Click here for all our Emmys coverage.
Despite what you’ve heard, the Emmy Awards are good. They’re an annual celebration of TV’s greatest achievements, and an excuse to gather the most beautiful, funny people on the small screen and hand out awards for … pretty much the same shows every year. They’re really great.
This year’s ceremony will be the 69th annual Emmys, which is to say that this thing’s been going on for a LONG time. As with anything that lasts for multiple decades, the show has had its ups and its downs, its good years and its bad years. The Emmys got off to a tough start: the show’s host in 1949, Walter O’Keefe, was only the show’s host because Rudy Vallée had to leave town at the last minute. But things have gotten better since then: 38 years later, Bruce Willis hosted!
In advance of the 2017 awards, I wanted to determine the Emmys’ brightest years—the ceremonies that made the show worth watching, and the memories which will compel us to spend four hours of our Sunday night watching CBS. (If you have a dark soul and would rather read about the Emmy’s worst years, click here.)
To make this list, I considered the four crucial elements of any Emmy Awards:
- The Awards: Obviously, a good awards show should give out good awards—by which I mean, they should acknowledge the most worthy nominees. In the case of the Emmys, I gave bonus points to the ceremonies that embraced the changing tides of television, and also the ones that adjusted the Emmys format in ways that helped the show evolve aptly and intelligently.
- The Host: The host of an awards show is crucial. Just ask everyone who watched Seth MacFarlane do the Oscars in 2013.
- The Moments: The moments are arguably the most important part of any awards ceremony—they’re the things that make a show memorable and iconic.
- Best Available Video: For this one, I scoured YouTube for clips from each respective ceremony and selected the best candidates. In case you’re wondering, a good clip from Emmys past doesn’t necessarily have to be good, inspiring, or funny; whether its baffling, embarrassing, or laughable, all that matters is that it’s a perfect snapshot of a moment in TV history.
After pinpointing those four elements of each Emmy Awards, I ranked them (1-68) against their counterparts. Then I averaged each ceremony’s four rankings to get a total score. The lower the score, the better the awards show.
Got it? Cool. So without further ado, here are the 10 best Emmy Awards in history.
10. The 2006 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 36 out of 68): The ceremony had some high points, awards-wise: The Office deservedly won Outstanding Comedy Series (remember when NBC had a comedy dynasty and then they dismantled it on purpose?). My Name Is Earl became one of the few shows to win writing and directing awards for a pilot episode, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus continued to flourish post-Seinfeld with a win for The New Adventures of Old Christine. But there were some awards handed out on the night of August 27, 2006, that have not held up against time. 24 won three major awards, Jeremy Piven won a dang Emmy, and Lost wasn’t even nominated for Best Drama. Some good, some bad—which puts this year’s awards ranking smack dab in the middle of things.
The Host (Ranked no. 18): 2006 was Conan O’Brien’s third time hosting (he hosted in 2002 and cohosted in 2003), and he made it count. His opening—which had Conan dropping in on different shows like Lost and The Office and 24—is still funny to watch, and is a great relic of Peak Conan.
The Moments (Ranked no. 21): There weren’t a ton, but Jeremy Piven did make a joke about considering becoming a male porn star. He was explaining how an agent told him he wouldn’t get work until his 40s, and he said, “I thought, ‘Do I become a fluffer?’” In a Los Angeles Times article recapping the ceremony, Scott Collins wrote, “This is the first known usage [of the word fluffer] on the Emmys.” The mid-2000s were a good time for my guy Piven.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 9): It’s the opening skit mentioned above, which is very good.
9. The 2014 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 31): Breaking Bad won five awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, for its magnificent final season. Can’t argue there. However, the rest of the ceremony was defined by an onslaught of boring repeat winners: Modern Family (no!!!!) won for the fifth consecutive year, while The Amazing Race won for the 10th time. That last statement is most likely why you now approach the Emmy Awards with disdain and exhaustion.
The Host (Ranked no. 20): Seth Meyers is a good, if not great, host at all times. He knows how to tell a joke, he knows how to act when a joke doesn’t land, and he has a face that allows him to say mean things without actually seeming mean. So while his turn as host of the Emmys wasn’t mind-blowingly good, it was charming and serviceable, which is much better than most do. Watch his monologue, it’s very nice!
The Moments (Ranked no. 16): Andy Samberg had a good bit where he dressed up as King Joffrey and interrupted Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey presenting an award; Weird Al added words to wordless TV themes, which was weird but shockingly good; and of course, Gwen Stefani called The Colbert Report “The Colborg Report.”
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest moment of the 2014 Emmy Awards: True Detective director Cary Fukunaga being ridiculously cool and hot.
Props to you, dude.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 15): Jimmy Kimmel making fun of Matthew McConaughey was an extremely important and necessary moment in 2014.
Between True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club, the man infiltrated seemingly every award show on the planet that year, reciting the same “All right, all right, all right” speech at each one. By the time August rolled around, we as a society needed someone to knock Matt down a peg. Jimmy Kimmel did a service for all of us.
8. The 2010 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 54): 2010 was the beginning of Modern Family’s reign. That’s why its ranking is so low.
The Host (Ranked no. 14): Seven years later, I can barely get through a segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. But 2010 was a different time! Fallon hadn’t yet crossed over from incessantly charming to incessant, and his go-to habit of turning things into a playground felt fun and fresh and made the Emmys fun. There were, of course, some low points, such as Fallon impersonating Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and memorializing the end of Lost. But he created moments and injected energy into the proceedings, and he was certainly better than glorified timekeepers like Angela “Murder, She Wrote” Lansbury in 1993.
The Moments (Ranked no. 4): What a fun awards show filled with a variety of memorable moments! You had Al Pacino up on stage rambling for two-plus minutes and then sharing a heartfelt (?) moment with Dr. Jack Kevorkian. There was John Hodgman doing Emmy Awards color commentary, a gimmick that doesn’t sound funny, but it lightened the mood and kept things humming. And there was a good skit involving the Modern Family cast that saw each character falling in love with George Clooney, who was inexplicably wearing a tuxedo.
And then there was the opening number...
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 4): Again, this was in 2010, so while rewatching, pretend that Glee and Jimmy Fallon are still things that bring you joy.
Some stray thoughts here:
- The Kate Gosselin joke in the middle of this is delicious.
- RIP, Cory Monteith
- Remember Betty White was the most famous person on earth for a minute in 2010?
- Say what you will about Jimmy Fallon and his disconcerting and never-ending desire to cosplay as famous musicians from the ‘70s, but this shit brought the house down. It made Susan Sarandon attempt to whistle.
She clearly had never whistled before, but this compelled her to try. That’s saying something.
7. The 1999 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 35): Ally McBeal dethroned five-time champion Frasier. I’m no McBeal-head or Frasier hater, but one of the Emmys’ biggest issues is that the same shows and people win too often and it’s incredibly boring, so change should be celebrated as much as possible. On the downside for this year, the amazing first season of The Sopranos led all shows with 11 nominations and somehow lost Best Drama to The Practice. Shame on you, Emmys!
The Hosts (Ranked no. 12): Every so often, Emmys producers have tapped regular actors to host the show. Almost every time, it’s been a disaster. (See: Tom Selleck in ‘84, John Larroquette in ‘89, etc.) This time, however, David Hyde Pierce and Jenna Elfman were surprisingly adept hosts. They were funny, they got weird, and they were not at all like James Franco and Anne Hathaway at the Oscars.
The Moments (Ranked no. 3): If you were to make the argument that 1999 was the last great year in American pop culture, using the ‘99 Emmys as your only evidence, you would win that argument. This was a ceremony that featured a bit with a bunch of professional wrestlers, which meant Stone Cold Steve Austin got to walk the red carpet:
Pierce and Elfman put on purple leotards and did interpretative dance. It was supremely weird! People were making Felicity jokes left and right and the audience was loving it. Jon Stewart did a bit about millennials before they were called millennials! And finally, the 1999 Emmy Awards featured Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s proudest moment as a couple:
For this reason alone, the 1999 Emmys are iconic.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 18): Again, David Hyde Pierce and Jenna Elfman did INTERPRETIVE DANCE.
6. The 1970 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 1): This is ranked extremely high, and here’s why: It is the only time in Emmy history that a major category has featured entirely different nominees from the past year. Get Smart, Bewitched, Family Affair, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, and Julia were all replaced by My World and Welcome to It, The Bill Cosby Show, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Love, American Style, and Room 222. I already discussed how fond I am of whenever the Emmys experiences radical change.
The Hosts (Ranked no. 36): I don’t want to talk about one of the cohosts (whose name rhymes with “Pill Shnosby”), but in reviewing the 1970 Emmys, The Los Angeles Times wrote: “[The ceremony was] enlivened by the occasional wit of Dick Cavett.” Cavett also reportedly made a Spiro Agnew joke. Sounds like a decent host!
The Moments (Ranked no. 22): The ceremony only had one, but it was a big one: actress Patty Duke’s acceptance speech:
Duke later revealed that she had bipolar disorder, but was undiagnosed at the time. The speech has since become infamous, but the audience’s reaction in the moment is fascinating. They do not know how to process what they’re watching. It feels like one of the first moments—that took place, coincidentally or not, just six months after the Sixties ended—in which the shiny veneer of Hollywood began to crack.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 8):
James Brolin is freaking cool, man. Look at that hair. Look at him grin and say, “Well, I have no speech,” while the entire audience falls in love with him. I feel like watching this video explains every decision Josh Brolin has ever made.
5. The 1959 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 9): The 1959 Emmy Awards was just the 11th ceremony in history, and the first where the nominations were split according to genre. (They used to make all the actors compete against each other, regardless of comedy or drama designations. Imagine Zach Galifianakis competing against Kevin Spacey for “Best Actor;” it doesn’t make sense.) Sure, they also added a new category, “Best Western Series,” but this ceremony was onto something, and began the evolution of the Emmys.
The Host (Ranked no. 46): You may be surprised to find out that there was not much critical documentation of Raymond Burr’s turn as the host of the 1959 Emmys. In fact, he wasn’t even supposed to do it—he was Peter Ustinov’s replacement. Anyways, a host’s job back then was basically just to make sure the Moulin Rouge Nightclub didn’t burn down. Which it didn’t in 1959, so, good job Raymond Burr.
The Moments (Ranked no. 5): Considering it was 1959, it’s amazing how fun this show sounds. Vice President Richard Nixon was in attendance, Sue Nowak wore a lavender wig, and Fred Astaire won a slew of awards, which was one of the earliest examples of TV people bowing down to movie people. Also, modern comedy was born:
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 2): “Total Mediocrity Award” by Elaine May and Mike Nichols is so, so funny, and so ironic, sharp, and sarcastic that it must’ve made Jack Benny lose his mind. This might as well be a Jimmy Kimmel bit—and Jimmy Kimmel hadn’t even been born yet when May and Nichols pulled this off. It’s brilliant. And May’s “There are men in the industry who go on—year in and year out—quietly and unassumingly producing GARBAGE,” is magnificent.
4. The 1983 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 30): While ’83 was partially defined by the bore of repeat winners like Hill Street Blues, it was also the first year that Cheers won Outstanding Comedy Series, and was also a year in which every nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series went to SCTV. The awards this year were inoffensive and not groundbreaking, but they mostly got things right.
The Hosts (Ranked no. 4): Joan Rivers and Eddie Murphy are a stacked duo—what an impressive one-two punch for the Emmys. Rivers outshines Murphy, cursing repeatedly and unrepentantly while also changing dresses nine times during the ceremony. (And I thought Sarah Jessica Parker was being innovative at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards!) A sample of one of her jokes: “Like this [dress]? It’s something I just got off the rack … which is what Joan Crawford used to say about her daughter.” She also made fun of then–Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt because he was an anti-environmentalist, which is awesome.
The Moments (Ranked no. 8): The night’s moments really belonged to the hosts, who spiced up the ceremony at the time and make it a piece of ’80s iconography in retrospect. The Emmys would never go that edgy now, probably because of all the phone calls they got after Rivers told jokes about “a black, a Jew, two women, and a cripple.” They hired Joan Rivers—I’m not sure what they were expecting.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 13):
I just really like to see white guys with ’80s haircuts—mainly Alex Trebek, though, if we’re being honest—badly sing.
3. The 2000 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 11): The West Wing dominated and won the most Emmys at a single ceremony until Game of Thrones came along in 2015. That’s great and all—the show deserved it—but I’d also like to acknowledge that the 2000 Emmys are the first time the WB earned a nomination (Joss Whedon for writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It is a crime that the network—now the CW—hasn’t received any more major nominations since, but at least we can look back at 2000 as a time when the Academy knew what was up.
The Host (Ranked no. 2): Garry Shandling absolutely crushed this. More than 50 years into the proceedings, the Emmys had established a structure, a tone, and a handful of tropes—and no one was better at cleverly upending tropes than Shandling. He turned the Emmys into a show within a show, reprising his character Larry Sanders for backstage skits with Calista Flockhart, Sarah Jessica Parker, and David Duchovny. Watching the 2000 Emmys was maybe the only time it felt like you were watching a show rather than an awards ceremony.
The Moments (Ranked no. 10): Not to harp on Shandling’s subversive brilliance, but while most of these ceremonies include self-aggrandizing montages of prestige television and beautiful, famous people, he and his crew put together a montage of what really airs on TV most of the time: tabloid-y talk shows, home-shopping programs, and ESPN highlight reels.
There weren’t many moments of high drama or embarrassment at the 2000 Emmys, but there didn’t need to be.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 14): I picked this one, mostly because it’s cute and I really miss James Gandolfini.
2. The 2015 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 4): Game of Thrones absolutely dominated, picking up 12 total awards on the night. Amid the fracturing of TV viewership and pop culture itself, the Emmys clung to the last remaining thing everyone watches. Which gave David Benioff plenty of opportunity to thank his wife, Amanda Peet.
Also, Jon Hamm finally won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for the last season of Mad Men, which was nice.
The Host (Ranked no. 10): The reaction to Andy Samberg hosting the Emmys was tepid, but looking back at the tape, he was really funny. The opening number, stocked with a Castle dig, is good; he spoofed Game of Thrones’ “Shame!” scene; and his monologue as a whole was hilarious.
He also gave out his real, actual HBO Go password, and it worked for a pretty long time. I know because I used it for like three days after the show.
The Moments (Ranked no. 9): Aside from the little things via Samberg—and a nice little cameo from George R.R. Martin, who was certainly not finishing the next Song of Ice and Fire novel—the 2015 Emmys featured two iconic moments. The first was Viola Davis’s acceptance speech for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, a poignant, emotional stand for more diversity in TV—not just on screen, but in positions of power.
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 5): The second moment was the return of Tracy Morgan. After being involved in a 2014 car accident that killed his best friend and nearly killed him, Morgan made a surprise appearance at the show, walking onto the stage on his own strength and declaring, “I’m here.” Soak it in:
1. The 2001 Emmy Awards
The Awards (Ranked no. 2): Sex and the City became the first premium cable show to win Outstanding Comedy Series, and for the first time in 2001, reality television was acknowledged with new, separate categories. But the awards were pretty secondary in 2001.
The Host (Ranked no. 1): The 2001 Emmys were scheduled on September 16—five days after 9/11. The ceremony was of course postponed, and then postponed again in October when the war in Afghanistan began. Finally, the curtains raised on November 4.
No Emmys host has had a tougher job than Ellen DeGeneres did that night. The country was scared; Hollywood was scared—some nominees based in New York elected not to attend. But Ellen stepped up, and cemented her status as a legend, with a monologue that was warm, strong, and most importantly, funny. “They can’t take away our creativity, our striving for excellence, our joy,” she said. “Only network executives can do that.” Considering the circumstances, the performance is remarkable.
The Moments (Ranked): One more Ellen joke: “I’m in a unique position as host because, think about it, what would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?” It’s hard to overstate the impact that joke had—making people laugh at the group that hurt so many, while also reasserting television, and the country at large, as a rebuke against terrorism.
Walter Cronkite also opened the ceremony with a heartening speech, and Barbra Streisand closed it with a performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Best Available Video (Ranked no. 3): It’s Ellen’s monologue, of course.
So often, the Emmys are lambasted as a vapid, boring, pointless exercise—but in 2001 they truly meant something. That’s why that year’s show is the best iteration of the ceremony.