Can John Mulaney Save The Late-Night Emmys?

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In the nine years that Outstanding Talk Series has existed as an Emmys category, having spun off from Outstanding Variety Series in 2015, only two shows have won the award: The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. But this year, ahead of the trophy’s tenth birthday, Emmy forecasters are looking at a new late-night host whose unconventional, six-episode pop-up-season show could bust up the hegemony. His name is also John.

John Mulaney’s loosey-goosey live experiment, Everybody’s in L.A., aired for a week on Netflix in early May and had comedy nerds enraptured. (Just ask anybody at Vulture who spent a week extolling the virtues of prickly guest interactions, random expert appearances from the field of coyotes and earthquakes, and the unbeatable presence of Richard Kind.) Initially, folks with an interest in the Emmys race assumed that the show — with its fair share of pre-recorded sketches and choreographed onstage segments — would get slotted into the Outstanding Scripted Variety Series category, competing against the likes of SNL. But according to sources close to the show, the Emmys thought differently and placed Everybody’s in L.A. in the Talk Series category, where it will compete against The Daily Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Late Night With Seth Meyers, and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

Was this a deliberate decision on the part of the television academy to rattle a historically static late-night Emmy category? Well, it’s not the first shake-up the category’s seen. In 2023, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was moved out of Talk Series and into Scripted Variety, where it continued its domination by winning immediately. That resulted in The Daily Show returning to its own winning ways, capping off Trevor Noah’s tenure with one last Emmy. Since Noah’s retirement, the show has remained without a permanent host, only bringing back Jon Stewart to anchor once a week. In other words, an Everybody’s in L.A. insurgency would be an accomplishment, but not an entirely surprising one. The late-night categories are some of the most dynastic in Emmys history, but every reign has to end some time, and The Daily Show’s has never felt more vulnerable.

The Outstanding Talk Series and Outstanding Scripted Variety Series categories originated in 1951 as the singular Best Variety Series. Over the course of 73 years, the category has evolved, split, adopted new rules, and cycled through 25 distinct names (you would not believe how many times the name shifted between “Outstanding Variety or Music Series” and “Outstanding Music or Variety Series”). You can pretty much track the history of genuinely popular television over the years through the winners of this category. The early years honored the likes of Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Dick Van Dyke, and Andy Williams. The ’70s tracked The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and Laugh-In through the debut of Saturday Night Live, which won for its very first season. Variety specials continued to dominate through the 1980s.

And then Johnny Carson announced his retirement from The Tonight Show in 1992, kicking off the “Late Night Wars” between David Letterman and Jay Leno, in which the Emmys played their part. Carson won for his swan-song year in ’92, then after Letterman made his move to CBS, he and Leno traded wins in 1994 and 1995. But starting in 1998, Emmy voters made their preference for Dave known, with The Late Show With David Letterman winning five years in a row. During the last two of those years, Letterman beat out the cable show that — during the 2000 presidential election especially — had established itself as America’s go-to late-night show for current-events comedy: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. When TDS finally won in 2003, it felt like the young upstart taking its place at the grown-ups’ table. Then that young upstart became the establishment, with The Daily Show embarking on a ten-year winning streak in the category, only unseated by its own spinoff series, The Colbert Report.

Of course, after the category was split between Sketch Series and Talk Series in 2015, The Daily Show came back to win again. Then Jon Stewart retired, Donald Trump got elected, and Emmy voters needed to turn somewhere else for their political humor and, increasingly, to vent about the new administration. Enter another Daily Show alumnus, John Oliver, with Last Week Tonight. For the first time since 1997 — when Tracey Takes On … won in what was, in retrospect, the last cultural lull before the Clinton-impeachment scandal kicked off the era of 24/7/365 political-outrage comedy — a weekly show, rather than a nightly, had taken the Emmy. As The Daily Show had before it, Last Week Tonight grabbed the trophy and hasn’t let go since. When the show was moved out of the Talk Series category and into the newly named Outstanding Scripted Variety category in 2023, Last Week Tonight won for the eighth consecutive year.

And now we’re in the present, when voters in the Talk Series category have fallen back on an old habit — casting ballots for The Daily Show. If you’re keeping score, that’s a 20-plus-year streak of political comedy dominating this category. Which is among the many reasons it would be such a big deal to have Everybody’s in L.A. win. Mulaney’s anything-goes, determinedly loose talk show doesn’t draw from traditional political comedy. Its precedent is offbeat shows like The Chris Gethard Show as much as it is Letterman’s style of delightfully immaterial mid-show segments. (Letterman himself guested on the “Earthquake” episode of Everybody’s in L.A., the episode that Netflix submitted in the Writing category at the Emmys, and his presence felt like a blessing.) Political comedy in late night can be funny (see Seth Meyers) and important, but the fact that it’s become the only way to do late-night has been suffocating.

But Mulaney’s isn’t the only show that could unnerve the usual late-night lineup. Enter the YouTube talk series Hot Ones, which has steadily grown in popularity and awareness, with bigger and bigger stars showing up to chat with host Sean Evans and scorch their insides with increasingly spicier chicken wings. YouTube series have only recently been considered for inclusion in this category, and to date, the only streaming series to be nominated in the Variety Talk category have been last year’s nod for Apple TV+’s The Problem With Jon Stewart and 2016’s nomination for Crackle and Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It would feel deeply appropriate if Hot Ones got its first nomination on the back of the highly touted Conan O’Brien episode, considering O’Brien’s long history of his shows getting passed over for the Emmy.

It’s worth noting that while Everybody’s in L.A. would be a genuine shakeup for the category in terms of format, Mulaney is far from an outsider when it comes to the Emmys. He’s actually a 20-time nominee, with about half of those nominations coming from his time at Saturday Night Live. He’s also been nominated for Documentary Now, Netflix’s John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch (another formal comedic experiment that incorporated a dash of Richard Kind), and multiple stand-up specials. He’s won two Emmys for Writing for a Variety Special for his stand-up specials Kid Gorgeous and Baby J. This is a guy who Emmy voters like. A lot. But again, an Everybody’s in L.A. (or even a Hot Ones) win would still be a feat, as the hill to victory only got steeper with the release of the nominations ballot. With only 13 shows in contention for Outstanding Talk Series, the rules stipulate that there will only be three nominees. That means that among Mulaney, Kimmel, Meyers, Colbert, Stewart, and the purveyors of Da Bomb hot sauce, at least three will be getting bad news on Emmy-nomination morning. The hope for Mulaney, Netflix, and fans of true variety in the Variety categories is that Emmy voters will respond to the refreshing raggedness of Mulaney’s late-night experiment. For Richard Kind’s sake, if no one else’s.

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