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POP REVIEW : Pee-wee Herman, Prince the Life of MTV’s Party

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What a coup. Ever in search of shock value, the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards telecast opened Thursday night with the triumphant return of America’s most celebrated accused violator of morals statutes, and ended with an all-out, simulated orgy.

Pee-wee Herman and Prince--together again.

Pee-wee’s moment was absurdly heartwarming, Prince’s finale something closer to stomach-churning.

Appearing onstage sans introduction at the very top of the telecast to kick off the show, Pee-wee got the only spontaneously earned standing ovation of the evening from the Universal Amphitheatre crowd. “Heard any good jokes lately?” he baited. “What was that one? Oh, so funny I forgot to laugh!

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After a hide-out only barely less elusive than Salman Rushdie’s, Herman’s was the perfect comeback, emotional even in its extreme brevity by the trace of nervousness actor Paul Reubens belied in resurrecting his childlike character. It was a touching and funny TV moment.

And then there was “Caligula.”

In the climactic live performance of the three-hour-plus ceremony, Prince re-created the calculatedly racy scenario of his new video, “Gett Off,” complete with flaming Roman pillars and spurting water fountains and a cast of about 40 dancers simulating anything and everything that a disease-ridden 1st Century emperor who “likes to watch” might call up for entertainment’s sake.

With a bumping and grinding cast of dozens arranged in various beyond-suggestive permutations--some of which made it to the TV screen and some of which were destined to be seen only by the Universal crowd--Prince’s swingers’ scene was the kind of fleshy spectacle that sends writers running to their dictionaries to look up the proper plural for menage a trois .

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Eschewing purple for the moment, Prince came out fully clothed in his bright yellow get-up except for a cut-out, buns-baring behind, which he flashed at the audience during an appropriately derriere-concerned lyric. Rather than provocative, it was simply predictable Prince--and a little desperate.

Prince’s and Pee-wee’s moments were the most talked about in a show that was otherwise lacking big surprises. Now in its eighth year, the MTV Video Music Awards remains a showcase for live performances--with the awards themselves simply an excuse for the party.

As trophies go, R.E.M. had the most to crow about, with six awards for the Georgia rock band’s video “Losing My Religion,” including best video. The sweep may have had more to do with the enormous popularity of the band and the hit single than of the video clip itself, which--as directed by Tarsem--uses a plethora of intercut mythological figures to enticing but obscure effect.

Lead singer Michael Stipe took the sweep as an opportunity to be P.C. Man for a night, unveiling a new politically correct T-shirt each time he stepped to the podium, finally laboriously unwrapping four different layers of shirt slogans as the band accepted its final statuette. Among Stipe’s imprinted legends: WEAR A CONDOM, CHOICE, ALTERNATIVE ENERGY NOW, THE RIGHT TO VOTE and HANDGUN CONTROL.

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R.E.M. declined to perform, much to the disappointment of the show’s producers. MTV did get exciting live action, though, from Van Halen, C+C Music Factory, Paula Abdul, Metallica and Mariah Carey. The two standouts were a study in contrasts: Don Henley doing a stripped-down “Heart of the Matter,” and LL Cool J, backed by a terrifically raw big band and female dancers in boxers’ robes, rapping “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Best presenter honors had to go to the fictional group Spinal Tap, which announced a reunion and auditions for the oft-vacant drummer seat before reading the “nominees and nominatrixes” for best metal/hard rock video, which went to Aerosmith.

Chris Isaak and Janet Jackson were the respective winners in the best male and female video categories, both of their entries directed by Herb Ritts. Among the other winners: LL Cool J, rap; Jesus Jones, new artist; C+C Music Factory, dance video and choreography; Jane’s Addiction, alternative.

Perhaps the show’s most curious segment was the presentation of MTV’s allegedly prestigious Video Vanguard award (handpicked by the channel, not the usual industry voters, and previously given to Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel and Madonna) to Bon Jovi and director Wayne Isham. Their strikingly ungroundbreaking collective video canon consists entirely, band members admitted, of “no actors, no story line . . . just filming us playing and having a good time.”

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