Saturday Night’s Children: Dennis Miller (1985-1991)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
These days, many SNL viewers keep a habit of holding out until after Weekend Update before they go to bed, and that’s partly thanks to Dennis Miller, who made the segment hip and wry again in the 80s like it hadn’t been since the first season with Chevy Chase. Miller blazed the trail of smug jokes and ad-libbed recoveries for future anchors like Kevin Nealon, Norm Macdonald, and even Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler in the 2000s. While he rarely appeared in sketches, Miller’s transformation of Weekend Update into one of the show’s most anticipated segments has helped SNL evolve into what it is today.
Miller was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and graduated from Point Park University in 1976 with a degree in journalism. Three years later he won the second place prize in Playboy’s first annual humor competition for penning the joke “The only difference between group sex and group therapy is that in group therapy you hear about everyone’s problems, and in group sex you see them.”
Before joining SNL, Miller hosted a local Pittsburgh kid’s program called The Trolley Show and had a stint as correspondent on Evening Magazine. After leaving Pittsburgh, he toured as a stand-up comic in both New York and Los Angeles and appeared on Star Search in 1985, in which he lost to Sinbad. The same year, Lorne Michaels discovered Miller while he was performing at The Comedy Store in LA.
Joining an all-new cast hired for the first year since Michaels’ return to SNL as producer, Miller replaced Christopher Guest as Weekend Update anchor and quickly made the role his own with his trademark hair-fixing, nasal laugh, smarmy delivery (“I’m Dennis Miller and what can I tell ya?”), and jiggling Statue of Liberty intro. He went from being one of the few unknown talents in the eleventh season’s cast (which included big names like Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, and Randy Quaid) to one of only three players who would survive into the next (along with Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz). “Up to that point, I wasn’t a particularly politically oriented comic,” Miller said last year of his time on Update. “But I liked it because it’s easy. You can open the newspaper on any given day, take an X-Acto knife, cut out four headlines, and you’ve got a new act, because the world has gone so crazy.”
While most of Miller’s airtime was during Update, he also played a few sketch characters, like French clown Koko from “Miss Connie’s Fable Nook,” Steve, one of “The Stand-Ups” with Tom Hanks, Damon Wayans, and Jon Lovitz, and supporting roles in sketches like “The Lost Ending of It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Nude Beach” with Matthew Broderick, in which the word “penis” is used 43 times. He also impersonated Gary Hart, Nathaniel Crosby, and George Harrison, but he could never submerge that his impish smugness, so the show was far more successful imitating him — both Dana Carvey and Tom Hanks appeared as Dennis Miller impersonators alongside him on Update. Carvey appeared as Miller on Update seven times.
Miller left SNL in 1991 and went on to host three eponymous shows — The Dennis Miller Show (1992), Dennis Miller Live (1994), and Dennis Miller (2004). He’s also hosted the Emmy Awards, MTV Movie Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards, and TV game show Amne$ia from 2007-2008 and appeared in shows and movies like The Ben Stiller Show, Boston Public, Joe Dirt, and NewsRadio. Most recently, Miller has been a frequent contributor to The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News and hosts his own podcast The Dennis Miller Show. He never made a big Dennis Miller character movie like so many other SNL alums, but his brand of smarm has become au courant once more, and he’s never tried to change or ride his own trend.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.