And the gallows humor started from the top: Neil Patrick Harris opened Sunday's ceremony with "Put Down the Remote," in which the first-time host urged viewers "Don't touch that dial/It's been quite a while since the dial was in style, but you know what I mean ... Don't jump online/'cause this fine mug of mine needs a huge high-def screen."
Last year, "Mad Men" became the first basic cable show to win a top series award during a telecast watched by 12.3 million - the Emmys' smallest audience ever. The sleek 1960s Madison Avenue saga has become a cultural touchstone, but not a mainstream hit, a fact that wasn't lost on series creator Matthew Weiner as he accepted the award for a second straight year.
"It is an amazing time to work in TV," Weiner said. "And I know that everything is changing, but I'm not afraid of it because I feel like all these different media is just more choice and more entertainment. It's better for the viewers in the end and I'm glad to be a part of it."
Thanks in part to Patrick's star turn, the show itself seemed back on track, though its participants were all too aware of what the industry faces. At one point, presenter Ricky Gervais razzed the Emmycast, cracking an inside joke he said was "just for the 5,000 people in this room - not for the 5,000 people watching at home."
And in another sign of the times, not all winners had to be on set early Monday morning.
Kristin Chenoweth, the first winner of the night, struggled to hold back tears as she accepted the Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy for "Pushing Daisies," which was canceled by ABC.
"I'm not employed now, so I'd like to be on `Mad Men,"' she said. "I also like `The Office' and `24.' Thank you so much to the academy for recognizing a show that's no longer on the air." (Chenoweth was later examined by onsite paramedics because she felt a migraine coming on, but felt better after lying down and hoped to attend afterparties, spokeswoman Meghan Prophet said.)
At least one ratings juggernaut took a trophy when Jon Cryer of "Two and a Half Men" won a supporting acting Emmy. Cryer, whose series is the most-watched comedy on TV, brought a wry tone to his speech.
"I used to think that awards were just shallow tokens of momentary popularity, but now I realize they are the only true measure of a person's worth as a human being," Cryer quipped.
Last year, "30 Rock" creator-star Tina Fey used her moment in the spotlight to beg for more viewers. This time, in accepting the show's third straight win for best comedy series, she slyly called out her own network's cost-saving move that has irked many creative types in the industry: blocking out five nights of prime-time slots for Jay Leno.
"We want to thank our friends at NBC for keeping us on the air," she said, "even though we are so much more expensive than a talk show."
At one point, Harris took his own swipe at broadcast TV during a sketch in his alter ego as Dr. Horrible, the mad scientist of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog," an online musical comedy he created during the Writers Guild strike.
"Television is dead," sneered Dr. Horrible. "The future of home entertainment is the Internet. Why watch something like this (he spread his arms grandly) when you can see it like this," whereupon he snapped his fingers and the screen shrunk to postage-stamp size. (He also touted online entertainment's lack of interruptions - the screen then hiccuped into "buffering" mode - and panicked when his computer battery began fading, ending the bit.)
Harris' snappy turn as host earned on-air kudos from several people onstage, including Jon Stewart, a double winner for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," and Jeff Probst, a repeat winner as reality show host for "Survivor."
"Neil Patrick Harris, THIS is how you host the Emmys. Nice job," said Probst, who took part in last year's five-host debacle.
While the telecast felt like a fresh departure from that failed experiment, a vast number of stars taking hardware from the Nokia Theatre were themselves reruns.
Alec Baldwin won his second straight Emmy as lead actor in a comedy for "30 Rock," one of three repeat winners in the four major acting categories. Glenn Close's performance as a ruthless trial attorney on "Damages" and Bryan Cranston's turn as a meth-making, cancer-stricken teacher on "Breaking Bad" were honored with the top dramatic acting Emmys, the second consecutive trophies for both.
Toni Collette dethroned Fey as lead actress in a comedy, winning for "United States of Tara," in which she plays a mother with multiple personalities on Showtime. Fey won guest actor in a comedy for her Sarah Palin impersonation on "Saturday Night Live."
Michael Emerson, who plays the cruelly devious Ben on "Lost," and Cherry Jones, the stalwart U.S. president on "24," were honored as supporting actors in drama series.
Seven was a lucky number for two shows that continued their winning streaks: "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" won the trophy for best variety, music or comedy series, and "The Amazing Race" won in the reality-competition category, the seventh trophies for both.
HBO's "Grey Gardens," the story of a reclusive mother and daughter who were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and PBS' Dickens adaptation "Little Dorrit" won for best movie and miniseries, respectively.
HBO won a leading 21 Emmys, followed by NBC with 16, ABC with 11 and Fox with 10. CBS and PBS had nine each.
In his closing comments, Harris reminded viewers where they can again find the Emmys.
"May we see you again on broadcast television next year," he said, emphasizing the word "broadcast."
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