.

What We Say: David hasn’t lost a cynical step on his show, which remains singularly hilarious. But he’ll never win an acting Emmy, because too few people believe he’s really acting.


(The Big Bang Theory, CBS)

Emmy Pedigree: This is Parsons’ fourth consecutive nomination in lead comedy actor for his role as super-nerd Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang. And he’s going for that elusive third win in a row here, after having also won the Golden Globe in 2011. No one has ever won three straight in this category. It represents something of a transformation for Parsons in that he began the CBS series as TV’s best-kept secret and then evolved into TV’s most-overlooked talent. There has rarely been a better fit in a TV series than Parsons as Sheldon, aside from perhaps David Hyde Pierce as Niles on Frasier.

What We Say: With his performance and his series still in their prime, Parsons looks to be the man to beat. But Louis C.K. might still beat him if enough voters discover Louie in time. Flip a coin on this one.



Emmy Pedigree: Deschanel landed her first nomination for playing Jess on her hit Fox sitcom, atop one in January at the Golden Globes. Her sole win to date is a TV Guide Award for New Girl. Deschanel is kind of the “It” Girl of the moment, though she seems younger than her 32 years.

What We Say: A win is quite possible, given her obvious talent and comic instincts. Just not quite yet.

Related: Shake-Up In Comedy, But Nominees Contain Few Real Surprises


Emmy Pedigree: Indie darling Dunham pulled off the kind of coup that appears to be without precedent in Emmy history. She received four nominations for Girls—as its producer, writer, director, and lead actress. Not bad for a kid in her mid-twenties in the first year of her first series. It wasn’t a big surprise that Dunham received Emmy attention for her bold, raw, fearless series. But the depth of the honoring is a bit eye-opening and speaks to the admiration that TV Academy has for someone willing to take radical chances. Few series characters in TV history are as unadorned and nakedly vulnerable—and sometimes just plain naked—as Dunham’s New York City single gal, Hannah.

What We Say: As candid and real as Dunham and her show are, most figure she doesn’t have much chance to earn the Emmy in her first go-’round. But as longshots go, she’s a decent one to hang your hat on.

EDIE FALCO (Nurse Jackie, Showtime)

Emmy Pedigree: After earning three lead drama actress wins to show for six nominations for The Sopranos—landing victories in 1999, ’01, and ’03—she’s now landed noms in three consecutive years for Nurse Jackie as lead comedy actress. She won in 2010 for that role as the drug-addicted nurse Jackie Peyton on the seriocomic Showtime half-hour. She also has nine Golden Globe noms, and a pair of wins, to her credit. This is her 10th Emmy nomination overall. But Falco famously wondered why comedy while accepting her trophy for Jackie two years ago: “Oh, this is just the most ridiculous thing that has ever happened in the history of this lovely awards show,” her acceptance speech began. “Thank you so much. I’m not funny!” The TV Academy responded to this by nominating her twice more for the same unfunny role.

What We Say: One has to believe that voters aren’t likely to risk having Falco get up onstage again and admonish them, “What’s wrong with you people? I’m about as funny as food poisoning.”

TINA FEY (30 Rock, NBC)

Emmy Pedigree: Over the last six years, Fey has become an Emmy dynamo, having earned a grand total of 23 nominations over the years (all but three of those since 2007 for 30 Rock). She’s taken home seven trophies, including three in 2008 alone. That was also the year of Fey’s lone acting lead acting win. It’s the sixth consecutive year that she’s been nominated for her performance as variety show writer-producer Liz Lemon, and sixth straight as a producer as well. She won an Emmy in 2002 for her writing on a real-life comedy-variety show rather than a fictional one—called Saturday Night Live. Even though the series that she writes, coruns, and stars on is no longer considered especially fresh or cutting-edge, she remains a television renaissance woman and comedy icon.

What We Say: It’s possible that the multifaceted Fey—who
has carved a fresh new niche for female comedy writer-performers everywhere—will win one more for her acting. But that would be next year for 30 Rock’s final season.


Emmy Pedigree: It’s a rare year in which Louis-Dreyfus is eligible that she isn’t nominated. This represents her 13th nom for acting and third different series that she’s been honored for. The first, of course, was Seinfeld, for which she was nominated seven consecutive times (1992-98) as supporting actress in a comedy, winning once (in 1996). Then came five successive noms for The New Adventures of Old Christine, for which Louis-Dreyfus won in her first year of eligibility (2006). Now she’s up for the freshman comedy Veep, her first cable effort and a role she was born to fill. So much for the post-Seinfeld curse.

What We Say: The prevailing wisdom is that this shapes up as a battle between Louis-Dreyfus and Amy Poehler. In making the case for Louis-Dreyfus, her work in Veep is as good as anything she’s ever done (Seinfeld included). That should be enough to put her in the winner’s circle.


Emmy Pedigree: After winning in her first nomination in 2011 in this very category for Mike & Molly, McCarthy is back again, this time nominated twice (also earning one for her guest hosting stint on Saturday Night Live). This comes on top of her supporting actress Oscar nom this year for Bridesmaids. And as worthy as she was last year, her stellar work in Bridesmaids was why she won the Emmy—and possibly why she’s been nominated again.

What We Say: Bridesmaids mania has died down, so don’t expect McCarthy to engineer a second upset in as many years. It’s somebody else’s turn.

Related: EMMYS: The Comedy Race

AMY POEHLER (Parks and Recreation, NBC)

Emmy Pedigree: Poehler has now racked up nominations for her work as Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope for three years running. She had a producing nom for Parks in 2011, but it failed to generate a second top comedy honor this time. A pair of other nominations—in 2008 and ’09—came in the comedy supporting actress category for Saturday Night Live. However, Poehler was also singled out this year for her writing on the episode “The Debate,” her first-ever writing nomination. But with all of that, she’s still looking for her first win. There’s a lot of love out there for Poehler, and critics believe that both Parks and her performance on it have improved with each passing year.

What We Say: The lovable and talented Poehler has paid her dues and seems poised for her reward. The problem is the fiercely competitive category she’s stuck in, and the fact that she’s up against a fresh and energetic Louis-Dreyfus. Maybe next year.

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