A Look Back At The 1991 VMAs On Their 20th Birthday

Pee Wee Herman

By Zachary Swickey

It’s hard to believe that the early 1990s were two decades ago. It was quite a different time back then musically, and there is no better proof of that than the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards. The show was hosted by Arsenio Hall, who was at the top of his game at the time with The Arsenio Hall Show – the Emmy-winning program was the place to be seen on late night television.

Music-wise, leading the pack in nominations in 1991 was R.E.M., who boasted 10 noms for their iconic music video “Losing My Religion,” which (spoiler!) appropriately won the Video of the Year Award. Other big nominees were C+C Music Factory with five nominations (a true sign of the times) for “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” Queensrÿche with five for “Silent Lucidity” and Madonna with three for “Like a Virgin (Truth or Dare version).” But the Queen of Pop was far from the most controversial artist there.

Pee-Wee Herman was going through a turbulent time in 1991, following his arrest for publicly masturbating in an adult movie theater. CBS had stopped airing his show, Disney Studios removed his likeness from a video tour and Toys-R-Us took his toys off store shelves. The general public sympathized with Herman (real name Paul Reubens) and felt the incident was being blown out of proportion.

In one of VMA history’s biggest moments, Reubens made his first public appearance – in Pee-Wee character and all – after his arrest at the VMAS, asking the audience, “Heard any good jokes lately?” He promptly received a heartfelt standing ovation and appropriately responded, “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh!” Despite the positive reception, Reubens would only make one more appearance before disappearing from the public eye for several years (He’s currently been selling out shows with a Broadway adaptation of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”).

Check out the 1991 Video of the Year – “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.:

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The awards that year were also especially notable due to some onstage drama and backstage fisticuffs courtesy of Bret Michaels-fronted outfit Poison. As the band began to play “Unskinny Bop,” they were brought to a halt after realizing it was a commercial break. Reportedly under the influence at the time, guitarist C.C. DeVille missed the cue when they went back live, forgot the song they were playing and switched to the band’s popular track “Talk Dirty To Me.” His guitar was disconnected and the fight continued backstage. DeVille was fired soon after the incident but returned to the band in late 1998.

1991 was the only year MTV gave out an award in the Long Form Music Video category, which was for music video compilations or live shows found on VHS or laserdisc (not to be confused with just really long videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”). Nominees included Peter Gabriel’s P.O.V., Aerosmith’s Things That Go Pump in the Night, and R.E.M.’s black-and-white Tourfilm, but unsurprisingly Queen of Pop Madonna took home the unique award for her video package, The Immaculate Collection.

Rap was quite different back then too, just look at the Best Rap Video noms. Now an acting legend, Will Smith and his buddy Jazzy Jeff were nominated for their track “Summertime” and “Law and Order: SVU” star Ice-T was up for “New Jack Hustler.” Deservedly, LL Cool J took the prize for his classic video for “Mama Said Knock You Out.” The tune went on to win a Grammy as well.

Like just about every other VMAs, the 1991 show was chock-full of memorable moments. How will this year’s VMAs compare? We have faith that with Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Adele performing, it will be just as historic as every other VMA broadcast. Don’t forget to tune in tonight at 9 PM on MTV!