30 Unforgettable Moments from the Emmys
With the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards just around the corner, it’s time to mark your ballots and cheer on your favorite celebrities and television shows from the comfort of your living room. This year, Killing Eve’s phenomenal Sandra Oh and the cast and crew of Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock’s groundbreaking Pose are poised to make awards show history.
But this is live TV — things don’t always go as planned. From historic, record-setting wins to cringe-worthy snafus and sketches, we take a look at 30 unforgettable moments from the last seven decades of Emmys’ history.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus Wins the Popular Vote with Veep | 2017
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is familiar with the Emmys’ stage, thanks to her wins in the Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy and Best Lead Actress in a Comedy categories for Seinfeld and The New Adventures of Old Christine, respectively. But her starring role in Veep as perennial presidential hopeful Selina Meyer led Louis-Dreyfus to make awards show history.
Merritt Wever Remedies Long Speeches | 2013
Though Merritt Wever has popped up in big-name productions like Signs (2002), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Law & Order, she became a household name in 2013 when she killed it on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. In fact, Wever was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy for her work on the show in 2013.
Lena Waithe Pens History | 2017
In 2017, Lena Waithe made history by becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe nabbed her award for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of Netflix’s Master of None. The episode’s storyline was biographical for Waithe, who also plays the central character, Denise.
Andy Samberg Wanted to HBOGo & Chill | 2015
The year? 2015. The situation? We found ourselves paying for Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon’s Prime Video, Crunchyroll, and — because cable packages were on the outs — HBO Now. With must-see shows premiering exclusively across all these platforms, we were all looking to split the cost of services with friends, family, coworkers and maybe even that person we always see on the 9:15 a.m. train.
Tatiana Maslany Receives One Award for 12 Roles | 2016
Orphan Black centers around Sarah Manning, a con artist played by Tatiana Maslany, who witnesses her doppelganger, Beth Childs (also played by Maslany), leap in front of a train. Hoping to make some quick cash, Sarah steals the woman’s identity. Her misadventures cause her to cross paths with soccer mom Alison Hendrix (Maslany), PhD student Cosima Niehaus (Maslany), assassin Helena (Maslany), and villainous Rachel Duncan (Maslany) — among others (Maslany).
Helen Mirren Speaks Uncensored | 2006
Dame Helen Mirren is no stranger to royalty or the trappings of polite society. She is one of only a few performers to achieve the "Triple Crown of Acting." Mirren won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006). And then she won a Tony Award for Best Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth II again, this time in The Audience. And this Emmy? Mirren nabbed it for playing the titular role in the mini-series Elizabeth I (2005).
Viola Davis in “How to Get Away with Making Emmy History” | 2015
In 2015, the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category seemed more like a dream cast for an Ocean’s 8 (2018) sequel. With Claire Danes (Homeland), Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder), Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men), and Robin Wright (House of Cards) all nominated, it was difficult to predict the outcome. Davis, in her first Emmy nomination, clinched the top prize.
Jon Hamm Crawls Like a Mad Man | 2015
As they say in showbiz, the eighth time is the charm — or so it was for Mad Men’s Jon Hamm anyway. He was nominated for his portrayal of Don Draper every year after the show’s premiere, but it wasn’t until that farewell season that Hamm finally came out on top. Possibly because the years of working on Mad Men were weighing on him, Hamm disregarded the steps and crawled on stage to accept the award.
Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode” Fetches a Win | 1997
Both Ellen DeGeneres and her onscreen self, Ellen Morgan, made television history with "The Puppy Episode." The episode was given this code name to keep the plot underwraps: In the fourth season of the sitcom Ellen, DeGeneres wanted her character to come out as a lesbian. ABC balked a bit, rumors about DeGeneres and her character’s sexuality swirled, and advertisers and religious groups threatened the comedian.
Lucille Ball Creates a Spectacles Spectacle | 1975
Though Lucille Ball won several Primetime Emmy awards, her acceptance speeches weren’t her most memorable moments on the Emmys’ stage. In 1975, the Queen of Comedy turned the presentation of Outstanding Comedy Series into a familiar slapstick gag. She announced, "And the winner is…" — and then struggled with the envelope for a moment before admitting that she had forgotten her glasses.
Gail Fisher Uncovers Emmys Gold in Mannix | 1970
Gail Fisher made history by winning an Emmy for her portrayal of Peggy Fair on Mannix, a show about a private investigator. Fisher’s 1970 win for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Drama) marked the first time a Black woman won an Emmy. Her character, Peggy Fair, also made history by being one of the first Black women to be featured regularly in a primetime television show, along with Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura from Star Trek.
Katherine Heigl Has a Moment of (Seattle) Grace | 2008
The Grey’s Anatomy writers were shocked (and offended) in 2008 when Katherine Heigl, one of the show’s stars, decided to withdraw from Emmy consideration. Heigl withdrew because she felt she wasn’t given material good enough to warrant a nomination. At the time, Grey’s garnered the highest rates for commercials — after American Idol — and was heavily viewed, but Heigl didn’t think her character’s story was particularly praise-worthy.
“Metallics Are Very in This [Awards] Season”: Laverne Cox’s Historic Nomination | 2014
Orange Is the New Black changed the television landscape in so many ways. As Netflix’s second original series (right behind House of Cards), it helped ignite water cooler talk around the streaming service’s programming and transformed it from a virtual Blockbuster into a serious show and movie-making enterprise. It also helped center the stories of folks who often aren’t given space on primetime television, including women, people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming folks, and queer folks.
Candice Bergen Has an “FYI” for Dan Quayle | 1992
In 1992, Murphy Brown had just aired its season four finale, which famously ends with the titular character, played by Candice Bergen, giving birth to a baby. What’s so contentious about that? Well, Brown was an unmarried woman who wanted to raise her child on her own terms. What’s so contentious about that? We’re not sure, but former Vice President Dan Quayle certainly had something to say about it at the time.
“King of Calypso” Harry Belafonte Courts an Emmy | 1960
Known as the "King of Calypso" for popularizing the Caribbean musical style in the 1950s, Harry Belafonte shot to fame with his recording of "The Banana Boat Song." After achieving international success in the music industry, Belafonte broke into acting and won a Tony Award in 1954. Four years later, he became the first Black person to win an Emmy for his special Tonight with Harry Belafonte.
Betty Thomas Gets “Punk’d” 18 Years Early | 1985
Perhaps one of the strangest moments on our list occurred when Betty Thomas attempted to accept her Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy in 1985. The Hill Street Blues star headed for the stage when her name was called but was shocked to see party crasher Barry Bremen, known as "The Great Imposter," accepting the award on her behalf.
Thank You for Being a Win | 1988
The Golden Girls carved out a space for women in comedy in a new, innovative way. Not only was the cast composed of four leading ladies, but they were also older women. Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty proved that older women were funny, intelligent, and completely capable of being stars — even though women over 40 were typically written off by Hollywood.
Alan Alda Cartwheels to Success | 1979
Perhaps best known for his work as an actor on the acclaimed TV series M*A*S*H, Alan Alda is now a six-time Emmy winner. In fact, he had already won several Emmys for the show by the time 1979 rolled around, but this particular nomination at this particular show was something that really excited him.
The Night Of Riz Ahmed’s Win | 2017
When he won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for HBO’s The Night Of, Riz Ahmed became the first man of Asian descent to win an acting award at the Emmys. In the series, Ahmed plays Nasir "Naz" Khan, a Pakistani/Iranian-American student accused of murdering a young woman. The show examines the role racism plays within the criminal justice system.
Elaine May & Mike Nichols Trash TV | 1959
At the 11th Emmy Awards in 1959, things were… a bit strange. Richard Nixon, then vice president, was in attendance and spoke about the importance of free speech on television. And then, the renowned comedy duo of Elaine May and Mike Nichols went on stage to perform a skit in which they presented an award for Total Mediocrity.
Blessed Be The Handmaid’s Tale | 2017
Although Netflix made history when its original series House of Cards was nominated for an Emmy for best drama, it never actually won the top prize. In 2017, Hulu beat Netflix to the punch when the streaming service nabbed its first series Emmy with The Handmaid’s Tale. This win made Hulu the first streamer to ever win a major series award.
“Diversity Is Solved” Musical Number Doesn’t Sing Praises | 2018
The 70th Emmy Awards kicked off with a spectacular musical number about diversity. That’s right. Saturday Night Live cast members Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon took to the stage to quip about Hollywood making so much progress, implying (tongue in cheek, of course) that the whole issue of diversity in the industry had been "solved."
Cagney & Lacey & Karen Arthur | 1985
Karen Arthur made Emmys history in 1985 by becoming the first woman to win an award for directing. Arthur won for directing an episode of hit drama Cagney & Lacey, which was sort of the OG Rizzoli & Isles. In the show, the titular women are cops in New York City, but, despite being partners on the job, they lead separate, rather different personal lives.
Barbara Stanwyck Copes with Her Cape | 1961
Four-time Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck was known as the highest-paid woman in the United States in 1944. Over the course of 38 years, she made a whopping 85 films and then turned to the next big thing — television. Though she ended up winning three Emmys over the years, her first win for The Barbara Stanwyck Show in 1961 is certainly her most memorable.
Isabel Sanford Leads the Way on The Jeffersons | 1981
In 2016, Tracee Ellis Ross, star of ABC’s Black-ish, earned her first Emmy nomination, making her the first Black actress to be nominated for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 30 years. For the entirety of Emmys’ history, only five Black women have ever been nominated in this category, and of these five actresses, only one comedy star nabbed the award.
Earl Warren Broadcasts His Feelings on TV | 1951
The 1951 Emmys were notoriously not great. For the first few years of the show’s run, only Los Angeles-based TV shows and stations were nominated for Emmys. (So L.A., if you ask us.) Strangely, it was also the year a now-defunct category called Best Sports Program was introduced. The nominees? The L.A. Rams and then just vague things like College Basketball Games and Hollywood Baseball. But the strangest thing was Governor Earl Warren’s speech.
Direct Your Attention to Donald Glover | 2017
In 2017, Donald Glover won an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his wonderful performance in Atlanta, but his first Emmy win came earlier in the evening when he nabbed the award for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series for an episode of Atlanta. Glover made history with this initial win by becoming the first Black director to win in the comedy category.
“You’re a Winner, Baby!”: Drag Race Tops the Competition | 2018
Though RuPaul won an Emmy in 2016 for Outstanding Host in a Reality or Competition Program, Drag Race didn’t take home the big prize for best program until 2018. That same year, RuPaul won again for hosting and lent his talents to the sarcastic "Diversity Is Solved" opening number.
Me Too Moments Before the Movement | Numerous Years
There are too many memorable — and by that we mean cringe-worthy and downright uncomfortable — Emmys moments that involve gags about the objectification of women. And there are a ton of moments that spark conversation about consent as well.
And the First Emmy Goes to… Shirley Dinsdale | 1949
Before she broke into television, Shirley Dinsdale was a noted ventriloquist and 1940’s radio personality based out of San Francisco. As a child, an accident led to Dinsdale being badly burned. During her recovery, Dinsdale’s father gave her a ventriloquist dummy, which the actress dubbed "Judy Splinters." And it was Judy that helped Dinsdale nab an Emmy.