As expected, Conan O'Brien was rewarded for submitting himself with an Emmy nomination for his seven-month tenure at the helm of "The Tonight Show." While it isn't so surprising that he edged out the returning Jay Leno -- who won this award once (1995) during his first 17 years hosting this late-night staple -- it is a jaw-dropper that "Late Show with David Letterman" is missing from this race for the first time since it debuted in 1994.
"Late Show" won the Emmy for its first season and then picked up five in a row beginning in 1998. That winning streak was halted by "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," which has owned this category since 2003 and contends once again this year. O'Brien will face this Comedy Central hit head-on in the ratings when he launches his new chat fest on TBS in the fall.
It took O'Brien a full decade of hosting "Late Night" before his show landed its first Emmy bid in the variety comedy music series category in 2003. It contended unsuccessfully in this race for five years. In both 2008 and 2009, "Late Night" lost its slot in the list of nominees to the resurgent "Saturday Night Live," which is in the hunt once more.
The other two nominees have been perennial Emmy bridesmaids. "The Colbert Report" earned its fifth consecutive nomination and has an excellent chance to prevail this year thanks to an episode it plans to submit to Emmy jurors -- the host's hilarious and heartfelt trip to Iraq. "Real Time with Bill Maher" earned nom No. 6 but has failed to win a single Emmy, even in the crafts categories. Indeed, Maher is the new Susan Lucci, ranking as the biggest loser in the history of TV's top award, with 22 defeats and no wins for producing, writing and performance.
The new edition of "Late Night" -- helmed by Emmy host Jimmy Fallon -- was snubbed this year. Also missing is "The Mo'Nique Show," starring the "Precious" actress who swept the last film awards derby (New York Film Critics Circle to Oscars).
O'Brien and his scribes are also in the hunt for a bookend to the Emmy they won in the writing race in 2007 after being also-rans every year from 1996 to 2004 and then again in 2006. That was the only Emmy won by "Late Night" out of 29 nominations, including two more bids for writing in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, the "Late Night" writers lost to the team behind "The Colbert Report" and in 2009 to the crew of "The Daily Show."
Letterman, who won four consecutive Emmys as part of the writing team on the original "Late Night" beginning in 1984, had been a perennial writing nominee for "Late Show" until this year. However, Leno and his team of gag writers were snubbed by the Emmys for the entire run of his first version of the "Tonight Show." Beyond that 1995 win for best variety comedy series, his show took home just three technical awards for a track record of four Emmys out of 40 nominations. The last nomination for Leno's edition was in 2005, when he contended for the now-defunct individual performance prize, losing to Tony Awards host Hugh Jackman.
Photo: Conan O'Brien guesting on the original "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Credit: NBC