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Emmy Predictions: Best Variety Talk Series — ‘Last Week Tonight’ Still Sitting Pretty

After rule changes were rightly jettisoned, this year's crop of late-night Emmy nominees are fairly similar to years past.

"Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" 2021 HBO

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”

Courtesy of HBO

Last Year’s Winner:Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
Still Eligible: Yes.
Hot Streak: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” has won five times in a row, starting in 2016, following Jon Stewart’s final season on “The Daily Show.” Since then, the nominees around HBO’s heralded favorite have shifted — “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden” both made their way in — but Oliver’s winning streak has not been interrupted.
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), 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.)

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Variety Talk 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 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

For a brief moment late last year, it seemed like we might see a real fight in the Variety Series race, when the TV Academy merged the Outstanding Variety Sketch and Outstanding Variety Talk categories. Had they stuck to their misguided plan, there would’ve been a showdown like we haven’t seen since 2014: “SNL” vs. “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” — aka “SNL” vs. an alum from “The Daily Show,” or “The Daily Show” itself. Thankfully, the categories were separated (it’s what’s best for both parties), but no further changes were made. That means there are still only five nominees in 2021, and the reigning champ should feel fairly comfortable in its throne.

Why? Well, apart from the TV Academy’s tendency to stick by their favorites, one needn’t look much further than the nominations. Only three of the nominees have more than one nomination overall — “Last Week Tonight” has seven, “The Late Show” has five, and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” snagged two — and only two of those nominees earned spots in the Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series category (“Last Week Tonight” and “The Late Show”), which is a significant bellwether for the Series prize. Since the Variety categories were split into Talk and Sketch, the Variety Talk Series victor has always won the Variety Writing category, too. (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” won both in 2015, before “Last Week Tonight” took over.) Also in the Writing race, we got to see “Last Week Tonight” and “SNL” go toe-to-toe, with John Oliver’s team coming out on top in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. (“SNL” wasn’t nominated last year, but “Last Week Tonight” still won.)

These facts illustrate the HBO talk show’s dominance — it controls the category, and none of this year’s nominees seem ready to come for the king, especially with so many familiar faces on the ballot. Perhaps the goodwill surrounding Stephen Colbert’s CBS series can translate to a little extra momentum, but “The Late Show” couldn’t pull off the upset with three nominations last year and four in 2019, so it’s hard to imagine what would suddenly sway enough voters to make a difference now. Similarly, people have been underestimating Jimmy Kimmel at the Emmys for years, but his favor tends to extend far enough for nominations, not wins. “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” has made similar progress with voters, earning 10 nominations since 2018, but its solo nomination in 2021 indicates continued respect more than a surge of newfound fans.

That leaves “Conan.” The late-night fixture earned a nod in the Series category for the first time since 2011, when it was still called Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series, and this year’s recognition feels more like a nod to the TBS program’s final season than a true disruptor. Still, “Conan” is (technically) the only nominee not to be defeated by “Last Week Tonight,” he’s a titan in the industry, and voters may want to do more than nominate his last nightly talk show. If the sentiment is there, or if this is the year Emmy voters randomly tire of their former favorite, “Conan” could capitalize (even without a Writing nod).

Proposing changes to the category was the right idea. Without hundreds of submissions to force their hand, but with a growing disparity in how talk shows are made and executed, the TV Academy doesn’t have an easy task ahead in making sure the vast array of programming is duly honored. This year should serve as another reminder of the need for adjustment, and for now, we can only hope voters are seeing as much as they can — and casting their ballots accordingly.

Power Rankings:

  1. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
  2. “Conan”
  3. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
  4. “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
  5. “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”

Will Win: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
Could Win: “The Late Show” or “Conan”
Should Win: “Desus & Mero” or “The Amber Ruffin Show” — let’s get some fresh faces in the race!

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