It seems like every few years, the Television Academy reinvents the variety specials Emmy competition — and now, with an explosion in stand-up comedy on streaming platforms, it may have to rethink things once again.
This year’s field of contenders in the variety special (pre-recorded) category is a hodgepodge of music showcases like Amazon Prime Video’s “Happiness Continues: A Jonas Brothers Concert Film,” Netflix’s “Ben Platt: Live From Radio City Music Hall” and ABC’s “The Disney Family Singalong”; special editions of talk shows like CBS’ “Homefest: James Corden’s Late Late Show Special” and TBS’ “Conan Without Borders: Ghana”; and celebrations tied to events such as ABC’s “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest,” Amazon’s “The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show” and NatGeo’s Earth Day entry “Born Wild: The Next Generation.”
There are also a few variety one-offs, like Netflix’s “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch” and Amazon’s “Savage x Fenty Show.” Plus, late in the mix, a frenzy of COVID-19 related entries: NBC’s “A Parks and Recreation Special” and the independently produced “Saturday Night Seder” (the aforementioned “Homefest” figures here as well).
But then there are those stand-up specials. Lots of ’em — and most of these programs hail from A-list comedians, making the competition even fiercer. Netflix’s contenders include specials from Aziz Ansari, Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle, Deon Cole, Hannah Gadsby, Iliza Shlesinger, Jerry Seinfeld, Leslie Jones, Michelle Wolf, Pete Davidson, Patton Oswalt, Ronny Chieng, Seth Meyers and Tiffany Haddish. Amazon has Ilana Glazer, Jim Gaffigan, Jimmy O. Yang, Rob Delaney and Russell Peters, among others. HBO’s batch includes Lil Rel Howery and Ramy Youssef.
Corden won the variety special (pre-recorded) Emmy last year, for CBS’ “Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool.” Among the other nominees were four from Netflix: “Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé” and “Springsteen on Broadway,” as well as Gadsby, for her previous stand-up special “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette,” and Wanda Sykes’ comedy special “Not Normal.”
In 2018, Netflix’s “Dave Chappelle: Equanimity” won the category. That was the first year the Television Academy split the variety special field in two: variety special (pre-recorded) and variety special (live).
But the only consistency with variety specials over the years at the Emmys has been the TV Academy’s inconsistency. From 2012 to 2017, the combined category was called “outstanding variety special.” Before that, from 1993 to 2011 it was “outstanding variety, music or comedy special.” In the 1980s, variety specials and series competed under one combined “program” category. In the ’60s and ’70s, the categories seemed to change virtually every year, frequently split between programs and specials — and sometimes even separated into classical and popular music awards — and then all merged together again.
In some ways, the constant evolution in categorizing specials makes sense, as TV tastes frequently change. Right now, TV appears to be in another golden age of stand-up comedy. These specials are nothing new to the small screen, but comics have rarely received much attention at the Emmys. Prior to Chappelle’s win in 2018, the last time a stand-up comedy won the variety special Emmy was 1997’s “Chris Rock: Bring the Pain.”
But now, as the streamers have made comedy specials a quick way to populate their libraries with top-tier talent, stand-up is everywhere. And that’s why, perhaps, it’s time to split the variety specials again, and carve out a new spot.
“It’s not apples to apples,” one awards exec says of the current setup. “A stand-up special — how does that compete with a ‘family singalong’? Stand-up specials are just different from those other specials, which is why they shouldn’t be together.”
Per the TV Academy rules, “if for two consecutive years the Board of Governors identifies that there are (or would have been had the category been in place) 14 or more entries that define such a significant, specialized and distinct achievement that they no longer are represented adequately within an existing category, [the board] may, at [its] discretion, separate these entries into a new category.” There were easily more than 14 stand-up specials on TV in the past year, and the trend will likely only increase with the arrival of new streamers looking to grab viewers with well-known acts. In some cases, comedians have taken to even selling specials on their own, further increasing the number of eligible candidates.
With so many different types of specials competing for a limited number of spots in variety special (pre-recorded), it’s probably only a matter of time before the template changes again and stand-up comics get their own category. For the people who care about the Emmy Awards, the wait for that to happen is no laughing matter.