Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards lacked the excitement of last year's Taylor Swift-Kanye West "Ima Let You Finish" debacle. But if there was anything last night that made it to the water cooler this morning, it was Lindsay Lohan's surprise Pee Wee Herman moment at the opening of the show.
Making a cameo in host Chelsea Handler's taped opening segment—her first televised appearance since spending 13 days in jail and three weeks in court-ordered rehab for a DUI offense. In the VMA skit, she confronts Handler, who is holding a cup, backstage, asking the host if she's been drinking. After Handler denies it, Lohan asks, "Really, then why is your ankle bracelet going off?" a wink to a June incident in which Lohan's own alcohol monitoring bracelet went off at a MTV party. "Oh that just means that my table's ready at the Cheesecake Factory," Handler answers, with Lohan shooting back, "Do you think anyone wants to work with a drunk? Take it from me, they don't."
Back in 1991, Paul Reubens—the actor behind the Pee Wee character—was arrested for masturbating in public. His show, Pee Wee's Playhouse, was pulled from syndication while Reubens himself became a mainstay of tabloid covers and late night talk show monologues. As the girl with a near perpetual target on her back as the butt of comedians' jokes, it's a situation that Lohan certainly knows well.
At that year's VMAs, Reubens shocked the audience when he appeared on-stage decked out in full Pee Wee costume, walking up to the microphone, and asking dryly, "Heard any good jokes lately?" As MTV recaps, "It wasn't a comeback or an apology—it was just a guy taking back control."
With 9 million viewers and an even bigger reach in the pop culture conversation, the VMAs are the go-to venue for addressing controversy and staging comebacks. There's a long history of celebrities using the show as the platform for addressing rumors, with Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston tackling rumors of a feud by presenting an award in the same Vera Wang gown as another example. In the case of Lohan and Herman, by showing they are in on the joke, they actually make it easier to be taken seriously. Their self-awareness takes control of the discussion about their troubles, shifting the tone from sad, pathetic, and scandalous to tongue-in-cheek, positive, and reformative.
Reuben's VMA appearance was the first step towards his career revival. In addition to guest stints over the years in shows like 30 Rock, he's currently staging The Pee Wee Herman Show for a run on Broadway in October. Some are wondering whether Lohan's cameo will do similar things for her career. Entertainment Weekly writes, "There's nothing like a Hollywood recovery story, and Linds took the first of those other 12 Steps—the steps toward pop cultural redemption—with her cameo." Could this be her Pee Wee Herman moment?