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Why does 'Amazing Race' keep winning the Emmy? Why doesn't anyone gripe about 'The Daily Show's' romp?

September 22, 2009 |  7:32 pm

Amazing race jon stewart

There's a cruel double standard applied to the repeat Emmy victories by "The Amazing Race" and "The Daily Show" — both of which have swept their categories (best reality program, best variety series, respectively) seven times in a row.

When "Race" prevailed, amazingly again (it's never lost this category in the seven years of its existence), there was grumbling back in the press room. No one suggested it didn't deserve to win. The harrumphing was all about, "Oh, it won again? Isn't enough enough?"

"Survivor" host Jeff Probst even had the lousy manners to say, "Maybe 'Amazing Race' should do what Oprah did and pull itself out of competition." Moments later "Amazing" producer Bert Van Munster was asked by reporters if he'd do just that. He replied, "I'm going to discuss it with my committee here, but it's unlikely."

Jon Stewart Daily Show

However, when "The Daily Show" won again, none of the journalists seemed to mind, and nobody mentioned the Oprah option. Why?

The answer's obvious. Journalists think Jon Stewart is cool, so no one has the guts to suggest — out loud — that he should bow out. Daring to utter such a thing would risk instant ambush, flogging and crucifixion by peers. But if the basis for complaining about repeat victories is monotonous repetition, then both shows should be held to the same standard, shouldn't they?

If you wish to argue that "The Daily Show" deserves to win and "Amazing Race" doesn't (and no one I know has made that argument publicly), then consider this: A good case can be made that "The Daily Show" didn't deserve to win this year. It beat a nominee that was universally acclaimed to be one of the most relevant, important and brilliant programs of the past TV year: "Saturday Night Live" not only had a superb season, creatively speaking, but its riffs on U.S. presidential politics starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were the water-cooler talk of the nation. Did "The Daily Show" really deserve to beat that? Of course not. So how did it happen?

There are quirks of human nature that can be routinely observed as factors behind who wins Emmys. Let's start with Stewart's category: best variety series. Programs with multiple hosts seldom win Emmys. We see that all the time at the Daytime Emmys, where just a few weeks ago, for the first time in this TV award's history, a show with multiple hosts ("The View") finally won best talk show. That same voting bias hurts "Saturday Night Live." The show hasn't won this category since 1993 and that may be one of the reasons. Showbiz awards are all about hugs. When voters look over a ballot, they're more inclined to want to wrap their arms around one person than lots of people.

But there are four solo people emceeing the other four nominees in this category. One of them is just too mean. Even as much as he's liked and admired, no one, let's be honest, wants to hug Bill Maher. In fact, he's Emmy's biggest loser, with 22 defeats, no wins. David Letterman has always been a bit mean, but he's warmed up through the years. He used to win here frequently, but he's been pushed aside ever since Stewart emerged as the new Letterman, the new cool dude with snarky 'tude sitting behind a desk on TV.

Oh, yeah, Stephen Colbert is also in this category and behind a desk, but as brilliant as his show is (clearly superior to the excellent "Daily Show," methinks), he's just too silly, so voters don't take him seriously in this program category. However, he did beat "The Daily Show" for variety writing last year, so he's a threat.

Now to explain the mystery of "Amazing Race." It's no head-scratcher, really, not when you consider how Emmy voting works. A winner is decided by a few dozen academy members viewing a sample episode submitted by each nominee as an example of their best work. "American Idol" may be TV's most popular show, but that's a drawback in this case. Everybody knows how the singing contest ends, so there is no suspense when judges evaluate an episode from one random point in the TV season. In fact, it may seem quite boring — just a lot of amateurs crooning pop tunes and being subjected to ridicule by Simon Cowell.

Compare that to a typical episode of "The Amazing Race," which is always exciting — packed with adrenaline pace, fierce and quirky human interaction plus exotic locations. Many judges haven't seen the whole season, so they're delighted to discover it, and that only enhances their appreciation.

In the great big picture of TV things, it's rather appropriate that the Emmy should keep returning to an old friend. Seven years ago CBS was close to cancellling "Amazing Race," but it got a stay of execution after beating "Survivor" and "American Idol." Now "Race" has outrun that old threat, but keeps on reaping Emmys, as if to prove those early victories weren't flukes. "Amazing Race" joins other great TV shows saved by winning Emmys, including "Hill Street Blues," "Cheers" and "All in the Family."

There is, let's admit it, something amazing about that, thus making "Race's" kinship with Emmy a good thing. I think it should remain in the Emmy race for many years-- and continue to win as long as it deserves the honor. Just because some grouchy TV critics are bored by the repetition is no reason for "Race" to hit the brakes.

But maybe it's time for "The Daily  Show" to quit the derby, considering it just won when it didn't deserve to.  Let's pose the same question to Stewart that was posed to Van Munste: Don't you think it's time to pull an Oprah and withdraw from competition?

Photos: "Amazing Race," left; Jon Stewart at the Emmy Awards / CBS

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