There was a time when simply having a late-night talk show practically guaranteed you a spot among the nominees for Outstanding Variety Show at the Primetime Emmy Awards. Not anymore.
In the four years since the Television Academy decided to split variety talk series from variety sketch series, the number of shows that fall into the former category have exploded, with new entries popping up seemingly every month on cable networks like HBO and BET, as well as streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
That leaves a scant six slots—and some inevitable snubs—for the one-time boys’ club
Last year saw The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon miss out on a nomination for the first time in six years in favor of the newest entry in the pack, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. When the 2018 nominations were announced Thursday morning, Bill Maher’s name was left off the Outstanding Variety Show list for just the second time in 14 years. The only other time Maher was snubbed in the category since 2004 was three years ago in 2015, when David Letterman got a surprisingly rare nomination for his final year as host of The Late Show (Maher did, however, receive a nod in Outstanding Variety Special that year for Bill Maher: Live from D.C.).
In place of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher was The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, the first nomination for that show since Noah replaced perennial winner Jon Stewart in 2015. The rest of the list contained repeat nominations from last year: Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Late Late Show with James Corden and the winner from the past two years, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
The absence of Maher from this list is unexpected, but should not be all that surprising given the direction his show has taken over the past year. I have personally argued that there is value in Maher’s free speech absolutism, but even though he is still a staunch Trump critic, his habit of handing over his platform to right-wing trolls has not played particularly well with liberals during the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
This season, Maher has welcomed Trump defenders like Anthony Scaramucci and Geraldo Rivera along with conservative guests like NRATV host Colin Noir and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro. The season prior he made his most egregious booking with professional troll and hebephilia advocate Milo Yiannopoulos, who was allowed to walk all over the host until fellow guest Larry Wilmore stepped in to put him in his place. It would be one thing if Maher used his show to take these figures to task for their unsavory views, but instead he more often than not finds himself agreeing with them on anti-PC grounds.
Of course, the most significant and warranted backlash against Maher came in June of 2017, when he casually dropped the “N-word” in a conversation with Republican Senator Ben Sasse. That unfortunate incident prompted a very rare apology from Maher, who said in a statement the following day, “The word was offensive and I regret saying it and I’m very sorry.” It did not stop his show from getting an Emmy nomination the following month.
Just as that moment did not deny Maher a spot in the late-night nominations last year, the controversy surrounding Samantha Bee’s use of the phrase “feckless cunt” to describe Ivanka Trump seems to have had no effect on her Emmy chances.
Not only did Full Frontal receive its second consecutive nomination in the main variety talk category, it garnered seven nominations overall, including nods for writing and directing. The show’s Great American Puerto Rico special also landed a nomination in the Outstanding Variety Special category alongside Netflix specials from Dave Chappelle and Steve Martin and Martin Short. “TBS bravely put a woman over 45 on TV and in turn I only got yelled at by the president once,” Bee said in a statement.
Meanwhile Jimmy Fallon, still reeling from the backlash to his 2016 interview with Trump, came up empty once again. And for the second year in a row, Late Night with Seth Meyers, widely viewed as one of the smartest late-night shows on television, was denied a spot in the main category while receiving a well-deserved nomination for its writing staff.
The biggest surprise in the variety talk category has to be Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, which failed to make the cut its first two years on the air despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that Jon Stewart went on a 10-year winning streak that is unlikely to ever be beaten. The nomination is a testament to how Noah has come into his own over the past year.
With so few spots to go around, as a host like Noah rises, someone’s got to fall. Bill Maher has long prided himself on being one of the few pop culture figures who is able to draw the ire of both the left and the right. That distinction may give him some independent cred, but this year at least, it did not provide him any Emmy love.