As it currently stands, FX’s “Atlanta” and Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” are this year’s front-runners for the outstanding comedy series Primetime Emmy. Both are well deserving, and offer up a unique slice of life about individuals looking to make a mark in a world that tries to silence them. “Mrs. Maisel” is even about the world of stand-up comedy.
But is either a comedy?
It’s hard not to agree that the half-hour format has never been more robust. Single-camera shows that explore complex characters and storylines, and multi-camera family shows taped in front of a live studio audience. Comedies with tons of guffaws, and ones you watch in amazement and leave you thinking more than splitting your side. Shows that produce 24 episodes, and shows that produce eight. Remakes — with all-new casts and settings — of some classic comedies, reboots — featuring the same stars — of others. It’s not so easy to define “comedy” anymore, and that’s OK — but is it fair to smoosh so many different kinds of shows opposite each other?
“There’s just so much good work that’s not recognized, and it would be nice if there were more than [just drama and comedy] categories,” said “One Day at a Time” executive producer Mike Royce. “I don’t know if they can make a dramedy category but that would be my fantasy.”
There’s that word — “dramedy” — that has dogged the Television Academy for years. It’s not a new debate, but it became more of a conversation in 1999 after David E. Kelley’s “Ally McBeal” won the outstanding comedy Emmy as an hour-long show, dethroning “Frasier” after five years.
That same year, Kelley’s “The Practice” won for outstanding drama. Both shows mixed comedy and drama, although “Ally” perhaps had more laughs and “The Practice” more drama, but the blurred die had been cast.
By the mid-2000s, hour-longs like “Desperate Housewives” were being submitted as a comedy, while “Boston Legal” was in a bit of a grey zone. “We can be deeply dramatic one moment and deeply silly the next … It’s a tough tightrope to walk,” Kelley said at the time.
The TV Academy attempted to address the issue by asking shows to submit six episodes that contain a preponderance of comedy or drama, depending on which category the show’s producers were submitting themselves in. But that didn’t really work, as ultimately shows still had enough footage to submit themselves wherever they wanted.
By early this decade, the confusion was cemented. Showtime’s “Shameless” switched from drama to comedy, and started landing nominations for star William H. Macy. “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent” entered as comedies, much to the chagrin of others.
“I wish there was an hour-long category and a half-hour category,” “Orange” creator Jenji Kohan told us in 2014. “I wish everyone wasn’t so desperate to label things.”
That’s essentially where things now stand, but still with labels attached. In 2015, the Television Academy ruled that comedies must be 30 minutes or shorter, and dramas must be longer. A petition process was instituted, and many shows are still able to still be classified as they choose. “Orange,” however, was moved to the drama competition.
Now, the issue is less about time length, and more about content — and how shows are produced.
“I think they should separate the categories between network and cable,” said “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. “They’re too different. We do 24 different episodes of television every year. There are some shows that do eight that get nominations. ‘Master of None’ is one of my favorite shows but they do a third of our episodes. For twice the budget. There’s no way you can compare those two things. It’s not apples to apples.”
Royce noted that multi-camera comedy, which was once the staple in sitcoms (and may see a renaissance next year, if recent series orders are any indication), is still at a disadvantage at the Emmys. No multi-cam show has won the outstanding comedy Emmy since “Everybody Loves Raymond” in 2005.
“It’s a hurdle for people to get over who haven’t seen the show,” Royce said of “One Day at a Time,” which tackles complex subjects through laughs. “Some people still think that multi-cams are a cheesy old-fashioned thing. However, I think things are changing last year and this year. Between ‘Roseanne’ being super popular and ‘The Carmichael Show,’ hopefully our show, hopefully ‘Mom’ – even ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is the most popular show on television – people are paying attention a little bit. There’s good work being done. I hope it’s not a disadvantage.”
Added Royce’s fellow “One Day at a Time” executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett: “I do wish multi-cam and single could be judged separately. They’re such different beasts really. Both make me laugh but in different ways. They require different types of acting, writing and it’s interesting they’re clumped together.”
In the past, the TV Academy has considered a dramedy category, but the fear of awards proliferation has stopped them from making a change. “You don’t want to have too many awards, but on the other hand, you don’t want to have too few because of the apples-and-oranges issue,” Academy awards boss John Leverence once told us. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
But the Academy has been willing to split other categories once they got too crowded, such as creating two slots for noncompetitive reality series: One for “structured” shows and one for “unstructured.” Per the Emmy bylaws, it takes only 14 potential entrants to create a new category, and there would likely be more than enough “dramedies” to create one. Frontrunners that could always land there include Showtime’s “SMILF.”
“A.P. Bio” executive producer Mike O’Brien isn’t as concerned about comedy splintering, however, as he believes it all still comes from the same DNA — and therefore, can be compared under the same lens.
“There are so many cable and streaming shows, with lots of different styles and tones of comedy,” he said. “But all of them can be drawn back to some classic badass comedian from 10, 20, 50 years ago. Sometimes during periods where there were only three TV channels and no internet. But between people like Lucille Ball, Bob Newhart, Andy Kaufman, Elaine May, Don Rickles, Mitch Hedberg, Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner….a million weirdos I’m forgetting… Is there a move that the new wave of comedy is doing that is actually outside of the realm of what these guys did? I think it’s just fresh new takes on these. We are just lucky to get to see way more of it.”