"Modern Family" producer Steve Levitan, whose picture of the American family today includes gay couples and interracial families, told of being approached during shooting by a real-life gay couple who wanted to say thanks.
"They said, `You're not just making people laugh, you're making them more tolerant,"' said Levitan, whose show received a total of five awards.
While "Mad Men" gained the top drama award, it couldn't pull honors for stars Jon Hamm or Elisabeth Moss.
Kyle Chandler was the surprise winner in the best drama actor category for the last season of Texas football drama "Friday Night Lights," blocking odds-on favorites among his fellow nominees, including Hamm.
"I knew for a fact I would not be standing here. I did not write anything and now I'm starting to worry," said Chandler, who also beat out Steve Buscemi of "Boardwalk Empire."
It was a fitting victory for Chandler and "Friday Night Lights," which was critically acclaimed but struggled for an audience, and whose high school football team's motto was, "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."
Julianna Margulies won top drama acting honors for "The Good Wife." Margulies, who navigates politics, law and family in the show, added to her Emmy stash. As part of the "ER" medical drama cast, she won a supporting actress Emmy in 1995.
Melissa McCarthy of "Mike & Molly" was honored 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 first awards in the drama category went to Jason Katims of "Friday Night Lights" for outstanding writing, and Margo Martindale, named best supporting actress for the show "Justified."
"Sometimes, things just take time. But with time comes great appreciation," said the veteran actress.
Peter Dinklage, the winning actor in the category for sci-fi fantasy "Game of Thrones," was awed by another winner, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who received a directing trophy for "Boardwalk Empire."
"Thanks. Wow. Wow. I followed Martin Scorsese. My heart is pounding. You are a legend," Dinklage said.
The directing trophy was the sole award Sunday for "Boardwalk Empire," HBO's lavishly produced tale of Prohibition-era mobsters and crooked politicos on the make in freewheeling Atlantic City, N.J.
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."
"Oh, there's Betty White. She's the reason we start the show at 5 p.m." Lynch cracked during her opening monologue.
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 was 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.
Christina Hendricks of "Mad Men" and Julia Stiles of "Dexter" were among those bringing glamor to the ceremony.
"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."
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, included 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.
Film star Winslet, an Oscar winner, captured the trophy for lead actress, while her co-star Guy Pearce won the award for best supporting actor.
"I'm thrilled. I had a crush on Guy Pearce since I was 11 years old, so just to stand in the same room as him was really thrilling for me," Winslet said.
Barry Pepper, who played Robert F. Kennedy in the controversial miniseries "The Kennedys," won the lead actor award. Maggie Smith won supporting actress honors for the miniseries "Downton Abbey," which also was named best in its category.
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 had a leading 19 awards, including trophies given Sunday and at last week's creative arts awards for technical and other achievements. PBS, which had a hit with "Downton Abbey," earned 14 to shoulder past the commercial networks and come in second, ahead of CBS with 11, Fox with nine, ABC with eight and NBC with six.
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, Anthony McCartney, David Bauder, Solvej Schou and Beth Harris contributed to this report.