Emmys 2022: The comedy acting power rankings

Jean Smart in Season 2 of the HBO Max comedy “Hacks.”
Jean Smart could well win another Emmy for Season 2 of “Hacks.”
(Karen Ballard / HBO Max)

There are so many great comedies on TV right now that I want to break out in song — something from “Schmigadoon!” perhaps, maybe “Corn Puddin’” if I’m in the mood to annoy my neighbors. (To be clear, it’s my singing that’s bothersome, more so than the song.)

And as you’ll see in our annual Emmys Comedy Actor Power Rankings, there’s absolutely every reason for Emmy voters to spread around the love this year and not just focus on that show about the aggressively nice, pun-loving soccer coach with the traumatic origin story. Do your homework, voters! For these categories, it’s actually fun.

15. Janelle James, “Abbott Elementary”: A good third of this list could have focused on the excellent “Abbott Elementary” ensemble ... but let’s limit it to 20% and leave some room for other shows. Funny and poignant and miraculous in its ability to restore faith in the broadcast network sitcom, “Abbott” has been a treasure and a showcase for its ensemble. James, a gifted stand-up comedian, nails her first regular TV gig as the opportunistic and thoroughly incompetent school principal. She’s the bad boss you can laugh at, probably with some degree of knowing recognition.


14. Sheryl Lee Ralph, “Abbott Elementary”: And then there’s Ralph, a Tony nominee for the original production of “Dreamgirls” and an actor with 45 years of credits on her resume. Ralph brings such a beautiful understanding to the character of a veteran teacher helping her younger colleagues deal with the frustrations of working at an underfunded school. Show creator Quinta Brunson told Ralph: “I need a queen to play her and that is you.” That says it all, doesn’t it?

13. Henry Winkler, “Barry”: Winkler won an Emmy for the first season of “Barry,” playing self-styled master acting teacher Gene Cousineau, a good-natured (for the most part) narcissist who becomes smitten with a police detective. It was a joy watching him. And now in Season 3, Gene has been transformed by grief and rage, and good God, Winkler is even better playing in this particular register. The pure hatred on his face when Hader’s Barry demands Gene’s love and loyalty might be all Winkler needs to merit another Emmy.

12. David Hyde Pierce and Bebe Neuwirth, “Julia”: Kelsey Grammer has been talking about a “Frasier” reboot for years, but “Julia” beat him to it, casting the great Neuwirth and Pierce in primary roles and making them terrific, affectionate sparring partners. Bon appétit!

11. Ben Schwartz, “The Afterparty”: He sings! He dances! He [redacted]! Plus Schwartz imbued his character with a relatable anguish that gave this series a smidgen of poignancy.

10. Issa Rae, “Insecure”: The series finale, written by Rae, was supremely satisfying, making the point that a woman can have a satisfying relationship and a fulfilling work life and not suffer for wanting it all. “No one was doubting me except for me,” Issa says. That’s the truth. She will be missed.

9. Devery Jacobs, “Reservation Dogs”: The kooky, engaging “Reservation Dogs” won acclaim when it premiered in August and it’d be hard to believe that it hasn’t lingered in voters’ minds, particularly for newcomer Jacobs’ uncompromising, soulful turn as the leader of a quartet of Indigenous Oklahoma teens looking to leave the reservation for the dream of California.


8. Ariana DeBose, “Schmigadoon!”: To anyone who thought DeBose’s Oscar win for “West Side Story” was a one-off, “Schmigadoon!” offers a rejoinder. She is a star, and she’s here to stay. If every old-timey town had a schoolmarm as enchanting and electric as DeBose’s Miss Emma, we might not be wallowing in the ignorance we find ourselves in today.

7. Sarah Lancashire, “Julia”: Meryl Streep is a hard act to follow (Dan Aykroyd too, for that matter), but Lancashire’s affectionate portrayal of cooking icon Julia Child has been one of the year’s absolute pleasures — boisterous, bright and, in quiet moments, unguarded. The sly skill she employs when Child enthuses over making coq au vin is worthy of a nomination all by itself.

6. Hannah Waddingham and Juno Temple, “Ted Lasso”: Waddingham won last year and was again a standout as her character renounced the dark side and became a “Ted Lasso”-brand softie. I’m partial to Temple this time around for no other reason than the fact that her presence made the 10-episode run of “The Godfather” limited series “The Offer” almost endurable.

5. Brian Tyree Henry, “Atlanta”: The long-awaited third season of “Atlanta” revolved around Paper Boi’s tour of Europe, where he grapples with the opportunities that fame has presented him. It was a weird ride, at times feeling like the show’s writing team might have been partaking a bit too much in that Nepalese space cake that Paper Boi trips on in Amsterdam. My FX-sanctioned DVR summary of one episode read something like: “Season 1 was better.” (Nah. It’s just different. Bizarre. Experimental.) Through all the varying narrative approaches, Henry continued to shine, revealing the fragility and isolation beneath Paper Boi’s tough exterior. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait four years for the show’s fourth and final season, which will premiere this fall.

4. Quinta Brunson, “Abbott Elementary”: Eternal optimism isn’t the easiest note to play — and, like comedy itself, it’s a skill often taken for granted — but Brunson captures the idealism of her second-grade teacher without turning her into a caricature. That makes the character — and Brunson, who created her and the show — something of a hero.

3. Bill Hader, “Barry”: Hader won lead actor Emmys for the first two seasons of “Barry,” and as the show continues to explore the costs of his hitman character’s sins — and his attempts to atone for them and somehow become a better person — it would appear a third win may be within reach.


2. Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, Martin Short, “Only Murders in the Building”: This season’s comedy dream team. Add Amy Ryan — not an afterthought, her character would despise being considered that way — and there’s no mystery about how deserving this show is of recognition.

1. Jean Smart, “Hacks”: Yes, Smart won last year. But she’s more than earning an encore with this second season on “Hacks.”