The past few years produced some major shifts in the comedy lead acting winners at the Emmys. Instead of the usual sitcom stars that were staples of the category, voters instead gravitated towards more serious contenders (Jeffrey Tambor and Bill Hader) as well as multi-hyphenate auteurs (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Donald Glover).
So, what will 2020 bring to the lead acting races? This year the conversation is focused on the fact that both categories include a handful of big names at the forefront of the Emmy conversation after decades in entertainment. Actors like Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Ted Danson, Larry David, and Don Cheadle. Even actresses like Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini made their television debuts over 25 years ago.
Last year’s winners (Bill Hader and Phoebe Waller-Bridge) may not be in contention, but the Television Academy will have plenty of auteur comedies to choose from. Ramy Youssef and Larry David are both strong conteders in the lead actor race while Issa Rae and Pamela Adlon might re-enter the lead actress conversation after huge support from critics.
Even though Bill Hader and Phoebe Waller-Bridge aren’t in contention this year, there are still plenty of last year’s nominees hoping to return. At this point, it’s pretty safe to assume that actors like Christina Applegate (Dead to Me), Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and Ted Danson (The Good Place) will all return to their respective categories.
Heading into nominations, two of the biggest frontrunners are Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen cult favorites breakout in their final season (think Fleabag and The Americans). Mixed with the fact that the comedy lineups are void of heavy competition, it seems like the perfect year for a show like Schitt’s Creek to capitalize on its growing popularity and rooting factor.
O’Hara and Levy are beloved comedy legends that can easily win their categories, but how often do the lead comedy races go to the same show? In 2008, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin both won lead acting prizes for 30 Rock and Modern Family has swept the supporting races in the past but before that you would have to go back to 1980 when Richard Mulligan and Cathryn Damon both won for Soap. Can both actors win this year, or with the newer voting system are voters more likely to spread the wealth?
Ten seasons in, Curb Your Enthusiasm seems to be as popular as ever. Larry David found a way to keep the show relevant in large part to taking years off and keenly watching an industry going through major upheavals and reckonings with itself. Now, David finds himself as a frontrunner in the lead actor conversation, and the show as a whole might very well be one of the most nominated comedies of the year. But in the past, he has always been hindered by the fact that voters simply see him as playing a slightly stylized version of himself. Is this the year that voters get over that?
But what about the other nominees? Huge names like Michael Douglass (The Kominsky Method), Don Cheadle (Black Monday), and Anthony Anderson (Black-ish) are all hoping to stay in the lead actor conversation. It’s easy to lump these actors together; they’re all well-liked, have been nominated multiple times in the past, and come from shows that aren’t necessarily big Emmy contenders.
This year, the new performances that have the biggest chance of breaking into the Emmy race come from sophomore seasons hoping to have a stronger impact on the awards conversation.
Ever since Ramy Youssef won the Golden Globe (beating out a crop of well-established names), a lot more people have taken his Emmy chances more seriously. The second season of Ramy premiered at the end of May to even more acclaim as he further explores what it means to be a religious millennial today. But are we taking too much stock in his Golden Globe win? The HFPA has taken us down many wild goose chases (The Affair, Andy Samberg, Mozart in the Jungle, Rachel Bloom).
While we have to take Youssef’s win with a grain of salt, he is also the exact kind of artist that Emmy voters love to award. On top of starring in his groundbreaking comedy, he also serves as creator, executive producer, writer, and director. It’s the type of auteur comedy that Emmy voters have fully embraced. If the actor is nominated for the show’s second season, then he will be the one to beat. He’ll likely be the youngest nominee in the category filled with comedy and acting icons (David, Douglass, Levy, Danson) and will benefit from that.
Last year Dead to Me brought Christina Applegate back into the Emmy conversation, but the show failed to be recognized in any other categories. This year that is likely to change with the second season becoming one of the most talked about comedies of the year in large part due to the chemistry between Applegate and Linda Cardellini. Both actresses are integral to the show’s success, so it only makes sense that both actresses are welcomed into the lead actress lineup (just like Grace & Frankie a few years ago).
Ricky Gervais should never be discounted. The British comedian is an awards staple and has received countless Emmy nominations for his long career in television. Now he is back with the second season of After Life as a recent widower trying to find a reason to go on without his wife. As of now, awards groups have largely ignored the show, but audiences have responded to it overwhelmingly. There might be a change that voters have just been slow to catch-on to the dark comedy and that this year they will play catch-up.
Hoping For a Comeback
Once Emmy voters move on from a show or performance, it’s rare that they will bring them back later on. Last year, voters shockingly omitted a huge number of past nominees that most expected to be obvious nominees including Pamela Adlon (Better Things), Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-Ish), William H. Macy (Shameless), Allison Janney (Mom), Issa Rae (Insecure), Lily Tomlin (Grace & Frankie), and Jane Fonda (Grace & Frankie).
This year, the comedy categories are much more barren, and it has led to plenty of speculation on whether or not voters will resort back to their old favorites. But who has the biggest chance of being welcomed back into the conversation?
The fourth season of Insecure has become one of the most buzzed about shows of 2020 with fans declaring it the show’s best season yet. Rae has found a way to expertly explore the dissolution of a friendship in a way that hasn’t been portrayed on television before. She definitely has the momentum heading into voting, and with a younger voting body, she can definitely overcome the odds and re-enter the race.
Critics have also rallied behind Pamela Adlon and the fourth season of Better Things. Throughout her career, she has been nominated seven times even winning once for her voice work on King of the Hill. She may have been forgotten last year, but this year critics have rallied behind her nominating the show for two TCA awards. With a much more open lead actress race, someone like Adlon can easily be welcomed back, but as popular as the actress is it’s worth pointing out that voters have never nominated the show in any other category.
Kristen Bell has never been nominated at the Emmys, and for the past four years, her name has floated around as a potential contender for The Good Place. She was nominated at the Golden Globes and Emmy voters even nominated her costars and the show as a whole. The final season hit some speed bumps, but overall the show went out on a high note and Bell delivered some of the best work of her career. She deserves to be in the conversation and this might finally be her year.
The 2020 Emmy season hasn’t been that exciting on the comedy front, and that has a lot to do with the fact that there aren’t that many new series that seem to be clear awards contenders.
There was a time when The Politician seemed like it might factor into the conversation, especially as a lead actor contender with Ben Platt. Instead, the show is now two seasons in, and it doesn’t seem like audiences don’t know what to make of it. Individually, the show has all the makings of great TV, but it never quite got there and Ben Platt will probably suffer because of that.
There was also the fiasco that was HBO’s Run. Months ago, the new comedy seemed like a clear contender blending awards friendly talents like Merritt Wever, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and the creative team behind Fleabag. Along the way, Run took a promising premise and ran it into the ground. On top of all that, HBO cancelled the new show in the middle of the voting window only further hindering Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson. It does need to be pointed out that Wever, a two-time Emmy winner, should never be counted out.
If anything, the lead actor contender to keep an eye on is Steve Carell. The Oscar nominated actor was nominated for nine Emmys producing and starring in The Office and voters know he has a huge IOU to cash in. The problem is that Space Force received terrible reviews, and audiences found his over-the-top performance polarizing. The show also was widely viewed by audiences landing near the top of Netflix’s ratings for weeks, right before voting, which is always a good sign.
The lead actress race is another story. There are plenty of new performances that received critical acclaim that may or may not be in the awards conversation. Critics really enjoyed Zoe Kravitz in the television adaptation of High Fidelity. The same goes for Anna Kendrick in Love Life, HBO Max’s debut show. Fresh off of her Golden Globe for The Farewell, Awkwafina’s new show, Nora From Queens, debuted on Comedy Central. It may not seem like an awards contender, but we’ve seen actors benefit from the Melissa McCarthy effect before.
It’s hard to gauge what voters will make of Hulu’s The Great. If this were the Golden Globes, the period comedy would be an automatic frontrunner, but did it make a big enough splash to stand out to 22,000+ Emmy voters? This also marks the first time that Elle Fanning has earned major awards consideration. She gives a really interesting interpretation of Catherine the Great, and if any new performance breaks into the lineup, it will be her.
These are the current combined rankings of the entire Awards Daily TV team. For our combined rankings in all major categories make sure to check out the tracker on the main page and keep an eye out for our official predictions early next week.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
In The Conversation
1. Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm Eugene Levy, Schitt’s Creek (tied)
3. Ted Danson, The Good Place
4. Ramy Youssef, Ramy
5. Don Cheadle, Black Monday
6. Michael Douglass, The Kominsky Method
|7. Anthony Anderson, Black-ish
8. Ben Platt, The Politician
9. Ricky Gervais, After Life
10. Steve Carell, Space Force
11. Domhnall Gleeson, Run
12. Jim Carrey, Kidding
13. Paul Rudd, Living With Yourself
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
|In The Conversation
|1. Catherine O’Hara, Schitt’s Creek
2. Rachel Brosnahan, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
3. Christina Applegate, Dead to Me
4. Linda Cardellini, Dead to Me
5. Pamela Adlon, Better Things
6. Kristen Bell, The Good Place & Issa Rae, Insecure (tied)
|8. Merritt Wever, Run
9. Jane Fonda, Grace & Frankie
10. Lily Tomlin, Grace & Frankie
11. Allison Janney, Mom
12. Tracee Ellis Ross, Black-ish
13. Elle Fanning, The Great
14. Anna Kendrick, Love Life
15. Awkwafina, Nora From Queens
Readers, what are your predictions for the lead acting comedy races?