Piven took aim at the five reality hosts who helped open the ceremony in what could charitably called a rambling way, saying, "What if I just kept talking for 12 minutes - what would happen? That was the opening."
The crowd at the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards laughed heartily, not a good sign for the hosts, who included Ryan Seacreast of "American Idol."
Jean Smart of ABC's "Samantha Who?" was honored as best supporting actress in a comedy series.
"I'm very proud to be an actor," Smart said.
As the evening progressed, politics went from having a cameo to a co-starring role.
"I really look forward to the next administration, whoever it is," Jon Stewart said as he accepted the best variety, music or comedy series award for "The Daily Show." "I have nothing to follow that. I just really look forward to the next administration."
Later, Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose "The Colbert Report" won a writing trophy, teamed to present an award - and exchange banter in which they used a package of prunes as a metaphor for the upcoming presidential election.
"America needs prunes. It may not be a young, sexy plum.
Granted, it's shriveled and at times hard to swallow. But this dried-up old prune has the experience we need," Colbert said.
Tommy Smothers received a commemorative writing achievement for his work on the cutting-edge and controversial "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" from the late '60s - and turned serious.
"It's hard for me to stay silent when I keep hearing that peace is only attainable through war. And there's nothing more scary than watching ignorance in action," he said, dedicating his award to "all people who feel compelled to speak out, and are not afraid to speak to power, and won't shut up and refuse to be silenced."
Martin Sheen, who played a president on "The West Wing," lauded television for giving America a front-row seat to real presidential campaigns. Then he urged viewers to vote for "the candidate of your choice, at least once."
The award for best TV movie went to "Recount," about the contested 2000 Bush-Gore contest.
"John Adams," about the founding father, was named best miniseries and won other awards including acting trophies for Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson.
Throughout the evening, the ceremony kept its landmark 60th birthday in the spotlight with salutes to television's past.
Pop star Josh Groban offered a marathon medley of TV theme songs, ranging from "The Simpsons" to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" to "South Park" to "Gilligan's Island." At one point, Ed McMahon kicked in a "Heeeere's Johnny!" to salute Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show.
A tribute to memorable TV dialogue of the past was delivered by the stars of today in an opening clip package.
"One of these days, Alice, pow, right in the kisser!" Helen Mirren said, quoting Jackie Gleason's line from "The Honeymooners."
As the show opened at the Nokia Theatre, Howie Mandel and his fellow hosts riffed about a lack of material for the ceremony.
"We are on Sarah Palin's bridge to nowhere," Mandel said.
They then turned to slapstick: "Boston Legal" star William Shatner came on stage to help Tom Bergeron rip off co-host Heidi Klum's modest suit to reveal hot pants and more skin.
Retro '60s drama "Mad Men" and legal thriller "Damages" took a shot at making Emmy history Sunday as basic cable's first best-series nominees.
Both shows represent a mixed blessing for the ceremony because they're relatively undiscovered by viewers, said Emmy executive producer Ken Ehrlich.
"You're almost introducing a broader audience to some of those shows. It's a challenge," Ehrlich said. But it also meant the ceremony could be "fresher. ... you're playing with some new teams and that can be fun."
The attention also may prove a boon for "Mad Men" and FX's "Damages," which on a good night each attract just a sliver of the Emmy audience that last year measured 13 million.
For "Mad Men," the nominations turned up the buzz on a sophomore show that has critics swooning. The meticulously produced take on 1960s America through the prism of Madison Avenue was the most-nominated drama series with 16 bids, including one for star Jon Hamm.
The drama has seen a steady week-to-week ratings increase over last year, with a recent episode up 70 percent in viewership and touching 2 million, series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner said. The Emmys could be the catalyst for more.
"Just seeing us there would help, obviously, but winning would be better," Weiner said.
"Damages," FX's legal thriller with Glenn Close, also drew a best-series nod and one for its movie-star lead.