Now that Viacom and CBS are poised to be blissfully wedded in holy matri-money, it figures only to be a matter of time before the Viacom-parented MTV Video Music Awards unite Dan Rather and Dr. Drew Pinsky -- or perhaps Mike Wallace and Tom Green -- on the same presenting stage. In the meantime, Thursday night's slick, spirited edition of the 16th annual VMAs did its bizarre best to supply a representative preview of coming attractions.

Now that Viacom and CBS are poised to be blissfully wedded in holy matri-money, it figures only to be a matter of time before the Viacom-parented MTV Video Music Awards unite Dan Rather and Dr. Drew Pinsky — or perhaps Mike Wallace and Tom Green — on the same presenting stage. In the meantime, Thursday night’s slick, spirited edition of the 16th annual VMAs did its bizarre best to supply a representative preview of coming attractions.

Let’s begin with odd coupling No. 1: the cast of “The Blair Witch Project” sharing the podium with the “Shapoopie” guy himself, Buddy Hackett. Hackett: “First, I want to apologize for being overdressed, but to make up for it, I peed in my pants.” The Blair Wiz Project, anyone? Later came Madonna … and Paul McCartney. Regis Philbin, meanwhile, didn’t even need a partner to look puzzlingly out of place.

The incongruous mixture of old (Susan Sarandon, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Diana Ross), strange (wrestling behemoth “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Pamela Anderson Lee, Mira Sorvino) and smoldering (Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Lil’ Kim) surely proved an observational godsend for host Chris Rock, who was carrying at least twice as much pressure on his diminutive shoulders as was anyone else in the building.

All Rock needed to do was kick significant tail on live national TV a mere three days after Time magazine had annointed him, “The Funniest Man in America.” This was clearly no time for the guy to start firing blanks. And for the most part, Rock didn’t. After making a dramatic entrance in his milkman-white suit, he opened with, “I may be the first black man in history to be onstage at the Met without a mop.”

Ka-pow. Rock was rolling. Yet if the rest of his monologue was fairly mild by Rock’s elevated standards, he more than made up for it with a consistent edgy and gleeful show of disrespect for all in his midst. Rock peaked while introducing the dual Spears-‘N Sync performance, shouting, “Are you ready for some real lip-synching?” Ouch.

Spears, as it turned out, rather deserved the smack, jumping around to her stage-y, remixed version of “Baby One More Time” looking like an aspiring street hustler.

Less sleazy, but perhaps equally annoying, was the continued success of Ricky Martin and his energetic anthem “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which comes closer to matching the chalkboard-scraping legacy of “Feelings” and “My Heart Will Go On” with each passing day. Perhaps to Martin’s credit, his performance appeared a bit halfhearted this time.

The weirdness quotient hit its apex while the Beastie Boys accepted their award for Best Hip-Hop Video. Beastie Adam Yauch was inspired to climb onto a rambling soapbox and give the creepiest speech in support of protecting women from sexual assault. Denouncing the rapes and assaults said to have occurred during the recent Woodstock ’99 fest Yauch said, “As musicians … I think we can talk to the promoters and make sure that they’re doing something about the safety of all the girls and the women that come to our shows.”

Very noble, all right. Yet coming as this was from a Beastie Boy, it had the effect of Mama Celeste speaking out against eating pizza.

All of this aside, however, it can at least be said there is nothing cynical or highbrow about the MTV Video Music Awards. They are what they are. The winners seem to get it, too: they act legitimately excited, unlike the blase reluctance so often on display at other awards shows. It’s kind of refreshing, frankly. The winners may not have acceptance speeches written out, and many may chew gum and pick their nose at the podium (sometimes simultaneously), but I’ll take that over those endless “Salute to Key Grips” tributes anytime.

One final thing: the too-short performance early on by the superlative young opera singer Charlotte Church was the highlight of the night — just barely nosing out that Taco Bell commercial where the Chihuahua croons “Chances Are” to a man holding a taco. What was she doing singing opera in an opera house? Quick, somebody sell this girl on the merits of hip-hop before it’s too late.

The 1999 MTV Video Music Awards

MTV, Thurs. Sept. 9, 8 p.m.

Production

Presented live from the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City by MTV Prods. Executive producers, Salli Frattini, Dave Sirulnick; producers, Alex Coletti, Nancy McDonald; line producer, Lorraine Coyle; coordinating producers, Jennifer Demme, Liz Sterbenz; director, Beth McCarthy Miller.

Cast

Host: Chris Rock Performers: Britney Spears, 'N Sync, Eminem, Moby, Lauryn Hill, Fatboy Slim, Ricky Martin, Nine Inch Nails, Jay-Z, TLC, Backstreet Boys, Kid Rock, DMX, Run-DMC, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry. Presenters: Madonna, Susan Sarandon, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Pamela Anderson Lee, Buddy Hackett, Heather Locklear, Jay Mohr, Regis Philbin, The Artist, Afeni Shakur, Voletta Wallace, Jennifer Lopez, Janeane Garofalo, David Bowie, Charlotte Church, Paul McCartney, Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard, Mira Sorvino, Ozzy Osbourne, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Gavin Rossdale, Dr. Dre, Christina Aguilera, Method Man, Freddie Prinze Jr., Mark McGrath, Denise Richards, Puff Daddy.
Production designer, George Tsypin; lighting designer, Allan Branton; staging supervisor, Gary Lanvy; production manager, Jennifer Dowd. Running time: 3 HOURS.
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