TV's long-delayed awards show was the smoothest in years--not that you were watching.

At first, Ellen DeGeneres didn’t even know the standing ovation was for her. As she signed off Nov. 4 as host of the 53rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, she was sure the sudden swell of applause in L.A.’s Shubert Theatre was for the evening’s show-closing surprise guest: ”I thought Barbra Streisand had just walked out on stage [early],” DeGeneres said afterward. ”I couldn’t believe people were doing that. It didn’t compute.”

After two postponements and weeks of hand-wringing, CBS’ Emmycast was a true awards-show rarity — a tasteful, timely, and just-long-enough affair anchored by DeGeneres’ quick wit and sensitivity. ”Ellen had the hardest job in show business,” says Aaron Sorkin, creator of best-drama winner The West Wing. ”She pulled it off with flying colors. The tone of the whole thing was just right.” It helped that the show boasted some real surprises, with Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack (best actor in a comedy) and Ally McBeal’s Peter MacNicol (best supporting actor in a comedy) picking up statues for the first time. Both likely benefited from last year’s revised Emmy-voting regulations, which allowed Academy members to watch submitted tapes at home instead of attending screenings or judging by reputation alone. (Translation: Take a year off, Kelsey.)

But the most entertaining Emmy show in memory was also the least watched since 1990. Much of the night’s drama was taking place a time zone away, with the World Series-clinching battle between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees. It was unfortunate timing, with Americans ultimately more interested in Mariano Rivera’s fastball than Tony Soprano’s fisticuffs. (The Emmys drew just 17.1 million viewers, compared with 39.1 million for Fox’s game 7.)

Even those in attendance were checking out the action in Arizona: Lorraine Bracco (The Sopranos) relied on FBI agents for updates, West Wing director Thomas Schlamme had a portable radio at his seat, and Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) and Kevin James (The King of Queens) took in the action backstage. ”They had to drag me away to go out and present,” says James. ”I think Ray told his wife we were working on a bit backstage.” The game was such a distraction that Emmy coexec producer Gary Smith (who kept a monitor with him to check the score) eventually yanked the Fox feed from screens in the lobby — though highlights were still played during commercial breaks for fans in the auditorium.

At least for those who managed to get to the theater on time despite all the added security. While car searches and body checks stalled entry, some stars found ways around the system. ”I forgot my tickets,” recalls Holly Hunter, a nominee in two different categories, who left her car and hitched a ride with Sally Field. ”We traded some tickets with people who hadn’t yet gone through and then snuck them back to them.”

Others didn’t even get that far. Thanks to date changes — not to mention a well-publicized debate about whether the program was still relevant following the Sept. 11 attacks — several of the night’s winners (including Sopranos star James Gandolfini and Wit director Mike Nichols) were MIA. While producers recruited about 180 seat fillers to avoid an empty-looking hall, absentees did reduce the number of teary-eyed thank-you speeches. ”Nobody ever wants no-shows,” says Smith. ”But in fairness, the date for this show was thrown out there in just a few weeks’ time and people had to work.”