The Mutation of Dennis Miller
By Carl Kozlowski
Comic bit #1: "Condoleeza Rice has often been described as W's 'foreign policy tutor.' Oh, yeah, I love the sound of that. It's nice to know we're signing our nuclear arsenal over to a man who needs after-school help."
Comic bit #2: "He's much smarter than his enemies think he is. I think he's a genius. People whine about him getting into Yale -- the way I see it, if your old man buys a building you should get into Yale! But I think he could have gotten into Yale on his own; he's a very smart man."
The two quotes might seem to be from dueling commentators on a show like Crossfire. Yet, at least physically speaking, they come from the mouth of the same person: Dennis Miller.
The first quote was offered on a January 2001 episode of Miller's acclaimed HBO series Dennis Miller Live, as one of the rants that earned him a slew of Emmys during a nine-year run on the premium cable network. At that time, Miller was still regarded as one of the most brilliant left-wing comic minds in America -- a reputation hard-earned during six years as arguably the funniest "Weekend Update" host ever on Saturday Night Live.
But three years later, Miller offered the second quote to the conservative magazine The American Enterprise. In the intervening time, he had flipped sides of the political spectrum and was considered one of the most brilliant right-wing comic minds in America.
Sure, his fans are confused about what caused such an epic change in his attitudes. But when one considers some of his other career moves -- such as starring in commercials he would have mocked a decade ago -- it can be argued that Miller merely put his iconoclastic spin to his own career. Or maybe he simply followed the clichéd path of growing more conservative as he grew older.
A recent visit to the CNBC Dennis Miller talk show set and his backstage dressing room provided some insights:
"I've always been libertarian, until September 11th when the part of me that believes in killing the terrorists came to the fore. That's painted me as some kind of right-wing fanatic, and I'm not," Miller says, with a hint of exasperation. "I just think we have to kill the terrorists before they kill us. Every other thing? I'm for gay marriage; I'm pro-choice, but I think we're in a 100-year war with terrorists and we have to kill them before they kill us."
Grouped with former leftist journalistic icon Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair, Slate and Atlantic Monthly fame -- who now staunchly supports President Bush and the Iraq war -- Miller is perhaps the most famous figure to publicly admit such a change in philosophy.
"It's funny, but I still feel like the same me on TV, whether it's with [this] show or Monday Night Football. There's all these permutations of me on TV, but even with the old SNL reruns that my oldest kid watches on Comedy Central, I'll look up and think it's the same kind of me that I am now," says Miller.
"It's all been built on arcane references, precision of language, and a reasonably imperturbable nature on TV. The basics are there, but I've been getting paid, making a living and having fun with it for next to 25 years and you know that blows my mind that I've stuck with it. That's my favorite part of showbiz, hangin' in knowing that something good is coming along.
Along the way came career shakeups that make a rollercoaster seem calm and steady. Miller abruptly ended his run on HBO, where he had earned the cable network its first Emmy for an original series. He spent two years on ABC's Monday Night Football, earning kudos from critics but causing confusion amid the sport's less-intellectual fan base. And since January 2004, he's found a new home on a surprisingly low-key cable network, CNBC, for his new daily humor.
Dressed, oddly enough, in pajama pants that he's slipped on between two Thursday afternoon tapings of his "daily" show, Miller's backstage domain is large and comfortable but strangely too quiet. I grew up on his wild energy and unpredictable comments and still consider his landmark late-80s comedy CD "The Off-White Album" to be the funniest record ever made, so I expected to be greeted with a barrage of hipster lingo and the moniker "Daddio!"
Sure, Miller is a happily married father of three now, and over 50 years old, but it's still disconcerting to see him curl up in a chair in front of a muted TV screen and start chatting like, well, a "normal" person. He even notes "that's always odd" when a commercial showing him hocking NetZero Internet service comes on the air.
"Bill and Hillary's marriage couldn't have been any more about convenience than if they had installed a Slim Jim rack and Slurpee machine at the base of their bed." -- Dennis Miller, in American Enterprise..>..>
A native of Pittsburgh, who studied journalism and started his comedy career there before achieving breakthroughs in New York City, Miller now lives in the bucolic hills around Santa Barbara. He has mellowed somewhat with age, but Miller expresses concerns with recent FCC rulings.
"When I start hearing about $500,000 fines for individuals' comments, yeah I'll tell you I watched myself today…" states Miller. "Not only do you have the sturm and drang of having everyone in America talking about you slipping up on TV, forget it -- they've behavior-modded me out of it. Bleeps are fine, but on live TV swear words are a problem."
Miller's current half-hour show has an eclectic array of guests, to say the least -- one day featuring a Cal Tech rocket scientist, another featuring movie icon Sylvester Stallone -- and Miller notes that he likes to stay out of booking guests so that he can be surprised each day and "let my natural curiosity for any type of person flow."
But the biggest changes are the aforementioned philosophical shifts, which stemmed from Miller famously telling a January 2004 press conference that he would not be mocking President Bush at all on his new show. It seemed disingenuous for a political satirist to announce he's taking his own nation's president off the table, but he decided that his own personal political convictions could be protected.
"I thought it was so integral that he got re-elected that I laid off him for awhile. There's something to be said for standing up in front of a roomful of press and saying I'm not going to do Bush jokes. At least it was honest, and I could see they were gobsmacked," he laughs. "There's jokes I get presented with everyday that I'll take out because they're ripping on people I know. Guess what, if they're my friend, I pull it out. I'm not interested in hurting people, and it's not just because of 9/11."
One of Miller's most famous appearances was on the Tonight Show in February 2003, just days ahead of he official start of the Iraq war. Jay Leno served Miller a perfect softball pitch, asking him "War's inevitable. What have you got?"
Miller's response -- a three-page-long rant that took several minutes to recite -- was a hit with the Tonight Show studio audience, and earned Miller headlines in those seemingly happier days when the war seemed like it would be a cakewalk. In it, Miller said things like, "I want us to invade France. And then I want us to invade [French Prime Minster] Chirac. To call the French scumbags [for not participating in the war] is to be disrespectful to scum."
Red-meat material all the way, although looking back now it seems a bit odd that Miller just happened to have the perfect speech at the ready. Even in the world of prepackaged corporate entertainment, this moment seemed too perfect a cheerleading opportunity and led some critics to allege that Miller was merely switching political teams in a high-profile way in order to keep viewer interest going while he was between gigs.
"In a talk show setting, there is some spontaneity, but all questions are set up for guests to tell an amusing story or something interesting. That was probably the case there, and Dennis was passionate about it and had a lot to say," explains Jimmy Brogan, a top comic and former Tonight Show writer from 1992 to 2001. "It's just a function of that, he's always well-prepared when he comes on the show and makes Jay and the audience laugh really hard. It's not like he wrote it or any other bits that afternoon. He makes sure it works really well."
A comic who rises to Miller's defense, particularly over his philosophical shifts, is Butch Bradley. A veteran of multiple appearances on CBS's The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, Bradley has also performed on several USO tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Dennis Miller was on the forefront, as one of the first to address our fears after 9/11. Everybody was afraid to offend anyone, and to me he was one of the first guys to air the honest fear we all had and make us laugh and think at the same time," recalls Bradley.
"Beyond that, anyone who says 'How dare he change his attitude?' how do you not check yourself after something like 9/11? What a shame if it doesn't change you. That's what makes him special, he listened to his voice."
The CNBC show initially lacked a studio audience, leaving Miller to indeed listen to his own voice rather than an appreciative crowd of laughter -- a mistake that Miller convinced producers had to be rectified in order to give the show any comic energy. The show has also taken on humorous field correspondents like fellow SNL alum Tim Meadows and Last Comic Standing standout comic Ant, who help break the show out of strict political discussion and riffs on the news.
But after spending nearly half his life mocking world events, Miller has found the key to successfully delivering topical humor is to believe that it's not tough after all.
"When I was starting, I thought I'd have to have a sword-in-the-stone moment of inspiration where I'd have to lay around for it to be visited on me," says Miller. "SNL was just a machine, and if you screwed two or three 'Updates' up, guess what, they have someone new and ready to go. So I learned how to pick up any newspaper and have five usable jokes in five minutes."
"I don't ever wanna get self-important. I'm a comedian, and I want everyone in my life to know it," he says. "The stream-of-consciousness style is my monkey trick. I sit there, I watch stuff, and cultural references bump into my head. I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid."