Melissa McCarthy of "Mike & Molly" was honored Sunday as best lead actress in a comedy series with an Emmy and a glitzy prom queen's crown, while Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" earned his second trophy in the best actor category.
"Holy smokes. Wow, it's my first and best pageant ever," said a beaming McCarthy. "I'm from Plainfield, Ill., and I'm standing here and it's kind of amazing."
Moments earlier, she and her fellow nominees had broken with tradition by jumping up on stage as their names were called, led by Amy Poehler of "Parks and Recreation."
They earned a standing ovation from many in the audience, which seemed fitting in a year in which TV shows and movies are giving women edgier leading roles. Among them is the box-office hit "Bridesmaids," which featured McCarthy.
Parsons looked genuinely surprised at his victory. "This is so odd for so many reasons. I was assured by many people in my life that this wasn't happening," he said.
The ceremony aired by Fox opened with a pre-taped comedy sketch that generated controversy because Alec Baldwin's part was cut after he included a joke about the News Corp. phone hacking scandal. Fox is a unit of News Corp.
Baldwin tweeted that Fox killed the joke about the hacking scandal in Britain involving the now-closed News of the World tabloid. Fox said it believed the joke was inappropriate to make light of an issue being taken very seriously by the company.
Leonard Nimoy stepped in and the bit was retaped. It featured host Jane Lynch celebrating television in a musical number, singing about TV as "a vast wonderland, a kingdom of joy in a box."
Charlie Sheen presented the lead actor award, using his time onstage to make nice with his former "Two and a Half Men" colleagues. He was fired from the show after bitterly clashing with its producer and studio and replaced by Ashton Kutcher.
"From the bottom of my heart, I wish you nothing but the best for this upcoming season," he said. "I know you will continue to make great television."
"Modern Family" won the first four Emmys, capturing best supporting comedy actress, best supporting comedy actor, best writing for a comedy and best direction for a comedy series.
Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell, who play husband and wife on the series, won best supporting actor honors for a comedy series.
"Oh, my God, I don't know what I'm going to talk about in therapy next week," said a shocked-looking Bowen. "I won something."
Burrell spoke of his own father in accepting his best supporting actor award.
"I actually got kind of a late start in acting. My dad actually passed away before he ever saw me perform and I can't help but wonder what he would think about all this ... going to work in full makeup," Burrell said.
The last-minute controversy behind the scenes was emerging even as stars such as Christine Hendricks of "Mad Men" and Julia Stiles of "Dexter" were arriving for the show.
"She looks awesome, as always," said fan Jessica Steiner, 26, of Hendricks, who was wearing a rhinestone-encrusted gown with a plunging neckline.
"Modern Family" nominee Sofia Vergara wore an ultra-glam, one-shouldered peach goddess gown and chandelier earrings. Gwyneth Paltrow stood by her, in a sleek black gown with cut-outs.
"Gwyneth is classy, and Sofia is sexy," said fan Vanessa Baeza, 27. "But I think Sofia looks better. Her dress is more flattering."
Inside the Nokia Theatre, Hendricks' show is facing a threat from the mobsters and crooked politicians of "Boardwalk Empire."
AMC's 1960s Madison Avenue saga, which has earned three consecutive Emmy Awards as best drama series, is competing Sunday with HBO's tale of Atlantic City, N.J, schemers making the most of the wild days of Prohibition in the 1920s.
"The Sopranos," another HBO show about New Jersey hoodlums, was an Emmy magnet for the cable TV channel that earned 21 trophies during its six seasons.
HBO and AMC's leading men are in a showdown as well. "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm, shut out three times by Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad," caught a break when Cranston's series didn't air within the Emmy eligibility period.
But newcomer "Boardwalk Empire" brought Steve Buscemi into the picture with a first-string nomination for the actor who has been acclaimed for supporting roles. Also nominated for best drama series are "Dexter," "Friday Night Lights," "Game of Thrones" and "The Good Wife."
Other contests to watch include best comedy series, with "Modern Family" trying to repeat last year's win against competitors including "Glee" and "Parks and Recreation."
Steve Carell of "The Office" made his last Emmy stand for his fifth and final season as clueless manager Michael Scott but lost again.
A new category, which combines the previously separate best miniseries and made-for-TV movie nominees, includes the miniseries "Mildred Pierce," with Kate Winslet nominated in the role of an embattled mother, and the movie "Too Big to Fail," about the U.S. fiscal crisis in 2008.
In the reality-competition category, perennial winner "The Amazing Race" returned to triumph Sunday after losing last year to "Top Chef." "American Idol" lost its ninth shot at winning, this time for a season in which it successfully navigated the loss of key judge Simon Cowell.
HBO came into the night with a leading 15 awards earned at the Sept. 10 creative arts awards, followed by PBS with 10, Fox with nine, CBS with seven and NBC with five.
After hitting an all-time viewership low of 12.3 million in 2008, the Emmys rebounded somewhat in the last two years and drew a 2010 audience of 13.47 million, compared to 26.7 million for this year's Grammys and nearly 38 million for the Oscars.
AP Entertainment writers Sandy Cohen, David Bauder and Solvej Schou contributed to this report.