NEW YORK – When a wooden politician delivers the best line of the MTV Music Video Awards, you know the thrill is gone.
So was the decadence, outrageousness and spontaneity that used to make the VMAs such a guilty pleasure.
James Blunt and Gnarls Barkley each took home two awards Thursday night. Pink's parody of bubble-headed pop tarts, "Stupid Girls," won for best pop video, Beyonce took home the best R&B video trophy for her booty-shaking "Check On It" and Fall Out Boy won the viewer's choice award for "Dance, Dance."
Photo Essay: Stars Come Out for VMAs
But nobody except a video choreographer's mother watches this show for the awards. Fans watch for the FCC-flaunting skits, nearly naked starlets, foul-mouthed speeches and those embarrassingly bad dance numbers.
They do NOT watch for lectures from former Vice President Al Gore on global warming. When does the phrase "here's a photo of a glacier melting" ever fit into an awards show?
Gore did get a laugh, however, when he intoned, "I actually was not intending to be here tonight, but then MTV explained that Justin Timberlake was bringing sexy back."
Somewhere along the way, the MTV Awards seemed to have morphed into the Grammys.
"This show has been lame farts for the past 20 years," Jack Black said before he took the stage for his opening sketch. "And I'm going to light the match!"
Instead, Black continued a trend.
In the opening sequence, he had a promising bit that poked fun at the show's increasingly staid reputation. Painting himself as the man to inject life back into the VMAs, he took to the stage in a moonman outfit -- which caught fire.
But Black's shtick quickly got old. "You didn't bring the thunder. You didn't bring anything," he said during one skit, looking at himself in his dressing room mirror and unintentionally summing up the evening.
Even Lil' Kim, who once appeared at the VMAs wearing a pasty on one breast, failed to get the party started. Recently released from prison after serving time for perjury, she stripped off an orange jail suit to reveal ... something that resembled a funky business suit. Hillary Clinton has worn more revealing outfits.
The only unscripted moment of mayhem came when some unidentified person crashed the acceptance speech of Panic! At the Disco, who won video of the year for "I Write Sins Not Tragedies." Before any group member got to say a word, the crasher took the mic, giving shout outs to rapper Remy Ma and saying, "MTV never gave me my own show!" before making way for the winners.
But that still fell short of MTV's once trademark water-cooler moments, like Eminem punching out a puppet.
Christina Aguilera, who previously shocked our senses as the dirty Xtina, looked downright classy as she performed a low-key ballad. There were no wardrobe malfunctions whatsoever during Timberlake's perfunctory show kickoff. Shakira and Wyclef Jean performed a colorful but rote performance of her smash "Hips Don't Lie." Ludacris and Pharrell posed their way through "Showstopper." Not even Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, who appeared via videotape, could strike a spark.
There was just one profanity-laced acceptance speech, courtesy of the rock group All American Rejects, whose frontman accepted the award for best group video by saying: "We just won a moonman -- I am getting so trashed tonight!"
The night's hottest couple, new recording partners 50 Cent and LL Cool J, introduced one of the awards. But 50, perhaps with no more foes to beef with, was almost Zen-like onstage and offered no fun disses to excite the crowd.
The lack of outrageousness almost made you long for the days when Michael Jackson was making out with Lisa Marie Presley -- that was creepy, but at least it kept viewers talking.
Beyonce got some points for at least trying to deliver a show-stopper. Singing her call-to-arms, the anti-cheating single "Ring the Alarm," she appeared wearing a sexy trench coat and a searing gaze.
While her voice was in perfect form, the performance was disjointed, and the out-of-place dance number in the middle seemed to steal the choreography from Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" almost 20 years earlier.
At one point, the crew from the MTV grossout show "Jackass" gave one of its members an electric shock.
If only they could have delivered a similar jolt to the whole show.
Photo Essay: Stars Come Out for VMAs