Maggie Smith was honored as best supporting drama actress for her tart-tongued dowager in "Downton Abbey," unhurt by the program's move from the miniseries category.
"Modern Family" made it look easy as the comedy won the best directing trophy and Eric Stonestreet and Julie Bowen claimed supporting actor awards.
Stonestreet was funny and touching as he accepted for his role as half of a devoted gay couple.
"I wouldn't be standing here without Jesse Tyler Ferguson, there is no Cam without Mitch," he said, saluting his co-star. "We get the awesome opportunity to play these two characters on TV and show America and the world what a loving couple we can be just like everybody else."
Then he turned saucy: "I never knew I'd be on TV as a gay man, but I love the pictures of hairy chests you guys are sending me, it's really amazing. Thank you for those."
Among reality competitors, "The Amazing Race" was honored as best reality series, ninth time in 10 nominations for the award. Tom Bergeron of "Dancing With the Stars" won as best host of a reality series.
Julianne Moore's uncanny take on Gov. Sarah Palin in the TV movie "Game Change," about the 2008 presidential campaign, earned her best actress honors.
"I feel so validated because Sarah Palin gave me a big thumbs down," Moore said, beaming. "Game Change" was crowned best TV movie.
Kevin Costner was named best actor for the history-based miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys," while Tom Berenger was named best supporting actor for the project and Jessica Lange won supporting actress honors for "American Horror Story."
"The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" proved unstoppable, winning its 10th consecutive best variety show trophy. Stewart, discussing the lasting value of his show, apparently forgot that what flies on free-wheeling cable gets censored on network television.
"Years from now when the Earth is just a burning husk and aliens visit, they will find a box of these, and they will know, just how predictable these (several bleeps) can be," he said.
Standup comic Louis C.K. won the Emmy for best comedy writing for "Louie" and for the special "Louis C.K. Live at the Beacon Theatre." Said the comedian after his second win: "Thank you to audiences around the country who still go to see live comedy."
Kimmel, who played it clean, set up one of the night's best filmed comedy bits by musing on what "Breaking Bad" would have been like had it aired in a G-rated, pre-cable era.
The answer: a spoof of the opening to "The Andy Griffith Show," with "Breaking Bad" stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, fully suited up to cook crystal meth, out at the lake with their fishing poles as the "Andy Griffith" whistling theme song was heard.
As a pungent punchline, they shot dead an unexpected witness: a friendly deputy billed as co-star Don Knotts.
The show started with bathroom humor: A filmed bit with Kathy Bates, Zooey Deschanel and other nominated actresses prepping in the restroom, then discovering a weeping Jimmy Kimmel lamenting a Botox reaction he said would keep him off stage as host.
"You look beautiful," he was reassured. "You look like a 'Real Housewife.'"
Viewers of the skit may have been puzzled by a nude Lena Dunham, the creator-star of "Girls," who's routinely brave about showing skin on the HBO comedy.
Not all his material worked. One bit that fell flat had Kimmel's parents, or so the host said, escorted out of the theater because they promised he would win an Emmy and he didn't.
"Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane found presenting can be tricky.
"Oh, the mic's over there," he said, after discovering he was on the wrong side of the stage. "This is what happens when you don't come to rehearsal," MacFarlane said.
Fashionistas noticed yellow was hot, the color of choice for Moore, Danes, Bowen and Hannah Simone from "New Girl."
"Best hair and makeup goes to Danes. Perfect!" tweeted Emma Roberts.
Emmy has to prove herself a winner with the audience. After rebounding somewhat to 13.5 million viewers in 2010 after an all-time low in 2008 of 12.3 million, last year's show drew 12.4 million viewers airing on Fox. The ceremony rotates annually among the four major networks.