How did a habitually offensive cartoon with a villainous baby and an atheistic dog, and an absurd chronicle of two ultra-low-key New Zealanders who occasionally burst into song end up side by side in the Emmy race with some of the best-known comedies on television?
"We hadn't had a sense that anything was afoot. I read the occasional preview, and we hadn't been mentioned at all," says "Flight of the Conchords" co-creator James Bobin; the HBO show's Emmy nomination for outstanding comedy was entirely unexpected. And the reactions from the Conchords' Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement? "They're very pleased in their own way. They're very laid-back types, so they're delighted but horizontal about it."
"Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane says, "It's surprising that we hadn't been able to get a nomination in the animation category the last several years, yet in the comedy category we had success." His Fox show has been nominated twice since 2001 for animated program, plus once for an hourlong episode, and has never won. Now it's only the second animated nominee in the comedy category, since "The Flintstones" in 1961.
However, the surprise professed by these shows' creators is not shared by John Leverence, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' senior vice president of awards.
"These guys did not come out of the blue; they were not out of reach last year. They were definitely in the mix of the Top 10," he says of both shows' popularity among voters in 2008. The field was expanded to six slots this year; a tie forced the eventual seven nominees. But before one assumes that's how the two shows squeezed into the race, Leverence points out that their missing the cut last year does not indicate where they placed in the popular vote this time: "I don't know that they came in the sixth and seventh slots this year; they may have been 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5."
Leverence also argues that there is thematic or tonal precedence for both shows' nominations, comparing "Conchords" to Emmy darling "Frasier" for its "eccentric, precious quality." Bobin fails to see the similarity.
"My work has traditionally been in 'New Comedy,' an area where you can't describe a show as 'X' meets 'Y,' " says Bobin, who's the co-creator of Sacha Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show." "The idea [of 'Ali G'] was to create a fictional character to live in the real world. In 'Conchords,' what would happen if the two lead protagonists broke into song now and then? The only ancestor of that I can think of is the Steven Bochco show, 'Cop Rock.' "
As to the other unusual nominee, Leverence says, " 'Family Guy' has that self-consciously coarse quality. . . .'Two and a Half Men' is definitely based on sexual humor and the natural vulgarities of its lead character. It's as if you have birds of a feather, and one landed on the nomination perch and one didn't." "Two and a Half Men" did not get nominated this year.
MacFarlane, though, sees a larger trend: "It's more of a function of the landscape of television comedy changing overall. You now have five or six animated prime-time shows as of this fall. At some point, they're just too influential, too much a part of pop culture" to exclude them.
The voice of Peter, Stewie and Brian Griffin won't be betting on his show to win, however. "I don't think [voters] are ready to award an animated show best comedy," MacFarlane says. "I don't think they're sure of what that would mean to the institution as a whole." Still, he says, the nomination is enough. "In a lot of ways, this is a bigger deal than if we had won in the animation category. It opens the door for [others] to submit in that category next year."