30 greatest Emmy moments of all time
Take a look back at lasting memories from the big night, like Jimmy Fallon's Glee-ful riff on 'Born to Run.'
Girl gone wild (1965)
In 1965, America had heard plenty about Broadway's hottest new star, Barbra Streisand. TV viewers got their chance to see her perform when the 23-year-old ingénue appeared in her first tube special, My Name Is Barbra, which went on to win five Emmys. The ''Funny Girl'' lived up to her title when she appeared at the awards podium, giggling and joking about a run in her stocking. ''This is too fantastic!'' she gushed. ''When I was a kid — I mean a younger kid — my favorite shows were the Oscars and the Emmys. I didn't care who won then, just how she looked, how he looked… was he drunk? Television is a marvelous business.''
Lucy crowns Mary (1975)
Lucille Ball's appearance at the podium to present the prize for best comedy series of 1975 was marked by a mishap that would unnerve even the unflappable Mrs. Ricardo. ''Oh, I'm really in trouble!'' gasped the 64-year-old star when she tried to read the winner's name and realized she didn't have her eyeglasses. Milton Berle jumped up from the audience and handed her a wineglass, saying ''Here, look through this!'' Uncle Miltie eventually saved the day by fetching real glasses, which Lucy donned before trumpeting the news of the winner: first-timer The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That program would eventually reap 29 Emmys during its seven years on the air, more than any other series in the awards' history.
S*M*A*S*H*I*N*G success (1979)
Alan Alda was so excited about winning an Emmy for writing in 1979 that he did a cartwheel down the aisle en route to the podium — and landed in Emmy's pantheon in the process. This wasn't his first victory. He'd been hailed as best comedy actor in 1974 and earned a statuette in 1977 for directing the M*A*S*H episode ''Dear Sigmund'' (which also earned him a writing nom). Alda's scripting success for the episode ''Inga'' made him the only person in Emmy history to win for acting, directing, and writing.
A new king of the hill (1981)
''Oh, boy!'' a shocked Daniel J. Travanti cried when he won best actor in a drama series for Hill Street Blues in 1981. It was an equally stunning moment for Emmy viewers. The previous year's big winner, Lou Grant, was expected to sweep the drama categories again, but instead found itself topped by a gritty police drama that was ranked 87th among the 96 prime-time programs. Hill Street Blues' record-breaking eight victories that night — including best drama series — helped the struggling new series stave off early cancellation. It remained on the air for six more seasons, eventually becoming the Emmys' biggest champ among all dramas, with 26 awards.
Cybill Shepherd freestyles fashion (1985)
Back when the Emmys were looser, stars didn't always have glam squads and stylists dressing them from head to toe, and Moonlighting star Cybill Shepherd took advantage of this (comfortable) freedom and rocked bright orange Reebok high-top Freestyles, which were all the rage in the mid-1980s, on the red carpet. It would be years before streetwear and high-low fashion mixing would become routine down Hollywood runways, but the template was set by Shepherd nearly 40 years ago.
Father knew best (1989)
''Dad, if you're watching, this is for you!'' said Candice Bergen as she thrust her statuette heavenward after winning Best Actress in a Comedy Series for Murphy Brown in 1989. The gesture was more than just a daughter's salute to a beloved showbiz legend — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen — who'd died 11 years earlier. It was a moving reach across the awards' history. Pere Bergen was Emmy royalty — he'd been the first president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 1947. Soon after winning her first award from that organization 42 years later, Edgar's little princess reigned as an Emmy queen, winning the lead acting award four more times to tie the record held by Peter Falk, Carroll O'Connor, and Mary Tyler Moore. But that first triumph was extra special. ''I really wanted it a lot,'' she told reporters backstage. ''I was dying for it.''
Better off Ted (1990)
After eight Emmy nods and no wins, Cheers star Ted Danson was none too happy when media wags called him ''the Susan Lucci of prime time.'' He smiled good-naturedly, though, when costar Kirstie Alley ribbed him at the 1990 ceremony, likening his bad luck to that of a guy who takes a ''tease'' to a drive-in movie. An hour later, Danson finally scored. When he won best comedy series actor, he vaulted up to the stage, and the audience leaped out of their seats as well. ''This is exactly what happened to me in the drive-in,'' gasped an excited Danson. ''When I first got lucky, they all stood up and applauded.'' Then he added somberly, ''I guess you'll be saying 'You've been robbed' to some other boy. I'll miss that.''
Big talk (1991)
Cheers star Kirstie Alley (right) stunned Emmy watchers in 1991 when she accepted the award for best comedy actress and thanked her husband Parker Stevenson, ''the man who has given me the big one for the last eight years.'' Even the usually cool Jerry Seinfeld appeared flustered immediately afterward when he appeared at the podium to resume his hosting duties. ''The big one?'' he asked with a sly shrug. ''That could be anything!'' Alley's joke turned out to be a truly big hit when, moments later, Burt Reynolds (left) won best comedy actor for Evening Shade and thanked his then wife, Loni Anderson, for giving him ''two big ones.''
Stairs foil yet another actress (1997)
Gillian Anderson was visibly nervous while Helen Mirren read the nominees' names from the stage, and gushed about why she was so intimidated standing next to Dame Helen when she accepted her Lead Actress in a Drama Emmy for X-Files, but it wasn't until 2021 that EW learned what was behind her cause for her distress. Her gown was too hard to move in, which is why she had to bunny hop sideways up the stairs.
Body positive winners (1998)
Camryn Manheim thanked her parents in the audience for paying for her acting classes, took out her autograph book on stage and asked everyone to sign it — including all of the other nominees for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, and ended her speech by saying: "This is for all the fat girls!"
The show must go on (2001)
''It's important for us to be here,'' host Ellen DeGeneres told the Shubert Theatre audience when the 2001 Emmys were finally staged after two unprecedented postponements following 9/11. The unflustered DeGeneres came out swinging with edgy jokes (''Welcome to the 53rd, 54th, and 55th Emmy Awards'') and kitschy couture (a replica of Björk's swan outfit from the Oscars). She ended up presiding over one of the most inspirational Emmycasts ever. ''They can't take away our creativity, our striving for excellence, our joy,'' she said. ''Only network executives can do that.''
Lockin' lips (2003)
You knew the 2003 Emmys couldn't resist a parody of Madonna and Britney's infamous liplock at the MTV Video Music Awards — so we got not one, but two, lengthy smooches between unlikely celebrities. In the show's opening moments, Brad Garrett planted a big wet one on Garry Shandling (pictured), who then quipped, ''I just want to say to CBS, he's worth every nickel.'' Then, Garrett's costar Doris Roberts, picking up her trophy, got a long kiss from presenter Matthew Perry. Said the actress, ''That was worth getting up here for.''
One heckuva winning Streep (2004)
Think Meryl Streep's won enough awards for one lifetime? So does she, at times. Accepting her trophy in 2004 for best actress in a miniseries for Angels in America (in which she played four roles), she began, ''There are some days when I myself think I'm overrated.'' Pause. ''But not todaaaaay.'
Sense or censorship? (2005)
Leave it to Jon Stewart to make a political statement that was funny yet inoffensive. In a pre-taped sketch aired during 2005's ceremony, the Daily Show host delivered a seemingly profane rant about the government response to Hurricane Katrina, which was supposed to appear doctored by CBS censors. Deliberately obvious editing, redubbing, or superimposition of benign images (pictures of a puppy and a kitten masked Stewart's upturned middle fingers) muzzled his supposedly inflammatory remarks. Still, Stewart made a point: that the networks' post-Janet Jackson fear of government intervention has led to self-censorship of political speech as well as profanity.
Everybody (really) loves Raymond (2005)
After nine successful years, the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond took a final victory lap in 2005. They dominated the show from beginning (Doris Roberts danced with the Black Eyed Peas) to end (the show won the final award, Best Comedy, as well as Best Supporting Actress for Roberts and Best Supporting Actor for Brad Garrett). Accepting that Best Comedy award, creator Phil Rosenthal declared that Raymond's departure signaled the death not only of the sitcom but also of laughter and of smiling. Given all the love the show was getting, you could almost think he wasn't joking.
A sticky situation (2005)
It's impossible not to root for S. Epatha Merkerson when awards are on the line, but S. Epatha Merkerson winning the Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her work in Lackawanna Blues, and then having to root around in her cleavage for her acceptance speech, made everyone love her even more. (Where was this woman's Emmy for Law & Order?)
"A-- over t--" (2006)
At the 2006 awards, while accepting the Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie prize for the title role in HBO's Elizabeth I, classy British thespian Helen Mirren gave a thoughtful speech that gently urged writers to create more stories about women. But viewers are more likely to remember her opening line: ''My great triumph is not falling ass over tit as I came up those stairs.'' Not sure how that one slipped past the NBC censor, but it was so funny that presenters Calista Flockhart and Craig Ferguson both repeated it a few minutes later. They went unbleeped as well.
Cagey guy (2006)
The Emmy producers found a diabolically creative way to encourage winners to keep their speeches short at the 2006 ceremony: They put Bob Newhart in a glass booth said to have exactly three hours of breathable air, so if the show were to run long, the beloved TV icon would suffocate to death. A running gag throughout the telecast saw the cameras cut to Newhart, pounding on the walls and screaming silently to be set free. It must have worked: The show actually ended three minutes early.
The girl's got spunk (2007)
Katherine Heigl is not shy about speaking her mind — just ask former Grey's Anatomy costar Isaiah Washington — even on camera at an awards show. When an announcer mispronounced her name as ''Hei-jul'' in 2007, she pointedly corrected her. Later, when her name was read as the winner of the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama prize, the camera caught her mouthing an astonished, ''S---!'' At the podium, she explained that she'd been surprised because ''my own mother told me I didn't have a shot in hell of winning tonight.'' (Cut to Heigl's date, the mortified mom herself.) At least Heigl wrapped by thanking her mom, saying, ''This is because of you. I wouldn't want to be here without you.'' Nice save, young lady; otherwise, you might have been grounded.
'Born to Run' (2010)
The 2010 Emmy Awards began with host Jimmy Fallon's inspired riff on the previous season's breakout hit, in which Glee cast members joined FOF (Friends of Fallon) including Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Joel McHale, Jorge Garcia — even Kate Gosselin (remember her?) — onstage to sing and fist-pump to Bruce Springsteen's ''Born to Run.''
Oh yes, it's ladies night (2011)
When Amy Poehler initially walked up and onto the stage after her name was announced in 2011's Best Actress in a Comedy category, it was unexpected. When the rest of the nominees joined, resembling a line of pageant contestants, it was officially hilarious. Seeing the giggly gaggle of girlfriends' faux (or was it earnest?) excitement ''just to be nominated'' made for a great break from awards show tedium. Then when Bridesmaids' breakout Melissa McCarthy took home the prize (plus a tiara and flower bouquet!) for her role on Mike & Molly, this truly went down as one for the books.
The mystery of the missing Sherlock stars (2014)
The string of surprising wins for Sherlock in 2014 made for a couple of the funniest Emmy moments for presenters. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey introducing the award for Lead Actor in a Limited Series while doing their best impressions of each other and spouting truly universal life advice was a dream, but when Benedict Cumberbatch wasn't there to accept his Emmy, Harrelson's throwaway, "he'll get it eventually" walking off stage made it complete. Presenter Stephen Colbert took the also absent Martin Freeman's Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie, stating, "I accept this award on my behalf." The jokes didn't end there for the mysterious duo! Showrunner Steven Moffat quipped backstage Cumberbatch was "too big to come to the Emmys" after accepting his trophy. Why, Cumberbatch hadn't even done a Marvel movie yet in 2014! Too cheeky.
Sarah, Marcia; Marcia, Sarah (2016)
Sarah Paulson brought none other than Marcia Clark herself as her plus-one to the show in 2016. Perhaps it was fate or perhaps a little luck, but Paulson took home the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her portrayal of Clark in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story before the end of the night.
A trophy of love (2018)
While this may not be a popular choice (some people find public over-the-top proposals to be cringeworthy), it's the Emmys, and one could hardly expect the director of the Oscars to propose during his work hours. Glenn Weiss' wedding proposal to Jan Friedlander Svendsen with his recently deceased mother's ring was sweet, plus the man already had 14 Emmys. Why not go for love with a few million people watching?
Finally, for the Fonz (2018)
Henry Winkler has had a long journey between the Fonz and his current role as San Fernando Valley acting coaching Gene Cousineau in Barry, including an Emmy mishap that saw his name removed from the voting ballot because his episode of Battery Park aired outside of the eligibility window. Ever gracious, Winkler, laid it all out on stage when he finally won an Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy in 2014: "I wrote this 43 years ago. Skip Brittenham said to me a long time ago, 'If you stay at the table long enough, the chips come to you.' Tonight I got to clear the table."
Nurse Jackie star Merritt Wever's "I gotta go, bye" speech while accepting the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series was shorter than this entry. Perfection.
'You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there' (2015)
While accepting the trophy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her performance in How to Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis made sure to remind everyone in Hollywood Black women cannot win awards if there are not roles written for them in a moment so moving, host Jimmy Kimmel later in the evening remarked she won an Emmy just for her acceptance speech.
Sterling K. Brown's speech would not be stopped by music (2017)
"I wanna thank my cast. Milo, Mandy, Justin, Chrissy, you are the best white TV family that a brother has ever had. Better than Mr. Drummond, better than the white folks who raised Webster… " and we can't keep transcribing This is Us star Sterling K. Brown's acceptance speech, because shortly thereafter, the band tried to play him off. No such chance. Sterling kept talking despite his mic being cut and the cameras pulling away.
Always say their names (2019)
When They See Us star Jharrel Jerome dedicated his Emmy win to Exonerated Five, and in an acceptance speech that had the entire room on their feet, reminded everyone of the great injustice that had been bestowed upon Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. "The project is entirely for them. Thirty years ago they were sitting in a prison cell falsely incarcerated and today they're in suits styled by designers. Their names were [always going] to be mentioned."
The stars were the essential workers (2020)
Of the many things that changed in 2020, remembering that "stars" are not just on the screen, they include the extraordinary people who worked tirelessly throughout the tragedy during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurse practitioner Katie Duke moved us to tears describing her ordeal working with coronavirus patients and her own illness before ending with, "I hope that moving forward we are all reminded how special life is." Everyone from doctors to delivery workers had their moment at the Emmys in 2020.