Here is my favorite brush with greatness story. During my first year of doing standup comedy, a friend of mine was booked to open for Dennis Miller. My friend knew what a huge fan I was of Miller, so he asked if I wanted to go to the show with him. My friend added that he would introduce me to him after the show. Now I’m not the type generally to get starstruck, but this was one of the 10 people I most would have wanted to meet on the planet, so I gladly took the invitation.
After the show ended, I went back to the dressing room. Since it was a theatre show, it was a good sized room, with about 10 people mulling around in it. Papa John’s pizza boxes were on one table and Dennis was sitting at the other table. A few radio contest winners for the show were in line to get an autograph from Miller. I stepped behind them at the end of the line. I’m not an autograph guy, but I did want to mention to Miller how much I admired his work.
So the last person in front of me is done. I step up to Dennis. Without even looking up he says "Do you have something you want me to sign?"
I offered up, "I just wanted to tell you how much I love your act. I’m a young comic and you, Carlin, Kinison, and Bill Hicks are the reason I wanted to be a comic."
Without skipping a beat, he offers a quick, "OK", then lifts his head up looking completely past me and yells over "hey, save me some of that fuckin’ pizza."
This was it. I walked away a bit sheepishly and our lives continued on. I’m glad that the whole thing went down the way it did, though, because of a couple of reasons.
- It was completely in keeping with the behavior he exibits on stage. Wouldn’t you feel a bit let-down if you met Simon Cowell on the street and he treated you nicely?
- The experience has helped me keep my focus when annoying audience members ramble aimlessly to me after shows, as I don’t want to do a "Dennis Miller" to them.
If your guess is that I never could watch him again, you would be wrong. My brushoff with greatness happened at what I consider the peak of Miller’s career, the early 1990’s. I continued to be a big fan of his standup specials, his talk shows, and anything that didn’t include him acting. Any topical comedian has a hard time transitioning into an acting role, as they have developed such a strong persona which is based on opinionated rhetoric. It is really hard for the general public to buy you as anything else. Chris Rock is the one political satirist I can list that has somewhat broken past that stereotype, but even his success rate has been low when he is the lead of a movie.
When Miller was at his peak, I believe he was the greatest topical standup of all-time. Carlin has always been more of a big picture guy, not usually caught up in the specific events of the moment. Dennis Miller was like Mort Sahl, but much funnier. While Lewis Black is the premier standup of this decade whose main focus is politics, he can’t hold a candle to what Miller was doing between 1985-95.
As much fun as Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, and Bill Murray provided as anchors on SNL’s Weekend Update, Miller brought the segment to a whole new level. During his tenure doing Update, his material was smarter and edgier than any topical humor that had ever aired on Network TV. The Daily Show is half a Dennis Miller fake news rant and half a Michael Moore-like satirical journalism piece. Craig Kilborn always seemed to be doing an homage to Miller. Current host Jon Stewart is the closest thing I’ve seen to Miller during his prime, but he has never had a stand-up set as good as Mr. Miller Goes to Washington or Black and White.
My problems with Miller began when he started shilling for any commercial product who offered him a nickel. Ads for 10-10-220 or Net Zero proved that he was the potential kiss of death to a complete industry. I mean how often do you now use a long distance phone carrier or a dial-up internet service provider? He also was a pitchman for Miller Lite and did a lot of commercials for M&M’s. I have no problem with anyone trying to make a buck, but when you have built your career on pointing out the foibles of the rich and famous, you have to be really careful what you do yourself. When you are willing to interview a hard-shelled chocolate candy for a paycheck, I believe you lose a bit of credibility, as ripping on some politician for taking a free lunch from a lobbyist can seem a bit hypocritical.
As the decade came to a close, Miller started to lose a little steam, but considering he spent 15 years consistently blasting out great takes on political events, it was liable to occur. I would be delirious with joy, if I could say I had written 5% of the great stuff that Dennis Miller has produced. This was not to say that he still wasn’t one of the best at what he does, just that he seemed to be more interested in other opportunites.
In 2000, Miller took on his biggest challenge when he was asked to join the Monday Night Football booth. I was excited about the idea, as I felt a smart, funny voice during the game could really be revolutionary. It didn’t work, as he was too reverential to the players and coaches, never capturing the tell it like it is style of Howard Cosell. I cut him some slack for not wanting to be too strident in his opinions on athletes who are twice his size, but challenging the status quo, instead of being a mouthpiece for the league (like the typical color man/ex-jock provides) was the only way he would serve a purpose in the booth. Instead he offered up a few esoteric references that pissed off many of the average football fans tuning in, while calling some coach each week a genius.
While his syndicated talk show in 1992 flopped, it wasn’t because he didn’t do a good job, just that The Tonight Show killed it by basically saying " if you want to appear on our show you won’t appear on his show." The Monday Night Football gig was the first large scale failure of his career and he has never seemed to have the same spark since then. The increasing respect that Bill Maher developed from his standup specials and Politically Incorrect show made Miller seem like an after-thought to many on the Left.
Miller claims that the events of 9/11 pushed his viewpoints more to the right of center. While I can respect this turn, I think he has lost more credibility by being a rubber stamp for the military policies of George W. Bush. Hollywood is made up mainly of liberals, so his turn into a comedic commentator against the Left has marked him by many in the entertainment world as a pariah. Being a bit of a contrarian myself, I have some respect for Miller taking the path less traveled, in regards to becoming a conservative political satirist. My problem stems from his stridency towards defending Bush. Even if you believed in the goals of going to Iraq, it’s pretty obvious that the War has been horribly mismanaged. Of course, when you have traveled in Air Force One and have appeared at fund raisers for the President, it does make it more difficult to be fair and balanced.
Instead, in 2004, Miller made the cardinal sin when it comes to being a topical comic. Here’s what he said about doing jokes about Dubya.
I like him. I’m going to give him a pass. I take care of my friends.
While some might see this as being a standup guy, in the stand-up world of the topical comedian, you can’t take the President off the radar. It’s like unilaterally disarming. How can I respect the guy’s views, when he isn’t calling the game with even a modicum of criticism for the President? While I believe the biggest weakness to the Daily Show is how it skews too far to the left, it still makes a target of Democrats who can get the show a laugh. I don’t think comedians or radio talk show hosts need to be right down the middle, but I struggle to listen to anyone who can’t concede that neither side is always right or wrong.
After another high profile failure hosting a political talk show at CNBC, Miller has bounced over to Fox News, appearing on many of their shows as a regular guest. He recently started up a daily radio show which is syndicated all over the country. Even though some of what he spouts off about doesn’t sound like something he truly believes in, the way he says it is often so brilliantly constructed I do listen. To think that the same guy who brought Henry Rollins to a national audience and would regularly feature someone like Janeane Garafalo (both on his 1990’s talk shows) is now hobnobbing with the likes of Sean Hannity.
When I’m channel-surfing, I will still continue to stop and see what Miller has to offer because he has built up enough collateral with me from his great body of work. Unfortunately though, he no longer holds any type of exalted status with me. For awhile, I thought Miller would come out and make a mea culpa, admitting that he had been dosed by Karl Rove with some right-wing Jonestown kool-aid. (And tell me that flavor wouldn’t sell well here. Hey, you could drink it out of a No Spin mug.) I have given up on this fantasy of Miller talking fire at both sides again, so I’m a lot less apt to try to seek out his opinions. And I can tell you with full confidence that I wished I would have walked over to that table in the dressing room, picked up all those "fuckin’ boxes of pizza" and thrown them against the wall. Egotistical douchebag. But of course, that’s just my opinion.