Laugh tracker

There could be something funny in the works in the best comedy series category when primetime Emmy nominations are announced on July 6.

And it has nothing to do with laugh tracks and punchlines.

Because of changes this year to the Emmy nominating process, it's possible that a sleeper show like "Weeds" could catch fire with voters. Or that "Everybody Hates Chris" could find some love in unlikely circles.

On the flip side, there's the potential for Nielsen darling "Desperate Housewives" to get slapped down. Or for longtime Emmy fave "Will and Grace" turns into an ugly duckling during its swan song.

Under the old system, both shows would've been considered shoo-ins for nominations. But a new procedure asks TV academy voters to come up with a list of 10 finalists in the comedy series race. Those contenders are then handed off to a judging panel, which selects the five nominees after viewing episodes of each series.

This has the potential to cause a serious shift in the Emmy comedy landscape, where the biggest hits will no longer be the surest bets. It also opens the door for critical faves, which might otherwise have been lost amid ratings sensations.

So who figures to be laughing longest come nomination day? The new process makes that much harder to predict. But here's a look at a handful of shows that could benefit:

--"Scrubs": Although it debuted in 2001 to critics' cheers, the NBC series only received its first nominations for best comedy series and lead actor (Zach Braff) last year. Critics hope for an Emmy rerun this year. "If the world was a perfect and just place, 'Scrubs' would sweep the Emmy categories," asserts TV Guide senior editor Mike Ausiello.

--"Entourage": This HBO show broke through last year to reap a nomination for Jeremy Piven as Hollywood's most weasel-like talent agent (quite a distinction!), but it probably didn't do better because it's too young-skewing for the average TV academy voter. However, since voters will be forced to watch "Entourage" if it makes the finalist lists, it stands a better chance of making the cut.

--"Arrested Development": Critics continue to root for the past best-comedy champ, even though it has exited the airwaves. The show is unlikely to get much Emmy attention, since its producers aren't campaigning aggressively. Still, it will probably make the finalists' lists, so it should have a fair shot at a nomination.

--"The Comeback": Another canceled show with rotten luck, this Lisa Kudrow vehicle was a far better program than its reputation. Most critics say it deserves a comeback of its own at the Emmys, particularly for Kudrow.

--"Two and a Half Men": TV's highest-rated comedy has been strangely overlooked by the academy to this point. Sure, supporting actresses Conchata Ferrell and Holland Taylor were nommed last year, but the men in the title have not and neither has the show itself. Especially deserving of Emmy recognition is Jon Cryer (Alan), who is "hilariously neurotic," according to USA Today critic Robert Bianco.

--"Everybody Hates Chris," "My Name Is Earl," "The Office" and "Weeds":These freshman and sophomore comedies were critical favorites, but figure to have a better chance at acting nods than show nominations. And while older Emmy voters have problems with all of these shows -- they're too bitchy, too young or too blue collar – that may be less of a factor this year because of the new nomination procedure.

Not that this year's comedy race is likely to represent a complete changing of the guard. Those "Housewives" could still pack quite a punch, even though many believe the quality of "Housewives" dipped this year. The show's two-hour season finale was a TV masterpiece that figures to wow judges.

And yes, a two-hour "dramedy" can compete against half-hour sitcoms in this race. Emmy rules permit submissions to be double the length of a regular episode so that two-parters can be accommodated. In Hollywood, especially, size matters.

Many Emmy watchers are hoping the new process reaches out to "Gilmore Girls," which was voted best new program by the Television Critics of America when it debuted five years ago, but has never been nommed for a top Emmy.

Such consistent snubbing is one of the chief reasons that the new Emmy voting is being tried. TV academy chiefs have finally grown weary of critics fuming about neglect of those "Girls," particularly star Lauren Graham.

Emmy veteran "Will & Grace," which led last year's field with the most nominations, seems likely to be hurt the most by the changes to the nominating procedure. The consensus seems to be that the series is past its prime after eight years on the air, and voters will probably pick up on that vibe.

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