"I did not see this coming," said "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan, tipping his hat to Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards," the first digital contender for top Emmy honors.
"Modern Family" won its fourth consecutive trophy for top comedy series even though its oft-honored cast was shut out this time.
Jeff Daniels won the Emmy for best drama series actor for his portrayal of an idealistic TV anchorman in "The Newsroom," with Claire Danes capturing top actress honors for her troubled CIA agent in "Homeland."
Daniels noted that he'd also received an age 50-plus acting honor from AARP, which represents the interests of older Americans.
"With all due respect to the AARP, this is even better," Daniels said.
Danes, who captured her second trophy for the terrorism drama, paid tribute to one of the series' writers, Henry Bromell, who died last March and who received a writing Emmy posthumously Sunday.
The ceremony often struck a melancholy note with extended tributes to stars and other industry members who died in the past year.
"Well, this may be the saddest Emmys of all time but we could not be happier," said "Modern Family" executive producer Steve Levitan.
"This just in. Nobody in America is winning their Emmy office pool. Surprises galore," said host Neil Patrick Harris.
"Saturday Night Live" became the most-honored series ever with Don Roy King's directing award Sunday; its cumulative 40 Emmys top previous record-holder "Frasier."
Julia Louis-Dreyfus claimed her second consecutive best comedy actress award for her role as an ambitious political second banana in "Veep," with Jim Parsons again claiming the top comedy acting trophy for "The Big Bang Theory."
"This is so much good fortune it's almost too much to bear," said Louis-Dreyfus. "I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to make people laugh. It's a joyful way to make a living."
Parsons added to the awards he won in 2011 and 2010 for the role of a science nerd.
"My heart, oh my heart. I want you to know I'm very aware of how exceedingly fortunate I am," he said.
"This is a two-hander and Matt, you're only as good as your other hand," Douglas said, then got really racy: "You want the bottom or the top?"
The ceremony's first hour was relatively somber, with memorial tributes and a doleful song by Elton John in honor of the late musical star Liberace, the subject of the nominated biopic "Behind the Candelabra."
"Liberace left us 25 years ago and what a difference those years have made to people like me," said John, who is openly gay in contrast to the closeted Liberace portrayed in the TV movie.
Jane Lynch paid tribute to Cory Monteith, her "Glee" co-star who died at age 31 in July of a drug and alcohol overdose. "His death is a tragic reminder of the rapacious, senseless destruction that is brought on by addiction," she said.
Edie Falco recalled her late "The Sopranos" co-star James Gandolfini, saluting him for his "fierce loyalty" to his friends and family and his work with military veterans, while Rob Reiner remembered Jean Stapleton of "All in the Family" and Michael J. Fox honored "Family Ties" producer Gary David Goldberg.
Diahann Carroll, the first African-American Emmy nominee in 1963 for "Naked City," created one of the night's most heartfelt moments when she took the stage with Washington and noted the importance of diversity in the industry and Emmys.
"Tonight, she better get this award," Carroll said of Washington, who covered her eyes in embarrassment.