Emmy Awards: How to Fix the Comedy Categories (Or at Least Where to Start)


♦ As Phase 2 Emmy voting comes to a close, the conversation returns to the matter of television comedy. IndieWire’s TV Awards Editor Libby Hill and Deputy Editor Ben Travers stopped for a Double Take to discuss the future of comedy awards and how to better represent the wide spectrum of comedy currently airing. 

LIBBY HILL: Ben, we’re rapidly approaching the end of Phase 2 Emmy Awards voting and it felt like the right time to revisit one of our favorite topics: the state of television comedy. It’s an issue we return to time and again (sometimes with guests like Rob McElhenney) because the categorization of modern comedy is a pressing concern, specifically when it comes to awards. In the era of Peak TV, shows need every boost they can get in order to woo an audience and awards can play a big part.

But more than that, people are having a difficult time determining what comedy is anymore. Does it have to be 30 minutes or can it be longer? Can the show make you smile wryly or does it need to be ha-ha funny? Can a show be a little dramatic but mostly comedy? What’s the ratio? 10/90? 25/75? Should the show’s intent be to make audiences laugh or is it enough to be a comedy in spirit or name alone?

It doesn’t seem as though classifying comedy is going to get any easier in the years to come and this year’s “Emily in Paris” Comedy Series nomination continues to rankle so, while it physically pains me to ask you this question, I have no choice: Is it time to introduce a Dramedy Series category at the Emmy Awards?

BEN TRAVERS: Hold please, I need to find an emergency eye wash station and scrub the last remnants of “dramedy” from my retinas. What an ugly, empty term. What’s the point of squashing together two genres that are already so broad, they encompass all that scripted TV has too offer? What show isn’t both comedic and dramatic? Even “The Leftovers” would qualify, as would “I Think You Should Leave” — two series off the top of my head that land on the extreme ends of their respective, first-thought genres. Yet that ridiculous amalgamation is uttered so often, it’s wormed its way into our “accepted” entertainment lexicon, joining the ignominious ranks of “cinematic” and “timely” among industry terms used so much yet meaning so little. Well I say, no more!

But what was your question? Ah yes. Is it time to divide the comedy categories into shows that are “lol funny” and “smiley-face-emoji funny”? I’d argue no, and that’s mainly because to me, the question comes back to respect. Why are there Drama and Comedy categories at the Emmys to begin with, instead of just a Best Series category a la the Oscars’ Best Picture? The politically correct answer is because the Emmys want to honor the wide breadth of programming television has to offer — it’s not just Comedy and Drama; it’s Limited Series, Variety Sketch, Variety Talk, TV Movie, and more.


“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson”

Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

And while no one in Hollywood wants fewer nominations (which would likely happen if there were no genre divisions), I suspect one unspoken reason behind separating the categories is bias. How many comedies were nominated for Best Picture last year? If you stretch and say “Promising Young Woman,” there was one. In 2020, maybe “Jojo Rabbit” and “Parasite” could qualify, but you’d be hard-pressed to designate either as “lol funny.” Awards voters, if not the industry and people at large, innately respect dramatic work more than comedic work. There are a million examples of how, but let’s not get into them all. I’ve gone on long enough.

So short answer: No, don’t divide the Comedy category. Instead, focus on building respect for the art of comedy by enforcing strict standards as to what qualifies to begin with. What standards, you ask? Well, I’m passing that back to you, my creative colleague. Help me move beyond time restrictions and smell tests — or tell me I’m full of it, and lay out why more comedy categories are the way to go.

LIBBY: OK, OK, OK… perhaps I jumped the gun a little by going straight to the D-word, but I had to get you invested in the topic somehow! I applaud your angry screed about the term “dramedy” and assure you that you’ve won me over to your completely extremist views on the word and will sign your petition to scrub it from the annals of history.

Putting our vocabulary gripes aside, though, I have to point out that you’ve put me in an extremely difficult position with your query. So obviously, the solution is not adding categories — at least in this case — and the solution isn’t combining categories. Great. So what does that leave us with? Changing cultural perceptions around comedy as a whole and trying to litigate the DNA of humor enough that we can draw up more specific eligibility requirements for shows wishing to compete in comedy categories at the Emmys. And you want me to outline what those limits should be? Call me a NIMI [Not In My Inbox] if you must, but that’s way above my paygrade.

But, since you asked… *cracks knuckles​*


"Never Have I Ever"

“Never Have I Ever”

ISABELLA B. VOSMIKOVA/NETFLIX

While I can’t tell you what guidelines for Emmy comedy series should be, I can tell you what they shouldn’t be. Comedy shouldn’t be determined by running time per episode. We’re so far past the 22-minute, multi-camera sitcom standard that so many of us grew up with, that trying to hold modern TV up to those same restrictions is just silly.

Comedy also shouldn’t be determined by the whims of the TV Academy in any given year because at this point, I don’t necessarily trust the organization to judge comedy and “know it when they see it.”

And that’s the problem. While people can generally agree on what drama looks like, comedy is such a spectrum that you’ll never get anyone to come to terms when trying to define it. That’s also a huge part of the appeal of the genre.

This is all to say that the solution to the Emmy comedy issue is complex and so ingrained into the culture at large, that it may actually be unfixable, particularly in the short term. Where does that leave us then, Ben? If I’m unable to find a viable solution and unable to make any real suggestions for improvement, does that mean I have to stop complaining about it?

BEN: As a critic, being unable to offer solutions has never stopped me from complaining, so you’re good. But I do think the way to tackle this issue is by focusing on shifting cultural perceptions. Since this has basically evolved into a brainstorming session, and there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, I’m going to throw out a hypothetical:

What if it wasn’t called Outstanding Comedy Series anymore? What if the Emmys had two top honors for ongoing series: Outstanding Drama Series and Funniest Series? Admittedly, “funniest” doesn’t sound as prestigious, but that actually makes me like it more. As you stated, the genre of comedy is vast, and it should be. But the problem we run into at the Emmys isn’t that voters disagree over what’s funny and what’s not; it’s that certain programs prioritize story arcs that aren’t meant to be funny. They only qualify as comedies because they sprinkle in enough humor for the TV Academy’s panel to deign them worthy, but once they’re allowed in, they’re only judged by “how good they are” — and if drama, in whatever form it chooses, is respected more than comedy, then more heavily dramatic work will find it’s way into the Comedy Series race.

In theory, changing the category title would force voters to prioritize whatever made them laugh. Maybe some of them already think they’re voting for the funniest show on the ballot, but the language, as well as the results, tend to indicate more members are simply picking what they think is “best.” If they’re asked instead to choose the Funniest Series, would they instead think about what made them laugh the most? Would there be as many votes for “The Flight Attendant” or “Emily in Paris”? Would “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” be the “Comedy” juggernaut it’s become? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t mention these titles to disparage them. Had “The Flight Attendant” run as a Drama Series this year, I think it gets nominated. “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” almost certainly would, too.

More to the point, the space left by half-comedies’ exclusions could make room for true comedies, like “Superstore,” “Mythic Quest,” “Never Have I Ever,” and past snubs like “Catastrophe,” “Corporate,” “American Vandal,” and more. It could also invite other comedy genres into the fold — no show has been funnier of late than “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” — and keep the door ajar for dark series (like “Barry”) to continue competing because they’re still very, very funny.


Bill Hader and Henry Winkler in “Barry”

Isabella Vosmikova/HBO

But perhaps most importantly, this is but one idea for change that elevates the art of being funny to the same level as crafting drama. What really needs to be emphasized over the coming years, decades, and probably beyond, is that any one artistic style is not inherently more important than another. All awards shows, not just the Emmys, should be encouraging that belief, and it’s something I’m reminding myself to remember when writing reviews (as encouraged by the aforementioned Mr. McElhenney). Of course, the Funniest Series idea is flawed, but I’d welcome just about any experimentation meant to level the playing field — even enacting panels to determine where a show belongs was a welcome step, no matter how muddled the results. And to circle back to your original question, complaining about voter bias is an actual step toward improvement. Maybe a few of them will hear you. Maybe a few of them will think harder about what they’re voting for. Maybe next year will be better.

But I’m open to other ideas.

LIBBY: You know how much it hurts me to tell you this, Ben, but I think you nailed it. Our role isn’t to be the problem-solvers, but to continue being advocates for a better, more inclusive process. It doesn’t matter how the sausage gets made, so much as that the way we appreciate and celebrate comedy changes.

And so we beat on, Statler and Waldorf reborn, dragging the TV industry ceaselessly into the future, all in the hopes that years from now comedy will finally be respected as a true equal to drama.

But not with a Funniest Series category. What a disaster that would be.

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