Homeland and Modern Family were big winners at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday night, taking the best drama and best comedy awards on top of a clutch of acting honours.

Homeland’s win was a first best drama win for Showtime, said executive producer Alex Gansa and broke a four-year winning streak for Mad Men.

"This is the biggest night of my career," Gansa said, before congratulating the cast, writers, crew and the network. 

Homeland  was a double winner in the acting categories, with Claire Danes as CIA officer Carrie Mathison taking best actress and Damian Lewis, her nemesis on the show, best actor. That made a total of six 2012 wins for the espionage thriller, which also took a couple of creative Emmy awards and the award for writing.

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A pregnant Claire Danes accepts the award for best actress in a drama for Homeland. (John Shearer/Invision/Associated Press)

Danes plays a CIA officer who suspects that a former POW, played by Lewis, is a double agent. In her acceptance speech,  Danes called the show "always grounded and honest and raw."

She thanked cast members Mandy Patinkin and the writers of the show "for taking the drama to the very brink and just a little bit beyond and for supporting our expectations in the most masterful way."

"And Damian who did the magic trick of turning a villain into someone so human and someone so deeply bad."

Lewis’s win for best actor in a drama, again, shut out Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, who has had five nominations in the last five years without winning an Emmy. It also denied Bryan Cranston a fourth straight win for his role as the chemistry teacher turned drug dealer in Breaking Bad.

"I'm one of those pesky Brits, I apologize," said Lewis, who plays an American in the espionage thriller. "I don't really believe in judging art, but I thought I'd show up just in case."

Jimmy Kimmel hosts

In a broadcast plagued by apparent problems with sound quality, Jimmy Kimmel hosted and contributed a couple of bewildering sketches, including one that saw him punched out by a half dozen of TV’s leading ladies.

He started off the Emmy ceremony with some risky political humour, taking a jab at both President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney.

Other shows to earn Emmy glory included mini-series Hatfields & McCoys and Game Change, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Amazing Race, which was named best reality series. 

Modern Family was named best comedy at the end of the evening, after scooping up early awards in three categories.

Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet was named best supporting actor in a comedy, while Julie Bowen was named best supporting actress. Steven Levitan, who last won an Emmy for Frasier back in 1996, took the directing award for Modern Family.

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Eric Stonestreet poses backstage with his award for best supporting actor in a comedy series for Modern Family. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)

Stonestreet was vying with three other actors from Modern Family in the same category, including Jesse Tyler Ferguson who plays his gay partner on the series.

"We get the awesome opportunity to play these two characters and show America and the world what a loving couple we can be just like everybody else and it’s an honour to do that," Stonestreet said after accepting his award.   

Love those hairy chests

"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," he said to a round of laughter from the audience.

Emmy winners

  • Best drama: Homeland
  • Lead actress, drama: Claire Danes, Homeland
  • Lead actor, drama: Damian Lewis, Homeland
  • Writing, drama: Homeland
  • Best comedy: Modern Family
  • Lead actor, comedy: Jon Cryer: Two and Half Men
  • Lead actress, comedy: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
  • Writing, comedy: Louis C.K., Louie
  • Supporting actor, comedy: Eric Stonestreet, Modern Family
  • Supporting actress, comedy: Julia Bowen, Modern Family
  • Directing, Comedy: Steven Levitan, Modern Family
  • Best reality show: The Amazing Race
  • Best host, reality show: Tom Bergeron, Dancing with the Stars
  • Supporting actor, drama: Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
  • Supporting actress, drama: Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
  • Directing, drama: Tim Van Patten, Boardwalk Empire
  • Writing for variety: Louis C.K., Louis C.K. Live at the Beacon Theatre 
  • Directing, variety: Glenn Weiss, 65th annual Tony Awards
  • Variety show: Daily Show with Jon Stewart
  • Best miniseries: Game Change
  • Supporting actress, miniseries: Jessica Lange, American Horror Story
  • Supporting actor, miniseries: Tom Berenger, Hatfields & McCoys
  • Writing, miniseries: Danny Strong, Game Change
  • Lead actress, miniseries: Julianne Moore, Game Change
  • Directing, miniseries: Jay Roach, Game Change
  • Lead actor, miniseries: Kevin Costner, Hatfields & McCoys 

Comedian Louis C.K. took the best comedy writing award for his series, Louie, a dark comedy in which he plays a standup comic and divorced dad. He took a second Emmy later in the evening for best variety writing for his comedy special.

Jon Cryer of Two and Half Men took the best actor in a comedy, a surprise win that seems a vote of confidence for the series after the departure of Charlie Sheen. Two and a Half Men also took two 2012 creative Emmy Awards.

An emotional Julia Louis-Dreyfus forgot her speech as she got up to accept her award for best actress in a comedy. Fellow nominee Amy Poehler brought it to the stage for her.

"It is really in fact tremendous to be in category with these women who are so talented and powerful and funny and know what they are doing. Let me start by saying that," said Dreyfus, who plays the vice-president in new comedy Veep.

"At the same time, it’s a bit mystifying to me, people say that this show is a comedy and yet I don’t see anything funny about me being vice-president of the U.S."

Miniseries Game Change

The honours for miniseries were split between political drama Game Change and historical drama Hatfields & McCoys.

Game Change, about John McCain's 2008 run for the presidency and the impact of his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate, was named best drama and took awards for writing, directing and for actress Julianne Moore, who played Palin.

Director Jay Roach seemed overjoyed at his win.

"Everybody celebrates politics, but it is so difficult to get anything made about politics," he said.

The story of one America's most famous feuds, Hatfields & McCoys earned a first Emmy for Kevin Costner, who plays Anse Hatfield and Tom Berenger, who plays Jim Vance.

Berenger congratulated the writers of the series for creating a series with 75 speaking roles involving "19th century Victorian dialogue particular to eastern Kentucky and West Virginia."  

Cranston’s Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul took the award for best supporting actor. Despite winning once before, in 2010, he seemed awestruck by the win.

"I cannot believe I’m standing on this stage," he said, congratulating Giancarlo Esposito, a fellow Breaking Bad star nominated in the same category. He also thanked the dark drama’s writers for "not killing me off."