NEW YORK — More than most other Emmy categories, the nominations for best comedy series emerge as a clash of disparate contenders.
With the announcement of the 61st annual Primetime Emmy Awards Thursday, a familiar, knotty question rears its head again: Just what kind of comedy is fit to be honored above the rest when Emmy time rolls around?
Maybe it should be a multi-camera sitcom such as CBS' "How I Met Your Mother," whose format takes its cue from "I Love Lucy" more than half-a-century ago. Or what about more cinematic, edgier half-hours such as HBO's "Entourage" and Showtime's "Weeds," where a sexy, middle-class widow tries to maintain her family's lifestyle by dealing drugs?
The quirky, not-for-everyone-by-design "Flight of the Conchords" has its clutch of admirers on HBO – which dares to twist the half-hour comedy form into something truly different, almost studiously amateurish and refreshingly so.
And NBC has scored with a pair of job comedies that deftly turn their respective workplaces (a paper distribution plant on "The Office" and backstage at a make-believe weekly TV comedy on "30 Rock") to furnish an opportunity for zany goings-on and sophisticated banter.
And then, as this year's final nomination for best comedy series, comes a surprise: Fox's "Family Guy."
While the long-running "The Simpsons" has been occasionally honored with animation-specific Emmys, "Family Guy" is the first animated comedy to be nominated for best overall comedy series since "The Flintstones" – and that was in 1961.
It was a happy surprise for Seth MacFarlane, the creator of "Family Guy," who is also producer, writer and supplies numerous voices.
"I think this accepting animated shows into the comedy category should be as standard as accepting single-camera shows into a category that was once dominated only by multi-camera shows," he said Thursday. "It's really no different. It doesn't matter which medium you're working in. All that matters is, are you producing a quality half-hour comedy or not."
He spoke of "a new willingness and open-mindedness by the Emmys to accept shows that are not quite traditional. You can't ignore it."
"Family Guy" has charted its own course since premiering in 1999 – and that includes navigating death and resurrection by the trigger-happy Fox network, where, since its return to the airwaves in 2005, the series continues to thrive.
The series certainly fulfills its obligation as a comedy. It's funny. But it doesn't stop there, habitually going further, hurling gratuitous cheap shots, cutaways and sight gags in every direction. It targets the very comedy form of which it is a part and even the network on which it appears. Each episode's story line feels hyperlinked to out-of-nowhere bits of foolishness. (Cookie Monster in an asylum battling his cookie addiction. Dick Cheney as a foul-mouthed greeter at Wal-Mart.)
But through it all, the basic setting is the Peter Griffin homestead in Quahog, R.I.
Peter is a cheery, melon-bellied dolt. He is married to randy redhead Lois, a closet psycho who enables Peter's almost limitless shortcomings.
Teenage son Chris is not only slovenly and overweight, but, by every indication, mentally disabled. Dowdy daughter Meg hates herself (her parents hate her more).
Stewie is a pint-sized megalomanic, raging at humanity with a British aristocrat's haughtiness. ("Fie on your toilet!" the diapered toddler blasts his elders on the issue of potty-training – "it's made slaves of you all!")
The only character who can hear Stewie is Brian, the Griffins' dog, who stands upright, speaks several languages, reads the paper and likes his martinis dry. Brian has an unrequited lust for Lois, but otherwise, his tastes are of those of a sophisticate.
Peter and his family have an unapologetic cartoonishness that insinuates them in the midst of everyday reality.
But comedy is comedy, MacFarlane said.
"Everything about the way a multi-camera sitcom works has an analogous step in animation," he said. "We do our table reads like a regular multi-camera sitcom. They do their studio-network run-through, we do our animatic, which is a rough cut. They do their tape night, we do our color screening. Everything about it – it's the same process. It's just done in a different medium. And I think everybody's very excited that that's finally being acknowledged."
As any "Family Guy" viewer knows, the characters on "Family Guy" seem infinitely adaptable to any situation. Maybe this year, up against a group of flesh-and-blood challengers, they'll be adapted into winning an Emmy.
Associated Press Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report.
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EDITOR'S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org