When Johnny Carson signed off from The Tonight Show in 1992, his reign as the King of Late Night was celebrated with an Emmy win for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series. Granted, the competition that year was sparse: Fox's sketch-comedy show In Living Color and NBC's Late Night with David Letterman were the only others nominated.
This year, as newly retired Tonight Show host Jay Leno attempts to secure one final nomination in the category now known as Outstanding Variety Series, the competition is much tougher. To land one of the six slots, he'll be competing against the guy who replaced him — NBC is also submitting The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for consideration — as well as the new iteration of Fallon's previous show, Late Night with Seth Meyers.
"It's a delicate situation for NBC," says one rival producer. "They've got to be pushing their current show, the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show. It would be a lot cleaner if they didn't submit Leno, but there's no need to slight him." (The standard practice is for studio or network executives to decide which of their shows to submit for a nomination. But if a show has been cancelled and the network ignores it, producers can do it themselves.)
It's not the first time NBC has two eligible Tonight Shows. But this year won't be as awkward as in 2010, when ousted host Conan O'Brien entered his show for consideration — and landed a nomination, while Leno did not. This year's Leno farewell doesn't make him a shoo-in, however: His Tonight Show hasn't been nominated for the award since 2003, and it only won once, in 1995.
Fallon's Tonight Show has a better shot, since this is a category in which voters typically don't stray. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was nominated the previous three years in a row. And in addition to Fallon, the same shows — The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Real Time with Bill Maher and Saturday Night Live — were the nominees for Outstanding Variety Series in both 2012 and 2013.
The Colbert Report at least put an end to The Daily Show's 10-year victory streak last year. "It is virtually impossible for anyone to break through," says the producer of one show looking to join the race.
The recent late-night upheaval might finally mix things up. Late Show with David Letterman, which took home the category five years in a row before The Daily Show's streak began in 2003, hasn't been nominated in the category since 2009. But nostalgia over Letterman's impending retirement, even though it's not until next year, could change that. "If you're in late night and haven't stolen something from Letterman's style, you're doing it wrong," says Arsenio Hall. "I'm hoping the Emmys, if they do anything this year, they figure out some way of anointing him."
The similarly departing Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which will also be eligible next year, may also benefit from the tidal wave of change, as could last year's winner, The Colbert Report, thanks to Stephen Colbert's recent ascension as Letterman's Late Show heir.
Besides Fallon and Meyers, several more newcomers are eligible to compete: The Arsenio Hall Show, The Pete Holmes Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and @midnight. Says one producer: "It's a huge group now. It ebbs and flows a bit, and we happen to be in a year where there are at least a dozen."
The talk show explosion has made it even tougher for sketch shows besides SNL to land a slot, but hot series like Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer could change that. "The biggest and most impressive thing to me would be if they gave Key & Peele a nomination," says one producer, arguing for a better mix of nominees. "It would be cool if they just had a late-night category separate from variety. There's a big difference between Key & Peele and Amy Schumer and Portlandia, the sketch driven shows, and the late-night shows."
As for Hall, whose previous talk show was nominated in 1989 and 1990, "it's easy to say I'm not interested," he says. "But everybody works really hard and wants to be acknowledged by being nominated or winning at some point. The Emmys are still very important."