2019 Emmys race for variety talk series spells success for bold critique, original comedy

Illustration of Variety Talk Show hosts
Olivia Staser/Staff

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While late-night television has been a staple in comedy and cultural critique for decades, the genre has seen a resurgence in recent years — partially because of its emergence as short-form entertainment on YouTube, but especially because of a tumultuous modern political moment.

On July 16, when nominations were announced for the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, most of the nominees for outstanding variety talk series came with little to no surprise. Since the rise and cultural dominance of Jon Stewart’s tenure on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in the early 2000s, it seems as if late night has steered away from the casual comedic banter and unassuming celebrity-focused programming of yesteryear into an era that presupposes sharp political commentary. Many of the nominees reflect that shift, serving as blunt voices of reason at a time when audiences are often disillusioned by the state of society and its politics.

Of the six nominees, at least four are direct descendants of the “School of Jon Stewart”; their focus on politics is expected and comes across much more naturally than efforts by other hosts to step up to the occasion.

“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is the most obvious of these. When Noah first took over from Stewart’s stint as the host of “The Daily Show” in 2015, reviews were far from forgiving; critics and audiences often commented on Noah’s rushed delivery and the lack of nuance in his early critiques. Four years into the job, it still feels as if Noah is often trying to escape Stewart’s cultural shadow, and with reason; Stewart had led the show to a record number of wins for outstanding variety, music or comedy series, and in 2015, the show won its third Peabody Award for its “lasting impact on political satire, television comedy and even politics itself.”

But in recent years, Noah has emerged as a much-needed, if quite untraditional, voice in comedy and late-night television. Noah often uses anecdotes from his upbringing in South Africa to make insightful remarks about American politics, and as his time on “The Daily Show” has increased, he’s garnered a number of poignant, pointed and newsworthy moments for the show.

Other hosts have also stayed true to their roots in political comedy. TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” are hosted by two former “Daily Show” correspondents who have paved their own paths to political satire royalty in distinct, consistent ways. Bee and Oliver both harness anger in their critiques deliberately, freely and creatively. They benefit from the lax censorship that their late-night cable slots allow them, peppering their political commentary with a fair amount of profanity and unabashed criticism. Bee’s weekly half-hour program includes a fair mix of interviews, reporting and occasional short-form sketches, while Oliver has become famous for employing the long-form reporting format on each of his weekly episodes.

“Last Week Tonight” has won outstanding variety talk series each year since 2016. Unless the Television Academy has a sudden change of heart, it’s likely that Oliver’s success will continue this year. Since Stewart’s absence from the political satire realm, it’s seemed as if Oliver has been poised to fill the gaps of cynicism and exasperation in comedy that the old “Daily Show” host left behind.

Of the nominated network television programs, CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is easily the most rooted in political comedy. Since Colbert took over the show from David Letterman in 2015, he has emerged as a dominant presence in comedy and television at large. The former “Daily Show” correspondent and host of “The Colbert Report” has embraced a consistent, if less fervent, takedown of public figures (and unsurprisingly, a particularly scorching review of members of the Trump administration). And considering the ratings boom for “The Late Show” in the last few years, it’s likely that Colbert is the host with the most clout among regular viewers and politicians alike.

And then there were two: ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and CBS’ “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” Kimmel’s program has been a relatively consistent presence in the Emmys category for nearly a decade, reflecting the host’s sincere ability to adapt to the changing style and requirements of the genre. Kimmel’s Hollywood-based show has always been slightly more rooted in celebrity culture than the shows of his New York City counterparts; still, he’s managed to bridge his signature tongue-in-cheek comedy with a genuine insight into modern politics and a plea for civility.

Corden, meanwhile, has adapted Jimmy Fallon’s previous format of lighthearted bits and activities with guests to create a program that’s consistently entertaining and ultimately, plain fun. Unlike Kimmel and most of the current late-night lineup, Corden hasn’t ventured too far into politics; still, he manages to bring a clear sense of kindness and charisma into all of his interviews, monologues and, of course, “Carpool Karaoke” sketches.

Despite the variety in channels, formats and hosting styles represented among the nominees, it’s unfortunate to see the Television Academy pass over, year after year, one of the best programs in late-night television right now. NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” is, as far as network endeavors go, one of the brightest, best-written shows in the genre. Meyers brings a layer of humanity and moral conviction to his interviews and political commentary that’s not just impressive, but rare in today’s world of comedy, as exemplified by his defense of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in an interview with television personality Meghan McCain after McCain criticized the Congressmember for previous comments.

Moreover, the “Saturday Night Live” alum is one of the most self-aware voices in late night: From a brief cameo in the Mindy Kaling-Emma Thompson starrer “Late Night” earlier this year to a running bit called “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” on his television program, Meyers adds a layer of authenticity, relatability and intelligence to his on-screen persona.

When the race for outstanding variety talk series shakes out Sunday evening, the winning show may or may not turn out to have been easily predictable. But what is increasingly clear is just how much of a role the program writers and hosts play in shaping a great deal of our discourse. The late-night scene has surely changed, and with it, so has its importance to television, politics and society today. And one thing’s for sure: Late night is making us all laugh — and think — a little bit harder each day.

Anagha Komaragiri is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.