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Public Meltdowns and Profane Dames: 20 Off-the-Hook Emmy Moments

The unforgettable highs, lows and straight-up WTF occurrences that have happened on the TV awards show’s broadcasts

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The Primetime Emmys have never been the most salacious awards show on TV, usually upstaged by the drunken antics of the Golden Globes and the glitzy glamour of the Oscars. But it is still the gold standard when it comes to handing out small-screen statuettes — and it definitely has had its share of water-cooler moments. From Patty Duke's despondent thousand-yard stare to a thrill-seeking stage-crasher to same-sex kissing and political statements, the Emmys have provided some memorable moments throughout their 66-year history.

The 2014 ceremony, hosted by Seth Meyers, takes place on August 25th in Los Angeles, and in preparation for the annual television event, we look back at a few firsts, flubs and genuinely entertaining incidents. (Ellen DeGeneres in a swan dress, anyone?)

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Patty Duke’s Public Meltdown (1970)

The first-ever trophy for Best Actress in a Made-for-TV Movie went to the former child star, for My Sweet Charlie. The then-23-year-old seemed out of it from the minute she walked onstage, looking glassy-eyed and disconnected as she spoke. Seen staring off into space and moving robotically, the press speculated the next day that she was on drugs. But it was later revealed that she was in the midst of a severe mental breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Lucille Ball

THE 19TH ANNUAL PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS -- Pictured: (l-r) Gary Morton, Lucille Ball (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Lucille Ball Forgets Her Glasses (1975)

The original Queen of Comedy unleashed some of her signature slapstick at the 1975 telecast when she couldn't read the winner of outstanding comedy series — because she had forgotten her glasses. After mixing up the envelopes and emphatically announcing she was "really in trouble," Milton Berle jumped onstage to offer assistance via an empty wine glass for the then-63-year-old I Love Lucy star to look through. Finally, somebody coughed up a pair of lenses and The Mary Tyler Moore Show was declared the winner – the first of 29 trophies during its time on the air. (Ball herself was a five-time winner.) Still, one question lingers: Was the pandemonium planned, or a real-life faux pas?

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Alan Alda Cartwheels Down The Aisle (1979)

Although he had previously won twice for acting in and directing M*A*S*H, Alda was so happy to be recognized for his writing skills on the hit TV show that he did a cartwheel on the way to the podium, admitting he was "exuberant"over the win. He took home two more Emmys over the years (another for acting on M*A*S*H and one for his supporting turn on The West Wing), and stands as the only person ever to win trophies for acting, writing and directing for the same series. Score: A perfect 10. 

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Odd Couple: Eddie Murphy And Joan Rivers (1983)

In a seemingly unlikely pairing, 22-year-old Murphy and 50-year-old Rivers co-hosted the show (yes, really). One thing they did have in common: foul mouths. Rivers far outshined Murphy in this particular department during the ceremony, dropping an eyebrow-raising joke about "a black, a Jew, two women and a cripple" and using profanity on the air. Neither one ever emceed the ceremony again.

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An Imposter Steals A Statuette (1985)

Nicknamed "The Great Imposter," serial fame-seeking prankster Barry Bremen crashed the stage when Hill Street Blues star Betty Thomas was announced as the winner of Best Supporting Actress in a Drama, accepting the award on her behalf from stunned presenter Peter Graves even though she was indeed in the audience. (You can see him give his speech at the 7:50 mark here.) Bremen was later arrested and fined for theft, and Thomas was allowed to make her speech after a commercial break. Nice try, guy.

Kirstie Alley

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Kirstie Alley Thanks Husband’s Private Parts (1991)

The outspoken actress has never been known for her subtlety, but the Cheers star took things to a whole new level when she ended her acceptance speech for best actress in a comedy by thanking then-husband Parker Stevenson for being "the man who has given me the big one for the last eight years." (Check out the clip here.) Flustered follow-up presenter Jerry Seinfeld dryly quipped: "The big one? That could be anything!'' And with that, the euphemism became the running joke of the night, with fellow winner Burt Reynolds thanking his then-wife Loni Anderson for giving him "two big ones." Classy.

Candice Bergen

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Candice Bergen Mocks Dan Quayle (1992)

Bergen took a swipe at Vice President Dan Quayle — and took a stand for single mothers — while accepting the award for Best Actress in a Comedy for Murphy Brown. Quayle famously criticized the show when the title character, played by Bergen, had a baby out of wedlock, and the actress responded by thanking the VP, the "cultural elite" and the show's writers for "spelling words correctly" (a jab at Quayle's "potatoe"fiasco). Years later, Bergen would call the much-maligned politician's comments "perfectly intelligent" and agreed with "fathers not being dispensable."

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Ellen DeGeneres Hosts Post-9/11 Show (2001)

DeGeneres had the unenviable task of emceeing the ceremony that was unprecedentedly postponed twice after the September 11th terrorist attacks: "They can't take away our creativity, our striving for excellence, our joy … only network executives can do that," she declared in the opening monologue. Originally scheduled for Sept. 16, the show eventually aired on November 4th at a smaller venue than usual. But instead of being a somber event, DeGeneres rose to the occasion and helped deliver a night that proved the show must always go on — and that not everyone can work a swan dress the way Björk did at the Oscars.

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Brad Garrett and Garry Shandling Kiss (2003)

Who says Madonna and Britney Spears are the only same-sex celebs allowed to kiss at awards shows? In a nod to the infamous lip-lock that garnered attention at the MTV Video Music Awards earlier that year, Garrett and Shandling smooched in a skit. Not to be outdone, Garrett's Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Doris Roberts enjoyed an unexpected make-out session with Friends' Matthew Perry when she picked up her award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy. "That was worth coming up here," she cracked.

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Conan O’Brien Holds Bob Newhart Captive (2006)

Host Conan O'Brien creatively encouraged winners to keep their acceptance speeches to a minimum by sealing Newhart in an airtight container that would run out of oxygen in exactly three hours. The running gag worked — the telecast actually ended three minutes early, and the beloved TV icon was set free. (And no, it wasn't all a dream.)

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Helen Mirren Swears (2006)

Proving just how charming she is, the English dame didn't get bleeped when she admitted she was relieved that she hadn't fallen "ass over tit" when climbing the stairs to pick up her Best Actress in a Miniseries trophy for Elizabeth I. Here's to English accents: Getting away with murder since, well, the beginning of time.

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‘Dick In A Box’ Surprises (2007)

The Andy Samberg-led comedy group the Lonely Island and Justin Timberlake won a Creative Arts Emmy for, no joke, Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for their hilariously dirty Saturday Night Live skit "Dick in a Box." While it's the only Emmy win (out of four nominations) for Samberg so far, it was the first of four for Timberlake — who's now halfway to coveted EGOT status. In the meantime, getting to second base is nothing to scoff at, and Samberg gave a memorable speech, capping it with an  apology to his mom.

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Reality TV Hosts Bomb (2008)

Trailblazers? Before James Franco and Anne Hathaway bombed at the Oscars, Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars), Heidi Klum (Project Runway), Howie Mandel (Deal or No Deal), Jeff Probst (Survivor) and Ryan Seacrest (American Idol) collectively tanked at the Emmys. In theory, it seemed like a good idea to let the five nominees for the inaugural Best Reality Host category lead the festivities, but in practice, it was a total disaster (except for Probst, who walked away the winner). Bergeron even dropped Klum during a bit. Ouch.

Obama Victoria Rowell

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Victoria Rowell’s Obama Dress (2009)

Love him or hate him, the general consensus was thumbs down for President Barack Obama when he showed up on the red carpet – in the form of a well-panned dress the Young and the Restless actress boldly wore during his first year in office. Although a flop fashion-wise, the garment came with good intentions: she donned it to show support for Obama's universal healthcare plan, which was still in its infancy. Next time, though, a tasteful ribbon might do.

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Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Born To Run’ (2010)

Remember when people couldn't get enough of Glee, and Fallon was just an ambitious rookie on the late-night talk-show circuit? Two cultural phenomenons intersected in a glorious way when Fallon hosted the telecast, opening the show with an energetic, show choir-themed rendition of Bruce Springsteen's 1975 hit. With cameos by Tina Fey, Joel McHale, Betty White and others (RIP Cory Monteith), it was a pop-culture nugget of perfection.

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Melissa McCarthy Crowned Best Actress (2011)

In a show of girl-power, all six nominees for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy – including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Edie Falco — stepped onstage when their names were called before the trophy was given out and held hands, pageant-style, awaiting the results. When first-timer McCarthy came out on top for her role on Mike & Molly, she was handed a bouquet of flowers and crowned with a tiara. "Holy smokes! It's my first and best pageant ever!" she quipped before crying. 

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Charlie Sheen Apologizes (2011)

Six months after getting fired from Two and a Half Men for his outrageous public antics, the self-proclaimed warlock presented the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy, a category he had previously been nominated in (but never won) for the popular TV series. After months of spinning out and mouthing off, Sheen surprised everyone when he graciously wished his former co-stars "nothing but the best" before handing the trophy to The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons. The following year, Men star Jon Cryer dominated the category for the time (after previously receiving a supporting actor award). Winning, indeed.

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Merritt Wever: Best Speech Ever? (2013)

In what host Neil Patrick Harris called "the best acceptance speech ever," Nurse Jackie actress Wever capped her upset victory in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series category (over big names such as Jane Lynch and Sofia Vergara) with just a few quick words: "Thank you so much! Um … I gotta go. Bye." She later admitted she was caught so off-guard by the win, she hadn't prepared a speech and her mind went totally blank when she got to the mic. Brevity is the soul of, er, gratitude.