John Oliver’s in a New Category — But Strikes Keep His Former Emmy Talk Show Competitors From Taking Advantage

The guy who always won has moved, but the nominees can’t campaign for the empty throne

Emmy talk show nominees
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The Television Academy has some good news for talk shows this year: You don’t have to compete with “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” at the Emmys anymore.

And then there’s the bad news: You have no way to take advantage of Oliver’s absence.

In a way, the good news/bad news juxtaposition makes the Outstanding Talk Series category emblematic of the Emmys as a whole this year, with every interesting twist being overshadowed by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. They’ve delayed shows, led to others being taken off the air and prevented writers and actors from doing promotion or campaigning to support their nominated programs.

For talk shows, the shutdown came at a time when the category is up for grabs in a way it hasn’t been for years. Since its second season in 2015, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” was nominated every year – and beginning with Season 3 in 2016, it won for seven years in a row. Among this year’s nominees, “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” lost to “Last Week Tonight” five times, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” lost to it six times and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” lost to Oliver seven times.

While “Last Week Tonight” dominated the category, you could hear occasional grumblings about a show that produces one show a week going up against (and beating) shows that produce five a week. The Television Academy eventually decided that it wasn’t a fair fight, either – not because of the frequency with which shows air, but because Oliver’s shows are almost entirely scripted, while Kimmel and Colbert do scripted monologues but spend most of the running time in unscripted conversations.

At the end of 2022, the Academy conducted the latest of many tweaks, renaming its two variety-show categories from Outstanding Variety Talk Series and Outstanding Variety Sketch Series to Outstanding Talk Series and Outstanding Scripted Variety Series. “Last Week Tonight,” Emmy brass decreed, was a scripted variety series, and would henceforth compete against the likes of “Saturday Night Live” — which had its own six-year winning streak in the increasingly anemic sketch category. (It had only three nominees in 2020 and only two in 2021 and 2022.)

For the nightly talk shows, John Oliver’s exile to go compete against “SNL” should have been great news. But by the time the nomination voting began, the nightly shows were nightly no longer, derailed by the writers’ strike. All had big writing staffs and hosts who were writers themselves, including some strong supporters of the strike. So as the first round of voting ended, as the ballots were counted, as the nominations were announced and as the second round of voting neared, they were visible only as nightly reruns that drew a fraction of the ratings the shows had normally drawn.

Now they have no way to campaign for the Emmy in their unprecedented John Oliver-free category. As for what’s got the upper hand, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” seems to be the consensus frontrunner — after all, Colbert’s previous show, “The Colbert Report,” ended Jon Stewart’s 10-year winning streak for “The Daily Show” back in 2013 in the now-defunct Outstanding Variety Series category. Stewart’s eventual “Daily Show” successor, Trevor Noah, could have the sentimental vote now that he’s ended his eight-year run. But it’s been more than eight months since his last show aired, with guest hosts taking over all of the 2023 episodes. 

Jimmy Kimmel has become the longest-running late-night host, winning extra points for the way he makes occasional forays into politics both personal and powerful. At the same time, Seth Meyers has been on a roll and has become the NBC late-night host that voters like. (Sorry, Jimmy Fallon.)

But then there’s the odd man out – and he’s got a real chance to bring back those complaints about a once-a-week show beating a four- or five-times-a-week show. Jon Stewart owned the category (or, more accurately, its predecessor category) when he hosted “The Daily Show.” His return with “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” nominated for a second season that consists of just 12 episodes, has made headlines with his pointed interviews as he takes deep dives into subjects ranging from gender wars to Trump’s indictments.

But, like everybody else in the category, he hasn’t had a new show in months and he couldn’t campaign for an Emmy even if he wanted to.

Jon, Jimmy, Stephen, Seth and Trevor also won’t find out who’s won until January thanks to the awards being strike-delayed. Welcome to the 2023 2024 Emmys, guys, where things started out odd and are just getting odder.