Johnny Depp made a special appearance at the VMAs this weekend, kind of. A digital representation of his face appeared inside the helmet of a Moon Person that seemed to be floating above the show’s audience. While he was not there in person, he delivered two pre-recorded messages as the Moon Person after commercial breaks to what sounded like universal applause from the audience. It didn’t exactly look real, but watching from home you would assume the positive reaction came from the live audience.
In the first message, Depp said, “You know what, I needed the work,” and then he returned later in the broadcast to specify, “I just want you guys to know that I’m available for birthdays, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, weddings, wakes, any old thing you need.”
The joke is clear and obvious to anyone in the know: after his ugly, months-long trial with Amber Heard earlier this year, the actor is primed for a comeback, though he knows the work may be hard to come by as his reputation rebounds.
The appearances were met with scorn from some Twitter users watching live, criticizing the industry’s willingness to welcome Depp back into the fold. Others approved, with #JohnnyDeppKeepsWinning briefly trending.
The VMAs make perfect sense as the place for Depp to launch his comeback: they appeal to the age group of many of those who militantly stood by him during his defamation trial earlier this year. That much was clear as the venue filled with applause and screams during his surprise appearance, seemingly proving Gen Z’s ongoing admiration for Depp amidst his alleged misconduct. But was the applause even real? Did anyone in the room even know about the night’s special guest?
A handful of Twitter users who attended the awards show claim they never saw any version of Depp, and at least one attendee told Gawker that the live audience did not see the videos of him that viewers at home saw. A rep from MTV did not immediately respond to Gawker as to whether the segment was pre-recorded or the applause canned.
It’s true that award shows often pre-record bits, and that live studio audiences are often present whether or not they are literally present. The notion that the VMAs audience cheered for nothing then had their laughter added to the Depp cameo is possible, if not likely. Still — what do the VMAs have to gain by throwing their lot in for Depp? A lot, frankly. They want to prove relevance in a ceremony otherwise notable for the attendance of Addison Rae’s mom. They’re striving for connections to the youth of today, a phrase I write as someone who was on an edible when Nicki Minaj said “What’s good?” to Miley and had to turn off the TV lest I get too stressed out. Depp’s appearance — real, fake, canned, legitimate — gives him a sense of legitimacy, some hope that he is not yet “canceled.” Maybe next time we’ll actually see how a real audience reacts to him.