conan tbs premiere 320 Emmys 2011: The music variety comedy categories are a confusing catch allIf there was ever a set of Emmy categories that is really hard to pin down, it’s the catch-all categories for the series and specials in the “outstanding music, variety and comedy” field.

We had to put the name of the field in quotes, because it’s not three separate categories; music, variety and comedy encompasses anything you can think of that’s not in any of the major groups, mostly involving live-action shows that take place in front of a studio audience.

For series, the distinction is fairly straightforward. The Emmy ballot in this category is rife with late-night talk shows, primetime cable shows like “Tosh.0” and sketch shows like “Saturday Night Live.” There have been outliers in this category — for instance, Tracey Ullman‘s HBO series “Tracey Takes On” won this category in 1997 when by all rights it should have been in the regular comedy series category.

But for the most part, this category is predictable: since 1998, the only two shows that have won this award are “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Daily Show,” indicating that the members of the academy either don’t stay up past 10 o’clock or they just don’t care enough to get creative (though many of the years “TDS” has won, it’s been wholly deserving).

If the academy wanted to shake things up this year, members could pit “Conan” against “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” or give “Tosh.0” or “Chelsea Lately” a nod. But there’s generally not much intrigue here.

For specials, though, the field is wide open. The ballot is a hodgepodge of stand-up specials, award presentations like “The Kennedy Center Honors” and music-heavy specials like “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” We’re not sure how the voters are able to distinguish the relative merits of, say, Wyatt Cenac‘s comedy special and “Dolly Celebrates 25 Years of Dollywood,” but distinguish they must.

One thing that’s helpful to Emmy voters, though, is that the major award shows are no longer part of this category. It makes sense; a one-person show is hard to compare to a spectacle on the scale of the Oscars. It was getting to the point where at least two of the other three major award shows would clog the category, leaving little room for anything else to make its way in.

Now, the major award shows, along with a lot of minor ones, are part of a category called “Special Class Programs.” Then again, there are a whole lot of comedy, variety and music specials in there, too. Confused yet?

Posted by:Joel Keller