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 Saturday, September 12 and Sunday, September 13. The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles 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
Over the last two years, the nominees for Best Variety Talk Series have been identical — and five of those six nominees were up in 2017, too. So in a time of great change to the TV industry — and to how late night talk shows are being done — should we expect much change in the Emmy race?
Probably not. Though the various new contenders and shifts in format should keep the race competitive, but many of the longstanding favorites remain strong options. Take the four-time champ, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Like many late-night programs, HBO’s Sunday night mainstay took a few weeks off to regroup and asses how they could produce a show remotely before coming back with a new design and the same sharp analysis. It would be hard for anyone to say the segments have lost a step, just as it would be hard for anyone who loved it before to not keep voting for it now.
Along with Conan O’Brien, who quickly announced he’d keep his staff working (from home) while producing special remote episodes of “Conan,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” was one of late-night’s early adopters, shooting monologues from Colbert’s porch, office, and bathtub. The CBS titan remains among the TV Academy’s most beloved personalities, as does his network cohort James Corden and “The Late Late Show.” Though he might have less categories to submit to overall, the nine-time Emmy winner is putting out specials from his garage while hosting music guests on the main show. “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has also embraced the awkward intrusion of Zoom videos and live-from-your-bathroom interviews, while “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” is pumping out special segments of “Beeing at Home” to support her TBS comedy-news shows.
“The show must go on” applies across the board to these hosts, whose role goes beyond entertainment and into reliability. Unlike weekly episodes of your favorite TV shows, this group is expected in your home every night — or offering up new videos online each morning. Even the streaming options aren’t going away: “Patriot Act with Hasan Minaj” is releasing new episodes on Netflix, while Showtime’s streaming audience for “Desus & Mero” must appreciate the hosts’ out-of-studio banter. So it’s as unsurprising as it is impressive that everyone from Seth Meyers (“Late Night with Seth Meyers”) to Trevor Noah (“The Daily Show”) has found a way to keep themselves in place while everything else is changing. How Emmy voters react remains to be seen, but there’s little evidence to suggest they’ll be any less consistent than the programs they champion.
1. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
2. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
3. “The Late Late Show with James Corden”
4. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”
5. “Jimmy Kimmel Live”
6. “Late Night with Seth Meyers”
Spoilers: “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” “A Little Late with Lilly Singh,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” “Desus & Mero,” “Conan”
In a Perfect World: “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj”