"Was I fine? Because I totally blacked out," he asked about his acceptance speech backstage.
More familiar names took home best acting trophies for comedies. Julia Louis-Dreyfus won for the second year in a row for playing the lead character in the HBO series "Veep." Jim Parsons, whose CBS show "The Big Bang Theory" has blossomed into television's most popular comedy, won his second acting award.
"It means a ton because I've actually lost many, many more times than I've won. I've lost 10 times in fact. It's delicious to win," said Louis-Dreyfus, who has now won twice as many personal Emmys for "Veep" as she did playing Elaine Benes on "Seinfeld."
As she accepted her second straight award as best actress in a drama for Showtime's "Homeland," Claire Danes paid tribute to one of the series' writers, who died last March and received a writing Emmy posthumously on 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.
A notable Emmy winning streak ended Sunday when "The Colbert Report" beat its comedy rival "The Daily Show" in the variety series category. Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" had won the award for 10 years straight.
"We get a boost from just how stupid the real news is," Colbert said backstage. Colbert, who once worked on "The Daily Show," paid tribute to Stewart and noted that Stewart gets a piece of this year's Emmy, too, because he's an executive producer of "The Colbert Report.
Another relative stranglehold - the dominance of "The Amazing Race" in the reality show category - was ended when NBC's "The Voice" won that category.
Michael Douglas was honored as best actor for his portrayal of Liberace in the HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra," besting his co-star Matt Damon. The film also captured a top trophy as best movie or miniseries. It was a good night for the pay cable service HBO, which took home seven awards and earned bragging rights over its rival Showtime.
"Saturday Night Live," whose director Don Loy King won an Emmy Sunday, has also eclipsed "Frasier" with the most Emmy Awards ever. "SNL" now has 40 in its history.
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 best drama actress nominee Kerry 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. Danes' victory denied Washington.