Emmy Predictions 2020: Best Variety Talk Series

Many will come for the king, but it'll be one hell of an upset if "Last Week Tonight" falls. [Updated September 8]
"The Daily Show with Trevor Noah"
"The Daily Show with Trevor Noah"
Comedy Central

Throughout Emmy season, IndieWire will be evaluating the top contenders for TV’s most prestigious prize, and it all starts here. At the bottom of this page are IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Variety Talk Series. This article will be updated throughout the coming months, along with all our predictions, to reflect an up-to-the-minute state of the race. Make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest coverage on the 2020 Emmys, including breaking news, analysis, interviews, podcasts, FYC event coverage, reviews of all the awards contenders, and more. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out the week of September 14. The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place virtually on Sunday, September 20. (See our awards calendar for a more detailed breakdown of important dates.) ABC is broadcasting the ceremony.

Last Year’s Winner:Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Still Eligible: Yes.
Hot Streak: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” has won the category four years running, and, since the Variety Series category was split into Talk and Sketch brackets, the half-hour HBO news program has taken home four of the five “Talk” trophies. (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” won the inaugural award in 2015.)
Fun Fact: When counting wins for Variety Series as well as Variety Talk Series, the two most awarded programs now have new hosts: “The Daily Show” won 11 times with Jon Stewart at the helm, while “The Late Show” won six times under David Letterman. Both shows missed out on nominations during their initial transitions to new hosts, but Stephen Colbert has now earned three straight nods and Trevor Noah has two in a row, putting both awards darlings back on track at the Emmys.
Notable Ineligible Series: “Busy Tonight” (ended), “Last Call with Carson Daly” (ended)

The State of the Race

For the last 20 years or so, the Variety Series categories (which were formerly just one all-inclusive Variety category) have been very happy rewarding the same shows, year after year. “SNL” is still dominating the Sketch field, while Variety Talk hasn’t seen much diversity either. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” notably won 10 years in a row (back when it was in the same category as “SNL”); before that, “Late Show with David Letterman” had a nice five-season win streak; “The Colbert Report” won twice in a row before the category split into Variety Talk and Variety Sketch, and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is in the midst of a four-year winning streak.

Typically, it takes a noticeable change for a new winner to be ushered in: “The Daily Show” won its last Variety Series Emmy for Jon Stewart’s final season, the same year “Last Week Tonight” nabbed its first nomination, but John Oliver’s arrival was an undeniable cultural shift, similar to when Stewart first steered Comedy Central’s nightly news-comedy hybrid into mainstream pop culture. Viewers and critics are still enraptured by Oliver’s deep dives into relevant topics, and it’s unlikely TV Academy voters are ready to move on from honoring everyone at the HBO series just yet.

Still, the nominees have to be hoping for a blip. The pandemic and ensuing production shutdown have forced plenty of changes for each late night series, and voters may take note of the more impactful alterations. “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” has been at the forefront of hard and fast redesigns; Comedy Central’s long-running favorite was the first to release new episodes amid the March scramble (launching “The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah” in late March). Later, it extended episode run times and toyed with its tone in order to properly cover the wild times we’re living in, all while keeping audiences engaged. As Noah continues to earn more attention from the Academy (and America at large), there’s reason to believe he could upset Oliver.

“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” also quickly came up with new show structures amid challenging times. Like many New Yorkers, Bee escaped from the Big Apple and started shooting episodes at her remote upstate home — well, actually, she starting shooting episodes outside her remote upstate home. Bee’s woodland setting provides a distinct look as well as plenty of new segments, making her TBS offering one of the more fun and sprightly half-hours examining the ever-darkening American landscape. Colbert, meanwhile, welcomed CBS fans into his home, shooting monologues from his bathtub, his front porch, and eventually his den, the latter of which has become a comforting second set. Perfectly complimenting Colbert’s cordial demeanor, the homey touches have only made interviews more natural, while the political commentator’s insights continue to delight in an intensifying election year.

That just leaves the host of this year’s Emmys, Jimmy Kimmel, and his ABC staple, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Despite three wins and 31 nominations across various Variety categories, Kimmel’s program has never won Outstanding Variety Talk Series. This marks its ninth nomination in the top category, and he’s likely to go another year without snagging the honor. Though Kimmel also adapted to the 2020 challenges quite well and continues to rack up deserved attention for his efforts, his best argument over the other nominees is that he’s overdue. In a year with so much else going on, it’s hard to see that angle carrying enough weight for a win. But hey, he is hosting. Maybe it’s time to end the teasing, and give Kimmel his Emmy.

Power Ranking the Nominees:

1. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO)
2. “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” (Comedy Central)
3. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (ABC)
4. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” (TBS)
5. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (CBS)

Will Win: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
Could Win:
“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” 
Should Win:
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”

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