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Emmy Predictions: Best Variety Sketch Series — Can ‘SNL’ Be Stopped?

With 21 nominations this year and four straight wins in the Variety Sketch category, "SNL" is a Goliath — can "A Black Lady Sketch Show" play David?

A Black Lady Sketch Show Season 2 Robin Thede HBO

Robin Thede in “A Black Lady Sketch Show”

Ali Paige Goldstein / HBO

Last Year’s Winner:Saturday Night Live
Still Eligible: Yes.
Hot Streak: “SNL” has won four years in a row, aka every year of Donald Trump’s White House tenure. Will attitudes shift with a responsible adult in our highest office? Probably not, but Lorne Michaels’ juggernaut has been around long enough to be mindful of popularity’s ebbs and flows.
Fun Fact: In December 2020, the Television Academy announced a handful of rule changes, including that it would be combining the Outstanding Variety Talk and Outstanding Variety Sketch categories. In theory, the move made sense given the dwindling submissions for Variety Sketch (only 14 shows were on the ballot in 2020, and only nine were submitted in 2021), but the Academy soon reversed course after near-universal backlash: When both series were housed under the Outstanding Variety category through 2015, sketch shows didn’t fare too well. Meanwhile, talk show representatives have been angling for further delineation; pitting late-night shows that air five nights a week against once-a-week programs isn’t exactly fair, especially when their formats and restrictions are so different. (“Last Week Tonight” doesn’t have guests, for instance, nor does it have censors, commercial breaks, or strict runtime requirements.)
Notable Ineligible Series: “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” (Season 2 was not released for this year’s eligibility period, which means the Netflix favorite will compete in 2022.)

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Variety Sketch Series. This article will be updated throughout the season, along with all our predictions, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest news from the 2020 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys was held from Thursday, June 17 through Monday, June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations were announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out Saturday, September 11 and Sunday, September 12. The 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place Sunday, September 19. CBS is broadcasting the ceremony.

The State of the Race

After a year featuring a production shutdown and general disruption to the TV industry, it’s no surprise that total submissions were down at this year’s Emmys. It’s also no surprise that Variety Sketch submissions fell to a record low, with only nine titles on the ballot (and, as mentioned, after last year’s tally dipped to 14). Still, the TV Academy’s rules reversal was the right call: Pitting Variety Talk and Sketch series against one another in the same category may make up for the dearth of options in Sketch, but it wouldn’t be a fair fight for whatever Variety series ended up nominated.

So here we are: only two nominees from nine Variety Sketch submissions. (Emmy rules dictate any category with 8-11 programs on the ballot results in two nominations, whereas last year, any entry that received 90 percent approval was nominated.) The first nominee is one everyone knew would make the cut: “Saturday Night Live” has 306 Emmy nominations to date and 78 wins; 21 of those nominations came this year, and given the NBC comedy’s four-year win streak in the category, its odds of winning are almost as good as its chances of getting nominated.

Snagging the second slot was HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which despite going up against an awards juggernaut, shouldn’t be counted out of the race. This is the show’s second nomination in the category in its second season; it earned more nominations this year (five) than last year (three), so its fandom seems to be growing; HBO knows how to position their programs for success, whether it’s the first or second phase of the Emmy cycle; the guest stars in Season 2 are stacked, including Gabrielle Union and executive producer Issa Rae; and last but certainly not least, “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is good — and with only two nominees in the category, there’s a better shot that voters take the time to watch episodes, which could lead to more TV Academy members discovering the show, and more people casting their vote its way.

Now, I’m not saying this is what will happen, but it certainly could happen. The Variety Sketch category deserves to live up to its name and see a little variety in what’s ultimately honored. Lord knows “SNL” doesn’t need any more hype, and the more sketch series we honor, the broader our idea of what sketch comedy can be becomes. Hopefully next year will see more shows on the ballot and thus more nominees at the Emmys. At the very least, we’ll get to welcome back “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” — so things are already looking up for 2022.

Power Rankings:

  1. “SNL”
  2. “A Black Lady Sketch Show”

Will Win: “SNL”
Could Win: “A Black Lady Sketch Show”
Should Win: “A Black Lady Sketch Show”

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