By Louis Allred

In looking at this year’s nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series, we find that four of them fit the usual concept of what a television comedy is. Until recently, nominees were often classical, three-camera sitcoms, a format that goes unrepresented this year (mainly because there are so few left on TV right now). But the new vogue of single-camera comedies fills out the ranks with four of the six nominations (30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family, and The Office). The remaining two, however, don’t fit as neatly into the category, raising the question: What qualifies as a comedy anymore?

Glee, on runtime alone, is one of the odd ducks, being the only hour-long show nominated this year. This isn’t entirely without precedent; Weeds was nominated last year, and the past decade also had Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives on the list. There have been rare nominations of hour-long Comedies throughout Emmy history, but they were usually variety shows. Love American Style was nominated twice, but that show had a very “sitcom” sensibility to it. The recent nominees have more in common with standard hour-long dramas than sitcoms, often blending dramatic storylines with humor. The trendsetter for this new wave was Ally McBeal; its nomination in 1998 drew debate as to whether it belonged in Comedy, debate that still continues with the current batch of nominees.

Glee dances this line as well, mixing humor (Sue Sylvester, need I say more?) with often weighty drama (teen pregnancy, struggling with homosexuality, divorce). As mentioned in the Variety article, Ally McBeal seemed to be chosen for Comedy almost as if they flipped a coin. Glee seems the same way, though one can easily make a case that it belongs in Comedy. Despite its dramatic tendencies, the mood of the show is usually light, and most of the dramatic issues presented are, if not solved, at least handled by episode’s end. Plus, there are the songs, and as creator Ryan Murphy notes, “This genre is never called ‘musical drama.’ We’re a comedy.”

Nurse Jackie is a thornier issue. I doubt anyone would dispute calling it the most dramatic of the Comedy nominees this year. The lead character is a gruff, pill-popping (or snorting) ER nurse who swears like mad and suffers no fool. Apart from her drug use, she also juggles a home life (strained due to her job) and an affair with a pharmacist who supplies her the pills (an affair that quickly went south this season). On top of all that, we get a non-stop stream of patients with grievous injuries and terminal diseases. Most don’t make it through an episode.

Laughing yet?

Honestly, though, the Comedy category is probably the better home for Nurse Jackie. Structurally, it’s a half-hour show, and from the early 60s on, there hasn’t been a half-hour show nominated for Drama. More importantly, despite the material, it does have a distinct comedic tone, pitch-black as it may be. Jackie’s interplay with the other characters is funny, and the dramatic plots often take humorous turns. In one episode, where Jackie assists a cancer patient, her suggestion to use medical marijuana riles the uptight Dr. Cooper, who reacts in a typically petulant way, and the patient’s introduction to weed is played for laughs. All of this acts as a buffer against the fact that the guy is dying, and probably soon. For all the drama involved, there are plenty of laughs on the show, probably enough to tip the ratio toward the Comedy side.

So again we ask, “What qualifies as a comedy anymore?” In the earlier days of Lucille Ball and Dick van Dyke, it was more cut-and-dry. You had an audience, a ridiculous situation, and jokes, jokes, jokes. The recent wave of Comedy nominees sometimes toe the drama line, covering serious matters with more effort and more often than a sitcom’s occasional “very special episode.” It sometimes feels like Comedy has become more of a “dumping ground” for shows the Academy – and producers themselves – have trouble classifying. But the decisions have been sound, I think. Glee, like Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, has a sense of camp that keeps the drama from getting too serious. And Nurse Jackie, bleak as it is, finds the humor in any situation it covers.

This will be a continuous debate as shows cross-pollinate genres and tones. Down the line, the Academy may split show nominations even further, or just give up and have one category like the Oscars. Who knows? But, as it stands now, shows like Glee and Nurse Jackie are best served in the Comedy category.

At least until the “Best Musical Set in High School” and “Best Dark Hospital Comedy” categories are approved. They’re locks for those.