Two and a Half Men's Jon Cryer proved the show is thriving despite the departure of Charlie Sheen by winning the best comedy actor Emmy.

"Don't panic, people. Something has clearly gone terribly wrong. I'm stunned," said Cryer, who on the red carpet before the show has expressed confidence he would not win. Ashton Kutcher, who joined the show after Sheen was fired, was not nominated.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus was honoured as best actress in a comedy for Veep.

But on a night when Mad Men had been tipped for honours, the early pace was set by Modern Family which made it look easy as the comedy's Eric Stonestreet and Julie Bowen claimed supporting actor awards.

Stonestreet was touching as he accepted the best supporting actor award for his role as half of a devoted gay couple on Modern Family.

"I wouldn't be standing here without Jesse Tyler Ferguson, there is no Cam without Mitch," he said, saluting his co-star. "We get the awesome opportunity to play these two characters on TV and show America and the world what a loving couple we can be just like everybody else."

Then he turned saucy: "I never knew I'd be on TV as a gay man, but I love the pictures of hairy chests you guys are sending me, it's really amazing. Thank you for those."

The show started with bathroom humour: A filmed bit with Kathy Bates, Zooey Deschanel and other nominated actresses preparing themselves in the toilets, then discovering a weeping Jimmy Kimmel lamenting a Botox reaction he said would keep him off stage as host.

"You look beautiful," he was reassured. "You look like a 'Real Housewife.'"